Book review: Dickens meets Kundera in Life at the Precipice

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Life at the Precipice

R.F. Vincent | Friesen Press
$20.49 | 300pp.
R.F. Vincent is a true Renaissance man.

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Vincent, the author of the quirky new novel Life at the Precipice, has a PhD and teaches physics and space science at the Royal Military College of Canada.

In an earlier career, he flew 2,000 hours as a Royal Canadian Air Force Air Navigator on CP-140 Aurora maritime patrol aircraft out of Comox. He has already published two earlier works of fiction, a fantasy novel called The Curious Mr. Pennyworth and an award-winning short story, “Men in Red Shirts Have Souls Too.” He has also published scientific papers on topics like “An Examination of the Non-Formation of the North Water Polynya Ice Arch.”

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Life at the Precipice is the story of a quest. The protagonist, Travis Sivart, who shares much of the author’s richly varied experience, is a former air navigator who searches out a fictitious lost community on Vancouver Island, The Segway.

Isolated by landslides that cut off all road access and overlooking a deep chasm linked by an underground passage to the Pacific, The Segway is a kind of West Coast Brigadoon, where occasional visitors meet a cast of eccentric residents and have an opportunity for renewal and healing.

Sivart, the book’s protagonist, comes to The Segway tormented by guilt over a tragedy that occurred during his last flight as a navigator.

By the book’s end, the details of that event have been revealed and Sivart appears to have resolved his PTSD. But this plot resolution is not the novel’s strongest element and may strike some readers as over-neat.

Life at the Precipice
Cover of the book Life at the Precipice.

Far more engaging are the book’s depictions of its cast of eccentric characters and their unique dwellings. The characters, sporting Dickensian names like Dr. Joy, Jack Nickel-less, Peep Kendle, Mattie B. Goode, and The Group of Seven Minus Four, are little masterpieces of comic invention, as are their dwellings.

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One of the residents lives in a tree in a nest made up of garbage, discarded clothing and other household items, while other Segway dwellings include an obelisk, a wedge, a cube, a boat, an arch, and a cross. Each dwelling is described in loving and hilarious detail.

It is not clear whether the author’s impressive erudition extends to the great European writer Milan Kundera’s celebrations of humour as an important element in the invention of the novel, but this lovely, charming book brilliantly illustrates Kundera’s point.

Highly, highly recommended

Tom Sandborn lives and writes in Vancouver, a bit south of the Segway. He hopes one day to go visit. Meanwhile, he welcomes your feedback and story tips at [email protected].

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