By Robertson Davies
New York: Penguin Books, 1996
ISBN # 0-14-024830-7 (paper)
316 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
August 2008

Since I have several reviews of Davies' work I have set up a page to collect my comments and other links to Davies' work

The Cunning Man is the 7th Robertson Davies novel I have read and ranks in the first two for me. The other favorite is Rebel Angels, the first volume of his Cornish Trilogy.

The two volumes are quite different in one major regard and similar in many others. Rebel Angels most delighted me in the significant intellectual challenge in its philosophical / theological / occult thrust. The Cunning Man seemed to promise much of that, but Davies backed off the depths of inquiry which he produced in Rebel Angels.

However, in this volume the straight story line narrative was gripping, exciting, suspenseful and thoroughly exotic. I was so into it that I never wanted to stop reading.

Further, the list of significant characters was long and Davies’ mastery of creating and developing characters, while a mark of all his novels, was never better than in The Cunning Man.

The title character, and narrator, Dr. Jonathan Hullah, is a Canadian born in a remote area of Canada in about 1900. We follow his childhood days in his tiny village surrounded by woods and close to an Indian reservation village. Here his deep interest in the natural world and the contrast in practice of his own village physician’s western medicine and the traditional healing of a native American healer, set him on the path of being “the cunning man.”

Hullah goes on to become a medical doctor and his amazing ability to weave a style of diagnosis which combines contradictory elements of both those systems of medicine with additional strong elements of Freudian analysis, all seasoned with a keen skeptical common sense and a sensitive nose for smelling illness, giving him his nickname, the cunning man.

Dr. Hullah narrates this story of his life and that of his friends in his “log book.” Originally it was a note book for his strange medical ideas, but as the novel opens he is being interviewed by a persistent, nosy, young and beautiful reporter, Esme Barrow. She is doing a series on Old Toronto, where the doctor practices. Hullah is privy to some history and mystery he doesn’t want out. Given that Esme is a clever and persistent interviewer, he uses the log book to write his memories in order to prepare himself not to slip up in the interviews and reveal things he doesn’t want out.

The log book is the essence of the novel, filled with mind-boggling characters bearing outrageous names, high church Anglicanism, homosexuals, lesbians, saints and sinners. The novel abounds in witty, urbane, fascinating and at times hilarious dialogue.

Many interesting issues are raised and we readers are teased with their profound potential depths, but the later dialogues fail to deliver that promise. However it is all so exotic, fun, surprising and gut-wrenchingly human that this reader was totally gripped and satisfied with the story itself.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett