The Fishers of Paradise reviewed by Rita Bailey

Book Review: The Fishers of Paradise
by Rachael Preston
Reviewed By Rita Bailey
Most novels don’t grab me because of the setting, but in Rachel Preston’s The Fishers of Paradise it’s the landscape that pulls us in.
      Set in Depression-era Hamilton, this book takes us back to a time when a shantytown lines the shores of Cootes Paradise. It’s a place where a man with money in his pocket can find a cockfight on a Saturday night—and where a body or two might float to the surface when the ice melts in the spring.
          The novel opens with a house being towed across the marsh. We see the scene from the viewpoint of teenaged Egypt Fisher, a young woman with a lot on her mind. She keeps an eye on her younger brother, Aidan, who tends to play too near the water’s edge, all the while aware that the lovesick Joey Payne is behind her, waiting for her to turn around and greet him with a smile.
     But Egypt is in no mood for flirting. Thanks to the City Beautiful Movement, her own home and those of her neighbours are all at risk. Though the cabin she lives in with her mother and her brother is no palace, it’s the only home she’s ever known.
     Egypt faces other threats too, both external and internal. She strives to rise above her station by training to become a teacher but feels out of place at the Normal School on Lamoreaux Street, across from Victoria Park. When her long-absent father returns home, he brings with him a hidden past that spills into the present. Her mother, too, has secrets.  
     When Egypt discovers she has wealthy grandparents it seems like someone has thrown her a lifesaver, but it soon becomes evident that her family relationships are as tangled as the grasses that line the marsh itself. Then there is Matt Oakes, the handsome stranger who drifts into the community and manages to pull them all apart.
      These intertwined relationships drive the story forward. Egypt is forced to make hard decisions about where her loyalty lies and what exactly constitutes the truth.
      Fans of Hamilton history will love the setting: inside the shacks that cling to the shores of Cootes Paradise, behind the stalls at the Hamilton Market and down gritty lane-ways off Barton Street. We stretch our legs with Egypt and Aidan as they skate along the canal under the High Level Bridge. We even sneak a peek inside the snooty homes of the wealthy that surround MacNab Presbyterian Church, homes with wrought iron gates, their secrets hidden behind damask drapes and thick wooden doors.
      But it’s the characters that bring this landscape to life; characters whose motivations and needs are as multi-layered and murky as the swamp that gives the book its name.
     Thanks to Bookmark Canada, The Fishers of Paradise has earned a Bookmark on the Desjardin Canal, near the floating bridge. This organization is creating a cross-Canada literary trail by placing plaques with excerpts from stories and poems in the exact location of their settings. To view this Bookmark, park at Dundurn Castle, walk to the High Level Bridge and head down the stairs. Or start at Bayfront Park and hike along the trail towards Princess Point.
     As you walk along the marsh, squint your eyes. Imagine ramshackle homes clinging to the shores. Picture a boy in a rowboat catching fish, or a man emerging from the woods, a limp muskrat over his shoulder. If it’s winter and the water has frozen, conjure up a teenaged girl and her brother, legs pushing full out as they skate past the ice-fishing huts all the way to Dundas.

     Read The Fishers of Paradise and you’ll see Hamilton through new eyes.