Why would a travel expert be reviewing a novel about the immigrant experience in Canada? To me it’s fairly obvious that the concept of peregrinations--that is, travel around the world -- is not restricted to leisure or corporate travellers, but is a vital component in the search for self, for security and for the sometimes illusive ideal of ‘a home’.
In addition, those who promote travel in order to discover our globe, are acutely attuned to the phenomenon of ‘the shrinking planet’ whereby the world is drawn together sympathetically, emotionally, and empathetically by those who travel, explore, discover, and take the time to share thoughts and ideas with people they meet along the way. Therefore, while only an immigrant who has undergone the experience of moving their entire life to another country can speak authoritatively and from the heart about the topic, those who have travelled the planet are in a position to at least understand the angst, joys, sadness, challenges, triumphs, disappointments and frustrations that the immigrant experience can embrace. Shane Joseph has captured this brilliantly in The Ulysses Man.
The title of the novel derives from the fictional Greek Odysseus (Known in Latin as Ulixes or Ulysses), the king of Ithaca and the hero of Homer’s poem, The Odyssey. Odysseus attempts to return home after the Trojan War to reassert his place on the throne but encounters many challenges along the way including storms, the Cyclops, the escape of the west wind, cannibals, witches and more. So a modern day Ulysses is a just analogy for someone who is trying to return to the concept of ‘home’ while encountering a succession of obstacles that seem to make the journey impossible.
The main character of Joseph’s novel, Martin James is brought up in Sri Lanka with his sister, brothers, family and friends. Slowly the family fabric unravels enough to cause James to seek a new start in life, along with his friends Christo and Bandu.
James’ life in Canada bounces back and forth from waves to troughs to waves as he gets involved with women, enters into some unscrupulous activities, settles down and marries Ginny despite the objections of her wealthy family, deals with Ginny’s dominating mother, Clarissa, succeeds in business, gets involved with alcohol to deal with his family problems, resurrects himself with a promising new business venture only to face more disappointment, and finally, a return to Sri Lanka puts things in enough perspective for James to make yet one more attempt to salvage what is most important to him: his new home in Canada and his family.
Interwoven through James’ story are those of his friends Christo and Bandu, as well as James’ mother who has been committed to an institute, the uneasy relationship between his father and brother, as well as James’ ‘hidden’ affair and child. On a more subtle level, there is the ever-presence of the evil twins, madness and alcohol, wreaking havoc with lives from Sri Lanka to Canada: from a rabid dog in the childhood home town to Martin’s mother, and from Ginny, where her family eventually apologizes for not revealing her fits of depression, to a suicide bomber attacking in the most unsuspected of circumstances. While Martin makes a conscious effort to defeat his inner demons, the other characters succumb. Prophetically, on Martin’s return to Sri Lanka and after confronting the madness and alcoholism that helped to drive him away in the first place, he instructs his taxi driver to take him ‘home’, meaning the portal that would take him back to Canada, his adopted country.
The novel certainly kept my attention and even though I was out of practice in reading a few hours every day, I could not put the book down and read the 427 pages in record time. The riptide of emotion that Martin James’ encounters, certainly carries the reader along on his challenging odyssey.
In Homer’s epic, Ulysses perseveres through unbelievable odds, in order to return to his home in Ithaca. In Joseph’s novel, The Ulysses Man, Martin James undergoes his own trial by ordeal to arrive at an acceptable semblance of ‘home’ with the hope of building on that and realizing the ultimate dream of a happy, family-based, secure life in Canada. If home is where the heart is, then Joseph’s novel, takes us on the spellbound road of discovery to this ideal.
Steve Gillick, president of TalkingTravel.ca is a travel writer, columnist and blogger who specializing in destinations, the movement of people from one country to another and the psychographics of why people make the journey in the first place.