Introducing Our Next Book: Duke by Sara Tilley

Open Book Art Collective is pleased to introduce our next book, Duke by Canada’s Sara Tilley.

Described as, “A dense and challenging but wonderfully rewarding—and technically impressive—novel”, Brett Josef Grubisic. Duke is proving to be fascinating, complex and chalk full of gorgeous imagery that OBAC can’t wait to sink our teeth into. More details to come about our upcoming Fall show (it’s going to be pretty exciting).

August just started, so pick up a copy and get your Summer reading on!


This review was written by Joan Sullivan and published in The Telegram on March 28, 2015. Copied below in its entirety.

“Duke” is Sara Tilley’s second novel; her debut was “Skin Room,” in 2008. Not that she has been idle as a writer, or as a theatre artist. Tilley has a theatre production company (“She Said Yes!”), and she acts, directs, publishes short stories and performs as a clown.
And, with this work, her many interests and talents have drawn together.
For example, Tilley’s writing process included crafting and wearing masks when she wrote from the perspective of her two main characters. Such immersion drenches the writing of “Duke,” which is blazingly authentic, with an embodiment measuring an in-the-round 360 degrees, and is as faithful to its time period as it is immediate to the reader.
“Skin Room” (deservedly) won two important awards, and “Duke,” is a very strong followup. From its genesis in a discovery of old family letters and postcards and other ephemera, it expands into a text that rethinks and rejigs the very format of a novel.
Even its narrative is unconventional. It’s part travelogue, a journey through outport Newfoundland and the Canadian North, but it’s a trip through time as well.
The chapters are all specifically dated, with entries from June 30, 1893 or Nov. 21, 1912, all ranging from the late 19th century towards the middle of the 20th.
The text is densely idiosyncratic, poetic and precise. Many words are capitalized (“there’s a Madness that can set in when too much Drink & Flesh abound for you to see straight”), spaces usually stand in for punctuation, and some material is crossed out (although still legible).
This is not random, but calibrated to the time of the events and the emotions of the person experiencing them. Thus it is never confusing. Tilley keeps the text geared towards clarity and this typesetting infuses a visual element.
The protagonist of “Duke” is William Marmaduke Till(e)y. Unreliable narrators are a genre of their own, of course, but this is something else. Duke is young and frank, and considers himself to be vulnerable and naïve, but he is also full of secrets. His openness is also a screen. The revelations that come out are prompted by encounters and discoveries as well as by memories that are themselves attached to the braid of time.
The book starts in June 1906, as Duke is approaching Dawson City, working as a deckhand alongside his cousin, Clare. He admires Clare, who is popular with the crew, a good man to work with, and an even better friend to party with. Clare looks out for the younger man, guiding him through the rather lawless exuberance of Dawson. But it is obvious that, in more ways than one, Duke is far from home.
Duke is from Newman’s Cove, “N.F.L.D.” His father was a merchant, but has lost his store and it has fallen to Duke to earn money and redeem the family name.
He is travelling to meet his older brother, Bob, who has been out of touch with the family for some time, but at last report was working a gold stake in the Yukon. The plan is to labour with Bob for two years, sending money home all the while, so the family can reclaim their enterprise and place in their community.
But finding someone in the Yukon bush is more of a challenge than Duke anticipated. And what he does meet when he gets there will change his character, his way of looking at the world and the direction of his life.
“I love it when I’m working,” Duke thinks, “but when alone in cabin by fire at night I am like a great sad stone, bone-tired, heavier than the heaviest of living things & weighed down with dark thoughts, squid-ink clouds of them.”
The bulk of the story is divided into five books, such as “The River” or “The Camp,” with a clutch of chapters, titled “Her Adolescence,” devoted to Duke’s oldest child, Eva. These give us another perspective on Duke, and the consequences of the decisions he has made. They are also written more traditionally, which adds contrasting texture to the layers and complexities of Duke’s thinking.
The dialogue is spot on. Tilley did deep research into slang (“I feel like I’m a real Rush Lad now”). Equally on target is the detailed evocation of several different experiences and places and times. This reflects Tilley’s thoughtful and extensive archival research, down to the whiskey in Duke’s bottle and the boots on his feet.
“Duke” is a ground-breaking achievement — text-breaking, everything-breaking. It’s breathtaking.

Joan Sullivan is a St. John’s-based journalist, author and editor of The Newfoundland Quarterly.