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Sussex Drive by Linda Svendsen: a sharp, witty alternate history to Harper's climb to power

Fact, they say, is stranger than fiction. But fiction by the same token can powerfully illuminate fact. Novels answer questions so complex that they elude simple explanation, but sweeping narratives can handle them; Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, The Master and Marguerita, The Naked and the Dead immediately come to mind. Much can be learned about Bill Clinton from Primary Colors. And much can be learned about Stephen Harper and the Conservative government from Sussex Drive, published in October by Random House Canada.

Linda Svendsen's funny, fast-paced, razor sharp satirical novel has much to teach about Stephen Harper.  The novel opens with Becky and Greg Leggatt on a Harrington Lake "staycation at the summer residence pretending to boycott the Olympics in Beijing..." Greg is the Prime Minister of Canada and Becky is his wife without whose tactical maneuvering Greg would have already blundered his way into oblivion.

 Stephen Harper is a complex question that eludes simple explanation: what is he like as a person? How does he behave to his wife and children? What does his personal life say about the decisions he makes as a leader? How can he have gotten so far in his mission to remake a country renowned for its progressive and humanitarian social and environmental policies into one that is reviled and disparaged internationally, and why doesn't someone stop him? 

Svendsen answers these questions, at least metaphorically, through Becky who says of her husband, "He never admitted defeat. Not ever." Through Becky's eyes we discover a PM with a "freakish snore" who is cranky, self-centered and heartless. Greg can't control his anger and when his cheerfully-religious 18-year-old daughter, Martha, gets pregnant and has an abortion with Becky's help, Greg responds to the family crisis by throwing things at Becky and even throttling the family pet. The following passage sums up their relationship well:

He spat at her.  "Who was the father?"

She said, very evenly, "I am holding the alarm. If you trust your thugs to keep this out of the National Post, so be it."

He was silent, just breathing over her. 

"I'll find out," he said, and left her alone in the room. And then, "What kind of mother are you?"

Both Becky and Greg view journalists as there to be manipulated towards their own ends. They call the CBC "The Corpse" and the Toronto Star, "The Toronto Blob". She sees the journalists from The Corpse as overpaid complainers. Becky denies access to journalists who don't do her bidding and leverages their desire to get their access back towards furthering Greg's campaign when without Becky's behind-the-scenes machinations, he'd have lost.

Throughout this, Greg repulses Becky as a person. She moves out of their bedroom and by the end of the book, Greg hasn't spoken to Becky in weeks. She keeps him on course towards total power not because she loves him or respects him but "for the family". 

The author also explores Greg's rise to power through the lens of Lise, the Governor General, a French-Canadian of African descent married to René, an actor in the film industry. Lise may tell us something about Michaëlle Jean, Canada's 27th Governor General who was appointed by Paul Martin but served through the early Harper years

Lise performs her duties impeccably while fostering the wish to crush Greg whose motives she doubts. During a speech which she begins with "Oscar-worthy conviction, she thinks this about the people before her, those who represent Canada.

"Nobody saw these political elites from her singular perspective—not the cameras trained upon her benevolently non-partisan facade, not the press, fascinated with their technological toys and holstered by their corporate sheriffs, not the citizens of this blindfolded gentle giant, this ventrioloquist's dummy of a country, with the middle-class populace in a systemic funk about their mortgages, pensions, kids' educations, cruises and replacement hips..."

Lise leans left and her role in the plot revolves around how Greg manages to force her into a position of allowing him to prorogue and kill the opposing coalition movement when she'd really like to shut him down. The plot here gets complicated.  

René, a hip, handsome but controversial actor, plays a role in this as does Lise's troubled son and her family back in Africa. René is framed. And Lise herself is as compromised as René, and realizes this just as she is being asked by Greg to sign off on the prorogation of Parliament, which Lise believes is unconstitutional.

When Becky pulls out a photograph of René manufactured by CSIS, it's game over for the Governor General:

"It was René, in a grizzly hug, apparently, with Che Guevara, but she knew it was the famous Romanian drug lord, bare-chested, drugged, drunk. Behind them, not far enough, bare-breasted, bare-assed dancers were leashed to a spectacular dildo, a teen footer, and she thought she could identify the famous drug spilled across the table."


"Lise took a breath, then exhaled…She was already on the edge of losing her husband, and her son might be having a breakdown. It was clear now that she could do nothing at all to help Canada. Its democracy had early-onset Alzeheimer's. Its democracy was in a media induced ethical coma; it had permanent parliamentary amnesia—her mind was raving."

Lise is trapped and Canada's history forever changed. "I will prorogue on the Prime Minister's advice," she says.

Svendsen serves up a deeply satisfying pair of smart, perceptive women from two different sides of the philosophical spectrum, teenagers and children as believable as one's own, and a variety of men from the powerless to the profiteering to autocratic.

Throughout the novel, Svendsen plays artfully with the question "what if?" By teasing out the question of what might have gone on behind the closed doors of the most powerful political leaders at pivotal political moments, Sussex Drive reveals much about Canada's predicament under Harper.

It's a great read and I highly recommend it.

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