The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel – Katherine Govier (2016, HarperAvenue, Toronto)
I admit the only reason I picked up Katherine Govier’s book The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel was because it is set in the Rocky Mountains, in a town called Canmore (called Gateway in the novel) – I live very close to the area and have always been fascinated with the history of it. Did I make the right choice? I sure did!
This is a long book, a heavyweight that unspools at just the right pace right up until just before the ending. The story pivots on the mystery of the disappearance, in 1911, of the Hodgson expedition while hunting for fossils in the mountains. Every event that takes place over the next several decades, over more than one generation, is influenced by this significant loss. I loved the journeys of the characters involved: Herbie Wishart, the former poacher turned mountain guide, a man with dark secrets and obsessed with the truth; Gwen Hodgson, orphaned by the tragedy and burdened with questions about her family and her place in the world; Helen Wagg, the writer and representative of the newly-formed Parks Canada, tasked with spinning the mystique of the Rocky Mountains for the world; and Iona, the rebellious daughter of her Quaker mother and wandering father, offering up secrets of her own to her family in her old age.
Of course, Govier’s book is a work of fiction, but it was sometimes hard to separate story from fact – a testament to her skill at making the reader believe in her characters, their motivations, and the way time unfolds over the span of many decades. There are so many wonderful details in the book that make it as authentic as possible – there is no doubt Govier spent countless hours doing research (it surely helps that she lives in Canmore part time).
For some reason, however, the ending felt rushed to me – even the sentences reflected this, with many turning into choppy phrases. I suspect this was an intentional stylistic move – after all, time seems to fly as one advances into old age, as Iona does. It could also express the way modern living is characterized by fast-paced busyness. Still, it appears an interesting choice to shutter the entirety of the book’s mysteries in a few brief paragraphs, when the book itself is over 400 pages long. (I’m not sure what the alternative could have been; the story couldn’t go on forever, even if I wanted it to).
Beautifully told and highly recommended.