I didn't realize this was the middle book of the Cornish trilogy and read it first. I haven't read the other two yet, but I have to say that this book is excellent and one of the most entertaining books I have read this year. This book chronicles the odd adventures of Francis Cornish in a sweeping story which moves from Canada to Europe. Francis Cornish is just enough unlucky that you sympathize with his trials and tribulations, but his fantastic artistic skills and his many riches make him someone the reader might envy and not understand. Davies is an expert at telling this sort of life story, and I think this one is even more enjoyable than Fifth Business. He has a sense of what it is like to have characters at the hands of fate; in this novel, the daimons quite literally command and shape Francis's destiny. Reading this book definitely wanted to make me read the rest of the trilogy.
I didn't know of Davies' history - except that he went to UCC and Queens and UofT - and that he was a wonderful storyteller. What's Bred in the Bone tells the story of Francis Cornish, beginning with his birth and childhood in Blairlogie. As I read on, I soon realized that Blairlogie was in fact Renfrew Ontario, my hometown... I didn't know how he had been able to describe my hometown so well, but I was knew it was Renfrew - physically, historically, economically and personally. I later learned that Davies had been able to draw such a devastatingly clear, ironic and satirical portrait of Renfrew, because he too grew up there. He attended the same public school as me (although we had proper plumbing by the time I went there) and attended the same church. The story is populated with Renfrew names... Cornish was the Anglican Minister, Froats - the Monument Maker - and so on. It is a wonderful story - and all the more so because Renfrew continues with much the same social system, which includes an annual "Lumber Baron Days," while ignoring the wonderful love letter from a homegrown son. Too Rich!
Davies always anchors his world in the primal instincts, the truths of human nature. You are never quite prepared for the surprising complexity of his characters or the fate that awaits them. The realistic evolution of Francis from troubled boyhood to artistic savant is really a modern version of David Copperfield, except the female characters are more fully dimensioned than Dickens could ever manage. And there is nothing of Dicken's stuffiness here. This is great literature with a Monty Python flair. No matter how you slice it a convincing argument can be made that during the last ten years of his life Davies was the greatest living novelist writing in English.
Back in 1985 I was discussing Tolkein with a friend of mine. She said, "Oh, you like dwarves? Well, I've got a book with a dwarf in it." Handed this book, I became, in less than an hour, a confirmed Robertson Davies fan. Here is a sense of history, of art, of magic, and of human peculiarities, lovingly portrayed. Davies is an artist with words; his powers of observation are impeccable; his interest in the world unbounded. I cannot say what the book is ABOUT, because that would detract from it. Suffice it to say that this is one of the finest works in the English Language, no matter what the Modern Library list had to say.
This is the first book by Davies I ever read, and it remains my favourite. As I found out later, it is the centrepiece of what came to be known as the Cornish trilogy. It is the story of Francis Cornish, a talented artist from provincial Canada who is recruited into the British secret service and participates in a major art forging operation intended to thwart the nazis. In the course of the process he finds and loses the love of his life, paints a medieval tryptich depicting the Marriage at Canaan that is also a representation of the major figures in his life (all of them very colourful), unmasks another forger after the war and ultimately has to give up his career as a "medieval painter" when his masterpiece is purchased by a Canadian museum on the assumption that it is genuine. Cornish's life is narrated by his daimon, a sort of "biographical angel", and has many more twists and turns than I can possibly describe here. The book is full of Davies' urbane wit and Jungian wisdom. It tails off a bit towards the end, but that is compensated in the "sequel" about his nephew Arthur and his patronage of the arts, "The Lyre of Orpheus". Highly recommended, but I suggest you start with the first part of this trilogy, "The Rebel Angels". Newcomers, beware: Davies' fiction is highly addictive.