David Lucking
The Serpent's Part: Narrating the Self in Canadian Literature
New York: Peter Lang, 2003. Pp. 211. $39.95
Reviewed by Axel Knoenagel

"Canada is a country in which the problem of defining identity has always been a dominant concern" (25). Everybody who has taken some time to study concepts of Canadian self-understanding in literary or political contexts will readily agree with this statement, which forms the basis for David Lucking's study The Serpent's Part: Narrating the Self in Canadian Literature. The author's central concern is "the manner in which selfhood is constituted through language, through the forging of names and the weaving of narratives" (14). Defining a self emerges as a central concept in a large number of Canadian novels, either as the expressed theme of the text or implicitly.

To demonstrate the validity of his approach, Lucking selected texts from almost 150 years of Canadian literary history. In an introductory survey, works by Frederick Philip Grove, Margaret Laurence, and Joy Kogawa serve as examples that in Canadian literature identity is frequently perceived and portrayed as "not a constant but a dynamic and in the final analysis provisional construct" (28).

Lucking then progresses to analyze individually books by Susanna Moodie, Howard O'Hagan, Jack Hodgins, George Bowering, Robertson Davies, Margaret Atwood, and Timothy Findley. In each of them he discovers unstable or changing identities as significant — though not necessarily absolutely central — elements of the texts. Narrative as a means of developing identity emerges as an important aspect of a literature produced in a (post)colonial society in which definitions of self are not automatically inherited. Surprisingly, Lucking completely excludes the question how a multicultural society influences the shaping of identity. All the authors whose texts are studied more closely stem from an Anglo-Saxon cultural heritage.

The books that Lucking analyzes vary greatly in their approaches and consequently in their usefulness for the project. Equally varying is the emphasis in the various chapters, which can be read equally as individual essays and as chapters of a larger study. One of the highlights is Lucking's examination of Susanna Moodie's classic Roughing It in the Bush. He demonstrates how Moodie's gradual transformation from a British colonial into a self-conscious Canadian equals traditional concepts of rites de passage, which also result in a new identity. But the persistence of the colonial's dual perspective on the new environment suggests how incomplete Moodie's transformation eventually was.

Equally convincing is Lucking's discussion of the interaction of narrative and identity in Jack Hodgins's The Invention of the World. The novel demonstrates better than almost any other story the validity of Hayden White's claim that historiography-and consequently also biography and autobiography-are governed by the same structures that inform all narratives. The various versions of Donal Keneally and of the stories about him attain an indisputable significance: "Maggie's identity is dependent in some way on the Keneally story, even if that story is recognized to be nothing more than such" (113-14).

Lucking goes on to demonstrate how Robertson Davies's Deptford Trilogy is "an extended meditation on roles and the various functions they perform in human life" and how "personal identity often seems to be less the individual's own creation than the function of scenarios existing independently of himself" (134-35). Magnus Eisengrimm is the character whose identity is most completely dissolved in a preordained role, but the same tendency can be discerned in practically all figures who attempt to reinvent themselves in new identities rather than develop their original selves.

Variations of these attempts to define identities through or against preconceived roles can be found also in the other novels Lucking subjects to his scrutiny. Lucking thus makes the point he had set out to make. Nonetheless, The Serpent's Part has its weaknesses. The book suffers from a problem frequently encountered by thematic studies. While the selected texts lend themselves to such an examination, the question remains whether the selected aspect of the individual text really possesses the significance that the examination attributes to it-directly or by implication. The absence of a concluding chapter that puts the findings into perspective suggests that the findings of the individual chapters do not form the kind of coherent result one would expect from such a study. Individually good chapters do not necessarily combine into a convincing book. The Serpent's Part is such a case.