UBC professor's Sussex Drive novel a visit to a parallel universe

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

This standard publisher's note appears at the start of every work of fiction and is important to keep in mind while reading Linda Svendsen's latest work Sussex Drive (Random House Canada) - given it's about a Conservative Christian prime minister who prorogues Parliament not once but twice, and a black, female Governor General. It also includes a Tory fear of a lesbian socialist from the Opposition potentially becoming deputy PM (should the government fall), but that's a minor, albeit hilarious, part of the book. By the end of Svendsen's page-turner (replete with nefarious goings-on), you can't help but wonder if men in dark glasses and black suits are now lurking in the shadows of Svendsen's world at UBC where she teaches creative writing.

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Does Svendsen know something she shouldn't? Is certain fiction the new journalism where what the mainstream media doesn't or can't report becomes the stuff of "novels" or movies, such as Fair Game, the real story of betrayed CIA agent Valerie Plame. You know? The truth - with a good dose of funny in Sussex Drive's case.

"Double LOL," Svendsen wrote in an email exchange with me. "For some reason, I was a little nervous when I stayed on a deserted floor at the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa. At the very far end. About a mile from the elevator. Perhaps that had more to do with having seen The Shining too many times - DSM for writer's block."

My imagination (cynicism?) went into overdrive reading the often outrageous Sussex Drive because I don't think Canadian politics are as boring as most Canadians believe. Intrigue abounds but we just don't hear the half of it. So it was a thrill to read Svendsen's Canada-centric and often hilarious "novel."

OK, it's political satire, but you may never view certain politicians the same way again. Best of all, you may want to start paying more attention to what goes on in Ottawa. Not really Dullsville after all. Or as Svendsen says, "If anyone wants tent pole gossip that will make the Petraeus circus fold up flat away, look no further than [insert] name-here and Google. Gossip in the Canadian government is way wilder than fiction."

With Sussex Drive, which was legally vetted, Svendsen is tapping into a genre growing in popularity, and doing it with plenty of humour.

"There's as much going on in Canada as other writers have found in their own backyards," Svendsen writes. "Thomas Harris' The Ghost Writer plays with the Tony Blair-Iraq legacy, [Joe] Klein's Primary Colors provided deep colour on a Clinton-like couple. Writers can sometimes be the necessary canaries in the coal mines and coal mines are coming back."

Svendsen, whose writing credits include Marine Life, the CBC TV miniseries Human Cargo and adaptations of The Diviners and At the End of the Day: The Sue Rodriguez stories, initially planned to write about mothers raising their children in public, but it dawned on her there might be a story in a prime minister's wife and a female governor general who just couldn't play "Follow the Conservative Leader" one more second.

"I was mesmerized by the 2008 prorogation," says the B.C.-born and raised writer. "One headline read, 'Going where no Governor General has gone before,' as if Michaelle Jean had left with Kirk and Spock and abandoned planet Parliamentary Democracy. Then before you could say "Afghan detainee,' the government prorogued in 2009."

As she does with all her writing work, Svendsen researched, researched and researched some more to write Sussex Drive to make it as grounded in reality as possible for a more powerful satirical impact. "I saved all the newspapers from the 2008 prorogation and the punditry, polls and editorials are breathtaking in their partisanship, but the book I loved is called Parliamentary Democracy in Crisis - a series of essays from constitutional scholars. Recommended reading for high school."

When I asked Svendsen, who describes herself as a semi-political soul, if we should read anything into the negative portrayal of certain characters as her personal indictment of real people, she reminded me the book is fiction. But added: "The Canada I live in now is sometimes unbearably real: rental pandas replace polar bears, iced cappuccinos take precedence over the polar ice cap, a government cited by the Speaker for contempt of Parliament wins a majority, and prisons with a multifaith population must all be ministered to by Christian chaplains only. Lawrence Martin runs a tally that could make you weep. Rick Mercer only rants one night a week... the right and the left need more satire."

On the latter, Svendsen is right on the money.

fhughes@vancourier.com

twitter.com/HughesFiona

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