Bad title. Am I the only one who hears the words Canal House and thinks of advanced dental problems combined with some kind of septic-system failure in Venice? Really, I am? Anyway, author Mark Lee has picked this static image as the name for his engaging second novel because it represents the peaceful caesura between episodes of global chaos and misery. "The Canal House" of the title is the homey pad in London where intense international journalist Daniel McFarland and virtuous aid worker Julia Cadell take a sabbatical from the mean world.
Daniel, an ex-pat American, is coming off a near-life-ending plane crash in the Ugandan bush where he was collecting a scoop about a messianic children's army. Julia, a Brit who ran a medical camp near the rebel hideout, is fleeing from a suffocating relationship with one of England's richest bankers and shrewdest philanthropists. While autumn rolls by and their savings dwindle, the lovers cook for each other and read books about sailboats. They scrupulously avoid the papers and the responsibilities that the news inflicts on them. Sweet, sweet love is made on a regular basis.
The third wheel on this happy bicycle-built-for-two is war-zone photographer Nicky Bettencourt. Nicky--portly, burnt out, allegedly cynical (he periodically proclaims things like, "helping people is your job, [Julia], but that's not what we do"; then he carries an exhausted girl away from a militia attack)--is tasked with taking Daniel's photos in the field. More important to this book, he serves as Daniel's amanuensis. With his fashionably shaggy hair, his brooding earnestness, and his spartan farm in the Roman countryside, Daniel is a charismatic top dog among the hyena pack of hacks. And so we get endless admiring passages about Daniel's crises of conscience and poise under fire--between chapters in Julia's voice where she, too, gushes over the man.
Lee, a seasoned international journalist himself, counterbalances the lovey-dovey stuff and slightly shaky plotting with an honest eye for the behavior of white people in the tropics. The lazy and corrupt aid worker, the battle-scarred bureau chief, the punctilious party planner for a charity event--all these characters at the edge of the novel's frame come through in clear focus. (The people who actually reside in these disaster zones are mostly scene-dressing for the moral dramas of the Westerners who air-drop into their lives. To be fair, this worldview is probably true to the perspective of the ex-pat crowd--we're all at the center of our own universe.)
Ultimately, despite the integrity and keenness of Lee's observations, a swooning soundtrack of ill-fated love takes control of this novel. It's hard to feel surprised when East Timorese ethnic violence crashes the love-in--the sound of John Barry strings practically swooping down from above. Put another way: If you can't figure out by the book's midpoint which character won't live to see the end, you ought to have your library card revoked.