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Review from the Vancouver Sun

The Vancouver Sun
"But they're wild, those things, they refuse to be confined, and they spread, man, how they spread." The speaker may be referring to snowdrops, but he could just as easily be describing the disjointed and dysfunctional family inhabiting the pages of Anne Cameron's most recent novel, Those Lancasters. The Brady bunch it's not.

Welcome to the unruly Lancaster household, which has more than its fair share of arguments, fights and brawls. However, when the family is put to the test (and there are many tests), its members' unswerving loyalty to one another keeps them united, a formidable force.

"Family is really just something that happens to you. If you get along, great, and if you really love each other, wonderful, but if not, so what?" These words uttered by Big Wilma, a sister-in-law - pretty well sum up the complicated relationships among the eight adult Lancaster siblings, who live on the family's Vancouver Island property.

As the story opens, Colleen, steady and dependable, holding down a demanding and conventional insurance job, is also holding the family together. But she is anxious to put a little distance between herself and her light-fingered, promiscuous sister, Darlene, who can't grasp the concept of personal boundaries.

Three of the four brothers are also around: sheep-stealing Singeon, alcoholic Jewen and hottempered Norm. Once big brother gets out of jail, life on the Lancaster property gets even more interesting.

By Christmas, older sister Brady returns to the family, having retired from her exotic dancing career. And finally Doreen, who has been living in Ontario - allegedly with the Air Force, but actually working undercover for CSIS, comes home.

The story is eventually crowded with so many characters - including children, husbands, wives, partners and Darlene's one-night stands - that you need a program to keep track of them all.

Cameron, a much-published Powell River writer, builds her story through contrast. She describes in excruciating detail the repetitive minutiae of daily life: the grocery shopping, the trips to Wal-Mart, the endless food preparation, laundering, ironing, dishwashing, housecleaning and the equally endless outdoor chores of maintaining the vegetable garden, feeding the chickens and collecting the eggs.

Do we really need to know what's on the dinner plate or in the picnic hamper when the catastrophes occur? Because being a Lancaster means you will experience environmental disasters, attempts on your life and RCMP raids, complete with SWAT teams and helicopters.

While everyone's life seems to be an open book, each character has a secret or something to hide. Some family members live outside the law, what with stealing the neighbour's stock, dealing with the money-laundering problems that accompany a successful hydroponic marijuana grow-op (in abandoned mines that lie under Lancaster land, no less), and getting rid of narcs who are trying to get the goods on the criminals.

Warm humour and downright meanness sit uneasily together in this novel. Darlene's continual disregard for Colleen's stuff finally warrants a furious warning from Al. Norm's temper gets him booted off the property for a while, although his wife continues to be welcome. But, as Doreen says, "anyone not family is up for grabs."

Maude, Al's former wife, discovers the coldness of a Lancaster united front. Unlike many of the outsiders who are warmly invited to inhabit the ever-expanding family compound, she has never fit in. In the end she loses everything, including her husband and child in a tragic murder-suicide. The Lancasters' refusal to acknowledge her suffering and their casual dismissal of her when she disappears strike a false note: The siblings don't suffer fools gladly, but their callousness here is too brutal.

For all of its flaws, including inconsistencies in point of view, a narrative flow interrupted by a mild rant about out-of-touch big-city news, and a preachy little digression on mining scandals and stock manipulation, Those Lancasters is an enjoyable novel. The Lancaster brothers and sisters exemplify the importance of love, fierce loyalty and tolerance for personal idiosyncrasies in maintaining strong family ties.

In her preface, Cameron says that "the coast is covered with people like them." Perhaps, but I doubt we'd find them all in one family.
-Patti Buchanan