This is a very clever piece of work indeed. It starts well, it improves as it goes along and it ties the numerous threads together superbly well, all except one that is obviously intended to hang loose - where was Esme when Conor was murdered? The writing is beautiful, the character-drawing is highly convincing as well as extremely original, but above all this novel is a ballet of ideas. It was written right at the end of Robertson Davies's longish life, and it sometimes reads as if he is trying to cram as many of his thoughts about life in general as he can into 400-500 last pages.
If that gives an impression of pretentiousness or of solemnity, I'd say that I was inclined to suspect that kind of thing near the start of the book. The 6th-form debates among the schoolboys and their teachers are extraordinarily articulate and mature, and indeed throughout the whole story the level of intellectual perceptiveness and verbal coherence displayed by not only the main narrator but by more or less everyone else as well requires a little suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. This is just the style of the book, the name of the game, so suspend disbelief and get on with enjoying it I say. There is plenty to enjoy. The narrator's insights are neither laboured nor obscure but genuinely perceptive and original, and sometimes very funny too, such as Wilde's love that dares not speak its name now evolved, in this enlightened era, into the love that never knows when to shut up.
The main thread is the narrator's own life and his observations of others' attempts at lives, and the interpretation he places on it all, partly just from the cast of mind he was born with, partly from the imprint left on him by various traumatic and other formative experiences. The chief subsidiary thread is religion, intertwined with and offsetting the main theme. The narrator is not without a personal interest in the kind of religion that comes his way, but this is Christianity either with a difference or at least showing a side we don't often notice - what might almost be called Trollope red in tooth and claw. My own feeling is that no particular attack on religion generally or on Christianity specifically is being made, but rather that there is a none-too-subtle message here for those inclined to take religion literally. Who or what rules the world and human existence is not something either narrator or author chooses to take a firm view about, and both settle for 'Ananke' - Necessity.
The narrator, and by obvious implication his (literary) creator are maybe too clever by half at times, but Ananke is not mocked and there is a sad but delightful little touch of irony at the end at the narrator's expense, given a characteristic further twist when one asks oneself the question that I suggested in the first paragraph of this notice. Indeed I ought to say that the sudden twists and turns in the plot are among the most striking and effective features of the narrative. This may be an old man writing in the persona of another old man, but there is nothing tired in the invention and nothing that even slightly suggests to me loss of freshness. There is real poetry in this story too, and the poetry in verse that it often recalls to me as the moving Finger writes is precisely FitzGerald's Rubaiyyat. There is plenty of Wit in The Cunning Man, and Piety gets a good airing too although not an entirely sympathetic or favourable one. Whether the divinity that shapes our ends is a personal God or an impersonal Ananke what is written stays written and not all our Tears will wash out a Word of it. In which case those of us who have come off comparatively lightly - so far at least - would be well advised to count our blessings, and that was the feeling that was uppermost in my mind as I closed the book.