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The Cunning Man

3.93 of 5 stars 3.93  ·  rating details  ·  1,905 ratings  ·  120 reviews
"Should I have taken the false teeth?" This is what Dr. Jonathan Hullah, a former police surgeon, thinks after he watches Father Hobbes die in front of the High Altar at Toronto's St. Aidan's on the morning of Good Friday. How did the good father die? We do not learn the answer until the last pages of this "Case Book" of a man's rich and highly observant life. But we learn ...more
Paperback, 469 pages
Published February 1st 1996 by Penguin Books (first published 1994)
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I’ve been an avid, even proselytic fan of Robertson Davies for more than 20 years, and was delighted to discover that this novel (his last) had somehow slipped by me and that there was still more Davies to read. Sadly, The Cunning Man is a let-down—a book that demonstrates, more than anything, an act of literary onomatopoeia: a novel about an elderly man contemplating a life’s worth of memories and trying to position himself philosophically and existentially as he nears the end of his own story, ...more
Mary Ronan Drew
"Should I have taken the false teeth?"

Not a bad opening sentence for a novel in which all the action is precipitated by the death at the altar on Good Friday of a beloved priest in Toronto's high church Anglican parish of St Aidan's. The narrator, the cunning man of the title, Dr Hullah, has been a police surgeon and he has his suspicions about the sudden death of the old man. But his friend from childhood, Father Charlie Iredale, won't let him beyond the communion rail and the doctor does noth
Christine Hayton
May 24, 2015 Christine Hayton rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Everyone
Shelves: rated-reviewed
As always, Robertson Davies, proves to me why he is one of my favorite authors. Wonderful story and definitely added to my re-read list. Highly recommended.
Jan 01, 2014 Lobstergirl marked it as aborted
I gave this almost 100 pages and couldn't get into it. If it had been a 300 page book I might have soldiered on, but it's 469. I am donating it to the book drive for our local Society for the Degradation of Orphans.
I started this book for my book club, which members had highly recommended it, knowing that it was a mystery. In the very beginning there is a death and hints that it will be investigated but this is never addressed again until the very end of the book. The middle of the book is a look back at the lives of the main character and some of its friends.

While the book was enjoyable it is a very slow reading book. I believe it was written int the late 40's early 50's and the writing style reflects th
Robertson Davies is one of my favorite authors because he writes intelligent, kind novels that navigate the weird and wonderful world of human life with a precision that is often sharp but never cruel. The Cunning Man continues in this tradition, and for 400 pages does a wonderful job of melding the grounded with the fantastic. And the language! Mr Davies almost haphazardly throws in elegant phrases that lesser writers would labor towards, setting them in places of pride among the many duller wo ...more
I think I 'really liked' this book more at the beginning. The last quarter is more in the 'like' category. But Davies is still an interesting and engaging read. In discussion with a fellow Davies-enjoyer, the idea of why people enjoy him so much was discussed. It was argued that his writing was always a reflection of something he enjoyed himself; books written for the love of the process and the ideas within them which is transparent to the reader and is what makes his books so enjoyable. We do ...more
Robertson Davies, I have missed you. I remember loving reading his trilogies (Salterton Trilogy, etc.), but it's been so long that I'd forgotten why I liked them so much. This book reminded me: witty, erudite writing; interesting characters who grow and change; elegant sentences; philosophically interesting ideas; and unpredictable plots. The book's driver is the narrator, an observant and open-minded Canadian doctor who, from the vantage point of his 60's, looks back at his life and it's turnin ...more
Tyshani Bain
The end saved this one in my opinion. I feel it droned on about trivial things while I wish I could've read more of his ANAT notes.
An engaging novel with intriguing characters and a filament of mystery running through the center. While not as good as The Deptford Trilogy in my opinion, The Cunning Man is less of a commitment and still a fair taste of what Davies has to offer. Robertson Davies probably isn’t for everyone, but if he ends up being for you, though, you’re in for a treat!

Full thoughts are posted on Erin Reads.
"A monstrosity of pomposity," "a vainglorious volume of verbiage," "a niggling novel of nugacity." If I were a character in this book, that would be my assessment. Yes, this book is chock-full of great words, but perhaps a lesson from E.B. White is called for here: "Don't be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when a ten-center is handy." While I love a book that requires me to read with a dictionary, this one had me several times saying "The Heck You Mean?" For example, the word "Laodicean"....had ...more
I pretty much love this book unconditionally. I first read it in college, and have read every few years since. It is a book I enjoy growing older with. This time through there was a lot that drove me crazy - the switch to Chip's point of view, Jon's discussion of Gil's paternity with Brocky and Nuala after Gil's death, and the character of Charlie. I still love the description of St. Aidan's, Charlie and his saints, and the discussions in the theatre.
This isn't a BAD book. It's well written. The characters are interesting enough, I suppose. But I got to page 284 and decided I didn't feel like going on. Some other reviews I've come across say it's just not one of his best. From the little else I've read of Davies, I agree. It's missing something at the center, a narrative momentum, maybe.
N.J. Ramsden
I read this some time ago, so memory of its contents is rather hazy. I remember the perfect opening line, which was what made me buy it in the first place, a serendipitous browse of the kind one rarely experiences; I remember the pleasantly languid prose, the drifting narrative, the lack of focus being the focus, the time passing; I remember finding treats hidden lightly all the way through, of finding them and being not surprised but happy; I remember a general sense of this being a book about ...more
Hilarious memoir of a very unorthodox doctor, Dr Hullah, a cunning man since he successfully treats those patients whose cases baffle his colleagues. A holistic healer of sorts, Dr Hullah will share more than his medical MO; we will get acquainted with his family, a highly colorful cast of characters.
This was the best I could do for a vacation book. I had to abandon Salman Rushdie's "Midnight's Children" for fear I would die of old age before completing it. I don't want to die. More when I finish, but let me say I expected much more from Mr. Davies.
That I didn't like this as much as the other Robertson Davies novels I have read is probably my own fault: I read it in too many sittings and so didn't get as immersed in it as I normally do; and, not being a churchgoer, I found the plot's emphasis on church matters largely over my head or beyond my interest. But the fact is, Davies's novels, even the lesser ones, are brilliant. There is much to enjoy here, like Hugh McWearie's wry presence, and the final page's echo of "Murther and Walking Spir ...more
Robertson Davies is now a new favorite of mine...regretted this story had to end.
It took me ages to get to even the middle of this book. This surprised me because I have loved every other Robertson Davies book I've read. I renewed it twice, imagining that I'd somehow persevere to the end.

But reason prevailed. I finally took the half-read book back to the library. Sorry, Mr. Davies.

The following are reasons that I kept reading as long as I did:

[W]hile I would not say a word against that great, underestimated master, [Tchaikowsky] certainly isn't Bach, who was my special, an
Aug 17, 2011 August rated it 3 of 5 stars
Shelves: own
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
The "Cunning Man" is the narrator of this novel, physician Jon Hullah. The title comes from the idea of every village having either a Wise Woman or a Cunning Man--someone with insights into the nature of things who sometimes brings healing or at least perspective.

The book spans the seventy years of Hullah's life from his own encounter with a Wise Woman following his miraculous recovery from scarlet feaver to the autumn of his life as a medical practitioner caring for his long-time friend Charlie
I read a review of this book in the BMJ and found a copy at Unity Books and thoroughly enjoyed it; when recalled it recently discovered I hadn't written my own review and have resolved to re-read and correct this omission; in the meantime I have posted the review from the BMJ.


BMJ 20 October 2007 v355 p829

Alex Paton,
retired consultant physician, Oxfordshire

“Should I have taken the false teeth?” Thus, the curt opening of The Cunning Man by Robertson Davies, typical of Ca
This was a very healthy book to have on my nightstand, because at no point did it tempt me to stay up reading it and become sleep-deprived. The first person narrator was a smug bore, who never managed to be very interesting. When the narrator says at some point that he's afraid that his story (supposedly written as his life history in preparation for being interviewed by a newspaper reporter) is becoming one of those tiresome German Bildungsromans but then becomes exactly that, it's a problem.

I really liked the opening narrative "hook" in the first paragraph of this, the last novel of Canadian master Robertson Davies. But unfortunately reading it turned out to be quite a long haul. Perhaps Davies - who was in his ninth decade when "The Cunning Man" was published, was simply unable to gather together all the diverse threads on what had the potential to be another magnificent tapestry in the manner of "The Salterton Trilogy."

This book is told almost entirely through the first person n
Justin Morgan
This was my first foray into Robertson Davies, and I chose his final book to begin with. From the first few pages I was hooked, a mysterious death at the altar rail of an eccentric high church Anglican priest witnessed by a motley ensemble of characters the reader gets to know over the next 470 pages. What's not to love? However, the book loses steam half way through albeit not in an unreadable way. There are lots of amazing observations and highly quotable turns of phrase, but there is also a b ...more
So, the back of my copy has a picture of the author: a laughing, Santa Claus-type old man. He is a yucky old man, though. He's Scatological Claus. The narrator is a doctor, and therefore a certain focus on bodily fluids and emissions and nastiness could be expected. But that's not really what I object to. It's the same feeling that I had from the other Robertson Davies I've read--Fifth Business. The narrator seems to poke fun at himself and his relatively minor role in the people's lives around ...more
"...the most strenuous efforts of the most committed educationalists in the years since my boyhood have been unable to make a school into anything but a school, which is to say a jail with educational opportunities." (p.14)

"I was a lonely child, but I liked loneliness and I like it still. Despite my mother I was a woods child, and what the woods taught me is still at the heart of my life." (p.18)

"I fell in love with beautiful books, and now, as an old man, I have a harem which is by no means tri
As a fan of Davies' fiction from way back I was disappointed by this effort. Davies attempts to describe the life, character, and experiences of an unorthodox medical doctor, and falls short.
Perhaps because of my own background as a physician I found that nothing rang true or familiar about the central character. It was painfully clear that Davies simply constructed a persona based on his own artistic/literary background and lacked the ability to come up with a plausible character with a non-a
Robertson Davies is more than just a good storyteller. He is a literate storyteller who fills his novels with references to literature, music, art and science and does so in an engaging way while creating characters that are so interesting that it is difficult to put the book down. At least that has been my experience and my only regret is that I have read so few of his novels.
The Cunning Man is a clever story, part mystery, part bildungsroman, part family saga and a bit of a romance, that keep
A perfectly fine novel by a writer that I have enjoyed in the past. however, in comparison to his other novels, this was lacking something. Another layer, a bit of depth? I suppose if one wanted to analyze it, there would be discussion of religion, and the various things that people adopt as their religion or guiding force for their life. Maybe it's my mood today, or maybe it's just that the novel left me a bit indifferent.

That being said, check out his other books. Like the Deptford Trilogy.

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William Robertson Davies, CC, FRSC, FRSL (born August 28, 1913, at Thamesville, Ontario, and died December 2, 1995 at Orangeville, Ontario) was a Canadian novelist, playwright, critic, journalist, and professor. He was one of Canada's best-known and most popular authors, and one of its most distinguished "men of letters", a term Davies is sometimes said to have detested. Davies was the founding Ma ...more
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“I had become wiser, I tried to find out what irony really is, and discovered that some ancient writer on poetry had spoken of “Ironia, which we call the drye mock.” And I cannot think of a better term for it: The drye mock. Not sarcasm, which is like vinegar, or cynicism, which is so often the voice of disappointed idealism, but a delicate casting of cool and illuminating light on life, and thus an enlargement. The ironist is not bitter, he does not seek to undercut everything that seems worthy or serious, he scorns the cheap scoring-off of the wisecracker. He stands, so to speak, somewhat at one side, observes and speaks with a moderation which is occasionally embellished with a flash of controlled exaggeration. He speaks from a certain depth, and thus he is not of the same nature as the wit, who so often speaks from the tongue and no deeper. The wit’s desire is to be funny; the ironist is only funny as a secondary achievement.” 7 likes
“she swore in good mouth-filling oaths, but never smutty ones, and that was uncommon. She knew the prosody of profanity. . . . she knew the tune, as well as the words. She was not a raving beauty, but she had fine eyes and a Pre-Raphelite air of being too good for this world while at the same time exhibiting much of what this world desires in a woman, and I suppose I gaped at her and behaved clownishly.” 3 likes
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