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The Cunning Man

(Toronto Trilogy #2)

3.91  ·  Rating details ·  2,503 ratings  ·  173 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

Paperback, 469 pages
Published 1996 by Penguin Group (first published September 1st 1994)
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Average rating 3.91  · 
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 ·  2,503 ratings  ·  173 reviews

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Jul 18, 2009 rated it liked it
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
Paul Secor
I'd read a number of Robertson Davies' novels before this one, but The Cunning Man is by far my favorite - a magical feat of storytelling told by a narrator who is looking back on a fully lived life.
Mr. Davies provides his own review of his novel with the last paragraphs of the book:

"The telephone rings. My intuition suggests a wrong number. Not that great intuition is needed; a nearby new cinema has been granted a number that is only one digit away from mine, and wrong numbers are common. This
Apr 21, 2014 rated it really liked it
"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
Sep 25, 2019 rated it really liked it
4.5. Not quite a 5 but close. Love Robertson Davies. May write a longer review later.
Mary Ronan Drew
Nov 15, 2011 rated it really liked it
"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
Aug 24, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Justin Morgan
Nov 16, 2012 rated it liked it
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 ...more
Oct 15, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: literary-fiction
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
Jun 05, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
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
Sep 02, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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.
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.
Christine Hayton
Apr 27, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  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.
Sep 25, 2013 rated it it was amazing
"...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
Nov 25, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Robert Ronsson
Sep 14, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: top-ten
I'm thrilled to have discovered - by chance - an author who out-Irvings the great John Irving. If ever an author embarked on a novel knowing what its final lines would be, surely this is the one.
The Cunning Man is an enthralling tale of a city - nay, a parish within a city - and its denizens. It's a murder mystery but the event that triggers Dr Hullah's memoire is not much of a mystery. It's the story of a man who learns so much in his life but who ultimately realises that he still failed to
May 15, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Mar 17, 2014 rated it really liked it
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.
Nov 10, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: can-lit, fiction
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.
Mar 11, 2009 rated it it was ok
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.
Mar 20, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2016
Davies is as engaging as always, though I did feel like the plot was a bit of a mishmash on this one. It's as if the book exists more as a platform for the author's observations than in service to a story. Still, Davies observations are good ones and I enjoyed reading them!
Oct 02, 2008 rated it it was ok
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.
Aug 21, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Robertson Davies is now a new favorite of mine...regretted this story had to end.
Tyshani Prieur
Feb 09, 2015 rated it really liked it
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.
Ian Brydon
Sep 09, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I think that Robertson Davies was really a literary alchemist, with a rare facility to transmute the base metal of daily life, through gentle application of his own blend of arcana, to create the purest storytelling gold. I had the privilege of meeting him once, just a few months before he died, when he appeared at a signing event arranged by the sainted Muswell Hill Bookshop. Of course, I was familiar with his appearance from the small photos that adorned the backs of his books, but somehow, I ...more
Steve Groves
Jun 29, 2019 rated it really liked it
From what I have read about Robertson Davies it would seem he has written a novel that is almost autobiographical in nature. While the facts would suggest he resembled the character Brocky Gilmartin, rather than the narrator Dr. Jonathon Hullah, it is clear that he has drawn on his upbringing and life in academia, journalism and the theatre to add depth and highlights to the story written towards the very end of his life.

It is a book about looking back over life and wondering what shapes and
Dec 30, 2018 rated it it was ok
Honestly this book suckkks. I have a high tolerance for long books. I’ve read a lot of them. I can read past some boring parts and be fine. That being said, this book was boring the entire way through. The very beginning was ok, but that was it. The summary tries to make it sound like a murder mystery or something, which it isn’t. Honestly I think this author has the habit of writing fake letters about nothing. And he really digs writing these letters for some reason. Then he’s like “oh I can ...more
I am disappointed with Davies's last novel, The Cunning Man" from 1994 and the second novel of his unfinished "Toronto Trilogy". His second trilogy, from the early 1970's, the "Deptford Trilogy", with "Fifth Business", "The Manticore" and "World of Wonders" comprises three near-masterpieces and whopping good reads which should be on anyone's list. I was hoping for more here. Instead we have a novel of minimal general interest about older people, reminding this reader of Joseph Heller's followup ...more
Sep 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The Cunning Man is the story of Jonathan Hullah raised in Sioux St Marie in privilege but away from high society. Jon finds himself positioned between the science of a local alcoholic physician, Doc Ogden, and the healing arts practiced by a local medicine woman, Mrs Smoke. He believes himself cured of scarlet fever by Mrs Smoke and her shaking tent and failed by that same Doc Ogg. Jon moves to Toronto to attend private school at Colborne College where he meets his lifelong friends, Brockie ...more
Brett Walters
Feb 11, 2017 rated it really liked it
A few hours ago while I was reading Atul Gawande's recent article "The Heroism of Incremental Care" [] this novel came back to me; specifically it prompted a memory of Dr. Jonathan Hullah and his particular theory on longitudinal care based on deep relationships and gathered wisdom. Toward the end of the aforementioned article Gawande writes "... it will become evident that, for everyone, life is a preexisting condition waiting to happen," a statement that ...more
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William Robertson Davies, CC, FRSC, FRSL (died in 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 Master of Massey College, a graduate college at the University of ...more

Other books in the series

Toronto Trilogy (2 books)
  • Murther and Walking Spirits (Toronto Trilogy, #1)
“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.” 9 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.” 5 likes
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