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Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

Fifth Business (original 1970; edition 1970)

by Robertson Davies

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
2,238572,868 (4.2)1 / 222
Title:Fifth Business
Authors:Robertson Davies
Info:Viking Adult (1970), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 309 pages
Collections:Read but unowned, Favorites, Rec collection
Tags:fiction, Toronto, WWI

Work details

Fifth Business by Robertson Davies (1970)


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English (50)  Spanish (5)  Catalan (2)  All languages (57)
Showing 1-5 of 50 (next | show all)
* See note below
  perthreader | Apr 11, 2015 |
Intelligent and weird--in a good way--as are all Davies novels. Strange characters, casual erudition. Sad, but the grim humor keeps it from being overwhelmingly depressing. You can definitely see the connection to writers like Dickens and John Irving. ( )
  RGilbraith | Nov 1, 2014 |

"Fifth Business,” the first book in The Deptford Trilogy by Canadian writer Robertson Davies, is Dunstan Ramsay’s memoir written as a letter to a Headmaster of Colborne College, where Dunstan was teaching for 45 years. This letter-memoir was provoked by a farewell article which offended Dunstan deeply as it downplayed his accomplishments and presented him as "a typical old schoolmaster doddering into retirement with tears in his eyes and a drop hanging from his nose." The story told by this letter-memoir turned out to be far away from what at first sight might look quite ordinary.


1) Beautiful writing and thought-provoking content.
Not without a reason "Fifth Business'' is a classic: the writing is so simple yet so beautiful (truly a piece of art), and the main themes, such as religion and morality, illusion and reality, debilitating effects of guilt, and lifelong effects of childhood and family, offer timeless lessons. It is one of those books which demands to be thought about, if not read, over and over, and which gets better the more you do so. It is a great choice for a book club!

2) Wide vocabulary.
One of the reasons that made Robertson Davies' prose so beautiful is his ability to pick just the right words: descriptive, playful, and often not very common. Such a wide vocabulary not only makes his writing more lively but also serves as a great vocabulary exercise as most of these words are rarely used in everyday conversations.


1) Strong beginning and ending but a little bit slow in between.
I especially loved the first third of the book and gobbled it up in a day, but later the action slowed down, and my excitement wore off. The last chapter was captivating yet again, and the ending remarks made it all worth it, but somewhere in the middle I caught myself wishing that the book was shorter. However, it might be just me getting tired of extensive dictionary search because, since English is not my native language, I was looking up several words per page as I wanted to understand every single wordplay or colorful epithet.

VERDICT: Although I really liked the main themes and the writing style of this book, the story itself could have been a little bit more eventful. ( )
1 vote AgneJakubauskaite | Aug 4, 2014 |
The book grabbed my interest from the start, mainly due to the writing, and while the story didn't always engage me, the book has me wanting more from the author, and it's very likely I will read the rest of this series in the near future.

What I liked best about the book was the writing, it hooked me in from the start and kept me reading to the end. I will definitely read the rest of the books in the trilogy and probably everything else by the author, as the writing and storytelling was just that good.

The only snag was this particular book lost me part of the way through. While I enjoyed the story, I did feel that there were parts that dragged on and I was hoping the story would move faster. I also found there wasn't a character I really enjoyed, I didn't dislike any of them, but there wasn't a character that stuck with me. With that being said, the characters were very complex and full of depth, they just didn't jump out at me, which usually happens when the author has similar style to Davies. Overall, it was a good book, and one that is well worth reading, I will definitely be adding the author to the top of my CanLit reading list.

Also found on my book review blog Jules' Book Reviews - Fifth Business ( )
  bookwormjules | Jul 27, 2014 |
Although I understood the story, I felt like there were many layers to it that I was just missing. What I did like was how real the people and places were.
  amyem58 | Jul 3, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 50 (next | show all)
"A marvelously enigmatic novel, then, elegantly written and driven by irresistible narrative force."

» Add other authors (16 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Robertson Daviesprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Godwin, GailIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Fifth Business ... Definition
Those roles which, being neither those of
Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain,
but were none the less essential to
bring about the Recognition or the denouement
were called the Fifth Business in drama
and opera companies organized according
to the old style; the player who acted these
parts was often referred to as Fifth Business.
- Tho. Overskou, Den Danske Skueplads
First words
My lifelong involvement with Mrs Dempster began at 5:58 o'clock p.m. on 27 December 1908, at which time I was ten years and seven months old.
" ... You despise almost everyone except Paul's mother. No wonder she seems like a saint to you; you have made her carry the affection you should have spread among fifty people. Do not look at me with that tragic face. You should thank me. At fifty years old you should be glad to know something of yourself. That horrid village and your hateful Scots family made you a moral monster. Well, it is not too late for you to enjoy a few years of almost normal humanity."
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Wikipedia in English (2)

Book description
Haiku summary
Wherein a small stone
acts as an antagonist
in a charming book

Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0141186151, Paperback)

The first novel in Davies's celebrated "Deptford Trilogy" introduces Ramsay, a man who returns from World War I decorated with the Victoria Cross who is destined to be caught in a no man's land where memory, history, and myth collide.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:52:38 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

"Ramsay is a man twice born, a man who has returned from the hell of the battle-grave at Passchendaele in World War I decorated with the Victoria Cross, and destined to be caught in a no-man's-land where memory, history, and myth collide. As Ramsay tells his story, it begins to seem that from boyhood he has exerted a perhaps mystical, perhaps pernicious influence on those around him." -- Back cover.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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