The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

October 30, 2014

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

I finished reading The Bone Clocks in late August. It is a complex work that (I thought) required some contemplation before writing a review — although I did post a summary of my thoughts over at Mookse’s Booker Prize forum. When the Booker jury left Mitchell’s novel off its short list, I’ll admit that reviewing it here slipped down my list of priorities.

Two months later, I figured it was finally time to opine on The Bone Clocks here. And when I reviewed what I had said over at Mookse’s forum, I have to admit I couldn’t make many improvements. So here’s what I had to say only days after finishing the novel — I can only say now that in memory, these initial thoughts hold up very well:

While I have ranked The Bone Clocks as the best of the six Booker longlisters that I have read, that endorsement does come with significant caveats. Like the other five, it has weaknesses as well as strengths — for this reader, the strengths were enough to forgive the parts that did not land with me.

booker logoFor those who know Mitchell’s writing, this is much more like Cloud Atlas or Ghostwritten than Jacob de Zoet or Black Swan Green — although it should be noted that some characters from his previous novels do reappear briefly here. Much like Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks is a series of linked novellas — six in this case, the first set in 1984, the last in 2043. Unlike Cloud Atlas, however, one character — Holly Sykes — appears in all six and is an important “physical” presence in each.

Novella one introduces us to her as a 15-year-old who runs away from her father’s pub in Gravesend to take up with her boy friend — whom she finds in bed with her alleged best friend. She runs away again and spends a few days on the lam where she has some weird experiences — and Mitchell introduces us to some characters who will play bigger roles in later sections.

The main character in novella two (set in 1991) is Hugo Lamb whom we meet as a Cambridge undergraduate. He is also a card cheat and a thief of valuable stamps (from a brigadier who has dementia). Mitchell applies his substantial satirical talents to good effect not just in Cambridge but in the Swiss Alps where the college toffs head for a Christmas holiday of skiing and drugs. In this one, Holly shows up as a lounge waitress on that holiday — she and Hugo spend a weird night together (this is Mitchell, so weird is another continuing presence).

In novella three (2004), war correspondent Ed Brubeck (whom we met in novella one) is the focus — he is Holly’s partner and they have a daughter. Mitchell again demonstrates excellent observational and narrative skills — this time around a family crisis (the daughter disappears at a family wedding) and some quite good scenes from various Mid-East conflicts.

Fading novelist Crispin Hershey is the “star” of novella four (2015). He’s another Cambridgite, had some early successes and is now struggling — his latest effort meant to mark his “return to form” has been savaged by one of the students we met in novella two who is now a well-regarded critic. Holly by this time has written a book about some of her paranormal experiences and the paths of the two cross at various book festivals. Again, Mitchell segues into some delightful writing about backbiting and outright back stabbing in the literary world which made this section highly readable.

I said Holly was the “physical” link in the books — this being the Mitchell of Cloud Atlas, there is also a paranormal, mystical one. In the first novella, a pre-teen Holly heard voices from “the radio people” and had some “precognitive” experiences (that’s what her own best-selling book is about). These other-worldly references become more prominent in the next three novellas and take over completely in novella five (2025). In this one, Holly gets hooked up with the Atemporal Horologists who wage a psychosoteric war with the Anchorites of the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar of the Thomasite Order of Sidelhorn Pass. I won’t even attempt to describe it.

Novella six (2043) returns to Holly, now in her seventies and living in a protected zone of Ireland — we are into serious post-apocalyptic, dystopian territory here as Mitchell ties up both the physical and paranormal threads.

I loved the first four novellas — Mitchell has an eye and a voice that acutely captures his version of reality. The final two were very much a stress — I have a deep aversion for “booga booga” novels and films (that is the phrase that Mrs. KfC and I apply when books or films head deep into paranormal, religious cult, mystical, dystopian turf). Having said that, I am quite aware that that is often where Mitchell chooses to head and I was hardly surprised. And I would have to admit that it is a tribute to his talents that I read through them with only a minimum of distaste as opposed to the loathing that I’d normally experience. And even those two sections had their bright moments, despite my negative bias.

As I said at the start, definitely some weaknesses for this reader — but the good parts were more than strong enough to offset them. I’d even rank The Bone Clocks above Cloud Atlas, which had been my favorite Mitchell up to this point.

Again, when I returned to these initial thoughts I found they held up very well. I usually include excerpts to indicate a writer’s style and tone — there are none here, because Mitchell uses a different version of voice in each of the six sections. And, for what it is worth, as much as I appreciated the eventual Booker winner (Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North), The Bone Clocks would have been my choice as the best of this year’s Booker offerings. With winter (and time for thoughtful reading) coming on, I would not hesitate to recommend it.

Kimbofo reviews The Ever After of Ashwin Rao

October 24, 2014

1aaa vasShadow Giller juror Kimbofo has posted her review of another Giller shortlisted novel, Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao. Here are the opening paragraphs to whet your interest, you can find the full review here.

Padma Viswanathan’s second novel, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. The Ashwin Rao of the title is an Indian psychologist who returns to Canada — where he trained — to do a “study of comparative grief”.

His subjects are the family members who survived a terrorist attack in which Air India flight 182 was bombed over the Atlantic en route from Montreal to Delhi, via London Heathrow, in 1985. More than 300 people were killed — mainly Canadian citizens — but the case was not brought to trial until 2004, the year in which the book is set.

Rao wants to find out how these people coped — “by what means did they go on?” — but his study is not exactly objective. He, too, lost family members in the tragedy — his sister and her two children — but he’s not always forthcoming about this, because he wants to keep his “professional distance”. But as the story progresses it becomes clear that in examining other people’s grief he is essentially exploring his own — even if he might not know it.

The novel, which spans summer 2004 to spring 2005, is structured around Rao’s interviews with survivors. Their individual stories — how their loved ones came to be on the flight, how they coped in the aftermath of the tragedy, what their lives have involved in the 18 years since — are “imagined” using a psychological technique Rao has been practising for his entire professional career.

The Betrayers, by David Bezmozgis

October 19, 2014

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

The notion of betrayal and how an act of betrayal effects everyone involved (not just the betrayer and the betrayed, but all those close to both) is ever-present in David Bezmozgis’ new novel.

The “action” of the novel may be confined to a single day but the streams of events (and there are a number) which have led to this climatic 24 hours extend back more than 40 years — and every one of those streams is put in motion by an act of betrayal.

The first took place in Moscow. Boris Kotler, a Jewish refusenik, was betrayed by his roommate, another refusenik who turned out to be a KGB informer, accusing Kotler of being a CIA plant. A show trial followed and Kotler spent 13 years in an assortment of Soviet prisons and labor camps.

Throughout those 13 years, his young wife, Miriam (who had received a coveted visa and emigrated to Israel a year previously), led an international campaign that never let Kotler’s fate escape attention. When that campaign eventually produced results, his own voyage to Israel came as a hero, arriving via a private jet, accompanied by prominent state authorities eager to be seen as contributing to the success of the campaign.

11shadow logoIn Israel, Kotler (now Baruch, not Boris) lived a life of success. At the time the novel opens, he is a minister in the cabinet (albeit representing a minor party in the coalition). His political future looks grim, however — he has both voted and spoken against the latest decision to destruct some West Bank settlements in the never-ending chess game of Israeli politics.

That was a highly-principled stand, but within hours recent acts of betrayal come back to haunt him. Baruch may be 70 but a year or so ago he betrayed Miriam (their relationship was never quite the same after his imprisonment) and took up with his assistant, Leora, who is decades younger. And in the rough and tumble world of Isaeli politics, it is only hours after his vote that a shadowy operator presents Baruch with pictures confirming the affair — if he does not change his stand, they will be forwarded to all the national newspapers.

Kotler’s act of betrayal is not to renounce his principles, although he does effectively desert them. Rather, it is to betray the entire world, career and family he has built as an Israeli hero and head to Yalta (where he remembers seaside holidays from his time as a child living in Moscow) with Leora — with no real plans beyond sharing the next few days with his young mistress. A symbol of the extent of his betrayal is that he chooses to introduce himself as Boris to the Russian woman at the bus station who is offering bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

If only for the purposes of reaching back in time, the use of his old name seemed appropriate. Not until he said it did he realize the extent to which simply identifying himself as Boris evoked a former self. A self very distinct from the man he had resolutely chosen to become. Boris. He might as well have said Borinka, the pet name his parents had used for him. His heart swelled at the ghostly sound of it in his head. And though he recognized that he was in a delicate frame of mind, still he was surprised by how vulnerable, how sentimental he had become. How easily and intensely he could be moved by his own thoughts and recollections.

Kotler’s idyllic, sexy escape lasts only a few hours. The very evening he arrives he is outside the decrepit residence where they are staying when he looks into the window — and sees that the husband of the woman who rented Baruch/Boris and Leora the room is one Tankilevich, the man who betrayed him to the KGB 40 years earlier.

As Bezmozgis develops that thread of the story, we learn that Tankilevich has been obsessed for the last 40 years with consequences of that betrayal — which from his point of view was not a betrayal but accepting the least worse choice given the pressure the KGB was applying. When they had no more use for him, he was given a new identity and a ticket to the Crimea to lose himself. He has kept up with Kotler’s fortunes over the years — while Kotler has experienced nothing but success, Tankilevich has been dealt nothing but failure. Indeed, his own current crisis is the threatened withdrawal of his only “income”, pitiful welfare payments from the local Jewish charity (based on yet again betraying his past but I’ll forego revealing those details).

It is important to note that while those events and threads provide the structure of the novel, the author is most interested in what produces betrayal and what its consequences are; he does this mainly through conversations between the characters. Kotler and Tankilevich have a number, not just about what happened 40 years ago, but what has happened since, including the last few days. Leola and Tankilevich’s wife Svetlana also have a couple — both defending their male partner while indirectly revealing the price that each has paid for his betrayals.

And there is a lengthy email letter from Miriam which pretty much goes through her experience of the whole 40 years, leading up to the pain of the last few days. By the time it takes place in the novel, the reader already knows Kotler’s version — Miriam’s letter is the viewpoint of an innocent (and aggrieved) partner in his betrayals.

Those who have read Bezmozgis’ first novel, The Free World (which impressed the Shadow Jury enough that it was our choice for the 2011 prize), will recognize that many of these elements of conflict between principle and situational morality for Jewish Russian emigres were present in that book. There is a key difference between The Betrayers and that novel however — while The Free World was more about how characters “used” (and sometimes paid for) those choices, The Betrayers is much more of a metaphysical look at the idea of betrayal, how the choice to betray is made and the cascade of consequences that follow.

I will confess to liking The Free World more than I liked this one, mainly because of the way that the author located his characters in the unfamiliar émigré world around them and the coping strategies they needed to develop to survive. This novel is a much more introspective book — while we are told what Kotler and Tankilevich were and have become, Bezmozgis is more interested in exploring the idea of betrayal than he is in fully developing the different worlds that the two lived in. While he certainly succeeds in doing that, he also succeeded in reminding me that I appreciate books that portray external context and conflict more than I do ones that focus on their internal versions.

2014 Booker Prize winner

October 15, 2014

2014 flanaganAustralian Richard Flanagan has won the 2014 Booker Prize with The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a dramatic novel centred on the experiences of the Australian prisoners of war who built the Siam to Burma railway under the cruel supervision of their Japanese captors.

While I think this year’s Booker Jury made some mistakes along the way (mainly with their choices of the first American authors to make the longlist and then leaving some very good books off the shortlist), I’d have to say they got it right in the end. I had some reservations about The Narrow Road to the Deep North, as you can read in my review, but it certainly would have been my choice from the official shortlist. And I would have had a hard time choosing between it and David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks (I promise I will get a review up soon) as my favorite Booker eligible title this year.

A final note: I think there is some irony present in an Australian win. As you can see from comments on my post when the longlist was announced, some of us were concerned that opening up the Booker to American authors was bad news for Commonwealth writers. Usually, the longlist features two or more — Flanagan was the only one represented this year, while there were four Americans in the 13 longlisted titles. I’m sure some of my fellow Commonwealth types will be joining me in cheering at the final outcome.

booker logoDespite that positive note, I continue to feel that the Booker is stumbling around, searching for a new identity. I only read seven of the 13 longlisted titles (and three of the six on the shortlist) this year — most of the rest failed to spark my interest, although I may try to get to a couple of them (such as Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others) over the winter. And I can’t help but notice that debate around the Booker, not just here but elsewhere on the web, has declined dramatically in the last few years. As one who has been following the Prize for decades now, I am eager for it to get back on track.

Moving Forward Sideways Like A Crab, by Shani Mootoo

October 13, 2014

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Shani Mootoo has featured on this blog before: an enthusiastic review of the 2009 Giller-longlisted Valmiki’s Daughter. In that one, Mootoo — born in Ireland, raised in Trinidad, resident of Canada for some while — focused on an upper-class Trinidadian family, the father a doctor struggling with his homosexuality, a daughter effectively flaunting her lesbianism against local convention and the arrival back in Trinidad of a family acquaintance and his “best-friend” wife who have made good in North America.

Given that, let’s consider the main elements of Moving Forwards Sideways Like A Crab:

  • Jonathan Lewis-Abbey is heading to Trinidad from Toronto. The mother he knew as “Sid” (not his biological mother, but her partner) for the first nine years of his life has been “Sydney” for the last 30. After decades of missing his “mother”, Jonathan found Syd about ten years back and has visited frequently since — this trip is taking place because Syd is dying and wants Jonathan there to impart some last messages.
  • Sydney mainly wants Jonathan there so he can explain why he left their Toronto home without warning, why he opted for a surgical sex change and why he needed to come “home” to Trinidad after his North American experience.
  • An important part of that is Sydney’s need to return to his own coming-out experience, his friendship in school days with Zain that evolved into a lover’s obsession, Zain’s return of that friendship even after she married and became a mother of two and a harmless, but compromising, incident involving Sid and Zain that Syd believes led to her murder.
  • 11shadow logoThose bullet points are the background of the plot — Moving Sideways Like A Crab is set in the present tense so all of that comes from back stories which form the bulk of the novel. After a few “here is what really happened” exchanges with Jonathan, Syd dies and the Toronto son is left as the key family member to look after the mourning and cremation. Syd has not just left a final few verbal stories, he has also left letters and journals that Jonathan digs into, trying to understand how his mother “Sid” became his generational parent “Sydney”.

    A prologue from one of Sydney’s notebooks outlines the challenge that he feels he is facing in setting all this in motion as his death approaches:

    In the end, I hope that Jonathan will understand why, after coming to Canada in search of some sort of authenticity, after living in Toronto for more than three decades, I returned home — I returned, that is, to live again in Trinidad. But how do I explain it so that he doesn’t think I ran away, gave up, failed?

    One more chance is all I ask for. But time is against me, and there is so much to tell.

    Contrast that with the following excerpt from Jonathan (Moving Forward Sideways Like A Crab is structured as a memoir from him, although it frequently digresses into Sydney’s notebooks and straightforward narrative) as his plane is about to land in Trinidad. This flight is taking place only two months after his last visit — Sydney’s looming death has changed all schedules.

    It amuses me how the instant the fasten-seatbelts sign is turned off during the flight from Toronto to Port of Spain, Trinidadians get up and strut about. They seem to know one another; they congregate in the aisles unabashedly airing their business, telling jokes, heckling each other or reminiscing. Their anticipation is palpable. Some begin the journey as strangers, but through conversations struck up in the interminable lineups at the airport or during the five-hour flight itself, they inevitably learn that they know someone in common or are even related. I have always envied their ease and willing camaraderie, and having been to their island numerous times over the past decade, have often wanted to contribute my penny’s worth; but discretion — on account of being just a visitor to the island — has prevailed.

    (A digression, which won’t make sense to anybody but Canadian visitors here, but I suspect will strike a bell with many of that group: I was totally taken with that paragraph from a purely Canadian perspective. I’m not a Nova Scotian, but I have flown into and out of Halifax many times — on every flight, it seemed to me that it took less than an hour for the three people in the row behind me to discover a common friend (or enemy) and, more than once, a relative. That is a sense of community that not much of the world gets to experience.)

    I have chosen those excerpts quite deliberately to illustrate the high expectations that Mootoo’s opening pages produced for me. On the one hand, a dying individual struggling to explain (perhaps even justify?) her/his past decisions. And on the other a “traveller” — certainly a knowledgable one, but someone who realizes he is entering a culture that he may know but is not part of.

    That promised a lot, particularly given my enthusiasm for Valmiki’s Daughter with its similar elements. Unfortunately, I have to report that, for this reader at least, Moving Forward Sideways Like A Crab does not deliver on the promise.

    Much of the narrative of the novel revolves around Jonathan trying to come to terms with why Sid did what she did to become Sydney. While I can certainly appreciate that that is a compelling topic for some readers, I think for most it is a case of “looking at” rather than “being part of”. And I am afraid that Jonathan, as he proceeds along this final path of life with Sid/Sydney, shrinks, rather than grows, in interest.

    And while Trinidad is always part of the story (indeed, part of my problem is that Toronto and lives there — both Sid/Syd’s and Jonathan’s — never get addressed by the author), it does not becomes three-dimensional — local custom and behavior are never investigated beyond how they played with the high-school Sid, the dying Sydney or his funeral rites. As I read the novel, I frequently found it comparing not well with Sam Selvon’s final Moses novel.

    Shani Mootoo is a very talented writer — and I salute her attempts to produce books that include conflicts of immigration with its challenging attitudes and circumstances, the difficulty of dealing with both old and new cultures and, perhaps most pressingly, sexuality. For this reader, it worked very well in Valmiki’s Daughter — this novel falls well short of that mark. I certainly do not fault the Giller Jury for including this on the longlist; neither do I dispute their decision not to advance it.

    2014 Giller Prize shortlist

    October 6, 2014

    11shadow logo

    The Giller Prize shortlist was announced this morning:

    The Betrayers, by David Bezmozgis

    Tell, by Francis Itani

    Us Conductors, by Sean Michaels

    The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, by Heather O’Neill

    All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews

    The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, by Padma Viswanathan

    I have read three — you can find a review of Us Conductors here and Tell here. As I said when the longlist was announced, I was so disappointed with All My Puny Sorrows that I decided not to review it when I read it in the spring — I will be giving it another read to see if I missed something the first time around.

    My fellow Shadow Jurors don’t really get started until now, but there are a couple of reviews already up. Kim’s review of The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is here and you can find another review of Us Conductors on Trevor’s site here.

    I have read three other books from the longlist: Shani Mootoo’s Moving Forward Sideways Like A Crab, Claire Holden Rothman’s My October and Rivka Galchen’s story collection American Innovations. I’ll be posting reviews of all three in the next couple weeks — for now, I’ll just say that while I am happy to have read them I have no quarrel with leaving any of the three off the short list.

    My planned reading order for the three I have not yet read will be Bezmozgis, O’Neill and finally Viswanathan. I’ll post reviews shortly after finishing each and should have them up well before the Nov. 10 Prize announcement. I’ll also do my best to get to the three longlisted books I have yet to read that did not make the shortlist.

    As usual, your thoughts on the list and the books you have read are more than welcome.

    Tell, by Frances Itani

    October 4, 2014

    Purchased at Indigo.ca

    Purchased at Indigo.ca

    It is November, 1919 and the town of Deseronto, Ontario on the Bay of Quinte at the eastern end of Lake Ontario has just held its first Remembrance Day ceremony “to thank Desoronto’s red-blooded manhood for its sacrifices, its heroism and its gallantry on the far-flung battlefield”.

    Kenan Oak is one of those being honored, but he has not attended the ceremony. Indeed, since returning from the war as one of the “walking wounded”, Kenan has not left the house he shares with wife Tress, save to occasionally sit on the veranda and contemplate the bay. Kenan was witness to the devastating gas attacks that both killed and permanently damaged soldiers, but that is not what ended his war. Rather, it was an explosion that left him with a useless arm, a blind left eye and a badly-scarred face.

    He may be a recluse, but without being consciously deliberate about it he has mapped his own plan for recovery and re-entry into the real world. He does receive a few family visitors at home, most importantly his Uncle Am who has managed to find Kenan employment as a home-based bookkeeper for the local pharmacist. And he is beginning to explore and expand the limits of his restricted mobility — his legs are fine but, one-armed, one-eyed and mentally shaken, Kenan is very careful about just what risks he is willing to take.

    He was in the parlour now, the soles of his shoes pacing a thin carpet Tress had laid over the floor. He took no step for granted; each was slow and considered. Feet could be swallowed by bottomless holes. Had he not watched men his own age swallowed by sinkholes? He had. He carried on, reached out with right hand, right arm. He felt for familiar objects as he began to trace a known sequence through his narrow house.

    He did this only when Tress was out, only when he was certain that she would be away for hours, working in the dining room of her parents’ hotel at the other end of Main Street. If she were to witness the treks he made through the house with his good eye closed, she would think he was crazed by war. No, that was unfair. Tress wanted to bring him back from the darkness that held him down. She had not given up, nor was she likely to. Or so he told himself.

    That excerpt comes from the opening chapter of Tell and, after the author has briefly ventured into explanations of Kenan’s history as a youth and his war experience, the young man ventures from the house for the first time since returning from the war. He wants no part of meeting people, so he turns away from town and follows a path he remembers well from his youth (“Kenan knew every rock, root and shrub”). The excursion is one of what will be a series of tipping points that frame his hopes for recovery.

    On that initial excursion, Kenan avoids contact with anyone else, but he has been observed — by his Uncle Am, who is sitting in his retreat at the top of the clock tower in the three-storey post office building where he is superintendent, handyman and resident (he and his wife Maggie live in the third floor apartment of the building).

    So. The boy was finally out in the open. First time since he’d come home from the war. Am still thought of him as a boy. Kenan was in his mid-twenties compared to Am’s fiftieth birthday coming up. Because Am was related — his niece Tress had married Kenan just before the war — he was one of the few permitted to visit after the boy had returned home.

    Kenan had never objected to Am’s presence. During the early months, Kenan hadn’t spoken at all. The two men sat in the glassed-in back veranda, often on a Sunday afternoon, side by side in wicker chairs arranged to face the bay. The silence was not uncomfortable. When Am spoke, it was to talk about boats on the water, who owned which, who drifted over from Napanee, who was out on a Sunday excursion, who had caught the biggest walleye or bullhead that week, who was unlucky enough to be bailing water from a leaky-bottomed boat.

    A few posts back, in a review of Niall Williams’ History of the Rain, I described it as an “Irish village” novel in the tradition of authors like John McGahern, Colm Toibin and others. Tell is very much a Canadian version of the genre, although with a distinct difference from most other Canadian examples — there is no harsh climate or brutal nature in this novel, just a collection of ordinary people trying to deal with life, even if they have been touched by extraordinary events like war. Author Itani highlights that “village” character by including news briefs from the Deseronto Post as one-page chapter breaks.

    Her story unfolds with slow deliberation but eventually evolves into two parallel (but contrasting) narratives.

    The first is that of Kenan and Tress, dealt that cruel blow of wartime injury but both in their own way determined to somehow build a new life together. The progress they make comes tentatively, but it is still touching.

    The second thread, which becomes more prominent as the novel unfolds, is the story of Am and Maggie. If the war has suddenly altered the young couple’s life together, Am and Maggie’s relationship is one that has been withering over the years through boredom and ennui. The two have pretty much stopped talking to each other, except for commonplace daily exchanges. While Am retreats to his clock tower aerie, Maggie has found a revived life in a new friend, Zel, and her participation in the village choral society. Maggie has always had a musical bent — the newly-arrived choral society director Lukas (himself a different kind of war refugee) has decided that she will feature as a soloist in the village choral concert. A quiet, withdrawn woman, Maggie has never before faced that kind of public attention.

    The challenge with “village” novels, be they Irish or Canadian, is maintaining reader interest, given that almost by definition not much happens in a rural village. Authors need to turn ordinary people into three-dimensional characters because it is the people, not events, who are the heart of the book.

    For this reader, Itani succeeded superbly in delivering on that challenge. Kenan, Tress, Am and Maggie all come fully to life — as do their relationships as couples, the way the four relate to each other and the roles they each play in the community where they live. As the novel proceeded, I felt more and more a part of the Deseronto community where these four live.

    As I noted earlier, Tell is different from most “Canadian village” novels because Mother Nature in this book is a tame, far from hostile, creature — indeed, her major contribution here is freezing the bay so the town can shovel off a skating rink that serves as the central social gathering point for the winter. Any Canadian who grew up skating on the frozen local pond (as I did) will find those passages taking them back to their own childhood.

    I have not been as keen as others on Itani’s previous works (Deafening attracted much critical praise, but fell flat with me) but I salute the Real Giller Jury for including this one on the longlist because without that recognition I probably would have skipped it. I suspect it is too delicate and fragile to be the Prize winner, but I would be quite happy to see it advance to the short list. In the final analysis, it is an engaging and heart-warming read — the characters may be “ordinary” in both their strengths and flaws, but they are creations whom I am delighted to have met.

    Kimbofo reviews Paradise & Elsewhere, by Kathy Page

    October 1, 2014

    1aaa pageKathy Page’s Paradise & Elsewhere is one of two short story collections on the 2014 Giller Prize longlist — I am currently at the halfway mark in Rivka Galchen’s American Innovations which is the other. Here are the opening paragraphs of Kimbofo’s review of Paradise & Elsewhere; you can find the full review here:

    Kathy Page’s extraordinary short story collection Paradise & Elsewhere has been long listed for this year’s Giller Prize. I say “extraordinary” because it’s the best word I could come up with to describe the book in its entirety. Each of the 14 stories within it are magical little portholes into other worlds, or, as the author puts it herself (in the Acknowledgements), “explorations into the hinterland between realism and myth”.

    Indeed, reading many of these stories is a slightly dislocating experience. That’s because the places in which Page sets them feel real and recognisable — deserts, rural communities, suburbia, to name but a few — and yet somewhere at the mid-way point of each story, or near the end, she drops in a little detail that makes you realise these are not places you’ve ever been — or are likely to want to visit.

    Some are set now, others in the future after an unexplained and presumably catastrophic event has changed civilisation in subtle but oh-so important ways.

    There’s definitely an undercurrent of menace in many of these tales. People are never to be taken on face value, never to be trusted, because underneath they’ve all got their own private, self-interested agendas. Many characters are manipulative, dark and dangerous. Others are weak and naive -— and are always taken advantage of.

    This all adds up to some pretty edgy and deeply disturbing short stories, I must say, but Page reigns it in beautifully. There’s no pyrotechnics or melodrama, although the climax of each story is often surprising or unexpected. The writing is restrained throughout; there’s almost a journalistic quality to it and I was often reminded of the very best kind of travel reportage that not only transports you to foreign climes but describes the culture, the food, the people and tries to put it into context.

    Some tales also read as fables — not dull, overly simplistic, fables, but ones with dark moral messages at the core reminiscent of British writer Magnus Mills.

    Kimbofo reviews The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, by Heather O’Neill

    September 26, 2014

    1aaa oneillThe 2014 Shadow Giller review season is under way — and Kimbofo has beaten me to the punch with a review of The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, by Heather O’Neill. It is O’Neill’s second novel, Kimbofo had liked her first (Lullabies for Little Criminals) and had this one on hand when the longlist was announced.

    Here are the opening paragraphs from Kim’s review — you can read the entire review at her newly redesigned website here:

    The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is set in the bohemian quarter of Montreal during the 1995 Referendum. The story is told through the eyes of 19-year-old Nouschka Tremblay, whose life changes dramatically over the course of the novel: she begins night school, leaves home, marries a schizophrenic and falls pregnant. She also — rather unexpectedly — meets her long-lost mother for the first time since she was a little girl.

    It is, essentially, a coming-of-age tale, but it’s not your usual run-of-the-mill one. For a start, Nouschka has an unbreakable bond with her twin brother, Nicolas, whom she loves and loathes in equal measure. The pair still live at home with the elderly grandfather, Loulou, who raised them. They even share a bed (aged 19, remember), but have spectacular yelling matches and physical punch-ups, often in public view.

    “The thing is that Nicolas and I were afraid to be without each other. And whenever you are dependent on someone, then you naturally start to resent them. Everybody is born with an inkling, a desire to be free.”

    And that desire to be free is one of the key themes of this novel: Nouschka craves it, but is also terrified by it. Despite being raised in a relatively Bohemian household and working a full-time job (in a magazine shop since leaving school aged 16), she hasn’t really grown up and is very much repressed by her father’s fame.

    Her father, Etienne Tremblay, was a famous Québécois folk singer in the early 1970s with a knack for writing witty songs (apparently their humour made up for his inability to keep a tune). He took Nouschka and Nicolas on stage and television chat shows with him all the time and made them “wave wildly at the audience and blow kisses and say adorable things that he’d written”. Now, 15 years later, the twins are still recognised on the street, which keeps them unwittingly trapped in roles they should have long grown out of.

    I promise that I will be in action soon, with a review of Frances Itani’s Tell — I have one or two previously read books to review and then my own 2014 Giller season will be in full swing.

    Orfeo, by Richard Powers

    September 22, 2014

    Purchased at Indigo.ca

    Purchased at Indigo.ca

    A lot of readers whom I respect have nothing but good to say about Orfeo. It received very positive reviews in the professional press. Just last week, it was named to the National Book Award longlist. Earlier, it was one of the first four novels by U.S. authors to be named to the Booker Prize longlist, although it failed to make the shortlist. And at Trevor’s Booker forum, five of the 10 people who read it at the longlist stage ranked it best overall.

    I’ll cut right to the chase and admit that I am an outlier on this one. For this reader, Orfeo was difficult, disappointing and unrewarding — it was a real chore getting to the finish.

    Powers introduces us to the book’s central character, Peter Els, in his home microbiology lab, “clad in mufti, protective goggles, and latex hospital gloves”, where he is engaged in his project to alter and reconstruct DNA:

    No one thinks twice about the quiet, older bohemian in the American Craftsman at 806 South Linden. The man is retired, and people take up all kinds of hobbies in retirement. They visit the birthplaces of Civil War generals. They practice the euphonium. They learn the tai chi or collect Petoskey stones or photograph rock formations in the shape of human faces.

    But Peter Els wants only one thing before he dies: to break free of time and hear the future. He’s never wanted anything else. And late in the evening, in this perversely fine spring, wanting that seems at least as reasonable as wanting anything.

    That quiet retirement is about to change dramatically. Peter’s dog, Fidelio, has just died. Obviously in the early stages of dementia, Els has called 911 — even though all he wants to do is bury his faithful companion wrapped in a treasured quilt in the back yard. While the EMTs tell him to call Animal Care and Control, they also take quiet note of the lab paraphernalia and pass those observations along to Homeland Security authorities.

    booker logoEls is an adjunct professor at Verrata College, an avant-garde composer who still teaches a music appreciation course at a nearby senior citizen’s residence. It is while there that he hears his house has been surrounded by police and yellow tape, invaded by haz-mat-suited scene of crime officers determined to find out just what kind of terrorist science is going on here.

    In fact, Els has just been pursuing a lifelong interest in the inextricable links between the roots of music and science. Rather than returning home to explain that, he chooses to take flight — one can’t help but think that dementia is having its way with him again.

    Okay, that premise had promise, particularly in the way that Powers develops some of the background. One of the reasons that Els loved Fidelio so much was that “music launched her into ecstasies…when any human sustained a pitch for more than a heartbeat, she couldn’t help joining in.” For Els, music (and chemistry for that matter) isn’t something that is “composed” it is just “there”, waiting to be discovered. And we return to the young Peter, who even at age eight was equally fascinated by his clarinet and chemistry set.

    While the investigation of Els and his flight will remain a constant backdrop in the novel, Powers soon reduces it to a secondary role. Els’ decision to flee is accompanied by a kaleidoscopic return to his past and how he has come to where he is — and it is the process of that where the author’s real interest lies. And while along the way we meet some worthwhile secondary characters in his wife and best friend (a musical director, rather than composer) from college, they too are only supporting factors in the novelist’s over-riding story.

    Unfortunately for this reader, much of that is expressed in pages long explorations of avant garde classical music and the deeper meaning of its attachment to events. I am paraphrasing but Els comes from a school that feels that “beautiful” music is a trite travesty — they want atonal (you can insert other adjectives here — I love music, but I come from the beautiful is just fine school) compositions that disturb, not comfort, listeners. And for what it is worth, I like to make up my own mind about what music (or art for that matter) has to say rather than assuming there is some complex version of reality behind it that I have to discover.

    Powers’ first excursion into a lengthy explanation linking music with harsh reality, how Messaien came to compose Quartet for the End of Time when he was a prisoner of war, initially sparked some interest on my part — but halfway through I was unconvinced and finding it a dreadful slog. Alas, that was merely a sign of more to come — we go through similar excursions into Els’ youthful compositions, a John Cage experience while at college and an opera that he was commissioned (highly improbably, since he is unknown with no established record) to compose for the New York City Opera.

    Those who have an affinity for avant garde music undoubtedly might find something in these passages. I am afraid my response was much like that of his separated wife (who is one of the people he seeks out in his flight). While she was initially impressed and interested in his search for music, his failure to find anything eventually caused her to urge him to take up a real life — and when he didn’t, she took off with his daughter in tow.

    Powers also indulges in some digressions into the relationship between music and chemistry (the search for a mathematical formula that results in both) which I found equally unrewarding. Again, as the reviews and response from other readers show, that negative response may well say more about me that it does about the novel.

    If your response to all this is “well, KfC just wasn’t up to this one”, I’ll have to admit you may well be right. I did finish Orfeo, but after the opening quarter, it was an exercise in frustration.


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