2014 — KfC’s 10 best

December 15, 2014

I will be the first to admit it: the KfC blog had a lot of downtime in 2014 as distractions, diversions and domestic disturbances (it is amazing what the impact of fixing a collapsed, 100-year-old sewage pipe can have on one’s reading and writing) diverted me from dedicated discussion of books. And, let’s face it, a lack of discipline from the blogger reduced both the number of books read and reviews produced. I pledge to do better in 2015.

Still, I read more than enough books to produce what I feel is a worthy Ten Best list. They are listed in the order that I read them — click on the title to go back to the full review.

2014 roy The Tin Flute, by Gabrielle Roy. This novel, along with Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes, another exploration of French-English tensions in Quebec, was part of my 2013 project to revisit Canadian authors whom I had read in my youth. Rereading Roy’s novel did not disappoint — indeed, it was even better than when I first read it. Her story of the Lacasse family in post-Depression Montreal is heart-warming at one end, tear-inducing at the other. MacLennan’s novel may be a better example of the macro aspect of the English-French conflict in mid-20th century Montreal — The Tin Flute decisively and sympathetically explores the human cost it imposes on one family.

2014 collins The Burial, by Courtney Collins. Australian author Courtney Collins’ novel started out with two major strikes against it for me — a hackneyed prologue about an Houdini appearance in Melbourne that serves as the novel’s over-arching metaphor and the introduction of a deceased infant narrative voice, normally a killer when it comes to KfC prejudices. Collins recovered quickly — we soon meet her heroine Jessie Hickman and I was quickly engaged in her story of “escape” (you can’t quite get away from the Houdini metaphor) from brutal experiences. I have a deep affection for North American “frontier” novels; The Burial is an excellent illustration that Australians can produce equally good ones.

2014 marai Embers, by Sandor Marai. I don’t read nearly as much translated fiction as some bloggers do, but that doesn’t mean that every year’s top 10 list seems to feature at least one example. Embers was first published in 1942 — it has been a well-read classic ever since and, like a good wine (it is one of those “dinner-based” novels), it has improved with age. The book opens with “the General” instructing his servant to prepare the landau to go and fetch “the Captain” from his lodgings in a nearby town. As the book unfolds we experience the chilling story of their history — we slowly learn what it was that fueled the “embers” which are all that remains of their current relationship.

Us Conductors, by Sean Michaels. Us Conductors was the Shadow Giller Jury’s choice for 2014 — it is safe to say we were as stunned as anyone else when the Real Jury agreed with our selection. It is the fictionalized biography of Lev Termen, a Russian scientist and inventor, who invented and promoted the theremin, an electronic instrument that opened the field of synthesized music which we hear so often today. Termen’s initiative was promising enough that his Soviet masters sent him to America — under the umbrella of promoting the theremin, his minder conducted assorted spying initiatives. They did not work out well and, of course, Lev was blamed. His later time in the Gulag is the least attractive part of the book — author Michaels saves it with a delightful, if somewhat absurd, conclusion where Lev applies his inventing talents to spying on Moscow-based U.S. diplomats. An excellent read, one that I think compares favorably with Jean Echenoz’s equally inventive fictionalized biographies (Tesla, Ravel, and Zatopeck) which you can also find reviewed on this site.

2014 miller The Tivington Nott, by Alex Miller. Alex Miller is another Australian author who frequently visits the “frontier” story, but this one is set in England, based on his own experiences as a stock boy there before he left for Australia. The “nott” of the book’s title is a stag without antlers — the story is about a crew of Devon and Somerset “hunters” who are obsessed with tracking it down. Miller succeeds in making all of them (not the least himself, the stock boy) fully developed characters who have their own charms and failings. I think Miller is one of the most under-recognized authors writing in English (I am reading his entire catalogue at the rate of one a year) — The Tivington Nott is an excellent example of his strengths.

2014 zentner The Lobster Kings, by Alexi Zentner. I am pretty much out of step with the rest of the Canadian literary community and bloggers in my admiration for this one — reviews were not impressive and it failed to make any Canadian prize list. The Kings are a lobster-fishing family who have pretty much run Loosewood Island off the coast of New Brunswick and Maine for almost 300 years. In the current time of the novel, they are facing challenges from both poachers and drug runners — and that produces some disastrous consequences. Okay, some of the plot developments are entirely too predictable and verge on the hackneyed, but I found that Zentner produced a cast of characters who came fully to life in a different kind of “frontier” story.

2014 hustvedt The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt. The Blazing World makes a surprise appearance here — I would not have read it were it not one of the first American-written novels longlist for the Booker Prize and if you visit my review you will find that I was ambivalent about it at that time. It has improved in memory. It is the story of Harriet Burden, the widow of a prominent New York dealer who feels her own artistic abilities are overlooked and sets out on a series of interesting ruses to prove her point. While that central theme carries the book, Hustvedt (the spouse of Paul Auster) shares her husband’s interest in producing novels that have a wealth of story lines — some of them didn’t work for me when I first read The Blazing World but they have bloomed with life in the months since.

2014 flanagan The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan. This year’s Booker Prize winner was another novel that had its flaws for me, but those have receded over time and the exceptionally powerful middle section of the book has become even more impressive. Dorrigo Evan is a Tasmanian who is one of the Australian prisoners-of-war who are ruthlessly used by the Japanese to build the Siam to Burma railway — he survives the experience and becomes a national hero, even though he is a deeply flawed individual. I still wish that Flanagan had spent more effort in developing those flaws in the post-war period — I can’t fault the Booker jury for acknowledging how well he captured the horrors of the POW experience.

2014 mitchell The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell. This one is a collection of six connected novellas, centred around the character of Holly Sykes. We meet her first as a 15-year-old in Gravesend, are told some of her early paranormal experiences and are introduced to a number of characters who will show up in later sections. As in other Mitchell novels (think Cloud Atlas or Ghostwritten), succeeding sections move on to Cambridge, the Swiss Alps and the global author promotion world, before the author heads off into resolving the paranormal issue (my least favorite of the sections) and then concludes with a post-apocalyptic section set mainly in Ireland. I prefer Mitchell’s penetrating analysis of current conditions (he is a brilliant satirist) to his “bigger” themes — for my money The Bone Clocks has plenty of both.

Tell, by Frances Itani. Set in the small town of Desoronto, Ontario in 1919, this novel is an exploration of the trials and tensions in a post Great War community, far removed from the conflict itself. Kenan Oak has returned from the war badly damaged (his entire left side pretty much useless) and he and his wife Tress are struggling to re-establish their relationship. What made the novel work for me is the way that their story is contrasted with that of his Uncle Am and his wife — in a way similar to The Tin Flute, Tell is the exploration of a community and its values and the way the “ordinary” experience the waves of “great” events.

The 2014 Real Giller Prize winner is…

November 10, 2014

The Real Giller jury actually agreed with the Shadow Giller jury — what more can I say?

Then again, they read all the books and we read all the shortlist, so maybe the decision(s) shouldn’t be such a surprise — although I certainly was when I heard the announcement.

Keep scrolling to discovery how the Shadow Jury reached its decision. And you will find links to both Kimbofo and my reviews of Us Conductors.

The 2014 Shadow Giller Prize winner is…

November 9, 2014

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2014 michaels

…Sean Michaels, for Us Conductors.

Before offering some thoughts on the (surprise) winner, allow me to digress briefly on this year’s deliberations. Alison Gzowski, a Shadow Jury veteran of more than 10 years, prefaced her original vote submission with the following: “I have to say this was the toughest Shadow Giller yet. There is no standout, I have not been impressed by the list and not sure of my opinion as reading one book hit close to home.” I think the other three of us would agree with that sentiment: this year’s list was characterized by good (perhaps even very good) but not great books, all of which had their flaws as well as strengths. And given that there was no obvious standout (as The Orenda was last year), the way that finalist books hit a particular personal chord (or prejudice) influenced every juror.

In fact, after two rounds of voting, we came down to a virtual tie between Us Conductors and Frances Itani’s Tell — Kimbofo’s enthusiastic support for Sean Michaels’ book and the fact that it is his debut were enough to lead me as chair to suggest we give it the nod.

Us Conductors is a fictionalized biography of the Russian engineer and physicist Lev Termen, inventor of (among many other things) the theremin, which is sort of a precursor of the Moog synthesizer. The first section of the book takes place in upscale New York — Termen is promoting his instrument from a suite at the Plaza, with concerts at Carnegie Hall. Things start to go downhill (more from hopeless financial mismanagement than anything else) and the naïve scientist slips into a role as a spy. That leads to section two of the novel: Termen’s spell in the gulag, since his spying career was hardly stellar and he is a convenient scapegoat. And finally, section three takes place in Moscow — he is still a prisoner, but now he is back to being an inventing scientist as well.

You can read Kimbofo’s recently posted review in full here — this is how she concludes it:

At times [Lev] seems alarmingly trusting — for instance, he leaves all his business decisions to a man he knows little about and then seems unfazed when he’s barely got a dime to rub together. But just when you have Leon pegged as being a passive character, he does something completely left of field (I can’t reveal it here, because it’s a bit of a plot spoiler) and you realise you should never under-estimate him.

This is what makes Us Conductors such an intriguing read. But it’s also an intriguing read because it’s so ambitious in scope and theme. It’s a story about music, invention, emigration, science, love, espionage, money, fame, crime and punishment. It’s part New York novel, part prison memoir, part espionage tale, part romance. But, most of all, it’s epic, life-affirming — and fun.

I’d say that is a fair summary of what the rest of us thought, perhaps a bit more enthusiastic. As Trevor said “it has its ups and downs” and I concluded my review of it last spring (you can find the full version here) with:

I’d like to quote Michaels’ “Author’s Note and Acknowledgements” as an indication of the spirit of the novel. While it is based on known facts about Termen’s life, “it is full of distortions, elisions, omission, and lies”. In the real life, the author saw the elements of a good story — and at least in the first half, he certainly delivered on it.

As usual, the Shadow Giller Jury wishes to be totally transparent in how it reached its conclusions. As chair, I followed the same approach that we had used in the past three years, giving each juror 100 points to spread among the six shortlist titles. Here is what that produced:

Kim: Michaels 38, Itani 26, Bezmozgis 11, O’Neill 10, Toews 9, Viswanathan 5
Alison: Bezmozgis 32, Toews 32, Michaels 15, Itani 11, O’Neill 5, Viswanathan 5
Trevor: Itani 24, Bezmozgis 20, O’Neill 18, Michaels 17, Toews 16, Viswanathan 5
Kevin: Itani 28, Michaels 26, Bezmozgis 19, O’Neill 13, Viswanathan 9, Toews 5

Total: Michaels 96, Itani 89, Bezmozgis 82, Toews 62, O’Neill 46, Viswanathan 24

As you can see, we were spread all over in our opinions of the best book — O’Neill and Viswanathan had no support, but all the other four did.

(A brief aside on Miriam Toews All My Puny Sorrows. I have confessed to not liking it at all — it is a book about suicide with the central story being one sister’s struggle with how to help her sibling successfully kill herself when she has failed many times before. As is well known in the Canadian publishing community, it is a fictionalized account of the author’s own recent experiences. Toews is an engaging, popular person in that community and I suspect that has influenced the critical response. The book obviously succeeds for some people (see Alison’s total). For the other three of us — who are primarily readers rather than members of the literary community — it was far less impressive).

We headed into a second ballot — this time I asked that 100 points be spread between Michaels, Itani and Bezmozgis. Alas, Alison was on a board retreat and out of touch (for an organization founded by her father, the Peter Gzowski Invitational golf tournaments which raise more than $1 million a year for literary organizations in Canada — so she was very much present in spirit), so this one only had three jurors voting. The results:

Trevor: Itani 36, Michaels 32, Bezmozgis 32
Kim: Michaels 50, Itani 40, Bezmozgis 10
Kevin: Itani 40, Michaels 34, Bezmozgis 26

All three of us agreed that we would be happy with any of the three as a winner — I explained above how it came to be Michaels.

Given that even in that second ballot Itani’s Tell was the favorite of two of us, it hardly seems fair to end this year’s Shadow Jury deliberations without some acknowledgement of it. In my review, I called it a Canadian version of the “Irish village” novel — the story involves two couples, each with there own set of difficulties, in a small Ontario town in the aftermath of the Great War. Here is what Trevor had to say about it when he submitted his vote:

I was not anxious to read this book when I read about its plot. War novels are dime a dozen, and this year I received dozens of World War I books in the mail. There are masterpieces out there, but I unfortunately tend to refuse the books the benefit of the doubt. I was shocked at how much this book suited my desire for an introspective look at community. I loved the writing itself — slow, detailed, delicate — as it grew increasingly complex. And I’m a freak for small-towns!

As he notes, it has been a big year for Great War novels and for many readers (you can include me) that has produced some “war fiction fatigue”. Rest assured, Tell is a very good novel that is worth the read: you can find Kim’s review here and KfC’s here.

Our congratulations to Sean Michaels — Us Conductors was a most rewarding read for all of us. And now, the Shadow Jury will sit back and await the Real Jury’s decision. For what it is worth, we are not expecting them to agree with us — our prediction is that Miriam Toews will be picking up the $100,000 cheque tomorrow night. (The Globe and Mail this Saturday reported on a poll of 30 “industry” people and their predictions of the winner: Toews 19, Bezmozgis 4, Itani 3, O’Neill 2, Viswanathan 2, Michaels 0. Obviously, the Shadow Giller readers are out of touch with the industry consensus.)

Finally, I realize that my reading has run ahead of my reviewing and three of the shortlist (All My Puny Sorrows, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night and The Ever After of Ashwin Rao) have not yet been reviewed here. They should be up within the next two weeks.

Kimbofo reviews The Betrayers

November 4, 2014

1aaa bezmogis Kimbofo and I are both trying to get as many Giller shortlist reviews posted as possible before next Monday’s Gala and prize announcement — and she is doing a better job than KfC is. Here are the opening paragraphs to her review of David Bezmozgis’ The Betrayers — you can find her full review here and KfC’s here.

David Bezmozgis’ The Betrayers has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. It’s not the first time he’s made the cut — his first novel, The Free World, was shortlisted in 2011.

This new book is also focussed on Russian Jews but is vastly different. Set in current times, and spanning just 24 hours, it focuses on two aged men — a Russian dissident turned Israeli politician, who is embroiled in a sex scandal, and a 70-year-old Soviet exile, who is in poor health and struggling to make ends meet — whose paths cross in Yalta, a holiday resort on the Crimean peninsula.

The book is divided into four main parts — the first focuses on the politician, Baruch Kotler; the second on Vladimir Tankilevich, the Jew who informed on Kotler 40 years earlier; the third on their reunion; and the fourth on the outfall of their meeting.

In a nutshell, the story goes something like this: in his role as a cabinet minister, Kotler has taken a stand against the destruction of West Bank settlements and has refused to be blackmailed into keeping quiet. As a result, photographs of him in a compromising position with his young assistant, Leora, have been published in the papers. Kotler and Leora decide to lay low by taking a short vacation in the Crimea, where they rent a room from a Russian woman. By coincidence, it turns out that the Russian woman is married to Tankilevich. The two men meet, have a long conversation about their past, and then Kotler and Leora return home to face the consequences of their actions.

Of course, it would spoil things to outline the detail of the conversation between Kotler and Tankilevich, which makes up the bulk of the book, but suffice to say it largely fleshes out the novel’s theme, which — as the title would suggest — is very much focussed on betrayal and its long-lasting repercussions. This betrayal is not only between the two men at the heart of the story, but also on other characters, including Kotler’s betrayal of his longstanding wife Miriam (by taking up with Leora) and Leora’s betrayal of Kotler’s daughter, Dafna, with whom she is very good friends ( by taking up with her father).

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Kimbofo reviews Tell

November 3, 2014

The Giller Gala is only one week away, so I should be posting a few reviews this week. Here is the opening to Kimbofo’s review of Frances Itani’s Tell — you can find her full review here. (She also makes reference to my review of Tell — you can find it here).

1aaa itani

The aftermath of the Great War on the residents of a small village in Canada is the subject of France’s Itani’s latest novel, Tell, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize.

I read it back-to-back with William Trevor’s Love and Summer [KfC’s review of that one is here] and couldn’t help but see the similarities between them. Both are gentle, comforting, slow-paced reads, about people quietly getting on with their lives in a small, close-knit community. Indeed, in KevinfromCanada’s review of Tell, he suggests the book is a Canadian version of the Irish village novel in which “a collection of ordinary people try to deal with life, even if they have been touched by extraordinary events like war”.

Perhaps the only major difference — aside from setting and era — is that Itani’s book has a slightly more complicated structure, because it interleaves two main narrative threads instead of focusing on just a single story.

Tell spans just a couple of months — November 1919 to January 1920 — and is set in Deseronto, a small town in Ontario on the edge of a bay.

Here, we meet Kenan, a young shell-shocked soldier, who has returned from the war badly injured. He has a dead arm, has lost the sight in one eye and his face is terribly disfigured. He is too traumatised to leave the house, despite this wife, Tress, offering as much support and comfort as she can muster. The book follows their individual struggles to keep their marriage alive despite the fact that the war has changed both of them — physically and psychologically — forever.

The second storyline focuses on Kenan’s aunt and uncle, who also live in the village. Am and Maggie have been married for a long time, but their relationship has “stalled” in the sense that they barely have a thing to say to one another. Am seeks solace in his work maintaining the village clock tower and keeping his nephew company, while Maggie spends time with her new friends — an outgoing woman called Zel, and an Eastern European refugee called Luc — both of whom she met through the village choir. It is her relationship with choir master Luc, in particular, which threatens to destroy the fragile state of her marriage.

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.


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