History of the Rain, by Niall Williams

August 27, 2014

We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only live now in the telling. That’s how it seems to me, being alive for a little while, the teller and the told.

Purchased at the Book Depository

Purchased at the Book Depository

Ruth Swain pens that credo on the opening page of her personal opus which will become History of the Rain. By age 15, the precocious Ruth was a “sufferer of Smart Girl Syndrome” (Ruth uses a lot of capital letters, as her writing coach notes). But when she headed to Trinity College, she collapsed and came home again: “I have had Something Amiss, Something Puzzling, and We’re Not Sure Yet.”

So Ruth is confined to her bedroom in the attic of the Swain family cottage in Faha, Ireland, in search of something to do. Her room has two distinguishing features — two skylights that let her track the rain (and occasional welcome sun) and 3,958 books (carefully catalogued by her father who collected them) in tottering stacks that virtually surround her. It is those books that inspire her project to tell the Swain family story.

Mainly, she wants to recount the story of her father’s life, but to do that she needs to go back as far as her great-grandfather, the Reverend Absalom Swain of Salisbury, Wiltshire, who created the foundation axiom of the Swain family:

What the Reverend bequeaths to our story is the Swain Philosophy of Impossible Standard. In the year eighteen hundred and ninety-five he leaves it to his son at the christening, dipping the boy into the large cold name Abraham, and stepping back from the wailing, jutting the jaw. He wants his son to aspire. He wants him to outreach the ordinary and be a proof to God of the excellence of His Creation. That is how I think of it. The basis of the Philosophy of Impossible Standard is that no matter how hard you try you can’t ever be good enough. The Standard raises as you do. You have to keep polishing your soul ahead of Entering the Presence. Something like that.

booker logoWe will learn more about the Reverend (including his affection for the Pole-vault — “firing himself into the sky”), but that is probably indicator enough for review purposes. The Reverend sends Abraham off to Oxford to read the classics and Prepare for Life, which pretty much comes down to “waiting to get The Call”. A Call does come, but it is not from the Almighty — rather it is the arrival of the Great War and Abraham’s decision to enlist.

Abraham’s war does not last long. He is seriously wounded on his very first offensive, before he has even fired a shot. His life is saved first by a sympathetic German soldier who applies a tourniquet rather than finishing him off with a bayonet — and then by a young English doctor, Oliver Cissley, who “has come to war to save lives”.

Abraham will spend the rest of the war in a home for injured soldiers and Cissley will die in it — but saving Abraham’s life has left a mark that will stretch on. The doctor’s mother visits Abraham in the home and shares with him her son’s letters and his pride in saving Abraham. The Cissley family has done well out of the war (they manufactured “two million Mills grenade bombs”) and wants to give Abraham a house and lands in Ireland that they own in memory of their son.

Ireland (well, at least the Ireland of fiction) is notorious for having land that is hostile to farming and the plot that Abraham Swain is given is even more resistant to cultivation than most. While he struggles along for some years, slowly but surely he develops an obsession with salmon fishing. He records every catch he makes in succeeding decades and eventually produces a book, The Salmon in Ireland, with “Seventy-eight Illustrations from Photographs and Two Maps” — the novel features a number of excerpts.

Ruth’s father, Virgil, has no better luck farming the plot than his own father did and, like Abraham, develops his own obsession (hopeless obsessions are an essential of the Swain Philosophy of Impossible Standard). It starts with collecting and reading books (those 3,958 volumes that are Ruth’s constant companions) and evolves into endlessly writing poetry. He never actually gets any poetry published, but the people of Faha do regard him as the town laureate.

There is a fourth generation of male Swains present as well in the History of the Rain, Ruth’s twin brother, Aeney. She tells us early on that he is no longer with us — she takes a fair while to tell the story of his death.

That family history is the superstructure of this book, but it would be wrong to imply that that is all there is to it. Ruth’s manuscript is as much written contemporary oral history as it is historical story — each chapter opens in the here-and-now with incidents from her own confined life, be it the visit of townsfolk, domestic crises or the latest on her mother’s mother, the ninety-seven-year old Nan (or is she ninety-nine?) who continues to rule the Swain cottage from her seat by the fire.

Indeed, it is those contemporary thoughts that supply History of the Rain with one of its most distinctive features. Ruth is a product of all those ancient books she has read (Dickens is a particular favorite) and her prose when she is writing about her ancestors reflects that — to the reader, for the most part it feels as through the book was written many decades ago. And then, out of the blue, there come references to Facebook or the latest economic collapse and we are abruptly reminded that Ruth’s chronicle is very much being written in the present by a 20-year-old girl.

All of this made for a pleasant enough read. While this is the first Niall Williams I have read, it is his ninth novel — and, as I have come to expect from Irish authors, he certainly knows how to use the language. As the novel went on, I came to quite like and appreciate Ruth — her pictures of the male generations of the family were not quite as well developed but they too become real-enough characters.

The problem is that History of the Rain is what I call an “Irish village” novel and that sub-genre has some challenges of its own. “Irish village” novels do acknowledge that there are global issues at play (be it a famine, the Great War, the Troubles or the latest economic collapse) but those are so remote and beyond the influence of the book’s characters that they are just “there”. Of far greater consequence are the localized, personal issues (such as Ruth’s illness or Nan’s latest problems) that do genuinely impact on day-to-day life. Alas, there is an inherent limitation in focussing on the “small” while only acknowledging the “large” — and it takes some special skill to make it memorable.

All of which means that while I found History of the Rain to be an entirely worthwhile read, this fan of “Irish village” novels would have to admit that it did not measure up to the best in the genre. I would point to John McGahern’s That They May Face The Rising Sun, John Borderick’s The Pilgrimage and even Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart (which was Booker longlisted last year) as better examples of the sub-genre. (And Colm Toibin has more than one that would be worthy of including on that short list.)

Don’t let that put you off History of the Rain — but if you don’t yet have your own list of “Irish village” favorites and want to expand it, there are better places to start than this one.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris

August 12, 2014

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Imagine a youngish chef (say in his late 30s) who has decided he has had enough of all traditional cuisine, be it French, nouvelle or any of the more recent fusions. He’s going to create his own — he’ll still use a stove, pots and pans and knives but this mix of Inuit, Brazilian and Eritrean is going to be something special. A few of his customers end up thinking he is brilliant, many at least appreciate the creative effort and some (more than a few it has to be said) think the whole thing is just plain silly.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is the third novel from 39-year-old Joshua Ferris, but I’d say he has already “typed” himself as a writing version of that young chef. I sampled his first, Then We Came to the End (2007), and found it an enjoyable, if somewhat frothy, romp. Set in a failing Chicago ad agency, it had some truly comic moments and diversions, enough to offset the parts that just didn’t make sense — other readers had a much more negative reaction than mine. I was not tempted by his second, The Unnamed (2010), because reviews indicated it was more of the same. And I would have given this one a pass as well had it not been one of the original American novels to make the Booker longlist.

So just what story “cuisines” does Ferris try to fuse together in this one?

booker logoThe foundation one is dentistry of all things. The central character, Paul O’Rourke, is a Park Avenue dentist of some repute, with five treatment rooms (no office — the rent is expensive and that would mean one less chair) and a thriving practice. He’s proud of his work, so don’t think as a reader you won’t get some dental treatment reading, painful as it might be. As well, all but one of the other story threads are rooted in aspects of the dental practice.

Next into the mix is Ferris’ comic strain — and I knew from his debut (and some New Yorker stories) that he is a fine comic writer. Dentist O’Rourke, despite his reliance on his “me-machine” (that’s what he calls his cellphone) is techno-fearful and has always resisted the creation of a website for his practice:

I was a dentist, not a website. I was a muddle, not a brand. I was a man, not a profile. They wanted to contain my life with a summary of its purchases and preferences, prescription medications, and predictable behaviors. That was not a man. That was an animal in a cage.

And then one day, Paul’s receptionist/office manager (and ex-lover), Connie, calls him to the computer station: on-screen is a website for O’Rourke Dental, complete with accurate information and real, if dated, pictures of the staff. The novelist spins this out not so much as “identity theft” but “identity virus” — the website eventually is supplemented with a Facebook page and Twitter account. Given Paul’s own fascination with his me-machine, this particular thread supplies the platform for some quite good satire on modern social media.

Stream three springs from the clinic staff — in addition to Connie (Jewish, but not observant), there is his hygienist, Mrs. Convoy (who is a devout Catholic) and Paul’s aide, Abby, who appears in the novel only behind her pink paper mask and never says a word. Ferris doesn’t use this threesome so much as characters as he does metaphors for Paul’s historical love life:

I don’t get pussy whipped. I get cunt gripped. I get cunt gripped and just hope to get out alive. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, as the saying goes — so you can look forward to that one irrecuperable battering ram of a ballbreaker that will finally do you in.

To be cunt gripped means to show up at the door unannounced. It means calling at all hours. It means saying “I love you” far too soon, on or around the second date, and saying it all too frequently thereafter. When they caution that I might be moving too fast, I double down and send them flowers and fruit. To be cunt gripped is to believe that I have found everything heretofore lacking in my life.

This has happened four times in Paul’s life. The first two were in puberty and don’t really count at this stage of the story. The third, Sam Santacroce, came in university; the fourth was Connie. And we soon discover that Paul’s fascination was not with either Sam or Connie as individuals, but with their families, specifically their religious commitment and the “community” that that created — rabidly Catholic in Sam’s case, Jewish in Connie’s. Paul is not religious at all but he has a desperate compulsion for the security of the formality, ceremony, structure and discipline, above all discipline, that comes with fervent religious belief, whomever the particular superior being might be.

That desire fuels the fourth thread of the novel, which segues off both it and the “identity virus” and becomes the dominant one for most of the book. Whoever has created the website and other social media for O’Rourke Dental is a sect leader and excerpts from the religious texts of a lost Levantine tribe subject to frequent attempts at genocide start to appear on the various social media vehicles of the “virtual” Paul. Without giving too much away, the source of the identity virus is the founder of the religion of Ulm (whose central tenet is doubt in everything, starting with whether or not there is a God — not atheist or agnostic, just doubtful) and who is identifying and recruiting individuals (like Paul) whom he has decided have ancestral roots in the lost tribe.

And finally, just to put some icing on the cake and add some offbeat spice to the story (sorry about that — couldn’t resist extending the mixed metaphor, but Ferris has that effect on me), Paul is a lifelong Red Sox fan who watches, tapes and saves every game but always absents himself from the room for the sixth inning. Actually, he was more a fan of the Curse of the Bambino — since the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, his enthusiasm has ebbed but old obsessions are hard to shed.

Much like Harriet Burden in the last book and first Booker longlister reviewed here (The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt), Paul is a character searching for his identity (which makes the “virtual” one perhaps the most innovative aspect of the novel). Unlike Harriet, however, who has a number of substantial identities that she is trying to meld into a single one, Paul’s quest is self-evidently hopeless from the start.

And, for this reader at least, silly.

While the early parts of the novel had their moments — especially the bits around social media — once the real and pseudo religious ones took over, it became positively distasteful (okay, my metaphor is now totally out of control — blame Ferris). And I would have to say that the twist that Ferris uses to end the book said to me that he was every bit as confused by his fusion as I was and had to grasp to find a conclusion.

I could accept To Rise Again at a Decent Hour as an acceptable, if failed, effort at literary risk-taking that deserved to be published. For the life of me, I can’t understand how the Booker Jury decided it was one of the thirteen best novels of 2014.

The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt

August 7, 2014

Purchased from Indigo.ca

Purchased from Indigo.ca

Harriet (“Harry”) Burden is the widow of a prominent New York art dealer, Felix Lord. She is herself an artist who exhibited to little notice in the 1970s and 1980s — she stopped exhibiting but remained very much part of the art world, even if merely (at that point) as “spouse of Felix”.

Harriet was convinced that her work was overlooked primarily because she was female and after Felix’s death embarked on a project titled Maskings: “…declaring that it was meant not only to expose the antifemale bias of the art world, but to uncover the complex workings of human perception and how unconscious ideas about gender, race, and celebrity influence a viewer’s understanding of a given work of art.”

Maskings involved Harriet engaging three males to serve as “fronts” for exhibitions of her work (I’d describe them as installations which grow ever more complex): The History of Western Art (1998) by Anton Tish, The Suffocation Rooms (2002) by Phineas Q. Eldridge and Beneath (2003), by an artist known only as Rune. In one sense, she proved her point: all three exhibitions were well received. In another, she failed dramatically — Rune insists that he was the creative force for Beneath, acknowledged as the most complex of the three. While she is generally given full credit for the first two, critical debate continues around who really created Beneath.

booker logoThe reader learns all this (and much more) in the opening pages of The Blazing World, which come in the form of an Editor’s Introduction from I.V. Hess, an academic who has pursued Harriet’s story and produced this book. Harriet is dead at this point, but she has left behind 24 journals devoted to subjects ranging from autobiographical items to notes on reading to “quantum theory and its possible use for a theoretical model of the brain” to thoughts on the study of monsters.

Perhaps the most relevant of the journals cited in the Introduction are the two devoted to Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle (1623-1673), who served as Harriet’s alterego (the novel’s title comes from one of Cavendish’s works) and who also felt “brutally constricted by her sex”:

Snubbed by many with whom she would have liked to engage in dialogue, Cavendish created a world of interlocutors in her writing. As with Cavendish, I [Hess] believe that Burton cannot be understood unless the dialogical quality of her thought and art is taken into consideration. All of Burden’s notebooks may be read as forms of dialogue. She continually shifts from the first person into the second and then to the third. Some passages are written as arguments between two versions of herself. One voice makes a statement. Another disputes it. Her notebooks became the ground where her conflicted anger and divided intellect could do battle on the page.

Burden complains bitterly about sexism in the culture, the art world in particular, but she also laments her “intellectual loneliness”. She broods on her isolation and lashes out at her many perceived enemies. At the same time, her writing (like Cavendish’s) is colored by extravagance and grandiosity: “I am an Opera. A Riot. A Menace,” she writes in an entry that directly discusses her spiritual kinship to Cavendish. Like Cavendish, Burden’s desire for recognition in her lifetime was ultimately transmuted into a hope that her work would finally be noticed, if not while she was alive, then after her death.

Hess does not just discuss the notebooks in the Introduction, she (I’m assuming Hess is female — we aren’t told) outlines her own investigative process. She’s discovered that Harriet/Harry wrote some critical reviews of her own work under the pseudonym Richard Brickman (and perhaps some others). She has had full access to conversations and interviews with Harriet’s two children, Maisie and Ethan, and their work (both are involved in the art world as well). She has researched and interviewed the three frontmen/collaborators, Harriet’s childhood best friend, her post-Felix lover and a host of others.

The most dominating characteristic of The Blazing World is its structure, so let’s pause to outline that here. After that introduction, the novel proceeds in “chapters” that range from excerpts from the notebooks to interviews with those who knew Harriet to essays from Maisie and Ethan to relevant articles culled from academic journals. While the arrangement is roughly chronological, the voice, style and specific subject matter all change from chapter to chapter. My mental image while reading The Blazing World is that it is a literary version of doing a massive jigsaw puzzle: the Editor’s Introduction is the helpful full picture on the box but after that we are left to figure out where the detailed pieces themselves fit in that picture. And in this particular puzzle, the “pieces” come in a welter of different sizes, shapes and artistic styles which makes the “solving” even more difficult than usual.

There is another characteristic which for readers is every bit as important. As the author’s note at the end of the novel reveals (and fans of Hustvedt probably already know), the novelist herself is a multi-disciplinary creature. This is her fifth novel, but she also lectures on artists and theories of art. She has published a non-fiction work, The Shaking Woman or A History of Nerves, “an interdisciplinary investigation of the mind-body problem”. And she has lectured at international conferences “on neuropsychoanalysis, neuroethics, and neurophysiology”. All of those interests show up in The Blazing Woman — this is one of those novels that features some lengthy footnotes and numerous citations of other books ranging from poetry collections to philosophy.

Given that the shifts in voice, person, text and scholarly (or narrative) point of view occur every 15 pages or so, all this makes The Blazing World a very difficult book to read. By the halfway point, I found myself skimming almost as many sections as ones that I was reading closely — neuropsychoanalysis, obscure theories of art and digressions into centuries-old philosophical disputes are pretty much ventures into opacity for this reader. There were so many threads being presented and I was finding only a few of them worth the attention. Indeed, were it not for the novel’s presence on the Booker longlist (and it was my first read from that list), there was a powerful inclination to abandon the novel — an inclination that I suspect many readers will indulge.

I kept on, however, and in the final analysis I am glad that I did. At about the two-thirds point, I found that the threads that were important to me kept popping up more and more often. And, despite the odd structure of The Blazing World, I found it was developing an entirely worthwhile structure of its own.

Harriet (or Harry or Richard or whomever) — artist, journal-keeper, reader, polemicist, philanthropist, spouse and mother — is a creature involved in a lifelong struggle to find her identity. Only is this case, it is not a search for “An Identity” but rather how to meld together the numerous fully-formed identities that are part of her character (in that sense she is a reflection of Hustvedt) so that they form a single individual. As her death approaches, that struggle/challenge has not been answered and acquires an increasing urgency.

Given all the parts that I skimmed, that suggests that I would find much more if I went back and gave The Blazing World a second read — and I am sure that I would. Despite my overall positive assessment, I won’t be doing that: my own struggles and challenges on the first read were enough for me. I am sure that budding academics in the future will be spending many months, even years, paying attention to the many threads that are twined together in this novel and producing lengthy theses that purport to represent the whole cloth.

How did this novel come to the Booker longlist (one of four that represent the first American contingent under the new Prize rules)? I am guessing that that “academic” reference I just made might be the answer. This year’s jury features a number of academics whose life work consists of the kind of investigation that I.V. Hess has undertaken with Harriet Burden — and I suspect Hustvedt’s portrayal of that process made the novel a better read for them than it was for me. I won’t be pressing The Blazing World onto a lot of friends as a “must read” but if interdisciplinary academic searching is something that strikes your fancy, you might want to give it a try. And I will admit that the picture of Harriet “Harry” Burden that finally came together for me is one that will remain in memory.

Crimes Against My Brother, by David Adams Richards

August 3, 2014

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

One thing can be said for certain: in the literary world, the Miramichi River, the rugged terrain surrounding it and the people who live there are every bit as much “David Adams Richards country” as southwestern Ontario belongs to Alice Munro. A list of his publications, both fiction and non-fiction, numbers more than 20 and most are centred on the Miramichi. And those works have produced recognition, spread over decades: A Governor-General’s Award for Fiction in 1988 (Nights Below Station Street), another one for non-fiction in 1998 (Lines on the Water: A Fisherman’s Life on the Miramichi) and a Giller Prize in 2000 (Mercy Among The Children).

I was born in 1948, Richards in 1950, so his writing career and my reading one have certainly overlapped. I don’t count him as one of my favorite authors but over the decades I have read a number of his books (I can’t say exactly how many), although Crimes Against My Brother is the first since the KfC blog started 5 1/2 years ago. Let’s just say that I am willing to venture into the Miramichi valley every now and then, but the fictional version is not one of my favorite destinations.

Richards’ Miramichi is not a particularly pleasant place. At the top end of the scale, it is an environmentally stunning one — a world-famous salmon river surrounded by incredible stands of timber. That produces the mid-level conflict — lumbering companies who strip the land, endanger the river and its tributaries and cruelly exploit their workers. And right at the bottom, we have the people who struggle to live there. As is the case with so many people who are born and live their lives in resource-rich areas, they are pawns in the global economy and that powerless status becomes amplified in the way they relate to each other.

Crimes Against My Brother features all of those elements. If you haven’t yet ventured into Richards’ Miramichi it would not be my recommendation as the place to start (Mercy Among The Children would be my choice) — if as a reader you have been here before (and appreciated the experience), you will want to explore this latest part of the ongoing saga.

Here is the author introducing this latest Miramichi volume:

Ian Preston had some good times with his two cousins, Evan Young and Harold Dew.

There were two or three things that united them, as if they were tethered together in the hold of a ship.

One, each boy grew to manhood on the Bonny Joyce-Clare’s Longing stretch of the river.

Two, all three know Joyce Fitzroy and Lonnie Sullivan, all of them had to work for Sullivan and all had a chance at getting Joyce Fitzroy’s inheritance. But the one who didn’t seek it got it. That fact is a strange anomaly in the heavens, one that might make us believe or disbelieve. That is, no matter how things happen, some will say yes, there is a God, and others will say no, this proves no God exists. As for God himself — he has already made up his mind.

The narrator of the novel is himself a product of the Miramichi from the same era. He is from the same generation as Ian, Evan and Harold but “escaped” to college in New York, went on to Yale and is now a tenured professor but his heart and soul (and this is typical of Richards’ work) remain in the Bonny Joyce-Clare’s Longing stretch of the river:

I spoke to my students often — all of whom had written their interminable essays, their left-leaning theories on the dispossessed, their brilliant studies of our disenfranchised, every piece so polished you would think it is publishable in The Globe and Mail — about these three. Yet I realized that not one of my students had ever slept in a room with rats walking across the floor like Ian Preston had. Not one of them, at fourteen, had stood up against men coming in at night drunk to fuck his mother, like Evan Young. Not one had carried a water bucket up a gangplank, or tossed wood all day until dark, like Harold Dew. Not one had cut his own wood for the winter, trapped beaver against a black brook, killed an animal with a stick. Or gone at twelve years of age to work for Lonnie Sullivan. That is, even as I taught these students, these pleasant, affable upwardly mobile young men and women, I wondered what could their inestimable essays ever say beyond what I myself had known in my blood by the time I was ten years old? And why did my mother and father want this for me — this world where I had become something of a figure of merit? To fuss and preen over me when I came home?

In the world that Richards creates, the powerless people in this valley — not just the three cousins and the narrator, but everyone who appears — have three options about the fundamental source they will choose as a guide for their lives:

  • They can choose to devote themselves to God as Sydney Henderson has (he was a central character in Mercy Among The Children, a minor one here). He made a pact with God, but as you can tell from the first excerpt his God was not a particularly beneficent one. There are others in this book who have a made a similar pact — although not Ian, Evan or Harold.
  • Or you can reject God, as the three boys did when they were caught for three days in the terrible ice storm of 1974 on Good Friday Mountain where they were cutting and hauling Christmas trees for Lonnie Sullivan. In a blood brother ceremony before they are saved, they reject Sydney’s God and vow to survive on their own. That puts them at the mercy of the mercantile, commerce-cheating, global-economy world — a world that has little patience for the children of the Miramichi.
  • And then there’s the “get by as best you can” option, the choice of most of the secondary characters in the book — Annette Brideau, the Robb sisters, the narrator himself, to mention just a few. This choice has its problems as well, since both the malevolent God of Sydney and the equally malevolent powers of commerce keep intruding on the Miramichi — “as best you can” is an ever-moving target.
  • Crimes Against My Brother will follow the three boys through to adulthood — a concise summary of the story would describe it as “relentlessly bleak”. Two of them, in fact, will “succeed” in conventional economic terms; they do not in any way “succeed” in finding an enjoyable life. The narrative stream pretty much moves from one upheaval to another, following the stories of each of the three.

    Like the other Richards’ novels that I have read, this is a look at the inherently powerless, how life treats them and how they respond. There are truly despicable creatures in the novel (Lonnie) and there are sadly misguided ones (Annette), but for the most part it features decent people doing their best to find a decent life — and almost always failing, sometimes from their own weaknesses, more often because of external forces.

    From my experience, that seems to be consistent with Richards ongoing exploration of the Miramichi and its people and one can hardly fault him for returning to this world and those who live there. If Alice Munro looks at her part of Canada through sepia-toned glasses as some have observed, Richards looks at his with razor-sharp, penetrating precision — life in his Miramichi Valley is definitely not pleasant, but it is a story that deserves to be told.

    The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, by Tom Rachman

    July 30, 2014

    Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

    Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

    Author Tom Rachman gives the reader three starting points in the life of Tooly Zylberberg in this novel:

  • 2011 — Thirtysomething Tooly owns and operates a used bookstore in a converted pub in Wales, aided (sort of) by Fogg. Trade is slim by any measure, but it has its moments — and Fogg’s wandering philosophical meanderings are in themselves a source of some amusement. The shop is the kind of place a tightly-united community welcomes. A powerful symbol is the Honesty Barrel, “a cask of overstock”, left outside the store where passersby can take a volume (suggested contribution £1) and move on — the Barrel has to be taken in when rain threatens, which is a major decision in the quiet life of running the bookshop:

    Caergenog — just across the Welsh side of the border with England — was populated by a few hundred souls, a village demarcated for centuries by two pubs, one at the top of Roberts Road and the other at its foot. The high ground belonged to the Butcher’s Hook, named in recognition of the weekly livestock market across the street, while the low ground, opposite the church and roundabout, was occupied by World’s End, a reference to that pub’s location at the outer boundary of the village. World’s End had always been the less popular option (who wanted to carouse with a view of iron crosses in the graveyard?) and the pub closed for good in the late 1970s. The building stood empty for years, boarded up and vandalized, until a married couple — retired academics from the University of Bristol — bought the property and converted it into a used bookshop.

    That business plan failed, but Tooly has resurrected it, alas with no positive results to date. As the previous owners said, maybe “some youthful energy” could turn it into a break-even business “but you won’t get rich”.

  • 1999 — The 20-year-old Tooly, resident of Brooklyn, but self-directed student of Manhattan who is keeping a marked map of her excursions:

    Tooly intended to walk the entirety of New York, every passable street in the five boroughs. After several weeks, she had pen lines radiating like blue veins from her home in the separatist republic of Brooklyn into the breakaway nations of Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx, although their surly neighbor, Staten Island, remained unmarked. Initially, she had chosen neighborhoods to explore by their alluring names: Vinegar Hill and Plum Beach, Breezy Point and Utopia, Throggs Neck and Spuyten Duyvil, Alphabet City and Turtle Bay. But the more enticing a place sounded the more ordinary it proved — not as a rule, but as a distinct tendency.

    This Tooly has discovered a tactic that helps fuel her curiosity: if she knocks on a door and says she used to live in this very apartment and wants a look round to remind her, people tend to let her in. This thread of the story acquires momentum when she does just that at a suite occupied by three students near Columbia University and moves into their convoluted lives.

  • 1988 — Tooly is not quite 10 and she and her father Paul are about to land in Thailand. Paul is an IT expert whose job consists of upgrading computer access in minor U.S. diplomatic posts so they can dip into massive data bases to check on possible terrorists. He has just finished a contract in Australia and now the two are moving to Bangkok — even though most of his work is in outposts, he likes to operate from a base in a larger city.

    “Landing cards,” Paul said, thinking aloud, and grabbed two as they waited in line at the border control. “When were you born?”

    “You know that.”

    “I know that,” he acknowledged, filling it in. He looked around, startled at the slightest noise — he was rigidly tense in public with Tooly. A Velcro strap on his shoe had come unstuck, so she knelt to attach it. “What are you doing?” he asked irritably. “It’s nearly our turn.”

    The immigration officer summoned them. Paul was a man who followed rules — indeed, their absence unnerved him. Yet whenever he addressed authorities his mouth became audibly dry. “Good morning. Evening,” he said, sweat budding on his upper lip.

    We know from the other two threads (where Paul is absent) that Tooly got away from Thailand. We don’t know how, and that will become the dramatic dilemma of the novel.

  • For this reader, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers is the latest example of a new fiction phenomenon (I’m reluctant to call it a genre): authors who have been “raised globally” bringing that experience to their writing.

    Now authors have always travelled: Byron and Shelley headed to Italy; Fitzgerald, Baldwin, Hemmingway and a host of others Paris. But that used to happen after they started writing — now we see young (or at least youngish) authors, most of them currently based around New York it seems, producing “globally wandering” novels that capture their growing-up life. From just the last year, I’d give you Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. That’s a Pulitzer winner, a Booker winner and a New York Times 10 best, so you can hardly say the trend isn’t attracting attention.

    Rachman fits the profile: born in London (the English one), raised in Vancouver, attended the University of Toronto and Columbia in New York, headed off to Europe where he worked for the Associated Press in Rome and Paris. Indeed, his first work — the delightful The Imperfectionists — is a novel-in-stories that I absolutely loved centred on an English-language newspaper published in Rome.

    I only wish that I could say the same about this novel. Given that the 10-year-old Tooly stream is mainly a set up, I didn’t expect much from it.

    But 20-year-old Tooly in New York as the millennium comes to an end seemed to be fertile ground and 31-year-old Tooly running a used bookshop in Wales sure had promise — promise that kept looming on the horizon but never arrived.

    Part of the problem for me was the supporting cast. To keep his story together, Rachman needs to have “Tooly manipulators” and he never succeeded in making them three-dimensional — instead, they became plot advancers. And while I was quite willing to engage with Tooly herself (and often did), bouncing between the decades often left me more frustrated than satisfied. I should confess I had the same problem with Tartt and Kushner’s novels — maybe I am just a reader who wants more “stay at home” depth and less “wandering the world” panorama.

    Please don’t let that grumpy response put you off the novel. Rachman is a very talented wordsmith and some of the set pieces in this one are delightful — given my more positive response to The Perfectionists, it is easy to say that at this stage in his career the short story model remains his strength. While I don’t think The Rise and Fall of Great Powers succeeds, it is a step in the right direction — I am pretty sure that sometime in the future Rachman will produce a truly outstanding novel.

    God Telling a Joke and Other Stories, by Dave Margoshes

    July 27, 2014

    Review copy courtesy Oolichan Books

    Review copy courtesy Oolichan Books

    A few decades back (well, more than three, to be slightly more precise) Dave Margoshes and I were colleagues in the newsroom at the Calgary Herald. I was a political reporter (and not a bad one, if I can toot my own former horn) — his brief was pretty much everything but politics, so our day-to-day reporting paths didn’t often cross.

    Our journalistic paths did, if only in what I learned from one of the best news reporters with whom I ever worked. A reporter’s basic job is to collect all the information you can (not just the parts that serve your tilt on the story) — and Dave did that on every assignment. A far more important and difficult task is “selecting” the relevant bits that capture the story — I could do that with politics, but was in awe of the way that Dave could do it with almost any subject he was handed.

    And then there was putting it all together for publication — in as few words as possible. In the news business in those days, there were lots of people who could write a “good” story in 2,000 words. A few talented ones could take the same data and produce an even better story in 1,000. Only the best could take all that “stuff” and make 500 words tell the story — I could not do that very often, but Dave sure could. “Rewrite” is a task that has disappeared in modern newsrooms but it was very alive then — and it seemed that every morning, Dave was called on to reduce 2,000 words of someone else’s work to 500 and not lose a thing. The 500 almost always said more than the 2,000 did (okay, he rewrote my work on occasion and, of course, I always felt something had been lost, hence the “almost always”).

    I provide that lengthy introduction to say that those reporting/story-telling skills (I’d label them “observation” and “reduction”) are on full display in this new collection of 16 stories. We don’t get a lot of “big” plot events to help the author along here — we have human, humane incidents where observing, selecting and recounting show the writer’s craft. Anyone who has ever tried to write anything, be it a news story or fiction, would be well advised to get a copy and appreciate the result.

    Consider as a starter the third story in the collection, “Bucket of Blood”, and the way that it is introduced:

    The bar had no proper name but was known as the Bucket of Blood. The day that Archie Duggan dies there, two Wednesdays ago, and the following day, when his death was mentioned in the news, it was the first time that the place, which had stood at the corner of 11th Avenue and Osler Street for over a hundred years, had registered in the minds of most of the people of the city in decades.

    The bar was located in the basement of a rundown hotel that had once been called the Earle. The hotel had been built be a man named Louis P. Earle, a flamboyant former railway worker who had washed up in what was then still a town, not yet a city, after the construction of the CPR. In its heyday, the Earle Hotel was a good dignified address at which to spend a night or two, or even longer, though there was always a confusion, among both guests and the residents of the town alike who had not had the occasion to ever meet Louis P. Earle, or hear his name said aloud, as to the pronunciation of the hotel’s name: was it sounded Earl or Early?

    The second paragraph in that excerpt extends for almost another page, but I’m thinking that provides flavor enough. We know that Archie Duggan dies, but to understand that story we need more backstory. And, in good journalistic (and fiction) tradition, we get it. The bar has its aging regulars (Archie included) who show up everyday and its share of “other” trade, drug dealers included, but that has dropped off. Danny, the bartender and general manager, is a recovering alcoholic — and has sponsored a number of AA members from his customer base over the years, but Archie wasn’t one of them. Like Danny, Archie is also a recovering alcoholic who only drinks ginger ale — but they never discuss what brought both of them to this bar.

    On that day [the day Archie died] — the 17th of August, a Wednesday — Archie came into the bar, smiling to himself over the reassuring creak of the heavy door, at his usual time, more or less fifteen minutes after three in the afternoon. Danny O’Hara, who had a railroad man’s eye for detail, had often wondered about the significance of that time — never 3 p.m., never 3:30, but always 3:15, give or take a minute or two in either direction. Early on in their relationship — hardly friends, but bartender to customer, warmed by their mutual knowledge of the past they shared, the past they had, for different reasons, put well behind them — Danny had glanced at his watch as Archie took his preferred seat at one end of the bar, and Archie commented without elaboration “School’s out.” That was intriguing: was the man a teacher? A parent — or grandparent — of a school-age child? A student himself? From the looks of him, his neat but shabby suit, the Blue Jays ballcap on top a full head of snow white hair, his well-used face and rough hands, Archie was more likely to be a school janitor than any of the other possibilities. But when he died, the small write-up in the paper, the same story that invoked the name and reputation of the Earle Hotel for the first time in the public prints in many years, identified him merely as “a pensioner”, so Danny would never know.

    Margoshes is more fiction writer than reporter now, so “Bucket of Blood” does have a twist — I won’t be spoiling the story and we will move on to another one.

    “Lightfoot and Goodbody” was another personal favorite in this collection. Bob Klebeck is 77 and his life in a Winnipeg senior citizens’ apartment is too much for him: a pathetic schedule of activites (“the Globe and Peter Gzowski in the morning over two cups of coffee — no more — plus doctors’ appointments, counsellor’s appointments, poker games, chess games visits to the library…”), children who are too busy to care, etc. etc.

    So he decides it is time to become a modern-day tramp. First off, he adopts the name Lightfoot (yes, after the folk singer — we Canadians are devoid of imagination). Much as he would like to pack a bindlestiff, he opts for a knapsnack — underwear, socks, two knit shirts, a chunk of cheddar and a half loaf of Winnipeg-style rye, a bottle of water, reading glasses and a 95-cent used copy of The Grapes of Wrath — and decides to head west.

    The romantic image, too, called for him to shuffle off into the sunset. Instead, leaving early in the morning, the sun was still at his back as he headed west along the Trans-Canada Highway (a brief bus ride brought him to the edge of town), his thumb stuck out in the most desultory of fashion. The mountains, where he imagined himself laying his head beside a free-flowing stream, beneath rain-fresh resin-smelling pine trees, were many hundreds of miles away — he still steadfastly refused to use the word “kilometre” or any of the other metric vocabulary. They were surely too far to reach in a day’s tramping, maybe two, even with good luck and many rides. Between them lay miles and miles of undulating fields of amber wheat, sky-blue flax, bright-yellow canola — his mouth paused in sour annoyance at the made-up name for the perfectly legitimate rape his grandfather had once planted, some people’s sensitivities be damned; miles of grain, then equal miles of undulating rangeland where, if he was lucky, he might see an antelope in the distance and a hawk observing his progress disdainfully from high above. Many, many miles, far too many for any man to walk, let alone a seventy-seven-year-old man with bad knees, a bad stomach, and a stroke, mild though it was, only two years behind him. Still, what lay ahead, he knew — thought he knew, at any rate — was do-able, weighted down merely be discomfort. And with all this in mind, and a hundred and seventy-seven dollars, in various denominations and combinations of change in his pockets, a VISA card in his wallet, a pair of poorly fitting sunglasses perched on his nose, and a jaunty porkpie hat set on an angle on his almost hairless head, Lightfoot set out.

    He gets a couple of typical rides — a Mercedes-Benz salesman delivering a new car to Swift Current, a farmer on his way back to the homestead. And he stops for pie and coffee at the Pilgrim truck stop. And then he gets picked up by Doris Goodbody, a female version of Lightfoot himself, and the story really starts. Two finer people in fiction you cannot meet, I would say.

    As much as I appreciate my old friend Dave and those stories, I suspect I have done him no favor by choosing those two to highlight in this review. Most of the 16 in this book have far more substance to them (imagine how long the review would be if I’d tried to describe them?) and the author is very good at applying the distinctive twist that often features in good short stories. And while the two I have highlighted are set in Western Canada, let me assure you that the 16 in this collection go much father afield (and beyond worldly field in the title story).

    Whatever. This is a first-rate collection, from an old friend, that I would recommend to anyone. Margoshes last collection (A Book of Great Worth) was a novel-in-stories devoted to his father — this equally stunning collection is a series of observations and ruminations (and quite a few jokes) developed over a modern lifetime. It was a quiet joy to read — you won’t be disappointed.

    2014 Booker longlist and KfC’s plans

    July 23, 2014

    booker logoFirst, the longlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize:

    To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris (Viking)

    The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus)

    We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent’s Tail)

    The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre)

    J, Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)

    The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)

    The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (Sceptre)

    The Lives of Others, Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)

    Us, David Nicholls (Hodder & Stoughton)

    The Dog, Joseph O’Neill (Fourth Estate)

    Orfeo, Richard Powers (Atlantic Books)

    How to be Both, Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)

    History of the Rain, Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

    Coverage of the annual Booker competition has been a feature of this blog since its inception in 2009 — if you scroll down the sidebar on the right you will find full long and short lists from the last five years, with links to my reviews. In the first few years, I managed to read every longlisted book. I gave up that completist chore a few years back (too many books that I knew going in would not interest me) but still have found that more than half the list interests me enough to read and review — and I’d say that will be the case this year.

    For those who follow the Booker, the question awaiting the longlist this year was “how many Americans will be there?” — this being the first year that the prize is open to American citizens. The answer is four — Joshua Ferris, Siri Hustvedt, Richard Powers and Karen Jay Fowler. That is about the number that I would have expected but there is a side effect that I lament: Commonwealth writers have virtually disappeared from the list (Australian Richard Flanagan is the only representative). I’m sure I’m not the only Canadian who rues this development — particularly since the Americans are hardly unknown talents that we have never heard of before.

    Indeed, I would say another side effect of the new rules is that debut writers have fallen by the Booker wayside. While longlists usually featured a couple — sometimes even more — there is nary a one on this year’s list. The U.K. vs U.S. duel is pretty much the only theme.

    I have not read any of the 13 novels, but ordered six this morning and intend to get to them as quickly as possible: Ferris, Flanagan, Hustvedt, Powers, Williams and Mukherjee. As far as I can tell five of the 13 have not yet been released (Mitchell, Smith, O’Neill, Jacobson and Nicholls) — Mitchell, Smith and O’Neill would have been on my list to read even without the Booker. That means there are four (Fowler, Kingsnorth, Jacobson and Nicholls) I don’t think I’ll be contemplating reading — your comments or a promotion to the shortlist could change those plans.

    The Booker shortlist will be announced Sept. 9; the prize winner on Oct. 14. I’ll update on both those events.

    And please don’t hesitate to share your thoughts — on Booker listed novels or those that did not make the longlist cut. With the new rules, this year is a brand-new experience. While I can’t say that I particularly like what I see so far, maybe that is just a case that the negatives are obvious and I haven’t discovered the positives yet.

    The Confabulist, by Steven Galloway

    July 16, 2014

    Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

    Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

    Steven Galloway struck a responsive chord with both critics and readers with his most recent novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo (2008). In that book, he started with a real incident: a bomb attack in the destructive Yugoslavian war that killed 22 people waiting in a bread line and the decision by a cellist to return to the scene for 22 days in a row and play Albinoni’s Adagio as a memorial to mourn their fate.

    While that well-known, and evocative, event provided the over arching framework, Galloway’s attention was devoted to three “ordinary” individuals and how they were influenced by the conflict. One was Kenan; his story concerned his dangerous weekly walk through the conflict to fetch water for his family. A second thread was the story of Dragan and his equally threatening trek to a free meal. And the third was “Arrow”, the pseudonym for a talented female sniper whose task was to protect the cellist and his memorial concerts from a hidden sniper.

    The novel worked very well — it explored the way that destructive conflict has a profound effect on those who have the misfortune to be living where it takes place, even if they have no direct involvement in the hostilities and are just trying to get on with life.

    In his latest novel, The Confabulist, Galloway has again returned to a well-known real story: the life and, more importantly, death of illusionist Harry Houdini, arguably the most famous person in the world at his prime. That death came from a ruptured appendix, perhaps the result of an incident in Montreal where a visitor to his dressing room punched him several times in the abdomen, testing a kind of urban legend that said Houdini was immune to that kind of attack.

    There is a key difference in this volume however. While The Cellist of Sarajevo focused on the stories of three individuals who were impacted by the central event, in this one author Galloway’s interest is in three story lines which he speculates came together to create the “event”.

    Magicians are clever. They understand that a magic trick is all about turning illusion into substance in such a way that we never fully comprehend what happened, or what we think happened. They know that a trick loses its power once we understand how it was done, and also that it loses its power once we no longer wish to understand how it was done.

    There are four elements to this grand tug-of-war between substance and illusion. There is effect, there is method, there is misdirection, and finally, when it’s all over, there is reconstruction. Magic is a dance between these four elements. The actor playing a magician seeks to choreograph a way through the trick with these component parts. If he does so, he will have achieved magic. If not, he is a failure.

    The author uses those paragraphs to introduce an explanation that extends for some pages (and quite a good one, I must say) of how an artist produces his illusion/magic, but that is not why I have quoted them here. Rather, they serve as a précis of the elements that Galloway will keep in play in the novel itself: there’s effect, method, misdirection and reconstruction involved, we just don’t know which is predominent at any moment.

    Like the previous novel, this one comes with three narrative streams:

  • One is Houdini’s life itself, starting in 1897 when he and wife Bess are part of a travelling vaudeville show in the American mid-West. In the opening passage of this thread, Houdini, with Bess’s help, resorts to a cheap spiritualist trick that ends up disgusting him — it is the origin of his obsession to develop his talents as a craft, not merely some perverse show that produces commercial success.
  • The second is the story of Martin Strauss, set in 1926. While he is introduced as a McGill University student deeply in love with one Clara, that’s part of the author’s “misdirection” — he turns out to be the person who punches Houdini in the abdomen and ruptures his appendix.
  • The third is Martin in “the present day”, some decades on from that punch. We are introduced to him just after he has been diagnosed with tinnitus “where you hear a ringing that isn’t there…a symptom of other maladies, but the constant hum of nonexistent sound has been known to drive the afflicted to madness and suicide.” We also learn in that passage that he has also recently come into contact with Houdini’s daughter, Alice. And, with dramatic foreshadowing, “what no one knows, save for myself and one other person who likely died long ago, is that I didn’t just kill Harry Houdini. I killed him twice.”
  • The novel alternates between those three streams in both voice and time, but it also involves three contextual elements that become increasingly interwoven as it proceeds:

  • Houdini’s magic: Galloway has done his homework so we don’t just get that longish explanation of how it works, but also a number of detailed explanations recounting (and revealing) some of his most famous illusions — both those that he used frequently and memorable one-off events. If you like magic and don’t want it spoiled, give this book a miss on that front.
  • Spiritualism: The incident that provoked Houdini’s disgust turned into a life-long crusade against this gang. Even he admitted that both magic and spiritualism shared the four elements described above but whereas he was openly an entertainer charging admission, the spiritualists used them to create power and to abuse it. In a generation where prominent individuals ranging from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King to American cabinet ministers were acknowledged spiritualists, that abuse could have globally damaging effects.
  • State manipulators: Government intelligence and spying are based on the same four elements — so both magicians and spiritualists are attractive resources for national secret services in pursuit of their own devious ends. The CIA, MI5 and Soviet intelligence all feature in the book, determined to co-opt people like Houdini as agents for their own agendas of power.
  • (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT)

    While all those elements and people were part of the real-life story, Galloway needs to severely adjust reality for the purposes of the novel as he hints early on with the “I killed him twice” reference. Since the author reveals the secrets of many Houdini tricks, I don’t feel particularly guilty about revealing his own big one here (albeit after an appropriate warning): in this book, Houdini did not die from that ruptured appendix. Rather, it was a ruse that allowed him to go underground and devote his life to pursuing his anti-spiritualist crusade.

    (END OF SPOILER ALERT)

    As you can probably tell from that summary, there is a lot going on in this novel — and that was the source of most of my problems with it. One of the problems with multiple narrative streams is that just when you get interested in the one you are reading, the author abruptly moves to another. In addition to the voices and elements that I have described, Galloway in each stream includes a wealth of personal detail and story designed to humanize his characters but which end up confusing the bigger story even further. While part of that may well have been deliberate “misdirection”, I found myself often uninterested in what the concluding “reconstruction” was — to use the author’s own words, “it loses its power once we no longer wish to understand how it was done”.

    That certainly did not happen all the time, but it came often enough that it was a source of frustration. Perhaps an even bigger factor in my ambivalent response is that I found the opening “tricks” much more successful that I did the later ones. While I’d give Galloway an A for ambition with this one, for this reader the execution falls well short of that mark.

    The Lobster Kings, by Alexi Zentner

    June 8, 2014

    Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

    Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

    Second novels from authors whose debuts have been very impressive always face an uphill challenge. Will the author break free from — or extend — the elements that defined that first success or merely try to repeat them? Can he or she maintain the strengths (be it structure, plot, voice, prose, or whatever) that worked while finding some new spice to add to the mix? And finally a winning debut automatically produces raised reader expectations for effort number two — a challenge that is difficult even for authors with a string of successes.

    Alexi Zentner’s 2011 debut, Touch, certainly fits the category of “impressive” and not just in the opinion of this reviewer. Now published in more than a dozen countries, it made a number of prize longlists, including the Giller and Governor-General’s in Canada. A multi-generational story set in British Columbia gold rush country (but featuring a logging community, not a mining one), it featured an intriguing cast of frontier characters, all of whom the author developed fully. While most of the narrative was straight-forward, Zentner showed the impressive ability to occasionally introduce “unreal” elements (mythical, spiritual, even “natural” — the novel features one of the most massive snowstorms in my experience in fiction) that sent his story off in a totally different direction.

    I will cut straight to the chase: for this reader, his second novel, The Lobster Kings, is even better than the debut. It does have some issues (which I’ll mention later in the review) that may cause others not to share that opinion — I’ll just say that as I approached the finish, I felt even more enrolled in the book that I had with Touch.

    The Lobster Kings is also a multi-generational story — and it too involves a “frontier”, although it is cross-continent from the setting of Touch. The Kings family of the title has lived on Loosewood Island off the coast of New Brunswick and Maine for almost 300 years. Brumfitt Kings was the island’s first “settler” back in 1720, left behind by the Irish fishing fleet to tend to the drying racks, gear and supplies that would be needed when they returned for the next fishing season.

    To catch his first lobster, Brumfitt didn’t bother with boats or traps or anything more complicated than simply wading into the water at low tide and gaffing a lobster ten or twelve pounds or more. He caught lobsters five feet long. When I was young I heard old men down at the harbour and in the diner talking about how when their grandfathers were boys they saw lobster claws nailed to the sides of boathouses, claws big enough to crush a man’s head. The lobsters are smaller now, but they’ve done well for the Kings. Back when I was a girl in school, we were told about how lobsters used to be cheap trash fish for filling bellies, but it’s hard to believe. Daddy and I both drop pots and haul lines and he’s raised all three of us girls on the money the lobsters bring in.

    That excerpt is from the opening paragraph of the novel and Zentner has already thrown his first curve to the reader — “back when I was a girl”. The second-oldest Kings son has always been the “king” of Loosewood Island. Woody Kings (the “Daddy” of the quote) is in his late 50s and will soon have to leave the back-breaking work of lobster fishing — Cordelia, the narrator of the novel and skipper of Kings’ Ransom, is in line to become the first “matriarch” Kings to “rule” Loosewood Island.

    Second-oldest son? Here’s where the mystical creeps in. Family legend says that Brumfitt’s wife was a mermaid who emerged from the sea wearing a pearl necklace (which is still in the family). She promised bountiful prosperity to the Kings who would rule both island and surrounding sea, but there would be a price: the first-born son of each generation would be claimed by the sea.

    That prophecy has proved true ever since, including in the present generation — Cordelia’s brother drowned in a fishing accident when he was eight. In this generation, there is no second son to take over.

    Cordelia has been aware of all this since she was a child as reading Brumfitt’s old diaries has long been a favorite pastime. Also, Brumfitt was not just a diarist, he was a painter (there isn’t much to do when you are the only soul on an island for an entire winter) and not just any amateur. His “folk art” works which feature Loosewood Island, its people (including himself and family) and mythical sea creatures are represented in major gallery collections in both the U.S. and Canadian northeast. When the lobster season shuts down for the summer on Loosewood, “Brumfitt tourists” are the island’s sole source of revenue. And some of them choose to stay, so the island now has a well-established artistic community.

    Times are changing, however, and not just with the prospect of a matriarch Kings. The fishers of James Harbor, the closest mainland community, are crowding each other out of fishing areas and lobster stock is declining: they have started dropping their traps off Loosewood Island. While there is no legally protected space, there is a generations-old code of honor about who gets to fish where — and this “invasion” needs to be met. One of the jobs of the ruling Kings is to serve as the Loosewood community leader in the response.

    In fact, the invasion is even worse than one of fishing territory. For some years, mainland fishers with a need for money have been running loads of marijuana from Canada to U.S. shores — one trip yields as much cash as a couple months of fishing. Now the lower elements of James Harbor have expanded into meth production and distribution. Drugs have never been part of Loosewood culture and the small community wants no part of them now.

    Just to complete my sketch of the key elements of the book, let me add a few of the human ones. Cordelia has two sisters, neither of whom want any part of being on the water, but who are equally attached to Loosewood and its history. And her “sternman” Kenny, husband of the local teacher (and they are both from “away”), is both handsome and adept. Cordelia, who has always restricted her relationships with men to summer flings with visitors, is discovering a personal side that she has not experienced before.

    Given that sketch, it does not take to much imagination to speculate on how the plot develops. For this reader, by the time Zentner was starting to pull all those elements together I was more than willing to go along for the trip. And I was more than satisfied when the dramatic final chapters came to a close.

    Now about those concerns that I mentioned earlier. With the range of elements he uses, from the mermaid and deadly curse at one end to the violence of drug dealing at the other, Zentner needs a fair bit of unlikely coincidence and happenstance to pull his story lines together. I was more than willing to accept that because I found his characters, especially Cordelia, to be worth granting the licence — those who are less enrolled by the characters may be more disturbed by some of the unlikely developments.

    Perhaps more of an issue for those less impressed with the novel than me will be the sentimentality that runs through the book, including its conclusion. Sentimentality is one of those “killer” elements that frequently sinks a novel (Aside: In a Martin Amis presentation I was at a couple years back, he confessed that it is only in the last few years he has allowed himself to be “sentimental”). It didn’t bother me (although I confess I was conscious of it) because I had positive feelings for all the members of the Kings family — I suspect some readers will find it more of a hurdle.

    Those caveats noted, The Lobster Kings was still a five-star success. I’ll be awaiting Zentner’s third novel with even higher expectations than I had for this second one.

    Barracuda, by Christos Tsiolkas

    May 26, 2014

    Purchase at The Book Depository

    Purchased at The Book Depository

    The defining moment in Danny Kelly’s life comes on his very first day at Cunt’s College in Melbourne. No, that is not the real name of the prep school, but it is what Danny calls it. He comes from working class, immigrant stock (his hair-stylist mother is Greek, his truck-driving dad has an Irish mother and Scottish father) and it is only because of his swimming ability that he has won a scholarship to the upper-class school.

    The rich boys at his first swimming practice have been mocking Danny’s “loose synthetic bathers”:

    They were all wearing shiny new Speedos, the brand name marked in yellow across their arses. Danny’s swimmers were from Forges — there was no way his mum was going to spend half a day’s pay on a piece of lycra. And good on her. Good on her, but he still felt like shit.

    The Coach keeps Danny back after that first day of practice:

    ‘Why do you take their shit?’

    You could hear his accent in the way he pronounced the word, ‘chit’.

    Danny shrugged. ‘Dunno’.

    ‘Son, always answer back when you receive an insult. Do it straight away. Even if there’s a chance there was nothing behind it, take back control, answer them back. An insult is an attack. You must counter it. You understand?’

    It is February, 1994 when Danny gets that advice and he will live by it for the rest of his life. The Coach has seen him swim before (that’s how Danny came by the scholarship) and knows he is a rare talent. It won’t take long before Danny ranks at the top of the Cunts College team — and even the rich boys have to grant the “Barracuda” their respect. And the Coach has never trained an Olympic swimmer.

    Danny soon has a life goal. After he wins the Australian championship, he’ll move on to the Pan-Pacific and then the Commonwealth Games. And he will win gold for Australia at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. It gives nothing away to say that one of the lessons of Barracuda is that dreams are easy to create and can just as easily be shattered.

    That summarizes one of the two narrative threads in Barracuda. We know from the start of the novel when author Tsiolkas introduces the second thread that that dream has not come to pass.

    In this thread (set some time after 2000) we meet Danny in Glasgow, searching for a scarf that he wants to take to his great-aunt Rosemary whom he is about to visit in Edinburgh. We also learn quickly that Danny is gay, but his relationship with his partner, Clyde, is somewhat rocky. And the main reason it is rocky is that Danny is homesick for Australia.

    Homesickness, I am discovering, is not a matter of climate or landscape; it does not descend on you from unfamiliar architecture. Homesickness hits hardest in the middle of a crowd in a large, alien city. Oh, how I miss the Australian face.

    Barracuda is a longish novel (513 pages in my version, although the type is a decent size, the spacing generous and the narrative quickly paced) but that summary of the two threads pretty much defines the book — it is a story of the trials and tribulations that happen on the road from A at the prep school to B, the young adult Danny in Glasgow, desperate to get back to Australia.

    Tsiolkas attracted a lot of attention with his last novel, The Slap, (shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and IMPAC, winner of the Commonwealth Prize and longlisted for the 2010 Booker) and for good reason. Another longish book, it took an apparently mundane backyard barbeque incident (the “slap” of the title) and turned it into several hundred pages of consequences that took us inside Australian society today. (It has also been turned into an excellent television mini-series that is worth hunting down if you aren’t up to reading the book.)

    Barracuda is at its best when Tsiolkas is exploring those themes. Those of us who live in the Old Dominions are well aware of the stories of second-generation immigrants like Danny — he may have Greek, Irish and Scot’s blood in his veins, but he is a living example of the “new” Australia. The cold shoulders he experiences at school and later are familiar territory as Australia (and Canada for that matter) moves into the 21st century and Barracuda features a wealth of sub-plots and characters which develop that part of the story.

    While I loved that aspect of the book, I have to confess that the two principle themes wore thin before I reached the halfway point. Danny is not an uninteresting character, but he is not a particularly deep one — and the “chip-on-his-shoulder” device becomes entirely too familiar long before the end of the novel is in sight. As well, the present tense thread of the story lacks the depth and appeal of Danny’s student days — two-thread novels require the author to keep both of them equally interesting, I’m afraid, and Tsiolkas did not do that in this book.

    Despite those quibbles, Barracuda is a worthwhile read. The author has an eye for cinematic qualities (I wouldn’t be surprised to see this one show up as a tv mini-series as well) and his understanding of the challenges of multi-cultural Australia adds a layer of depth to the novel, just as it did in The Slap. I don’t think this one will do nearly as well in the prize wars as The Slap did but you can’t hit for six with every ball (that was my Canadian attempt at a cricket reference).

    2014 kimbofoI have had Barracuda on hand for some months, but saved reading it so I could include it in Kimbofo’s Australia and New Zealand Literature Month project. If you click here it will take you to her site and a host of links to reviews of fiction from the Antipodes (25 at last count) and numerous sites with even more Aussie and Kiwi titles. It is a great project to acquaint those of us in the rest of the world with the excellent writing that is going on there — and Tsiolkas is a worthy example. While the month is coming to a close, I still intend to get to a New Zealand example, Charlotte Grimshaw’s Soon, so stay tuned.


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