Archive for October, 2012

And the Real Giller winner is…

October 30, 2012

Here’s the Real Jury’s citation for Will Ferguson’s 419:

“Will Ferguson’s 419 points in the direction of something entirely new: the Global Novel. It is a novel emotionally and physically at home in the poverty of Lagos and in the day-to-day of North America. It tells us the ways in which we are now bound together and reminds us of the things that will always keep us apart. It brings us the news of the world far beyond the sad, hungry faces we see on CNN and CBC and far beyond the spreadsheets of our pension plans. Ferguson is a true travel writer, his eye attuned to the last horrible detail. He is also a master at dialogue and suspense. It is tempting to put 419 in some easy genre category, but that would only serve to deny its accomplishment and its genius.”

For Shadow Jury reviews, Kimbofo’s is here, Trevor’s here and KfC’s here.

For the second year in a row, the Real Jury endorsed the second choice of the Shadow Jury. Okay, for the second year in a row, Shadow Juror Kimbofo’s first choice was the same as the Real Jury choice — and her fellow Shadow Jurors talked her into accepting her second choice. As I said earlier, next year we may have to give her 200 points to spread around in the first vote.

Ferguson is a fellow Calgarian — the first to win the Giller. Full congratulations to him as a deserving winner.

For those who didn’t see the broadcast, the CBC did quite a good job — particularly on introducing and interviewing the authors (some of the non-book stuff was less impressive). If you have been following the Giller it might be worth checking their site for a web version.

And that ends the 2012 Giller. See you again in 2013.

The 2012 Shadow Giller winner is…

October 28, 2012

If you have trouble reading type on pictures, that would be The Imposter Bride, by Nancy Richler.

Once again, deliberations were quick — the initial ratings from all four jurors showed almost unanimous agreement that two books rated ahead of the other three on the shortlist (Will Ferguson’s 419 was the other choice). However, three of us had Richler’s novel ahead and the fourth had it a close second.

The Shadow Giller always attempts to be transparent, so here’s how the judging went.

First, I asked each juror to spread 100 points around the five shortlisted books and here’s what that produced:

a. Kim: Ferguson 39, Richler 36, Ohlin 10, Wangersky 9, Thuy 6
b. Trevor: Richler 35, Thuy 30, Ferguson 25, Wangersky 10, Ohlin 0
c. Alison: Richler 24, Ferguson 23, Wangersky 20, Thuy 17, Ohlin 16
d. Kevin: Richler 24, Ferguson 21, Wangersky 20, Thuy 18, Ohlin 17

e. Total: Richler 119, Ferguson 108, Thuy 71, Wangersky 59, Ohlin 43

Each juror also offered short comments on their ranking:

a. Kim: To be honest, I’m playing it safe here, but I’d be happy for either 419 or The Imposter Bride to win it. I’ve only given 419 the edge because it’s more ambitious and about a subject that hasn’t really been covered in fiction before and I do like a good socio-political thriller, although The Imposter Bride is definitely more polished, flows much better and left me with a lump in my throat! (That said, the Jewish refugee angle is a well worn one.)

b. Trevor: I didn’t know they would end up quite that close, but in truth I am fine with any of the top three winning, which I find a bit troubling. After all, I would like to have loved one enough to put it way on top.

That said, I did like four of them. I thought The Imposter Bride was a good read, well written with superb storytelling skills. It was a bit more reliant on plot mechanics than I usually like, but overall, it is my top choice, and I can see myself recommending it to certain readers. In second, I put Ru, which I liked quite a bit, especially since it is the only book on this list that I thought was using language and structure to underlie its themes. 419 was entertaining and all, and I enjoyed it, but again, heavy on the plot mechanics and not entirely to my taste. For the short stories, I was very impressed with parts and unimpressed with the whole. I found some of the stories to be simple exercises, which I don’t like at all as it goes against my defense of the short story. That said, there were parts I found extraordinary, enough that I could be persuaded to give it more points.

c. Alison: The Imposter Bride (most consistent in merits) – 24
419 (parts were great, but some didn’t work) – 23
Whirling Away (great writer, but not all stories great) – 20
Ru (too much of muchness – resonant, but not moving) – 17
Inside (some lovely writing, some not so strong and plot went off the rails) – 16

d. Kevin: While I was grumpy in my review of The Imposter Bride (and admitted in concluding it that that was probably a product of similarities in plot to other longlist books that I had just finished reading), it is one of those books that has improved daily in memory since I finished it. There is not a lot of drama to the story, but it is complex and Richler does an excellent job of melding the many parts of her story. The sense of “family” that she ends up conveying is very powerful. And as a Canadian, the portrait she paints of a generation of Montreal Jews (a contrast in tone but not sense to her distant relative Mordecai, one of my favorite authors) is excellent. As Kim noted, there are a lot of Jewish refugee books but I don’t think this one falls into a trap of cliché in the genre. My biggest concern would probably be the use of the diary as a convenient plot device – it bothered me when I read the book but that concern has diminished. I think Ferguson’s novel is more ambitious and in the end that provided some problems which provoked my listing it second. The Calgary parts and Laura’s story work quite well; the closer the author gets to trying to tell Nigerian stories, the weaker the book got. I’ve discovered from comments on the blog since I posted the review that a Nigerian writer has already produced a novel on the 419 phenomenon that I was not aware of (I Do Not Come to You By Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani). I was a bit concerned about appropriation of voice when I read the book, I’ll admit, and it is a concern that has not gone away. So while Ferguson would get the edge from me for ambition, I think Richler’s better execution (as Kim points out in her excellent review – better than mine, I must say) gives her the edge for me.

Since three of us had The Imposter Bride first and Kim said in her comments she had trouble selecting between the two, the chair suggested we make it the choice and all agreed. Now, those who followed the 2011 Shadow Jury deliberations might remember that we had a similar situation last year: a tilt toward The Free World by David Bezmozgis, although Kim ranked Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan first and the Real Jury agreed with her. So, if this year’s Real Jury picks 419, we may have to give Kim 200 votes to spread around next year.

(It is also worth noting that Trevor pays more attention to language and structure than the other three of us do — if that describes your taste, you might want to think about Ru.)

You can find links to reviews of the winner and other shortlisted novels from Kim, Trevor and KfC in the sidebar over to the right — do check them out. I think it is fair to say that we didn’t find this year’s longlist quite up to the quality of last year’s, but we still had a great time with the 2012 Shadow Giller. Now it is just a matter of sitting back a couple of days to see what the Real Jury decides (I doubt we will learn as much about their judging as I have tried to supply here :-) ). Thanks to everyone who followed along with us.

My Life Among The Apes, by Cary Fagan

October 26, 2012

Purchased at Indigo.ca

When the 2012 Giller Prize longlist was announced, perhaps the greatest source of puzzlement was the inclusion of Cary Fagan’s short story collection, My Life Among The Apes. Fagan is best known for his award-winning children’s books — the five adult novels and three story collections that he had previously published attracted little attention. I have to say after reading the ten story collection, I am still scratching my head at what the jury was thinking. This has been a very good year for short fiction in Canada (nine of the 78 titles longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award were Canadian — this was not one of them). Finding this to be one of the two best (Russell Wangersky’s Whirl Away was the other collection on the longlist and it moved on to the shortlist) still seems odd. Perhaps it is an indication that with precious few exceptions (come on down, Alice Munro — a review of her new collection Dear Love will be up here soon) evaluating short stories is even more idiosyncratic than most literary rankings.

That judgment aside, there is nothing “bad” about Fagan’s ten stories — “ordinary” would be my tempered description. Given his extensive list of publications, Fagan knows how to write and all of the stories are quite readable. Most, however, reminded me of the days of yore when more magazines published short fiction: you’d read the piece, think “that was okay” and then move on to the next article (maybe that’s why the New Yorker makes the weekly fiction contribution the last of its long articles?).

Two of the ten did rise above that description — ‘Lost At Sea’ (22 pages) and ‘The Little Underworld of Edison Wiese’ (35 pages) happen to be the longest in the book, which suggests Fagan should perhaps consider adding a novella to his already wide range of publications. For short story aficionados (yes, they do exist although it is hardly a mass movement) they alone might be reason enough to buy the book.

Toronto’s PATH network

Some background is necessary before we get into a discussion of ‘Edison Wiese’. Every large city in a northern climate needs to find a way to create a downtown retail sector that can function during the brutal weather of winter. In my home of Calgary, it is the “Plus 15″, an extended string of stores and interior walkways one story above ground with enclosed pedestrian “bridges” across streets — ground level stores are in the “basement” from November to April. Toronto (with a subway for public transit) went the opposite direction: PATH is a 17-mile underground network (that is not a typo) that includes 1,200 retail and service outlets, employing more than 5,000 people. If your Toronto condo building is hooked into PATH, you can survive the entire winter without going outdoors, although I can testify from experience that without any landmarks it is only too easy to get hopelessly lost and find the need to head up to ground level to get a bearing on where you are. Consider it the antithesis of Regent Street or Fifth Avenue — lots of opportunities to spend money, but aboslutely no distinguishing architecture.

Edison is one of those 5,000 underground workers, a barista, server, busboy, dishwasher and sweeper, sole employee in one of the little coffee shops that can be found throughout the PATH network. He is somewhat slow and shy — the “underworld” of the story title is not just where he works but also reflects that much of his life takes place in his mind even while he is active in the real world (if 17 miles of underground retail can be considered “real”):

How terrible is the morning rush, so many desperate faces, such weighty grief. And always we fail in our modest but honourable responsibilites.

Take it as evidence of Edison’s delusions, this fragment of the unrolling inner monologue. Edison fills a line of Styrofoam cups with boiled coffee, lids and then nestles them into paper bags beside muffins, croissants, bagels with slabs masquerading as cream cheese. He takes in bills, he gives change. It is the usual morning crush, if perhaps a bit more frantic owing to this being the last day of the year, and Edison’s thoughts would have to be considered exaggerated by any balanced person. Perhaps it is a good thing that he cannot get these thoughts out easily, for Edison stutters, an impediment since early childhood. Already he is on his third carafe of the morning and has to turn from the counter to fill a new filter with grounds. As the morning customers all want American coffee, the espresso machine sits forlorn (Edison’s word) on the adjacent counter, its brass dome reflecting the gaunt visages (Edison again) as they swarm and recede. Many of those customers are already pullling back the plastic tabs to take scalding swallows before they are even out of the cafe.

Every day is the same in this underground mall cafe beneath a sixty-three-storey building, down to the customers themselves and when they appear. The office workers storm the place until nine (e.g. The Wasp, Edison’s name for the woman who always wears a tightly fitted belt, is just one example). The crush lessens then and the next, slower wave of customers tend to be male: “senior executive types who can afford to drift into their offices at leisure”. After that, business is very slow but there are regulars: The Hand Woman (homeless, living in PATH, named by Edison because her shawl is stitched from dozens of abandoned gloves and mittens), Mr. Lapidarus (for whom the cafe is a second home, who always asks for Irish Breakfast and a scone and then graciously accepts the discount orange pekoe which is all that is on offer).

Fagan establishes this mini-cast of characters well (I haven’t mentioned the owner, Edison’s own parents or several others). The story gets more intriguing as closing time arrives — Edison finds excuses to avoid locking up because he has no desire at all to go to the New Year’s Eve party his parents are hosting. Mr. Lapidarus arrives, a convenient reason to keep the cafe open longer. A string trio, booked for an office party they can’t find, drops in and unpacks their instruments. Eventually, all the regular oddballs (and Edison’s parents) are on hand and a New Year’s Eve party evolves. In the soulless (if warm) world of the 17-mile underground mall, the tiny cafe is as close to a centre of “community” as you can get. Perhaps personal experience colors my impression of ‘The Little Underworld of Edison Wiese’ — I am quite certain that the model for Fagan’s cafe was located in the baswement of the building next to the one where I worked for two years in Toronto.

I am going to give much shorter shrift to ‘Lost At Sea’, but it too shows Fagan’s ability to establish a sense of place — this time, Cape Cod. Two recent 23-year-old graduates from the University of Toronto, Jeffrey and Nadia, both contemplating what the next step is in their life, head from Toronto to Cape Cod. While Nadia has applied to chiropractic college in Ottawa, she is indulging herself with a seven-day “apprenticeship” with Bernard Aronson of Wellfleet who is known for his hand-made chairs: “She had read an article in The New York Times about how he used only traditional hand tools to make reproductions of early Americana. It was physical work, too, another kind of usefulness, and she had long had a fantasy of working as an artisan of some kind.”

‘Lost At Sea’ has three strong threads to it, a significant achievement for a 20-page story. Fagan gives us a good picture of non-tourist season Cape Cod (the only time that Mrs. KfC and I have been there), its quaint towns, its “wilderness” and its beaches. He offers more than a sketch of artisan carpentry. Most central to the story, however, is his focus on the dissolving of a love affair, something only too familiar to those who remember their twenties.

I wish that I could report that the other eight stories (or at least some of them) had the impact that these two did. If I can borrow some critical phrasing from my fellow Shadow Giller judge Trevor (who reads more short story writers than I do), too many of them read like “exercises” — an okay exploration of an aspect of the genre, but lacking the completeness that marks the success of a good short story. Much in the way that Toronto’s PATH system doesn’t have the life or soul of Regent Street or Fifth Avenue.

Kimbofo reviews The Imposter Bride

October 24, 2012

Kimbofo has posted her review of Nancy Richler’s The Imposter Bride — you can read the full review here (and my earlier review here).

Here are the opening paragraphs of Kimbofo’s review:

Nancy Richler’s The Imposter Bride is set in post-war Montreal and tells the story of a Jewish refugee and the daughter she abandoned a few months after her birth.

Lily Azerov is Polish and has no living relatives. She hopes to start a new life in Canada, where she is due to marry a man with whom she has been corresponding for some time. But when Sol Kramer sees her step off the train, he rejects her as “damaged goods”.

All, however, is not lost. Sol’s younger brother, Nathan, marries her instead, and the couple set up home with Nathan’s widowed mother, Bella.

But Lily, presumably grief-stricken by the loss of so many family members in the Second World War, cannot really function properly and holes herself up in her room, too miserable and depressed to talk to anyone. When she gives birth to the couple’s first child, a daughter called Ruth, things do not get any easier, and one day, under the pretense of going out to buy a quart of milk, she never returns.

This sets up the premise for a multi-layered, finely crafted novel about the ways in which these two women’s lives are forever bound to one another, and how one decision — to walk out on someone you love — can have a lifetime’s worth of repercussions.

Our Daily Bread, by Lauren B. Davis

October 23, 2012

Purchased at Indigo.ca

The conflict between the heathen mountaineer clan — criminal, incestuous, child-abusing — and god-fearing townies — upright, uptight, judgmental — is not just a convenient fictional device, it is all too often a feature of the real world. Indeed, author Lauren Davis says in an afterword to Our Daily Bread that the novel was inspired by time she spent in Nova Scotia in the early 1970s when she heard stories of the Goler Clan, a tale that has already inspired a non-fiction account, On South Mountain: The Dark Secrets of the Goler Clan (1998).

Davis does includes examples from both those extremes to set a context for her account. The clan here are the Erskines of North Mountain, who have recently abandoned their homebrew operation in favor of producing methamphetamine. Since the Erskines have always been heavy consumers of their own product, the new enterprise means that both the stupor of the adults and their abuse of the children has increased. On the other side of the mountain/townie divide, the author frequently introduces chapters with excerpts from fire and brimstone sermons delivered between 1852 and 2009 at the Church of Christ Returning in the nearby town of Gideon. For a century and a half, the pastors have regarded the mountain crew as destined for hell — even though the “church” is now located in a former warehouse, that message has not changed.

What gives distinction to Davis’ work, however, is that she uses those conflicting poles only for context. Her central cast, all of whom become well developed characters, consists of a number of individuals who are located somewhere along the spectrum between the poles — closer to one end than the other, for sure, but not really at home in either world.

Albert Erskine, 22, is the breakaway from the mountain clan. He left the “adults” compound there a few years back and built his own ramshackle cabin. While he is a reader, unlike anyone else there, he has no trade — he gets by growing and selling marijuana, a substance that, illegal as it might be, causes less damage than what the elders used to produce. He is on his way back from tending his marijuana patch when he discovers the new enterprise:

The rusty, pearly-yellow trailer tilted on its blocks. The windows were covered with tin foil. The breeze shifted and the scent of something sickly sweet wafted toward him. And something else…ammonia? Jesus. Albert crept to a stand of trees closer to the trailer to get a better look. A small pile of rubbish lay half-hidden under some branches. Used coffee filters. Part of an old car battery. Drain cleaner. Dozens of empty cold remedy packets. If things had been bad on the mountain before, Albert suspected they were about to get worse. Much worse. Meth made everything worse.

As much as Albert would like to escape to the broader world, he cannot — he can leave the compound but he can’t leave the mountain, because it is the only world he knows.

His townie “counterpart” is Bobby Evans, 15-year-old son of Tom and Patty. Bobby’s parents (who themselves aren’t part of the church crowd) have been going through a rough patch — perhaps “decade” would be a more accurate description — so in addition to the usual teenage angst, Bobby has “home” issues and is looking for escape. He thinks he may have found it when he runs into Albert, dozing on a warm slab of rock by the river:

Albert took another drag off his cigarette and Bobby did the same, inhaling this time and managing not to cough. Albert sat up, pitched a small stone in the water, making it skip five times before it sank. Bobby pitched a stone as well but it sank after three skips and he tried another but it merely plonked into the water. Albert considered the boy, who was now picking the moss off the side of the rock and rolling bits between his fingers. Big hands, but narrow wrists. Growing into his bones, yet with a ways to go. Could be thirteen, but was probably older. He was a nice-looking kid, even if he was too pale. Nervous, though. There was an air of vulnerability about him.

Not all mentoring relationships are positive, as we shall find out. Davis, however, introduces another one that is — Bobby’s 10-year-old sister, Ivy, takes refuge in the antique shop of Dorothy Carlisle when she is being bullied by a couple of school mates (pretty much the whole town except for Bobby, Ivy and their dad thinks Patty Evans is sleeping around). Dorothy is a widower approaching senior citizenship who normally has no time for children; she takes a shine to Ivy, bereft of both friends and functioning parents, and soon becomes a substitute mother/grandmother who finally puts warm human contact into the young girl’s life.

Dorothy, in fact, is the link who touches all these “in-between” people. The reason that Albert Erskine is a reader is that some years ago Dorothy discovered that he liked books — so in addition to the boxes of clothing and food for the children that she and her husband regularly left by the side of the road up to the compound, she started leaving books as well. She’s continued the practice since her husband died. And while she doesn’t know Bobby well, she knows enough of him to be concerned that he is chumming around with Albert, as much as she might care about the Erskine boy. And when Patty does a runner, leaving Tom and the kids behind, with Tom predictably taking to the bottle, it is Dorothy who intervenes to try to introduce some stability into the family.

It is no spoiler to say that the situation that the “in-between” group finds themselves in twixt mountain clan and townies does get resolved and, yes, violence is involved. In a novel where the real strength is the depth of characterization Davis achieves, that calls for some licence on the reader’s part.

And that is not the only licence that needs to be extended. One particular example: beyond the obvious “locator” function of the sermon excerpts, they serve little purpose. As the novel went on, I increasingly found myself merely skimming them, never a good sign. And a number of the events that are needed late in the book to shift from character to resolving plot also put strain on credibility.

Our Daily Bread made the Giller longlist, but failed to move on to the shortlist — for what it is worth, I think the flaws that I mention were probably the reason. Despite the fact that it isn’t really my kind of book, I did find it well worth the read — I would have ranked it ahead of two of the books that did make the shortlist (Inside and Ru if you are wondering which ones).

Trevor reviews Ru

October 23, 2012

Giller Prize night is only a week away and reviews from Shadow Giller jurors are coming fast and furious. The latest is Trevor’s review of Kim Thúy’s Ru — a novel that KfC reviewed way back in January. Trevor’s full review is here. For a taste, here are the opening paragraphs of his thoughts:

After my response to Alix Ohlin’s Inside (here), I was wary to continue my Giller shortlist reading. None of the five books is one I would have sought out were it not for the Giller Prize, though often I’m happily surprised with the discoveries the prize leads to. I was hopeful, then, that Ru (2009; tr. from the French by Sheila Fischman, 2012) might just be this year’s discovery. After all, it won Canada’s Governor General’s Award when it was first published in French, and my admiration for translator Sheila Fischman is growing. Still, after hearing others say it is a Hallmark-card book and very typical of sentimental immigrant stories, I had my doubts.

I’m happy to say that I liked Ru quite a bit. It’s not a book I’d rush out to promote on the streets, but if it wins the Giller Prize I wouldn’t think this was a bad year, after all (if Inside wins, however . . .).

Our first-person narrator, Nguyen An Tinh, was born in 1968, in Saigon, Vietnam, during the Tet Offensive, as was our author (just how much of this is fact and how much fiction, I don’t know). She’s telling this story many years removed from that day and half a world away from Saigon. Now a mother of two, she lives in Quebec, and this book is an attempt to connect the dots, to make some kind of narrative, between Saigon and Quebec. It’s a worthy goal but is perhaps ultimately futile. As she says of her own children: “Because of our exile, my children have never been extensions of me, of my history.”

Told in a series of short vignettes, this novel of fragments mimics the fragmented life the narrator has lived. Finding themselves enemies to their own country, when the narrator is ten years old she and her family escape Vietnam with the boat people, going first to Malaysia and then to Canada. I felt the fragmented style worked without becoming annoying. In fact, I rather liked the flow and found the segments, most not even a page in length and seemingly in random order, nicely written, bearing a sense of gravity common in such books, but also showing some nuance that is often absent when writers feel the gravity is enough.

Kimbofo reviews Whirl Away

October 23, 2012

Kimbofo has added to her reviews of the Giller Prize shortlist with her thoughts on Russell Wangersky’s Whirl Away — her full review is here. I find it interesting on two fronts: we both confess our challenges in reviewing short story collections and both of us share two of the stories in our favorites from this collection. My review is here.

Here are the opening paragraphs from Kimbofo’s review to give you and indication of her thoughts:

At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, I always find it difficult to review a short story collection. Should I tackle each story in turn, or give my overall impression of the entire book? In the case of Russell Wangersky’s Giller shortlisted Whirl Away, I’m going to go for the latter option, but will single out the stories that I particularly enjoyed and that have stayed with me since finishing the collection more than a week ago.

A handful of standouts

There are 12 stories here, each of which is around 20 pages in length. While I enjoyed each one, there were a handful in particular that stood out, including: Family Law, about a down-to-earth divorce lawyer, who is having marriage problems of his own; and Look Away, about a lighthouse keeper who loathes his wife’s sloppy habits and one day cracks under the pressure.

But my two favourites, and the ones I’m still thinking about, are about a five-year-old boy (Echo) and a married man obsessed by car accidents (Sharp Corner). (To be honest, there are quite a few stories in this collection about road accidents and ambulances, perhaps a product of Wangersky’s newspaper background?)

In Echo, a perfect jewel of a story, Kevin Rowe is a five-year-old boy playing on the front deck of the white single-storey, vinyl-clad house he shares with his parents. As he plays in the sun, he talks to himself, making odd statements, such as, “There you go again. How many times do I have to listen to this stuff?” And: “Save it for someone who cares. Save it for someone who cares.” He is clearly imitating his father, a truck driver, who works long shifts.

Kimbofo reviews 419

October 22, 2012

My fellow Shadow Giller juror Kimbofo has posted her thoughts on Will Ferguson’s 419 — her full review is here. As a teaser, here are the opening paragraphs:

For me, the best kind of literature is the kind that makes you look at something afresh or takes you to a location (or time in history) that you would never normally visit. Will Ferguson’s 419 is that kind of literature.

In short, it is about a Canadian man who gets stung by a Nigerian email scam, but it is also about the cultural and financial disparity between Africa and the West. It is a heady mix of adventure story, crime fiction and global thriller — albeit with a distinctive 21st century twist.

Caught in a web of deception

This rather ambitious novel has multiple storylines and a wide cast of characters. The central thread revolves around the death of Henry Curtis, a retired school teacher now working as a part-time watchman, who dies in an unusual traffic accident: his car, travelling at very high speeds, runs off the road one night and tumbles into a snowy ravine underneath a bridge. Initially, it is thought he may have hit a patch of black ice, but later, when it is revealed that his car made two attempts to leave the road, his death is chalked up as suicide.

When the home he shares with his wife — also a retired school teacher — is repossessed by the bank, it appears that Mr Curtis had numerous, and hefty, financial debts. He had, rather naively, been taken in my an email scam (known in Nigeria as “419” after the criminal code which makes this kind of activity illegal), the type most of us would ignore or delete if they made their way through our SPAM filter.

419, by Will Ferguson

October 18, 2012

Purchased at Indigo.ca

If you have had an email account in the last decade, you know the “Nigerian scam” (now replaced by the “Egyptian scam”, but I digress). A message shows up in the inbox (or several in junk mail) from someone (cabinet minister, oil executive, innocent heiress) who needs First World help in getting money out of the country — and is willing to give you a significant share of the proceeds once that happens, which of course it never does.

In Nigeria, that business model is known as 419 — named after the section of the criminal code that makes the activity illegal. Actually, and this is key to author Will Ferguson’s premise, the “law” simply opens up another opportunity for bribe payments while at the same time ensuring the profitable continuance of an underground industry.

The device borders on cliche and author Ferguson, best known for his humor and travel writing, has taken some risk in making it the uniting theme of his first literary novel. So far, at least with this year’s Giller Prize jury, that gamble has worked, with not just a longlisting but a move onto the shortlist.

419 opens with a question-raising traffic accident in my hometown of Calgary, Alberta. Henry Curtis’ car has soared off an embankment in the city’s east end and he has died. There is more than one set of skid marks on the road where the “accident” occurred — Henry seems to have sped down the hill, braked, turned back and then taken another run before soaring off the cliff.

When the surviving members of the Curtis family meet with the Traffic Response Unit investigator the uncertainty expands:

“Can you fucking believe this?” It was Warren, turning to stare at his sister, eyes raw. “Dad drove off a cliff.”

“Warren,” said their mother. “Language, please.”

“Your father appears to have hit a patch of black ice,” the officer said. “It would be impossible to see. Missed the bridge onto Ogden Road, westbound off 50th. It’s an industrial area, and he was travelling at high speed. Very high.” As if he were fleeing something, Brisebois [the officer] wanted to say, but didn’t. Instead, he asked, “Where would he have been going that time of night?”

Ferguson has already given us a present-time teaser about a much bigger picture: a young woman has arrived at the airport in Lagos, Nigeria and is subjected to a predictable shakedown about what her two-day visit is supposed to involve.

And the author quickly introduces another complicating factor. Without anyone in the surviving family knowing it, the mortgage-free Curtis residence has been put up as collateral for a loan; it is now in default to the point that the bank is foreclosing. And Henry recently increased his life insurance coverage dramatically. When the police take his computer hard drive away, they discover an extended email exchange with Victor Okechukwu, Attorney at Law in Lagos, concerning the troubled circumstances of Sandra Atta, daughter of the late Director and Chairman of the Contract Award Committee for the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. Her father has died in a helicopter crash and her sizable fortune is now tied up by a criminal cabal of government officials — she needs help to access it.

The 2012 Giller Jury, in its shortlist citation for 419, salutes it as “something entirely new: the Global Novel”. I don’t think it is new at all and prefer a different term, the “widescreen novel”, coined a couple of years ago by my blogging friend John Self at the Asylum in his review of Rana Dasgupta’s Solo: “They are mostly by younger authors, and are ambitious works containing a large cast of characters, far-flung geographical settings, and modern history or political issues rendered in fiction.” (For my own discussion of the genre, check out my review of Kamilla Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows).

The internet scam gives us the modern political issue, we already have the traffic accident in Calgary, Canada to set up that stream and we know that a young North American woman has arrived in Lagos. Rather than trying to develop elements of the plot, let me offer thumbnail sketches of the key players in the cast of characters in 419:

– Laura Curtis is Henry’s daughter, the woman introduced at Lagos airport. While her brother Warren has gone ballistic over the money their father wasted, Laura has taken a different approach. She has headed to Nigeria with a semi-formed plan to get the money back, whatever amount of trickery that requires.

– Winston is the Nigerian cyberscammer who set all this in motion:

The young man in the silk shirt had found Laura’s father online through a forum used by retired schoolteachers, and had stalked him through cyberspace for weeks. And though the young man had other prospects he was now kneading like clay — a business owner from Tallahassee, a pastor from Country Wicklow — it was the retired schoolteacher, a plodding soul from the looks of it, posting comments on woodworking sites and online forums, and then commenting on the comments to his comments, posting his grandchildren’s photos and giving tips on awls and the best way to solder a seam, who the young man turned his gaze upon.

Winston’s problem is that he is an “independent” in the cyberscamming world and that world, too, has a hierarchy. He will fall into the clasp of that mafia-like order, which introduces some violence into the overall plot.

– For the global/widescreen novel to work, it requires an independent Nigerian stream. In 419 the key character of that one is Nnamdi, a child born to a fishing family in the oil-rich delta:

The boy’s father was speaking softly in river dialect, as he always did when speaking truths. “A father, a mother, must ask themselves this. If it gives the child a better life, would they? Would they die for their child?”

The oil companies will destroy the fishing life of the delta, making that question more topical. But along the way, Nnamdi is employed by them for a while, gaining technical and mechanical skills that are important for the eventual resolution of a number of 419’s sub-plot threads.

– and finally there is a nameless, pregnant African Sahel woman with ritual scars (she is the image featured on the cover of the Canadian edition) whom we meet as she heads south out of her tribe’s territory towards Lagos — she will eventually hook up with Nnamdi to provide another story line.

The advantage of widescreen novels is that they allow for multiple story threads, each of which has its own set of characters. While the looming global context is always present, each set of these is experiencing the impact on a purely personal level. The disadvantage of the genre is that all those story lines require a lot of background and the foreground, frankly, is pretty well known to the reader — quite a bit of not-very-compelling plowing and tilling needs to be done to set up each thread.

And, of course, all of the threads need to be brought together as the novel closes. Inevitably, that means the novelist has to have established enough trust with the reader that licence is granted for some highly unlikely plot developments as the book comes to a conclusion.

I didn’t dislike 419 but I certainly don’t share the Real Giller Jury’s enthusiasm for it. For me, the cyberscam angle worked well, even if its resolution was perhaps a bit too tidy. I quite liked Winston’s story and the threats that he faced once the cyberboss found him. Nnamdi’s story fell flat with this reader.

Compared to the other four shortlisted books, 419 is definitely more ambitious — I’d say that two jurors, Gary Shteyngart and Roddy Doyle, have in their own way attempted comparable versions (with limited success for this reader) which perhaps explains its presence on the shortlist. I only wish that Ferguson had come closer to realizing some of the expanse of the ambition in his original premise.

Kimbofo reviews Ru, by Kim Thúy

October 6, 2012

Kimbofo has launched herself into the Giller short list with a review of Ru — her full review is here. She and I had a very similar response to the novel — my review is here. Here are the opening paragraphs from Kimbofo’s review to give you a taste:

When Kim Thúy’s Ru was published in its original French language it won the Governor General’s Award for French language fiction at the 2010 Governor General’s Awards. Now the English edition, translated by the Canadian translator Sheila Fischman, has been shortlisted for the 2012 Giller Prize.

A refugee’s tale

Ru is an elegantly written tale about a woman who emigrates to Canada from Vietnam as a boat person. The narrator, Nguyên An Tinh, was born during the Tet Offensive, in the early days of the Year of the Monkey, “when the long chain of firecrackers draped in front of houses exploded polyphonically along with the sound of machine guns”.

The book reads very much like a fictionalised memoir (Thúy was also born in 1968 and came to Canada with her family as a refugee), but it doesn’t follow the normal conventions, particularly in terms of structure and narrative. In some ways it feels like a long poem, broken into extended stanzas (short chapters), in which the narrator recalls certain incidences from her life, and the lives of her parents, cousins and other relations, in non-chronological order. This means her narrative continually switches from the present — where she is a mother of an autistic son — to the past — the privileged life she led in Vietnam, the stint in a Malaysian Red Cross camp, a treacherous journey across the ocean — then back again.


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