Archive for the ‘2009 Giller Prize’ Category

The Sweet Girl, by Annabel Lyon

September 20, 2012

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

Annabel Lyon arrived on the Canadian literary scene with a very large splash in 2009 with her debut novel, The Golden Mean. It was shortlisted for all three major Canadian fiction prizes (winning the Writers’ Trust), was a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and has now been translated into fourteen languages.

Set in ancient Greece, the central story line of that novel concerns Aristotle’s role as a tutor to the youth who will become Alexander the Great — his job is to convince the headstrong son of Philip of Macedon that he needs to find the “golden mean” between action (read warring) and contemplation. That task is surrounded by unfolding global events, not the least of which is the conflict between the Macedonians and Athenians. Lyon was also true to the society of the times — a list of the cast of characters at the start of the book has 43 names, ranging from Philip and Alexander through Aristotle’s family to his extended household of servants and slaves.

The Sweet Girl returns to ancient Greece, some years later (and this novel’s cast of characters has 28 names). As the book opens, things are not going well for Aristotle. His wife, Pythias, has died — he now has a concubine, Herpyllis, a former servant by whom he has had a son. Alexander (now the Great) has been away from Greece for some years fighting wars in the East — while Aristotle writes his former student frequently, he receives no response. Aristotle is now in his sixties and the physical complaints of aging are increasing. He is a Macedonian in Athens; the Athenians resent their conquerors. Philosophical rivals treat him as a man who is well past his prime; he has always been an eclectic thinker but his interests now are seen as the wandering concerns of a distracted, doddering old man.

What does focus his attention is the potential of his daughter, Pytho, named after her mother Pythias. She is only seven when the book opens, but he is already teaching Pytho how to dissect a lamb — she has a collection of bones and skeletons from previous excursions into the scientific world. When we next meet her, she is eleven and her father has decided that she, rather than her younger brother Nico, should have a place at the monthly symposium meal where he gathers his academic colleagues — introducing a female, even if she is a bright child, is something that is simply not done:

In the past, I’d stand in the courtyard, quietly listening; perhaps creep to the doorway of the big room and listen from behind the curtains; then run fleet as a little doe back to the kitchen at the first quiver of that curtain. But something about tonight, about Nico giving up his place, about Daddy saying I should have been a boy, about Akakios’s kindness, and I find myself tripping with quite a clatter over a little table just outside the big room. A moment later the curtain wings aside and Daddy helps me up off the floor. Beyond, I can see all the men on their couches craning to see who it is.

“Please, Daddy,” I whisper.

Then I’m sitting in the corner that should have been Nico’s near Daddy, feet tucked up under me. The men are bemused.

“Getting eccentric in your dotage,” one of them calls to Daddy. “You want to watch that.”

But Pytho is smarter than Nico, despite the conventional wisdom that women belong in the kitchen. And Aristotle has always been contrarian — he has found a new project.

As in The Golden Mean, Lyon focuses her story on these intimate, human-based challenges. But she never loses sight of what is happening in the larger world around them. In this book, the big external event is the death of Alexander, a thousand miles away from Athens. Now the Macedonian conquerors in Athens are even more resented and perceived to be weaker. Aristotle and his family flee to the garrison town of Chalcis through rioting crowds who pitch stones at them — Pytho stands in the cart as a heroic child target to shame them to stop.

The flight is styled as a temporary retreat but Aristotle is fully aware he is unlikely to be making the return journey. Chalcis is a military town and his association with Alexander has long been forgotten by leaders there — the family is kicked out of the garrison after one night. They take up residence in a spacious, but run-down villa that Myrmex (a poor relation who showed up at the door in Athens and whom Aristotle adopted as a son) says he won gambling.

The philosopher has a farm in the area but it has been left in ruins by a combination of thefts and non-cultivation; the man of thought knows nothing about farming anyway. Tutoring Pytho, a far more receptive student than Alexander ever was, becomes his major preoccupation.

Material matters continue to get slowly worse, but the teaching revives him. He resolves to swim the nearby narrow tidal strait (diving down to observe the aquatic life midway through), but gets caught in the current. He is rescued, but catches pneumonia — and soon dies.

All of that takes place in Section I of The Sweet Girl and occupies almost exactly one half of the book. I will confess that as I started Section II I was already wondering how Lyon was going to cope without having Aristotle as the centrepiece for her narrative. The answer, for this reader at least, was not very well.

Pytho, still in her mid-teens, is now alone at the centre of the book. Aristotle has freed his concubine in his will, so she heads home and Pytho loses that support. Myrmex (whom she thinks she loves) turns out to be an unprincipled crook. In Chalcis, she is surrounded by a horde of people, both male and female, who want only to take advantage of a destitute young woman.

Most of the latter half of The Sweet Girl is a study in how to survive in the underground economy of rural ancient Greece, be it semi-legal or outright criminal. Pytho is more worldly than her father ever was, but that still means a lot of learning on the go — she is a quick student of life as well as thought, but that mainly means moving from one near-disaster to the next one.

I did wonder when I was reading that latter half if perhaps the fact that I had read and remembered The Golden Mean was the source of my problem with this novel. Aristotle so totally dominated the first novel, despite its large cast, that I found him a familiar and welcome character when I started this one — and may have been guilty of not paying as much attention to Pytho as I should have been in that first section. Whatever, she simply did not have enough substance for me to appreciate the final half as anything more than a chronicle of the trials and tribulations for an indigent, if well-born, woman in ancient Greece.

All of which suggests that not only do you not have to have read The Golden Mean to appreciate this book, it might better if you haven’t — my interest in Aristotle may have blinded me to what was happening with the young Pytho. On the other hand, I certainly found that memories of The Golden Mean were valuable in the first half of The Sweet Girl — for me, the portrayal of Aristotle’s challenges in aging was even stronger than the previous book.

I am sure a number of visitors here will have read that first novel and are looking forward to this one (it was released only two days ago). With apologies for my very ambivalent response to it, I am looking forward to comments both from those who have read The Golden Mean and those who choose to start their Annabel Lyon experience with The Sweet Girl. This may be one of those novels where the discussion is of more value than the original review. Yes, that is rather a plea for help.

Why Men Lie, by Linden MacIntyre

March 26, 2012

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

Linden MacIntyre has been one of Canada’s best-known television journalists for some time, but he added a new string to his bow in 2009 with the publication of his second novel, The Bishop’s Man. The story of a Cape Breton-born priest who discretely looks after sex scandals in the Church at his bishop’s behest, it won the Giller Prize and became a book club favorite (as the continuing visits to the review on this blog testify).

That novel actually was not about scandals in the Church (and disappointing, if you read it that way) but rather a study of the internal conflicts faced by Father Duncan MacAskill, the bishop’s man of the title. Father Duncan makes a return appearance here (as do a number of other characters) but his internal torments have been put to rest — in this novel, he is quietly going about his work serving the street people of downtown Toronto and emerges as the voice of reason and understanding for the cast of troubled people who populate this book.

The central character here is Duncan’s sister, Effie. She is a world-renowned expert in matters Celtic, apparently comfortably ensconced at work at the University of Toronto and equally comfortable at home in the trendy Annex district just north of the U of T campus. I say “apparently” because beneath the surface, Effie is avoiding dealing with her own versions of the tensions and conflicts that her brother faced in the previous novel.

They are all related to her Cape Breton upbringing, an abusive father, a collection of deaths and suicides — and her three ex-husbands, one now dead and two still living back home in Cape Breton. Those memories start to bubble their way to the surface on the platform of the St. George subway station when she runs into JC Campbell, another Cape Bretoner whom she has not seen in 20 years.

They fell silent briefly. She remembered that he’d taken a job with a television network in the United States. Something about his passport, she recalled; American employers loved the Canadian passport. It travelled better than their own because it was less likely to provoke an inconvenient attitude at certain border crossings. She recalled a drunken farewell party at her house. It was in the Beaches, so yes, it would have been 1977. Twenty years ago, 1977, the year of raised voices, slamming doors, her child cowering underneath the kitchen table. The farewell celebration was a kind of respite.

MacIntyre may be taking a risk in choosing to tell his story through the eyes of a woman (and he doesn’t entirely succeed), but this introduction early in the book also assures us that he is familiar with much of the territory. His own roots are in Cape Breton (his boyhood memoir, Causeway: A Passage from Innocence, was itself a best-selling award winner) so he knows the world of farewell parties (for those headed to Toronto or, alternately, headed back to Cape Breton — there is a steady stream going both ways) and frequent trips “back home” to the Nova Scotia island. And that aside about the value of a Canadian passport to journalists covering foreign affairs is testimony to his own experience on that front, so we can be assured that he knows that aspect of JC Campbell’s character.

Effie and JC soon strike up a friendship that turns into a tentative, but growing, affair which produces its own set of positives and negatives. The two may have not seen each other for 20 years but the Cape Breton community is small enough that they have overlapping experiences with many characters, including Effie’s two surviving husbands, the Gillis cousins, Sextus and John. Even before JC and Effie start their relationship, she is aware that the meeting has unearthed carefully-buried, dangerous memories.

Her smugness, she now realized, had come from the certainty that male behaviour could never catch her by surprise again. It was a small reward for all the years she’d spent coping with the turmoil men cause. Father. Brother. Husbands. Live-in partners. Even her neurotic male colleagues at the university. There was no excuse this time. It was entirely her own fault. She could and should have seen it coming. Her brother had disapproved of her renewed relationship with Sextus from the outset, but she really didn’t need a warning. Sextus Gillis had been dazzling and disappointing her since childhood. She dumped a husband for him, eloped and married him, tried to raise a child with him, tried to rise above his infidelities — and eventually threw him out and got over him successfully.

That is very concise summary of what Why Men Lie is about — as well as thumbnail indications of the male characters who populate the book. In the novel, “Why Men Lie” is the title of a memoir/manuscript that Sextus has written and MacIntyre engages in a riff around the title to help explain how all this will play out. The key is in the (maybe missing) punctuation, which the author invites the reader to explore. In addition to the declarative, non-punctuated form, other possible version would include: Why? Men Lie. or Why! Men Lie! or a slightly altered Why Do Men Lie?. Effie, now in her 50s, has experienced all those versions (and relives them in the book) — striking up a relationship with JC both reveals new ones and unearths some old ones. She remembers an exchange with Conor, her deceased husband:

Conor, who had told her up front there are always necessary lies — benevolent deceptions, he would call them. “Everybody has the capacity to lie,” he said. “But the biggest lie is always why we lie.”

Just as The Bishop’s Man examined the inner torment of a conflicted priest, Why Men Lie explores the confused memories of a mature woman and the impact that those revived memories have on her present. MacIntyre puts his journalist experience to good use in describing Toronto, Cape Breton and the world of 1997, but his real interest is in the “why” of what is happening inside Effie’s head. And while his central character may be female, the overriding concern of the book is some punctuated (or non-punctuated) version of “Why men lie”.

For this reader, the author is not entirely successful in delivering on that intriguing premise. Effie’s experiences with Sextus, Jack, Conor, her brother and JC — not to mention a stalker she meets in a coffee shop — all contain hints at answers but I am afraid the men, except for JC, just don’t get fully developed enough to succeed as characters and tend to blur into each other. The result is a literary version of scanning a menu rather than appreciating the meals that it presents.

Having said that, perhaps my problem is that I was too distracted by the contextual elements of the book, elements which MacIntyre handles so well — the academic and journalist world of Toronto, the insular Cape Breton community, the impact of the renewal of decades-old memories, to cite just a few. In a novel meant to explore what lies behind the deficiencies of its cast of characters, I may have ended up paying to much attention to the world that they live in. I’ll wait a few months, but I think a more disciplined second read is in order (and yes, I had to read The Bishop’s Man twice to appreciate it as well).

Governor-General’s award winner a surprise

November 17, 2009

Kate Pullinger’s The Mistress of Nothing has won the 2009 Governor-General’s award for English language fiction — a major and stunning surprise. Told from the point of view of her servant, the book is the story of Lady Duff Cooper’s mid-nineteenth century retreat to Egypt to alleviate her consumption and how the household adapts there ( my full review is here). I said in my original review that I was surprised to see the novel shortlisted for the G-G and longlisted for the Giller — while it is very competently done, it is not the kind of book that wins literary competitions. As well, Pullinger, while Canadian-born and (I presume) still a citizen, has lived in London for almost a quarter century and the book has no Canadian content.

Juries for the G-G have a history of being contrarian. Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness (reviewed here) would seem to have been this year’s obvious choice (and would have been mine) — one can only assume the jury decided that the Man Booker International Prize was award enough for Munro this year. Given that the last two G-G winners were established Canadian “names” (Nino Ricci for The Origin of the Species in 2008 and Michael Ondaatje for Divisadero in 2007), one could understand a jury wanting to look for something less obvious.

Even then, one would have thought the jury would turn to Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean (reviewed here ) as its next choice. This first novel about Aristotle and the young Alexander the Great is the success story of this year’s Canadian season, making the shortlist for all three major prizes. Alas, like Rawi Hage’s Cockroach last year it is now on track to lose all three.

The other two finalists would also have been surprise winners. Deborah Willis’ Vanishing and Other Stories (reviewed here is a wonderful first collection of stories, but not up to comparison with Munro. And Michael Crummey’s Galore (reviewed by Shadow Giller juror Trevor Berrett here) seems a bit too regional and offbeat — although that is often a strength in G-G competitions.

None of those comments is meant to discourage anyone from reading The Mistress of Nothing. While both the subject and style mean it is not for everyone’s taste, it is well done and an enjoyable read. It is, however, a surprising winner in a competiton where the “literary” usually takes precedence over the “readable”.

While I only follow the English fiction award, there are actually 14 Governor-General literary awards, seven each for English and French-language work, in categories including poetry, drama, children’s and translation. You can see the full list here.

The Real 2009 Giller Prize Winner is…

November 11, 2009

The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre

macintyre

The Shadow Jury is delighted to see its decision confirmed. The Bishop’s Man is a book that we heartily recommend — skip down two posts and you will find links to both Trevor and my reviews.

On a personal note, I thought the 2009 Giller was characterized by a very high quality longlist. While it is true that none of the books (including the winner) was without flaws, there was a consistent high quality from all 12 books. Eleven of those 12 have been reviewed on this site and you can find links in the sidebar to the right. If you are looking for a good book to read (or ask for or give, now that holiday time is coming up), do look beyond the shortlist into some of the titles that did not move on to the shortlist. There are some very good books in the other seven.

I am also pleased to announce that the 2009 Shadow Giller Jury will return intact for the 2010 competition. Trevor Berrett at The Mookse and The Gripes was an excellent international judge and if you visit his site you will find reviews of all the shortlisted books, as well as a few that did not make it. Alison Gzowski and I are pleased to be able to have him join us again next year.

2009 Shadow Giller Jury names winner

November 5, 2009

The 2009 Shadow Giller Prize has been awarded to:

The Bishop’s Man, by Linden MacIntyre

macintyre

The Shadow Jury decision was both quick and unanimous — all three jurors had this book at the top of their list. We certainly found the other shortlisted titles were worthwhile, but MacIntyre put it all together.

A summary from Trevor Berrett:

In The Bishop’s Man, Linden MacIntyre has a subtly controlled mixture of hope and despair all centralized in Father MacAskill, a lonely priest only slightly disillusioned but immensely disturbed by the sexual scandals occurring among his colleagues. What’s so wonderful is that this book can grapple with such a large event as the Catholic Church’s problems in the late twentieth century and still manage to keep the focus on one man and his struggles to reconcile the multiple tragedies of his own past — including, among other things, alcohol abuse and thoughts of suicide — in order to find some warmth in the cold and lonely setting of Creignish on Cape Breton Island.

And from KfC:

The characterization in this novel takes it beyond expectation. MacIntyre sets his book in a conventional context — priests who are sexual abusers — but his central character, Father Frank MacAskill, is not part of that crowd and that is the novel’s greatest strength. He is an aging, honest creature who got caught in a trap and can’t get out (not unlike Cape Breton lobsters) and this book underlines his dilemma.

You can find Trevor’s full review here. And mine is here — I must say that a second read of the book showed it was better than my first impression.

The Real Jury will announce their decision at the Giller gala on Nov. 10. The Shadow Jury has now spoken.

For those with access to Canadian television, there is a fair bit of Giller coverage on Bravo TV. On Saturday, Nov. 7 at 6 p.m. EST, a one-hour edition of Arts and Minds featuring a panel discussion with all five shortlisted authors will air — it includes a cameo appearance from Shadow Giller juror Alison Gzowski who talks about the Shadow Jury and its work. The Arts and Minds show will be repeated on Tues., Nov. 10 at 8 p.m. EST with live coverage of the Giller gala starting at 9 p.m. For those outside of Canada, CTV promises that a live web feed will be available — check either http://www.ctv.ca or the Giller site for details.

Trevor reviews The Bishop’s Man

November 2, 2009

macintyre Shadow Giller juror Trevor Berrett has posted his review of Linden MacIntyre’s The Bishop’s Man — you can find the full review here. Here’s an excerpt to get you interested:

And so this reader comes to the end of the Giller shortlist, a journey I much enjoyed, even if some of the stops were not as pleasing as others. After venturing to Egypt, Cambodia, and ancient Macedon for the previous three Giller shortlisted titles, The Bishop’s Man (2009) brings us back to Canada, which is a fitting way to end one of Canada’s great literary prizes.

Though this book brings me back to Canada, the locale is no more familiar to me than, say, Egypt. (I hope I don’t muddle it up by my lack of familiarity). It takes place in Creignish, on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, by the descriptions and tone of the book, a stunning and sobering isolated area. Our narrator is a priest, Father Duncan MacAskill. He is the Bishop’s man. In other words, in the last twenty years, whenever there has been a problem with a fellow priest, the Bishop sends Father MacAskill to handle the problem with speed and discretion. Father MacAskill’s voice is a nice mixture of hope and melancholy, and I enjoyed that combination as MacAskill himself leaned one way or the other throughout the book. Here is the mixture shown in the first paragraph of the novel:

“The night before things started to become unstuck, I actually spent a good hour taking stock of my general situation and concluded that, all things considered, I was in pretty good shape. I was approaching the age of fifty, a psychological threshold only slightly less daunting than death, and found myself not much changed from forty or even thirty. If anything, I was healthier. The last decade of the century, and of the millennium, was shaping up to be less stressful than the eighth — which had been defined by certain events in Central America — and the ninth, burdened as it was by scandals at home.”

And here's a link to my earlier review of the book — I should note that I am halfway through a second read and am more impressed this time around.

All three jurors have now completed their reading of the shortlist and deliberations have begun. Barring complications, I hope to post the announcement of the 2009 Shadow Giller Prize winner on Friday, Nov. 6. Please stop by and criticize our decision then (well, you can congratulate us on an excellent choice if you want as well).

Trevor reviews The Golden Mean

October 25, 2009

lyonShadow Giller juror Trevor Berrett has reviewed The Golden Mean and pronounced it his favorite of the four shortlisted novels that he has read so far. Turns out he is a classics fan and loved the way Annabel Lyon spoke to that experience. Here are a couple of paragraphs from his review that provide a sample:

This book picks up in about 343 B.C., when Aristotle is travelling to Pella, the capital of Macedon, with his very young wife Pythias. They have just left Atarneus, where Aristotle had founded his first philosophical school under the patronage of Hermias (Pythias’s father, probably). Lyon does an exceptional job subtly introducing some of the region’s impending doom. Aristotle is couriering a treaty from Hermias to Philip of Macedon, who is just beginning his campaign to take over the known world. Atarneus lies frighteningly close to Persia, so Hermias was hoping to get Philip’s protection in return for Hermias’s loyalty.

When the narrative begins, Aristotle has already stopped by Stageira, his birthplace (in Macedonia), to witness for himself the destruction brought about when Philip destroyed the town. We get a great sense of the time when we meet Philip and Aristotle humbly submits himself to him. In The Golden Mean Philip and Aristotle were friends in youth — at least as close to friends as one can become with the future king. This is possible since Aristotle’s father was Philip’s father’s chief physician. Consequently, they have an interesting relationship in The Golden Mean now that both have grown up, Aristotle in Athens building his mind, Philip in Macedon building for war.

While that establishes the context of the story, Lyon devotes most of her attention to Aristotle’s tutoring of Alexander and explores what happens behind the main events of the time. You can find my my review of The Golden Mean here. Lyon’s novel has now been shortlisted for all three major Canadian fiction prizes — that is a good indication that this is a very well-written book.

The Mistress of Nothing, by Kate Pullinger

October 22, 2009

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Purchased at Chapters.ca

The 2009 Canadian book prize season has had two surprises — Annabel Lyon’s debut novel The Golden Mean has made all three short lists; Kate Pullinger’s The Mistress of Nothing was longlisted for the Giller Prize and is shortlisted (EDIT: and has now won) for the Governor-General’s fiction award. In many ways, Pullinger’s performance is more of a surprise — she has lived in England for more than a quarter of a century and her book has no Canadian references. I was going to give this novel a pass but when it showed up on the G-G shortlist (known for a preference for edgy books), I thought I should give it a try.

On the surface, The Mistress of Nothing is about Lady Duff Gordon and is a story of the soon-to-be-declining English aristocracy set in the mid-nineteenth century. My Lady is consumptive and her only option is to leave England — and her noble family — for the arid climate of Egypt. She does and eventually settles up the Nile at Luxor, goes native in habit and dress and, in her own way, survives, at least for a while.

giller avatarThat story line is so strong that it is the normal description of this book, but it is most misleading in terms of what the book is really about. The Mistress of Nothing is not the story of Lady Duff Gordon, it is the story of her lady’s maid, Sally Naldrett, who accompanies My Lady to Egypt and finds in that removal her own set of opportunities and challenges:

I am Lady Duff Gordon’s maid; I am thirty years old, a very great age for a single woman. I reckon I became a spinster some years ago although the precise moment it happened passed me by. I have been in the Duff Gordon household for more than a decade, and those dozen years have been good years for me. Before then, penury. My sister Ellen and I were orphaned when we were very young; our parents, Battersea shopkeepers, were killed in a train derailment at Clapham. We were staying with our Aunt Clara in Esher at the time — our parents were on the way to fetch us home — and that is where we remained. But Aunt Clara could not afford, or was not inclined — I never knew which was more true, though I have my suspicions — to keep two extra children and we went into service, me that same year, and then Ellen one year later.

As is implied in that quote, Sally has done well by her time in service. Now, while the move to Egypt is a choice of survival for her mistress, it is a chance for Sally of adventure and experience. She is eager for the opportunity — Pullinger in a piece of foreshadowing lets us know early on that it will not turn out well.

Very early on in the Egyptian experience, the Duff Gordon party is introduced to Omar Abu Halaweh, a factotum who soon becomes an essential part of the household. Not long after (this is a spoiler but essential to the novel, so I apologize and it is hardly a surprise) he becomes Sally’s lover. She becomes pregnant and will eventually bear his child.

That plot is central to Pullinger’s novel but it is not the centrepiece of the book. Rather, the writer’s portrayal of the noble Englishwoman and the adaptation of both herself and her household to Egypt is its strength. Egypt is part of the Ottoman empire and the Pasha is transfixed by updating it — not the least by building the Suez Canal, but with a public works program that means taxes and labor demands that destroy the inidiginent economy. Lady Duff Gordon, Sally and Omar settle in Luxor to a redolent life but around them the turmoil of the Pasha’s rule reigns. While both local and foreign dignitaries visit often for My Lady’s salons (a reminder of British life deserted), they are a reminder of life that was, not what will be. My Lady adapts:

One morning I entered my Lady’s room and found her already up; we had adopted the Egyptian custom of rising before dawn long since. This morning she had dressed already.

“This is it,” my Lady said with a flourish, spinning herself around, “this is the new a la mode.”

“Lady Duff Gordon!” I said, unable to say more.

“What do you think?” she asked and spun around again. She was wearing the most extraordinary outfit I had every seen. She had on a pair of Egyptian trousers — men’s trousers, brown cotton, loose flowing, tied at the ankles — and a long white cotton tunic on top — a man’s tunic, plain — and sandals on her bare feet. That was it.

When Sally becomes pregnant, she and Omar make the mistake of assuming that Lady Duff Gordon’s “going native” has extended beyond dress. Omar is already married in the Muslim tradition and has a daughter, but it is quite legal in the Egypt of the day for him to have a second wife. Sally understands and accepts this and both she and Omar delude themselves that My Lady will also adapt, although not so sure in that decision that they actually tell her about the impending arrival.

It is at that point that Pullinger’s story begins to take on another form and, at least for this reader, unravel. For example, Sally’s adoption of Egyptian dress means that her mistress does not even realize her maid is pregnant until the baby arrives. And when it does, Lady Duff Gordon retreats into a caricature of her traditional English behavior. The last third of the book — I am afraid equally unconvincing for me — is the story of Sally’s recovery from these circumstances.

The Mistress of Nothing was an enjoyable and satisfying read, with some quite intriguing digressions on Brits hanging around Egypt in the mid-nineteenth century. It does have the elements for a very good movie with beautiful scenary — Pullinger co-write the novel for The Piano with film director Jane Campion, so it is hard to ignore that angle. Alas, it does not have much more. A very entertaining book, but not one that you are liable to be thinking a lot about in the week or two after you have finished it.

Trevor reviews The Disappeared

October 21, 2009

echlin Shadow Giller juror Trevor Berrett has now passed the shortlist halfway mark. Here are the opening paragraphs (find the full review here) to his excellent review of Kim Echlin’s The Disappeared:

The Killing Fields of Cambodia, the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, have been covered before, particularly by the courageous Dith Pran, who died last year. I knew going in to The Disappeared (2009) that the book could not be as affecting as the journalistic accounts. Yet, there’s something haunting and reverent about the cover that compelled me and gave me hope. I hoped like mad that the book could be as haunting and, knowing the topic, especially as reverent. In the end, despite a few flaws, the book greatly exceeded my expectations.

Our narrator is Anne Greves, a Canadian who, in her youth (she was only sixteen), fell in undying love with the passionate musician Serey, a Cambodian exile to Montreal. With only minor clunkiness that we get over soon enough, we come to know that Anne is writing this book to Serey as an attempt to take account of their past:

“Bones work their way to the surface. Thirty years have passed since that day in the market in Phnom Penh. I still hear your voice. I first met you [. . .]”

And you can find my earlier review of The Disappeared here. I would say that Trevor and I agree that while it is not a perfect book it is a very good one.

Trevor reviews The Winter Vault

October 17, 2009

U.S. edition

U.S. edition

Shadow Jury international member Trevor Berrett has posted his second review from the Giller shortlist, Anne Michael’s The Winter Vault. You can read the full review at the Mookse and the Gripes . Here’s an excerpt:

I remembered that when KevinfromCanada reviewed this book, he was disappointed, yet his review still made me want to read the book. The setting and topics sounded very interesting to me, so I was secretly pleased that it made the shortlist.

After reading it, I’m still fascinated by the topics and setting (oh! and the astute reader picks up on the limiting language I use in that sentence!). I’ll describe the setting first, as a kind of introduction to the plot. We start in southern Egypt, near the temple of Abu Simbel, in the mid-1960s when Abu Simbel was being removed from its original site where it had set for millenia, much of that time burried under sand. Because of the construction of the Aswan High Dam, the original site would flood causing Abu Simbel to be under water. Letting such a wonderous site die under water seemed wrong, so the Temple was cut up and relocated to higher ground. I cannot imagine what it must have felt like to be the one who wielded the saw that made the first cut. Michaels does an excellent job presenting the tragic irony that was unfolding:

“The dam would make a gash so deep and long that the land would never recover. The water would pool, a blood blister of a lake. The wound would become infected — bilharzia, malaria — and in the new towns, modern loneliness and decay of every sort.”

My earlier review — and some very interesting comments — can be found here. Further comments are certainly welcome.


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