The Thing About December, by Donal Ryan

March 19, 2014

Purchase at the Book Depository

Purchase at the Book Depository

Irish author Donal Ryan made a fair splash last summer with his debut novel, The Spinning Heart. It made the Booker longlist and would have been my personal second choice, after Jim Crace’s Harvest.

I read at the time that Ryan had been working on another novel simultaneously with the writing of The Spinning Heart and was looking forward to it — a debut is one thing, and two-book contracts are common, but a double debut is almost unheard of. The Thing About December was published in Ireland last year at virtually the same time as The Spinning Heart — it was released in the UK earlier this year. Now that I have read The Thing About December I am even more impressed with Ryan’s achievement.

I apologize for referencing both the books here, but I am afraid that is an inevitable product of my reading experience. They feature no common characters and certainly stand independently — but for this reader, the collective experience of the two really is greater than the sum of the very worthy individual parts.

The Spinning Heart features a unique structure — in a slim 156 pages, the reader hears from 21 different individuals in a rural Irish community following the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, each of whom gets his or her own short chapter. The community is home to one of Ireland’s “ghost estates” and the common thread of the 21 stories is how that collapse has affected (and torn apart) the community and its residents.

The Thing About December also features an unconventional structure, although not quite as uncommon as Ryan’s first book. The 12 chapters in this shortish novel (205 pages) tell the story of a year in the life of Johnsey Cunliffe, broken month-by-month from January to December. If The Spinning Heart presents a contemporary Irish community from 21 perspectives, this novel approaches the same challenge from a single one.

And part of the conceit is that it is a seriously incomplete one. Johnsey is not quite all there, a “gom”, an “eejit”, a “retard” (yes, that politically incorrect label actually appears). Here’s how Ryan sets that up for the reader in the opening pages of the book:

He heard Daddy one time saying he was a grand quiet boy to Mother when he thought Johnsey couldn’t hear them talking. Mother must have been giving out about him being a gom and Daddy was defending him. He heard the fondness in Daddy’s voice. But you’d have fondness for an auld eejit of a crossbred pup that should have been drowned at birth. He’d be no use for anything only eating and shiteing and he’d be an awful nuisance, but still and all you’d give him the odd rub and a treat, and you’d nearly always be kind to him because it wasn’t his fault he was a drooling fool of a yoke. You wouldn’t be going around showing him off to people, that’s for sure.

Using a central narrator who is a few bricks shy of a load is a risky device and it has to be said that Ryan demands some licence from the reader: in accepting Johnsey’s incompleteness in some areas, we also have to accept the author’s need to have him be a very complete individual in other aspects. I had no trouble doing this — indeed, I came to like Johnsey more and more as the novel proceeded.

Just as The Spinning Heart slowly put together a community from 21 viewpoints, this novel is as much about the people in the village where Johnsey lives as it is the narrator’s life. By way of example, here is Packie Collins, the owner of the co-op where Johnsey works. Daddy has died a few months before the novel opens and Johnsey’s job is the centre of his limited life: “[Packie] told Johnsey every day that he was only allowing him work in the co-op out of respect for his father, Lord have mercy on him. He was a liability“:

Packie was forever going on about the wages he was forced to pay Johnsey and the terrible injustice that was being perpetrated on the small business with this minimum wage malarkey. Well if it came in he could sing for it, Packie said. There was a thing in there in that law that said lads without their full faculties weren’t entitled to it, anyway.

Johnsey wasn’t exactly sure what faculties were but he knew there were no bits missing off of him on the outside, so it must be something inside him that Packie thinks is not right and stops him from getting the minimum wage. Johnsey knew what minimum meant: a point, below which you could not go. There weren’t as many flies on Johnsey as Packie made out. He knew all about the new law coming in. But what about it, Packie knew no law only his own, and points below which you may not go would not apply to Johnsey.

Those observations about Packie feature both an incompleteness and depth of perception in Johnsey’s narration that occur frequently in the novel; it sometimes grates, but works more often than not. And Ryan uses the device to introduce many other members of the community. To cite just a few examples: the Unthinks who are long-time friends of Johnsey’s family and feed him lunch daily at their bakery; the caddish Dermot McDermot, who leases land from the Cunliffes (Daddy’s economic lot was declining long before his death); and Eugene Penrose and the dole boys who taunt Johnsey every day on his way home from work.

The author finds ways to give us sketches of that cast in the first three “months” of the book; the story picks up steam when Mother dies in March and Johnsey is left alone.

That’s when the Ireland of the Celtic Tiger comes into play. This novel is set pre-collapse — indeed, the local village has the chance to become home to one of those developments that feature in The Spinning Heart. Trouble is, the development cannot proceed without the land that Johnsey now owns outright. And his completeness/incompleteness comes fully into play in this part of the story — instead of being the village oddity, he is central to its future, even if he himself does not realize it.

The best Irish fiction involves characters who are prisoners of external circumstance and, in both these debut novels, Ryan provides a contemporary version of that narrative. They certainly worked for me although I can see where other readers might find that the author is pushing just too hard to make his point. They represent two quite different ways of portraying a community of ordinary people — as different as the narrative structures are, it is that sense of community that makes both novels a success. They are not perfect books (and the characters in them are anything but perfect), but they are rewarding ones.

And, as I said earlier, the impact of the two is greater than merely the sum of the parts. Donal Ryan’s writing career is off to a very good start.

Minister Without Portfolio, by Michael Winter

March 6, 2014

Purchased at

Purchased at

Let’s start this review with a (somewhat stretched) premise: Newfoundland is to Canada as Ireland is to the British Isles. Both are craggy islands, located off the mother ship (okay, Canada has no version of Northern Ireland). Both are known internationally for natural food resource stocks that come to grief: Newfoundland’s cod, Ireland’s potatoes. Both have economies that produce diasporas — Ireland’s is global, but Alberta’s booming Fort McMurray has always had more than its share of Newfies.

I won’t push the comparison any further except on my most important point: whatever the cultural and economic drivers may be, both Ireland and Newfoundland serve as crucibles that produce more than their fair share of excellent fiction writers. And Michael Winter’s Minister Without Portfolio is an excellent example that supports that argument.

The central character in this novel, Henry Hayward, could serve as a prototype for the contemporary “Newfie” story. The island has provided no employment opportunities but an entrepreneurial schoolmate, Rick Tobin, has developed more than a couple. Tobin runs a booming service business in Alberta’s oil sands, staffed by Newfoundlanders who fly in and out on two-week shifts. And with Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan he has developed another arm of his empire, supplying contract workers who service the Canadian armed forces base.

It is that latter business venture that starts Henry’s story in Minister Without Portfolio. His best buddy, John Hynes, has worked for Tobin in Alberta for some time, but the Afghan enterprise has provided a more lucrative opportunity for them both. In their work there, the two will come under the protection of Tender Morris, who has chosen the army reserves as his escape from Newfoundland’s poverty. Here’s the way that Winter sets that backstory:

Rick Tobin was three years older than John and Henry and Tender Morris but they knew him growing up in the west end of St. John’s. Little Rick was a bantam cock in his blue overalls, all hundred and forty pounds of him bounding into things. Rick had energy that bewildered Henry and he was not the first to realize Rick could channel this force into ambition and drive and learn how to connect labour with materials and funnel them into the delivery of small services to small towns along the shore. It floored him, how successful Rick was. He had married Colleen Grandy and moved into her town which was down the road from where John and Silvia had a summer house. Renews. Tender Morris had been left a house there too by a great-aunt, a house Tender Morris was going to fix up some day if he ever got out of the military. Henry asked Rick if he worried about leaving the city for such a small place.

I’m never home, Rick said. If Colleen is happy then I’m happy.

I’d like to think that excerpt illustrates my Irish/Newfoundland comparison. The protagonists may by involved in global events, but the forces that put them there are very much based at home — and that’s where their primary interests lie. We might have to make our money somewhere else, but we will be bringing it back home.

In Afghanistan, Henry’s “contract” work increasingly involves becoming embedded with the activities of Canada’s armed forces there. He and John start wearing combat fatigues and reservist Tender becomes their driver and official protector, as explained by the minister of defence on a July 1 visit there:

The minister had served wild turkey burgers and hotdogs from a train of barbecues with red maple leaf flags on toothpicks punched into the buns. He was celebrating the draw-down in troop allocations as if this was something to be positive about. It was one of those ceremonial dinners where the minister makes sure the national papers have photographed him wearing a festive apron while doling out maple-custard ice cream.

The minister explained to Rick that their contract was being adapted to meet the desire of operational deployment. We have to achieve mission success while operating within an imposed troop ceiling, the minister said. Certain hybrid situations for support trades were being considered. Would they ride with the military? Dressed and armed for robust situations?

That “hybrid situation” develops into a quasi-legal operation, where Henry, John and Tender act as a unit — and it is while trying to define some form for this unit that the title of the novel comes into focus:

Let’s not be Americans, Tender said. Let’s be outlaws. Except for Henry — he’s our minister without portfolio.

What the hell is that.

You’re not committed to anything but you got a hand in everywhere.

Henry accepted this. He didn’t know what it meant but he accepted the position, the honour, the judgement. He didn’t have a wife or a house and he was an employee. He was enjoying, at the moment, the presence of a Canadian female soldier but they were not allowed to kiss or even hold hands and this limitation suited him. He was quietly growing back his pinfeathers for love. They were drinking rum.

The arrangement comes to a tragic end in an incident where Henry and John leave their armored vehicle to search for an IED — it turns out to be a deliberate distraction and Tender meets his death when the vehicle comes under explosive fire. Henry and John return to Newfoundland with Tender’s body, the harsh lessons of their own global experience and a desire to fit back into local life.

I have only supplied the set up to Winter’s novel: the bulk of this book is about what is involved in coming back “from away” and trying to fit those experiences back into life at home. Again, we have an Irish/Newfoundland comparison. While the men are off fighting, the women keep life going at home. When the fighting ends, there are inevitable tensions involved in creating a new reality.

In that sense, Henry really is a minister without portfolio: “not committed to anything…but you got a hand in everywhere”. The novel is about how he tries to make order of his new circumstances once he has returned to Newfoundland.

Much of that story is mundane — rebuilding a falling-down house, picking up old relationships, learning to live life small after experiencing life big — but, again, the threads will be familiar to readers of Irish fiction. Winter is superb at giving that universal story a particular Newfoundland flavor. And I will be the first to say that the way I have chosen to frame this review means it gives short shrift to one of Minister Without Portfolio’s strongest themes — this book features a number of very strong female characters who kept life going while the men are “away” and face their own challenges when those men return.

It was that theme — “the pain of getting back to normal” I’ll call it — that ended up landing most strongly with me, even if I have left it underdeveloped here. Minister Without Portfolio attracted some attention after its release last fall (it was longlisted for the Giller Prize) — I am sure that readers of international fiction would agree with me that it deserves more. Winter has taken a set of global circumstances and made them very local, wherever you happen to live.

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

March 1, 2014

Purchased at

Purchased at

The event that will supply the continuing themes of The Goldfinch takes place in an extended opening scene of almost 60 pages. Thirteen-year-old Theo Decker and his mother (whom he adores) are on the way to his New York school for a meeting with the principal — he has been suspended for the kind of infraction that is common to teenage boys.

They are early for the appointment and, after exiting a very smelly cab in nauseous disgust (“Hawaiian Tropic and baby poo?”), find themselves caught in a rainstorm outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met is featuring a massive exhibition of Dutch Art (Portraiture and Nature Morte) and Theo’s mother, trained in art history, decides they should pop in for a quick visit (“we can’t see it all on this visit, but there are a few things”). They do a quick tour, during which Theo pays more attention to a striking red-headed girl of his own age than he does to the paintings.

They separate when Theo’s Mom heads to the gift shop — and there is a massive explosion. When Theo regains consciousness, he finds himself in a gallery with the broken body of the white-haired man (grandfather?) who was accompanying the red-headed girl. After some confused non-conversation (the older man seems to be remembering disasters from his past), the moment that will propel the novel occurs:

He was, I saw, pointing over at a dusty rectangle of board, virtually invisible in the broken beams and rubbish, smaller than my laptop computer at home.

“That?” I said, looking closer. It was blobbed with drips of wax, and pasted with an irregular patchwork of crumbling labels. “That’s what you want?”

“I beg of you.” Eyes squeezed tight. He was upset, coughing so hard he could barely speak.

I reached out and picked the board up by the edges. It felt surprisingly heavy, for something so small. A long splinter of broken frame clung to one corner.

Drawing my sleeve across the dusty surface. Tiny yellow bird, faint beneath a veil of white dust. The Anatomy Lesson was in the same book actually but it scared the pants off me. [That's an observation Theo's mother had made about the painting before the explosion.]

The painting is Fabritius’ 1654 masterpiece, The Goldfinch, which supplies the novel’s title. Theo will pick it up and, when the emergency crews evacuate the Met in fear of another explosion, walk away with it unchallenged — an act that will define the rest of his life, as he protects and treasures the masterpiece he has “stolen”.

The incident also introduces two other themes that will continue throughout the 771-page novel. The first is that girl — Pippa — who will float in and out of Theo’s future life, his ardour for her never failing. And that older man, after convincing him to take the painting, also gives him a ring before he dies: “Hobart and Blackwell,” he said, in a voice like he was drowning from the inside out. “Ring the green bell.” It is when Theo returns the ring that he meets Hobie, who will prove to be the only positive adult force in his life.

Those three themes of painting, Pippa and Hobie may extend through the novel, but it follows anything but a steady, straight-forward course. The Goldfinch plot unfolds in a series of lengthy, widely-different episodes:

  • The first section of the book features the adolescent Theo and his post-explosion life in New York. His mother was killed in the incident and he has “alternative” futures — grandparents in Maryland who don’t want him, a no-good father who deserted his mother years earlier, perhaps a foster home. While he awaits an outcome, he lives with the upper-class Barbours, family of a school chum, in a tony Park Avenue apartment. And he meets Hobie.
  • Part two takes place in a “ghost” Las Vegas suburb, abandoned after the 2008 housing crash. It is home to Theo’s father, a gambler, substance-abuser and loan shark victim, and his girl friend and features only one other occupied house amid a slew of semi-complete dwellings. Life with father is where Theo ended up and this section features his high school years and his semi-destructive friendship with Boris, a streetwise young Russian who becomes another constant in the book.
  • When Theo escapes Las Vegas, he heads back to New York (with the carefully-wrapped masterpiece as part of his baggage) and hooks up again with the Barbours and Hobie. Hobie is an antique-dealer and furniture restorer and Theo learns the trade. He also exhibits part of his father’s character and gets involved in some dodgy trading. But he seems to be landing on his feet when he gets engaged to Kitsey Barbour.
  • That conventional life falls apart when Boris reappears with word that the Goldfinch (which Boris has taken, unknown to Theo) may be in Amsterdam, collateral in a drug-based, money-laundering scheme. The two head off on a recovery mission which features a fair bit of violence, a lot of drugs and even more introspection on Theo’s part.
  • And finally there is an extended coda, where all these various storylines are pulled together.
  • I have focused so far on plot, because for this reader that was the strongest aspect of The Goldfinch. Much of the narrative, however, consists of Theo’s internal musings — while I found them far less interesting, it is only fair to offer an example. Here is the way the novel opens:

    While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years. I’d been shut up in my hotel for more than a week, afraid to telephone anybody or go out; and my heart scrambled and floundered at even the most innocent noises: elevator bell, rattle of the minibar cart, even church clocks tolling the hour, de Westertoren, Krijtberg, a dark edge to the clangor, an inwrought fairy-tale sense of doom. By day I sat on the foot of the bed straining to puzzle out the Dutch-language news on television (which was hopeless, since I knew not a word of Dutch) and when I gave up, I sat by the window staring out at the canal with my camel’s-hair coat thrown over my clothes — for I’d left New York in a hurry and the things I’d brought weren’t warm enough, even indoors.

    The Goldfinch is only Tartt’s third novel and I admit that I was looking forward to it. The Secret History, her debut, remains a favorite — a complex and improbable plot is delivered successfully and along the way she supplies concrete substance to a wide cast of characters. The Little Friend was far less successful, although still an enjoyable read.

    Alas, for this reader, The Goldfinch is much more like The Little Friend than The Secret History. Like the debut novel, the plot here is complex and improbable — Tartt does not deal with it nearly as a well.

    A bigger problem was the cast of characters. Plot alone cannot sustain a novel of this length — the characters need to be fully-developed and interesting and that is where The Goldfinch came up short. For my tastes, Theo was just too shallow to engage me; when the narrative headed off into his inner thoughts, I found myself reluctantly following along, waiting for the action to pick up again. And the secondary cast was equally frustrating — Boris never really landed with me, the Barbours were caricatures and only Hobie sparked substantial interest.

    I have read a number of reviews (both in the professional press and from bloggers) of The Goldfinch that were far more positive than this one, so take my lack of enthusiasm with a grain of salt. Theo (and Boris) are far more impressive to these readers than they were for me — perhaps my memory of The Secret History led to too high expectations. There is no doubt that Tartt is an impressive writer; I just think that her 1992 debut showcases those talents much better than this novel does.

    The Mussel Feast, by Birgit Vanderbeke

    February 24, 2014

    Translated by Jamie Bulloch

    Purchased at The Book Depository

    Purchased at The Book Depository

    The Mussel Feast is an interior monologue, the thoughts of a young girl looking back at the evening that supplies the title. I’ll admit that monologues are not my favorite form, generally featuring too much introspection and not enough observation of the broader world for my tastes. But this 1990 novella from Germany not only works, it works exceptionally well — and I would like to focus this review on why it put paid to my ingrained prejudices.

    The process started, in fact, from the very opening:

    It was neither a sign nor a coincidence that we were going to have mussels that evening. Yes, it was slightly unusual, and afterwards we spoke of the mussels as a sign, but they definitely weren’t; we also said they were a bad omen — that’s nonsense too. Nor were the mussels a coincidence. This evening of all evenings, we’d say, we decided to eat mussels. But it really wasn’t like that; you couldn’t call it a coincidence. After the event, of course, we tried to interpret our decision as a sign of coincidence, because what came in the wake of our abortive feast was so monumental that none of us have got over it yet.

    (A note on the quotes in this review: The Mussel Feast is only 105 pages but, true to monologue form, the paragraphs in the narrative extend for several pages. Vanderbeke’s prose and its pace are vital to the book’s success, so I want to quote her — but I warn that what is excerpted here are mere snatches from far longer passages.)

    Those opening sentences did two things for me. First, for a monologue to work, the reader needs not just to be hearing the narrator’s story but to be a participant in it. The author immediately does that: note that there is no “I” but a lot of “we’s” in those six sentences. The narrator may be looking back on what happened — the reader is encouraged to become part of the “we” who were there as well.

    Secondly, there is the combined sense of foreboding (“a bad omen”, “our abortive feast”) and desire for denial (“that’s nonsense, too”, “interpret our decision”). We know from the start that the evening did not turn out well. We also know that the narrator doesn’t want to acknowledge what happened or why but the mere fact that she is engaging in the monologue indicates that she is eventually going to have to do that — the reader is encouraged to become a fellow traveler on that journey.

    The feast of the title is in honor of the father’s return from a presentation: “…that day, which we knew in advance was a special, even historic day for our family, for this business trip was to be the last step on my father’s path to promotion”. Mussels were father’s favorite food: “My brother liked mussels too, whereas my mother and I never cared for them too much”.

    While mother is painstakingly cleaning the mussels (“because my father hated nothing more than grains of sand crunching between his teeth”), the narrator and her brother are preparing the chips that will accompany them:

    But we were allowed to cut the chips; you always have chips with mussels, I don’t care for them much, either, even though Mum cooks the best chips I have ever tasted. My brother, on the other hand, goes crazy for them, they’re unrivalled, he always said; once he even invited all his friends who doubted and teased him about the chips to our house, and my mother made chips for them all, and my brother was terribly proud of her. Since then we’d sometimes help prepare the chips; that evening we peeled the potatoes and cut them into thin batons, increasingly feeling twitchy. Afterwards we said that this was when we started to become anxious, when we suspected something was up; of course it was only afterwards that we knew what would happen. So maybe we were simply twitchy because we were waiting; we always felt twitchy when we waited for my father, there was always a certain tension.

    There again is that foreboding, uncertainty and implications of denial and it has been ratcheted up a fair bit. The monologue diverts a bit to slip in some backstory: the mussels are to be cooked in “a massive pot” that the mother had brought from the East on one of her preliminary trips that set up their escape to West Berlin. These thoughts come to mind as the narrator contemplates the mussels cooking. “It’s mass murder, I said” — which prompts a response from her mother to stop thinking fanciful thoughts:

    …although Mum harbored plenty of fanciful ideas herself; when my father was on business trips the three of us told each other the most fanciful stories, without ever being appalled. Before my father came home, however, all those fanciful ideas vanished, especially my mother’s. My father regarded flights of fancy as childish, my father stood for sober objectivity and reason, and of course my mother showed consideration for his objectivity and reason, conforming and switching to wifey mode when he came home. And when my mother said, what are you talking about, I knew at once that she had switched to wifey mode, and the rage of disgust which I felt toward the mussels was now directed at my mother. Aren’t we allowed to think any more, I said, but my mother said, is that what you call thinking, can’t you think something useful rather than those sinister thoughts. In our family sinister thoughts and fantasies were regarded as squandered thoughts, especially when my father was at home, and although he wasn’t there yet he might arrive at any moment.

    That last quote comes from page 17 of the novella and by that point I was completely engaged in the narrator’s return to the mussel feast, particularly since a putative villain has now been identified. She had introduced enough detail and innocently raised enough disturbing questions about an event that we know turned out badly that I was more than willing to enrol in the memory. Suffice to say the slender volume supplies answers to all the questions that have been raised.

    I realize I am copping out by not telling you more, but I figured this review would be of more value as an “enticement” than a complete overview. If you would like a more conventional (and thorough) review of the book, I would point you to the one that brought me to purchase it, Kimbofo’s at Reading Matters. In that review, she describes reading the book as like peeling an onion — I’ve peeled off the first couple layers, but I’ll leave finding the heart of the story to yourself. It is well worth the effort.

    Plainsong, by Kent Haruf

    January 30, 2014

    Purchased at

    Purchased at

    Holt, Colorado is a fictional small town on the High Plains east of Denver. Like most towns of the kind in both the U.S. and Canada, it is bisected by a railway line with grain elevators and stock-loading facilities on the side. The tracks are paralleled by Railroad Street, itself crossed by Main Street. Here is the first description that Kent Haruf provides of the town — Ike and Bobby Guthrie (aged nine and ten) are on the way to the train station in the early morning to pick up their bundle of the Denver News for delivery to residents:

    They rode along the gravel road and passed the old vacated light plant, its high windows boarded over, and turned onto the pavement at Main Street and then bounced over the railroad tracks onto the cobblestone platform at the depot. It was a single-story redbrick building with a green tile roof. Inside was a dim waiting room smelling of dust and being closed up, and three or four highbacked pewlike wood benches set in rows facing the train tracks and a ticket office with a single window set behind black grillwork. An old green milk wagon on iron wheels stood outside on the cobblestones beside the wall. The wagon was never used anymore. But Ralph Black, the depot agent, admired the way it looked on the platform and he left it there. The passenger trains only stopped in Holt for five minutes, coming and going, long enough to allow the two or three passengers to board or get off and for the man in the baggage car to drop the Denver News onto the platform beside the tracks.

    Plainsong, published in 1999, is the first Haruf novel that I have read, but I was aware before picking it up (thanks to Kimbofo at Reading Matters and David who is a welcome regular commenter here) that Holt, Colorado is the author’s created, chosen venue for his fiction. This novel introduces what may or may not be a trilogy (Eventide and Benediction are the other two, their titles suggesting at least some connection) and my understanding is that Haruf has located his other novels there as well.

    In making that choice, Haruf uses a device that is also employed by a number of KfC favorites. Canada’s W.O. Mitchell locates both Who Has Seen The Wind and Jake and the Kid in a Canadian version of the prairie town (sorry, both read well before the blog began but I promise to reread them eventually). Sherwood Anderson set his outstanding story collection, Winesburg, Ohio, in another version, albeit one located well east of Colorado. And three of Larry Watson’s novels reviewed here (Montana 1948, Justice, and White Crosses) take place in his fictional town of Bentrock, Montana.

    These villages have much in common. While there is certainly a bigger world outside them (a brief part of Plainsong actually takes place in Denver), life in the town is pretty much self-contained. Nothing earth-shattering, in the conventional sense of the word, happens in these communities — but they all have their own versions of crises that are every bit as troublesome to the locals. And it is the opportunity to explore the impact of these apparently minor events in detail that leads these talented authors to create their villages.

    Ike and Bobby’s father, Tom Guthrie, is the first adult character we meet in the novel. He is a teacher at the local high school, a proud and devoted father, and his immediate crisis is the withdrawal of his wife from day-to-day life. Haruf introduces this in the early pages — I apologize for the length of this excerpt but it is an excellent illustration of both the tone and detail that the author uses to bring life to the community and individuals who feature in this work:

    He went upstairs once more. In the bedroom he removed a sweater from the chest of drawers and put it on and went down the hall and stopped in front of a closed door. He stood listening but there was no sound from inside. When he stepped into the room it was almost dark, with a feeling of being hushed and forbidding as in the sanctuary of an empty church after the funeral of a woman who had died too soon, a sudden impression of static air and unnatural quiet. The shades on the two windows were drawn down completely to the sill. He stood looking at her. Ella. Who lay in the bed with her eyes closed. He could just make out her face in the halflight, her face as pale as schoolhouse chalk and her fair hair massed and untended, fallen over her cheeks and thin neck, hiding that much of her. Looking at her, he couldn’t say if she was asleep or not, but he believed she was not. He believed she was only waiting to hear what he had come in for, and then for him to leave.

    The Guthrie family’s life is one of three storylines in the novel, so allow me to share Haruf’s introduction of the other two — they will overlap eventually, as all small town lives do. One is the story of the challenges faced by highschooler Victoria Roubideaux:

    Even before she was awake she felt it rising in her chest and throat. Then she rose rapidly from bed in the white underpants and outsized tee-shirt she wore at night and rushed into the bathroom where she crouched on the tile floor, holding her streaming hair away from her face and mouth with one hand and gripping the rim of the bowl with the other while she retched and gagged. Her body was wracked by spasms. Afterward a spit-string swung from her lip, stretched, elongated, then broke off. She felt weak and empty. Her throat burned, her chest hurt. Her brown face was unnaturally pale now, sallow and hollow beneath her cheekbones. Her dark eyes looked larger and darker than ordinary, and on her forehead was a fine film of clammy sweat. She stayed kneeling, waiting for the gagging and paroxysms to pass.

    Okay, the tale of a pregnant teenager in a small town runs the risk of being a cliché — trust me when I say that Haruf makes Victoria a fully-developed, interesting character as the novel progresses.

    And finally, we have the McPherons, two cattle ranchers on a spread just outside of Holt (whom the author doesn’t introduce until almost a quarter of the way through the novel, but you will find there’s a reason for that):

    They had the cattle in the corral already, the mother cows and the two-year-old heifers waiting in the bright cold late-fall afternoon. The cows were moiling and bawling and the dust rose in the cold air and hung above the corrals and chutes like brown clouds of gnats swimming in schools above the cold ground. The two old McPheron brothers stood at the far end of the corral surveying the cattle. They wore jeans and boots and canvas chore jackets and caps with flannel earflaps. At the tip of Harold’s nose a watery drip quivered, then dropped off, while Raymond’s eyes were bleary and red from the cow dust and the cold. They were almost ready now. They were waiting only for Tom Guthrie to come and help, so they could finish this work for the fall. They stood in the corral and looked past the cattle and examined the sky.

    “This work” in that scene is determining which of the heifers are carrying a calf, vaccinating and dehorning them. You don’t have to be a rancher to know that it is an annual, routine task.

    Novels like Plainsong (and those of Mitchell, Anderson and Watson) succeed only if the author can make the normal and routine — and most importantly the people who live that normal routine — involved and interesting, so that the reader can understand how disruptive the “crises” that occur really are to these individuals.

    Haruf does that superbly, for this reader at least. The cast of characters and the community developed a rhythm and completeness of story that had me fully enrolled. While I have never visited a rural Colorado town, I have spent a fair bit of time in Alberta ones — by the close of Plainsong, I felt that Holt was a place I had been to more than once.

    A final note on the ambiguity of the title. From my sketch of the story, you can see that it strives to be a song of life on the plains, routine as that might be. The epigraph to the book cites the dictionary definition: “the unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times; any simple and unadorned melody or air”.

    A “simple and unadorned melody or air” — that’s as powerful an assessment of the novel as I could imagine. I have both Eventide and Benediction on hand and look forward with much anticipation to my next visit to Haruf’s Holt — like Watson’s Bentrock, I already know that it is quite a special place.

    The Burial, by Courtney Collins

    January 24, 2014

    Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin

    Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin

    Australian author Courtney Collins just about lost me in the opening 14 pages of her debut novel, The Burial.

    It starts with a three-page prologue featuring Houdini, handcuffed and wrapped in chains in the Yarra River in Melbourne in 1910. As he breaks his bonds underwater, he finds a leg iron wrapped around a limb — not his. When he finally reaches the surface, there is no sign of the bloated body and “he cannot think of how to explain it or who to tell.” Okay, we have our story-setting metaphor (and, I’ll confess, one that landed as a somewhat hackneyed one): an escape tale that will feature more than one buried/submerged body.

    And sure enough in the short three opening chapters, the narration comes from a buried body, a newly-born child:

    Morning of my birth, my mother buried me in a hole that was two feet deep. Strong though she was, she was week from my birth, and as she dug the wind filled the hole with leaves and the rain collapsed it with mud so all that was left was a wet and spindly bed.

    When the sun inched awkwardly up she lowered me into the grave. Then, lying prone on the earth, she stroked my head and sang to me. I had never, in my short life, heard her sing. She sang to me until the song got caught in her throat. Even as she bawled and spluttered, her open hand covered my body like the warmest blanket.

    Precocious child narrators rank very high on my list of least favorite literary devices. The prospect of a one-day old one, buried in a shallow grave, immediately raised visions of a version of The Lovely Bones, told from below ground rather than from the heavens above. I was quite prepared to abandon the novel immediately, but a twinge of guilt said I had to give Collins at least a few more pages.

    And I was quickly glad that I did. We meet the mother (and her horse, Houdini — that metaphor cannot be escaped) as she rides into the boundary of “Fitz’s clearing”, where “pulling out Fitz’s boots, she drained them of water then walked towards the upper gate barefoot”:

    There was still smoke rising from the house. Only part of it had tumbled, only part of the roof collapsed. Half looked like it was sliding into a hole while the other half was perfectly intact.

    She slid her feet into Fitz’s boots, which were heavy — and even heavier wet. The leather against her toe was cracked, a monument to Fitz, to his kicking. Her skin was smarting within them and her bruised hip pained her as she walked. She was thinking that a bruise should not outlast a man. A boot may last, but the bruises he made should vanish with him.

    Please be dead, she said. And it was not the first time she had said it.

    Fitz is, in fact, dead in the cellar (“the smell of vinegar and onions, just as he had always smelt”): “She could breathe”. And with that Collins supplies a summary of the narrative that will occupy the novel:

    Beyond the house and Fitz’s forest, the mountains spread out north and west. The sight of them, the magnificent stretch of them, was enough to bring my mother to her feet again. She swayed through the paddock towards the gate. Cattle moved quietly around her, looking dim.

    When she reached the gate she used it to step up onto Houdini’s back. She took his mange and steered his head to face the highest point of the mountains. Then she leant in close to his ear and said, My friend, even if I fucking die and rot upon your back, do not stop until we get there.

    “Mother” is Jessie Hickman and we know from a short sentence before the prologue that her story is based on the real Jessie Hickman — given my limited knowledge of Australian frontier characters, I had never heard of her. While author Collins takes some time to reveal the details of the back story (which I’m assuming are familiar to many Australian readers), it doesn’t seem to be a spoiler to sketch some of them here.

    In her teenage and young adult years, Jessie was an accomplished horse and cattle rustler — alas, not so accomplished that she didn’t get caught. She is in prison when in October, 1917 Fitzgerald Henry shows up to, quite literally, take possession of her. Jessie had listed “horse-breaker” as one of her skills — as a condition of her release she has to accept an offer of employment and Fitz wants her as his apprentice, allegedly to break horses for the war effort.

    Actually, Fitz is quite a bit more interested in a talent she has not put on her form (horse-stealing) and while Jessie is expected to “occasionally serve as his domestic” that latter task mainly involves being raped when he returns to his ranch drunk from a visit to the nearby village. Her horse (and cattle) rustling ability is his major interest.

    I have included a fair number of quotes to provide a sense of the voice that Collins uses in the novel. While she thankfully does not often return to the buried newborn one, Jessie’s tale as a fugitive is told in the same dry, present tense tone — in its own way, it supplies a sepia-like patina that one appreciates in a frontier novel.

    Jessie will experience a number of successes, trials and tribulations as she pursues her goal of getting to “the highest point in the mountains” which I am choosing not to get into here. She will run into a number of interesting characters (I particularly liked her time spent with a gang of runaway youths who are as good at horse and cattle rustling as she is) and they add depth to the fugitive story. I am not sure that there are enough “female frontier fugitives” in fiction for it to qualify as a genre, but there are certainly some, at least in North American lore — and Collins’ version of Jessie’s Australian story is a worthwhile addition to the list.

    While I hadn’t planned it, The Burial is the second Australian frontier novel I have read in recent months. Alex Miller’s Watching The Climbers On The Mountain has some similar characteristics (the punishing isolation of a cattle station, abuse of the central female character, the “misfit” aspect of most of the characters and a search for escape) but uses a far different voice — perhaps that is one reason why I was impressed with the one that Collins employs in this novel.

    Either way, as an acknowledged aficionado of North American frontier fiction, I was enrolled in the story in both books. Collins does not yet have the developed writing talent that Miller shows (he has published a dozen novels, after all) but she shows enough in this debut to indicate that her work bears watching in the future.

    KfC’s 2013 Project: The Tin Flute, by Gabrielle Roy

    January 18, 2014

    Translated by Alan Brown

    Silent, she thought that poverty was like a sickness you put to sleep inside you, and it didn’t hurt too much as long as you didn’t move. You grew used to it, you ended up not paying much attention to it as long as you stayed tucked away with it in the dark; but when you took the notion of going out with it in daylight, it became frightening to the sight, so ugly you could not expose it to the sun.

    Personal collection

    Personal collection

    The “you” in that excerpt is Rose-Anna Lacasse, matriarch of the Montreal family who are the central characters of The Tin Flute, and those two sentences aptly summarize her approach to life: poverty is there, will be there forever and the best way to deal with it is to treat it as “a sickness you put to sleep inside you.”

    Rose-Anna is not a dreary, defeated character — she is anything but. Yet there is a rigorous code that she applies to life: whenever things look to be improving, take care to contemplate the downside that will inevitably follow. It is just fine to enjoy the moment when you can, but don’t enjoy it too much — that will lead to even greater heartbreak when things return to the worse.

    Her husband, Azarius, is the polar opposite. A qualified carpenter, the Depression has left him wandering from one hopeless job to another for years (and there were periods spent on the dole as well). Unlike Rose-Anna, who takes care to treat her poverty as a given that should never be ignored, Azarius lives in a dream world where escape is just a lucky heart beat away. Here’s the way Rose-Anna evaluates him:

    And Azarius, poor fellow, he’d never learn, what new idea did he have up his sleeve. True, he was working and bringing home his pay — not much but enough to make ends meet. Yet day after day he was dreaming up new projects, wanting to quit his job as a taxi-driver, try something else — as if you could be choosy when you had children to feed, and fresh worries at home every minute of the day. As if you were free to say, in such a case, That job suits me, I have no use for this one … But that was Azarius all over, always ready to give up a sure thing for something new, his whole life long.

    As The Tin Flute opens, Rose-Anna and Azarius have been living with their contradictory approaches for almost two decades — Rose-Anna is expecting the couple’s thirteenth child (although not all have survived). They have spent all those years in the lower-class, industrial neighborhood of St. Henri in Montreal, surrounded by the gloom of belching factories with a railway line cutting through the public square.

    There are bigger, broader tensions that are ever-present in the background of Gabrielle Roy’s novel. The conflict between the rich Anglos and the working class Francophones. Urbanization, which has led to farm-raised girls like Rose-Anna having to find their way in the city. And that peculiar Montreal institution where tenancies in lower-cost housing all expire on May 1, setting off a city-wide outbreak of household moves — for Rose-Anna and Azarius, that has meant every May a relocation to accommodation that is a step or two below the one preceding.

    The biggest over-riding factor of all in the present of the novel, for the young Francophone males of St. Henri at least, is World War II. On the one hand, enlisting means lining up to fight in a war to defend the English oppressors who have created this poverty — and the dreaded prospect of conscription looms. On the other, enlisting provides a steady income, albeit at some risk — and if you stretch things, the future of Mother France herself is at stake in this foreign war.

    I have come a long way into this review without even introducing the most important (well, at least most sympathetic) character, Rose-Anna and Azarius’ daughter, Florentine. She works at the lunch counter at the Five and Ten in St. Henri and represents the prospect of “future”, whatever that might mean as the novel’s opening shows:

    Toward noon, Florentine had taken to watching out for the young man who, yesterday, while seeming to joke around, had let her know he found her pretty.

    The fever of the bazaar rose in her blood, a kind of jangled nervousness mingled with the vague feeling that one day in this teeming store things would come to a halt and her life would find its goal. It never occurred to her to think she could meet her destiny anywhere but here, in the overpowering smell of caramel, before the great mirrors hung on the wall with their narrow strips of gummed paper announcing the day’s menu, to the summary clicking of the cash register, the very voice of her impatience. Everything in the place summed up for her the hasty, hectic poverty of her whole life in St. Henri.

    Florentine is not the only voice of the future in The Tin Flute — her two suitors, Jean and Emmanuel, bring opposing alternatives (brutally speaking, the selfish and altruistic) into play. Suffice to say that author Roy is realist enough that the careful “middle path” represented by Florentine (and her mother) is the one that proves most appropriate in this novel.

    Indeed, Roy effectively illustrates that in a poignant scene that provides the title for The Tin Flute. Florentine’s youngest sibling, the sickly Daniel, has expressed a desire for a tin flute. Rose-Anna, in a rare excursion outside the immediate neighborhood, has dressed-up and stopped in at Florentine’s counter for lunch. It has been a good “tip” day for the daughter and she gives her mother two dollars to spend and watches as Rose-Anna heads off into the store proper:

    Suddenly all the joy Florentine had felt turned to gall. Her happiness at being generous gave way to an aching stupor. What she had done had led to nothing.

    At the back of the store Rose-Anna stopped at the toy counter. She was looking at a little tin flute, but she quickly put it back when a salesgirl approached. Florentine realized that between Daniel’s wish and the shiny flute there would always be her mother’s good intention — an intention repressed. And between her own wish to help Rose-Anna and the impossibility of doing so, nothing would be left but the hurting memory of today’s small, vain attempt.

    She made herself smile at her mother who, in the distance, seemed to be asking for her advice: Should I buy the shining flute, the slim and pretty flute, or the stockings, the bread, the clothing? Which is more important? A flute like a ray of sunshine in the hands of a sickly boy, a flute breathing sound of happiness or the daily bread for the family table? Tell me, Florentine, which should I buy?

    I don’t need to tell you which choice Rose-Anna makes.

    The Tin Flute was published in 1945, the same year as Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes, another volume in my 2013 project reviewed here a few months ago. Both tell the story of a Quebec that is struggling to come to terms with its mid-twentieth century reality — in a short afterword to the New Canadian Library version that I read, critic Philip Stratford aptly summed up the different approaches:

    MacLennan’s novel described the political and economic tensions of a society in transition; Roy’s captured the social and psychological stress of a generation migrating from country to the city. His approach was that of the historian; hers more the dramatist’s.

    If I may be permitted to risk a comparison, Roy plays Dickens in contrast to MacLennan’s Trollope. I tend to prefer novels that have a broader, societal context so it is no surprise that Two Solitudes said more to me but in no way is that a put-down of The Tin Flute — in its own way, the family drama of Roy’s novel is even more compelling and I can understand why many readers regard it as the better novel. I can only say that almost 70 years on, both deserve reading.

    Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility, by Théodora Armstrong

    January 14, 2014

    Review copy courtesy House of Anansi

    Review copy courtesy House of Anansi

    Canada’s largest independent publisher, House of Anansi, had at least one innovative success in 2013. While most English language publishers are deserting all but the best-known writers when it comes to short story collections, almost exactly a year ago Anansi announced its new Astoria imprint, devoted to short fiction. In addition to grouping backlist collections under the imprint (you can find the Astoria website here), they promise to deliver three new collections a year.

    Anansi hit one out of the park right off the top with this initiative: Lynn Coady’s Hellgoing became only the fourth story collection to win the Giller Prize (Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro wrote two of the four, so it is good company). Coady is a well-established writer, so her inclusion on the Astoria list was somewhat predictable — as was Peter Behren’s Travelling Light (which I have not read). Théodora Armstrong wrote the third collection published in 2013, taking the honors as the first debut writer to be featured by Astoria and I was eager to see the results.

    Jumping straight to the chase, I would have to conclude that they are mixed. Of the eight stories in Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility I found a couple were very good to excellent, a few more just fine and some wanting (probably more a reflection of my taste than a question of quality as I will explain later in this review). I will focus this review on my two favorites.

    One is the title story. The narrator is an air traffic controller in Kamloops, British Columbia, hardly a high traffic area but one that has its own set of challenges. While Armstrong alerts the reader in the opening paragraph that a mayday call will feature in the story, she also takes some care to make sure we are aware that the mundane aspects of the job are also a factor:

    On winter days when storms keep the planes grounded, we pass the time between weather updates reading, doing crosswords, arguing current events that seem worlds away. No cellphones, no laptops or electronic distractions of any kind allowed on the Floor. It’s the idleness that gets me agitated and picking at my thumb cuticles while others around here delight in the boredom, tilt their chairs back, kick their feet up and brush the potato chip crumbs off their shirts, enjoying the blur around the margins of their lives. It’s no exaggeration to say I work with some lazy slugs. John breathes through his mouth for Christ’s sake, like a sick person.

    The day of the mayday call is the opposite of mid-winter — it is mid-summer, the temperature is in the thirties and the call comes from a water-bombing plane fighting one of the forest fires that constantly rage in the summer in the interior of B.C.:

    “Golf Foxtrot Victor Bravo. Mayday, mayday, mayday.”

    I’m aware of the pause — a mere second and a half — even as I’m responding to the mayday. The lapse is a weakness I didn’t realize I had in me. Static fills my head as my heart starts to pump faster.

    “Golf Foxtrot Vitor Bravo.” I say, “Pacific Radio received mayday, state the nature of your emergency.”

    John slides the binder with our emergency protocol across the desk toward me and I begin flipping through the pages. Suddenly I feel wide awake, my heart a stopwatch tick-tocking and the air rushing through my chest. Voice procedure shrinks the Floor to an airless box: language reduced until there is no room for interpretation. There are very specific things I need to say and do written in clear detail on the pages of this binder. All I need to do is follow them in a straight line, top of the page to bottom.

    The pilot had spoken to the control tower earlier, reporting “a small leak in the gas tank he attributed to a possible rupture after picking up his load” (for those unfamiliar with forest-fire fighting, the bombers pick up their water by skimming the surface of nearby lakes). He said then that he planned to drop his load and then head back to the airport — now he is losing fuel fast and a crash is inevitable. When the crash comes and the radio goes silent, the air controllers can see the resulting fireball from their tower.

    All of that action takes place in the first five pages of a 38-page story — most of it is devoted to the after-effects the narrator experiences following the crash. While part of that involves the inevitable detail of the investigation, most is devoted to how it unsettles everyday aspects of the narrator’s life, his relations with his partner Angie and a couple of university friends who don’t really appreciate what is involved in a job where failure or simply a misstep can lead to people losing their lives. Described that way, I confess it seems like slim pickings for a story — to author Armstrong’s credit, one of her strengths is the ability to concretely capture the little details that have enormous impact on an individual’s life. It is a talent that is well-illustrated in this story.

    I’ll confess that personal experience probably was a major factor in my other favorite from the collection, “The Art of Eating”. This one features the tale of the chef of a seaside West Vancouver restaurant. West Vancouver is an upscale community of incredible beauty, looking across the inlet to Stanley Park — the Western shore features an assortment of restaurants like the one featured in this story and Mrs. KfC and I have eaten in many of them, perhaps even the one that inspired this story.

    Today he will sit down with Susan [the manager] to negotiate a salary increase, because Charlie feels he deserves more. He knows food and he loves food and he’s a big man because of it — not morbidly obese or anything, but a bit of a fatso. When Charlie came to the restaurant three years ago, the menu was all over the place — eggrolls alongside pierogi, an Indonesian stir-fry next to a pasta Bolognese. The previous chef had been fired after he went across the street for a midnight dip in the ocean with some of the underage staff members and then left his underpants to dry in the back hall. Charlie’s fairly sure he’s looking pretty good by comparison.

    Okay, Charlie’s problems (and the restaurant’s) are hardly earth-shattering, but once again Armstrong takes the ordinary and makes it interesting. As in the title story, most of “The Art of Eating” (which weighs in at 56 pages) is devoted to the web of issues that Charlie faces (not the least being the imminent arrival of his first child) — Armstrong’s strength is again the way she develops the detail around them.

    I suspect that strength is also present in the stories that did not land with me — the central characters in those stories are children or teenagers and I will admit that their problems simply did not engage me the way that the two that I have cited did. Suffice to say that I was impressed enough with this collection that I will be keeping an eye out for Armstrong’s next book.

    A final note for those who like short stories: British Columbia has a couple of excellent creative writing programs at the University of Victoria and UBC — every year, we see the publication of worthwhile volumes from writers trained at or affiliated with the programs. Check out reviews of Michael Christie’s The Beggar’s Garden and Zsuzsi Gartner’s Better Living Through Plastic Explosives for a couple previously reviewed here. With Anansi’s commitment to shorter fiction with its Astoria imprint, readers have every reason to expect to see more new writers from British Columbia showing up in the future.

    Laura, by Larry Watson

    January 7, 2014

    Purchased at

    Purchased at

    Paul Finley is a precocious eleven-year-old, his father a book editor, his mother a teacher at a Boston women’s college. As Laura opens, the year is 1955, but his parents are precursors of the hippie-era that won’t arrive until midway through the next decade: each summer, the family escapes the humid heat of Boston to summer at a Vermont cottage. That cottage becomes a playground for writers, artists and intellectuals most of whom arrive bearing gifts of toys, games or sports equipment for Paul or his sister: “The problem, however, was that these gifts quickly found their way into the hands of the adults.”

    But all this is backdrop and stage-setting, my attempt to set the time and place of that season’s essential occurrence: in the summer of 1955 I met Laura Coe Pettit, and the moment of that meeting was the one from which I began a measurement of time. Clocks and calendars can try to convince us that time always passes in equal measure, but we know better. Our thirty-fifth summer passes five times faster than our seventh, and for years my life speeded up or slowed down according to my meetings with or departures from Laura.

    The narrative voice that introduces the reader to Laura obviously comes from a mature, adult Paul looking back but there is a remarkable sense of the present not just in this introduction but in the other memories that will come to his mind as the novel unfolds. Paul’s initial sight of Laura comes when he awakes to find her looking out the window in his bedroom — a somewhat drunk Laura (“I could smell the liquor on her breath, that heavy aroma like something sweet about to go sour. I had learned to identify the smell from my father.”) has escaped from the party downstairs.

    Laura is a novel about a childhood infatuation that almost instantly becomes a lifelong obsession. Laura and Paul exchange a few awkward words, but the boy is already hooked:

    I did not want her to leave me alone. As bewildered, apprehensive, and uncertain as I was about her presence, I still wanted her to stay. At eleven, though baseball and the Boy Scout manual dominated my life, another part of me escaped their rule. This was the part interested in, among other things, romantic novels about errant knights and endangered maidens. And I did more than read about the subject. More than once I had climbed the stairs with an imaginary sword in my hand, a cascade of bloodied foes behind me. When I reached the tower (my room) I burst through the door, ready to rescue the diaphanously gowned woman who was lashed to a chair just the way the woman was on the cover of Montaldo’s Revenge, a paperback lying around the house that summer. (The ropes crossed her breasts in an X, and high on her bare arm was the red mark of the lash.) No doubt this play was part of my awakening sexuality, but I wasn’t yet aware of it. And now a peculiar version of my fantasy was coming true. A beautiful young woman was in my room, though I, without sword or shield, was probably the one in need of rescue. I slept in my underpants, and I tried to pin down the sheet that covered me by unobtrusively pressing down on one of its folds with my forearm.

    I’ve included that extended quote for a couple of reasons. One of the characteristics of obsessions is that they don’t change over time. The knight who is “probably the one in need of rescue” described here is a fair depiction of what Paul will be like for the next 30 years whenever Laura Coe Pettit is in the neighborhood or comes to mind. Equally important, however, is the revisionism that is apparent as this memory is recalled for that too will become a common feature as Paul presents his memories. Each time Paul recalls a scene or incident involving Laura and recounts the story, the weight of present-day interpretation being imposed on what really happened back then is readily apparent.

    Laura has the honor of getting the title of the book, so it is worth sketching a bit about her. At the time of that first meeting in 1955, she is already a young poet of some reputation. Among certain academic circles (although not all) that reputation will grow — some will proclaim her as being as good as Emily Dickinson. To some extent her personality will offset that reputation. Like many writers, she has a deep-rooted lack of confidence which she protects by being aggressively offensive in her personal relations — the apparent contradiction will be familiar to anyone who has ever dealt with writers. It also shows up in her personal life — she alternates periods of hermit-like withdrawal with others where she actively (and awkwardly) seeks the public stage.

    But while Laura gets the title, this novel is really about Paul — we see her only through his revised and edited memories. He doesn’t share her artistic tendencies; indeed, he never really understands her poems despite repeated efforts. His adolescent and young adult life is dominated by a scene he witnessed of Laura and his father making love — even as a teenager, he is competing with his father in his obsession. Paul’s father dies young, but that does not change things much. Paul goes on to become a pediatrician (a nice, safe role) and marries a woman (soft-spoken, always decent) who is everything that Laura is not but rather than serving as a balm to his obsession that apparent normality only makes it worse.

    Laura is Larry Watson’s fifth novel and my fourth — you can find reviews of his first three (Montana 1948, Justice and White Crosses here). An interview with Watson at the conclusion of my Washington Square Press edition contains an important admission, however: he wrote a draft of Laura before writing the other three “but I struggled with it on and off for years”.

    While I thoroughly enjoyed Laura, I would have to say that that struggle shows. One of the great strengths of those other three is Watson’s development of his fictional community of Bentrock, Montana — for this reader, the way that the author locates his characters in that Western town is a major plus. He does not do that in this book (the setting eventually moves from the Northeast to Wisconsin) and I missed that grounding — the story of this novel is pretty much restricted to Paul and his notion of what Laura is as time passes. Those other novels develop secondary characters; this one uses them strictly as props for the two protagonists.

    I am impressed enough with Watson that I have committed to reading his catalogue in order — the publication of Let Him Go a few months ago means that I now have five more to go. Despite some minor concerns with this novel, I am delighted to have four still on the horizon. I have previously confessed an affection for western novelists both past and present (check the sidebar for reviews of Wallace Stegner and Guy Vanderhaeghe for just two examples) — Larry Watson holds his own with the best of them. While Laura may lack the Western touch that makes him a personal favorite, it is still a very impressive novel.

    Constance, by Patrick McGrath

    December 30, 2013

    Purchased at

    Purchased at

    Author Patrick McGrath lets us know from the start that his title character is a troubled, incomplete soul:

    My name is Constance Schulyer Klein. The story of my life begins the day I married an Englishman called Sidney Klein and said good-bye forever to Ravenswood and Daddy and all that went before. I have a husband now, I thought, a new daddy. I intended to become my own woman. I intended, oh, I intended everything. I saw myself reborn. Gone forever the voice of scorn and disapproval, the needling, querulous voice so unshakable in its conviction that I was worthless, worse than worthless, unnecessary.

    On the surface, all looks to be fine. Sidney is a distinguished academic “who knew the world and could recite Shakespeare by heart”, an effective and popular lecturer, although he is having some difficulty translating that in-person success into his book The Conservative Heart (“One day it was brilliant, the next it stank.”).

    And at first glance, Constance herself has an attractive career as an editor at a New York publishing firm, although her slim confidence even there is threatened when she tells her editor-in-chief that she is in love. Her boss asks Constance if she finds her work fulfilling and when the response is yes, the editor-in-chief says “You hold on to it then…. I assumed she meant that I couldn’t love Sidney Klein and my job at the same time but I told her I could.”

    The early days of marriage are happy but troublesome signs (at least in Constance’s ever-questioning mind) start to show early. Sidney treats her well enough in day-to-day matters and the sex is fine, but “he knew so much more than me and after a while this grew irksome”. As well, Sidney carries his academic behavioral style over into his personal relationships — his dialectic challenging constantly undermines Constance’s already limited self-confidence.

    I have only read one other McGrath novel (Trauma) but from that limited exposure would say that as an author he has only a remote interest in developing the apparently “normal” aspect of his character’s lives. Rather, his focus is on the insecurity and incompleteness that are ever-present undercurrents in their self-evaluation and how little it takes to set those currents roiling. We can tell from the opening words quoted above that Constance has a lot of negative experiences that are still rippling from her past — as the novel proceeds, those will become even more real and new ones based in the present will be added.

    Those present-day ones start to acquire substance when Constance’s younger sister, Iris, moves to New York City from upstate, ostensibly to start medical school. Their mother had died when Constance was in her teens and, before she moved to the city, she became a kind-of substitute mother. But as Iris matured, their relationship cooled:

    She’d made several visits to New York while she was in college and I was never unhappy to put her on a train back upstate. She was more trouble than she’d ever been in high school. In the brief periods I’d spent with her she exhausted me.

    Iris moves into an apartment “over a noodle shop in Chinatown”, finds a job at an hotel and takes up serious partying, drinking and sleeping around. When Constance visits Iris at the hotel, Iris immediately takes her to the bar which features a lounge-lizard pianist, Eddie Castrol. “Doesn’t he remind you of Daddy?” Iris whispers — hardly a positive assessment, given what we already know of Constance’s relationship with her father. Things quickly spiral downhill for Constance when it becomes apparent that Iris and Eddie are having an affair: “I imagined him feasting on her plump soft heavy body like some kind of animal.”

    Troubles with Daddy from the past that still linger. Marriage as a desperate attempt to start a new, positive life. The arrival of a sister who not only revives all those old troubles but brings with her life-style a whole new set. And all that is merely McGrath setting the table for even darker developments.

    It would be a needless spoiler to go into details, but it is only fair to observe that things do get much, much worse on all three fronts: Daddy, Sidney and Iris. We do find out what was behind the difficult relationships with both parent and sibling. And while Sidney is the most sympathetic (and least disturbed) of the central characters, his incompleteness comes from his self-preoccupation — even when he wants to be of help, he does not have much to offer.

    While an assortment of disturbing developments and outright tragedies do occur, as I said earlier McGrath’s interest is in what sort of response these provoke under the surface, most particularly Constance’s surface. We know from the start that she is incomplete, with very limited coping skills, so it gives nothing away to say that things don’t just get worse, they get exponentially worse.

    For this reader, that made Constance a very frustrating novel. I appreciated McGrath’s talent throughout, but the more fully he painted his picture, the more isolated I felt. Rather than finding Constance’s insecurity (and her inadequate responses to it) part of a character who deserved at least some sympathy, I found her becoming ever more annoying — perhaps that was the author’s intention but all it did for me was produce sour distaste. Life did deal her a bad hand but with every “choice” she makes, she succeeds in making it worse.

    As I read the book, I did find myself reminded of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs which also features a central character who experiences disappointment after disappointment. The crucial difference is that while Messud’s character responds with anger towards those around her, McGrath’s Constance’s resentment produces mainly internalized responses.

    From reviews that I have read, both novels have provoked a widely-varied response. I suspect it is a case that readers who have a deeper personal feeling than I do of what it is like to experience mistreatment firsthand can find more in these novels than I did. For my part, if I ran into any of these people in real life, I’d politely excuse myself and head to the other side of the room — as much as I appreciate the two authors’ talent in developing them, I can’t say I find them any more appealing in a book.


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