The Lobster Kings, by Alexi Zentner

June 8, 2014

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barracuda, by Christos Tsiolkas

May 26, 2014

Purchase at The Book Depository

Purchased at The Book Depository

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

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

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

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

‘Why do you take their shit?’

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

Danny shrugged. ‘Dunno’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Landing Gear, by Kate Pullinger

May 20, 2014

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

It is safe to say that Kate Pullinger’s last novel, The Mistress of Nothing, took me by surprise. As a read, the book (her sixth novel but the first that I had read) seemed a conventional society-based historical novel, a cultural conflict, travel story narrated by Lady Duff Gordon’s maid who has accompanied her to Egypt where the aristocrat is seeking relief from consumption.

Enjoyable, but hardly challenging, the surprise was that it won Canada’s 2009 Governor-General’s award for fiction and was long-listed for that year’s Giller Prize — a sign that two juries saw significant literary value in a book that I would have (and did) characterize as escapist fiction. While she was born and raised in Canada, Pullinger has been based in the U.K. for some time and the novel had no Canadian content, so recognition from Canadian juries was just as surprising on that front.

All of this sparked curiosity on my part when I read descriptions of her new work, Landing Gear. The author says she was inspired by a 2001 story in The Guardian concerning a Pakistani who had stowed away in the landing gear of a British-bound jet and somehow survived the fall when the airplane approached Heathrow. The promotional stories promised that the author uses this as the framework for the exploration of tensions in a modern English family. For this potential reader, at least, that seemed a long way from Lady Duff Gordon heading to Egypt when it is still part of the Ottoman Empire.

A brief prologue alerts the reader that the novel will involve the story of Yacub, the stowaway, and the fact that he “arrives” in England by crashing on the roof of Harriet’s car just as she is approaching it with her cartload of groceries. She decides to take him home. The prologue also alerts readers to a device that Pullinger will occasionally return to throughout the story — it recounts the event in snippets of less than a page, each told from a different point of view.

The fictional version of Yacub’s fall takes place in 2012, but when the novel proper gets into motion, Pullinger moves back to 2010 to introduce Harriet and her family — Landing Gear is more than anything else their story. I was willing to give the author licence to use the highly-unlikely fall as her centrepiece; she gained credibility immediately when she used another “aeronautical event”, the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano which shut down European air travel for days, as the device to introduce her characters.

It was the day after the volcano erupted that Harriet noticed the sky. Extraordinary.

The day before, she’d been too caught up with the chaos in the radio newsroom [where she works as a presenter] as the airports had closed, one by one, north to south, like roman blinds being pulled down over the entire country: Glasgow — Edinburgh — Manchester — Birmingham — Heathrow — Gatwick. In order to read the news properly, she’d had to learn how to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull, along with a host of other Icelandic names. News bulletins had been bumped up from once an hour, to twice, to every fifteen minutes. She’d stayed late and left in a car her boss, Steve, ordered, the underground having long since stopped for the night. Once home, she found her son, Jack, asleep on the sofa, clutching his gaming handset, surrounded by pizza crusts, sticky glasses and other debris.

(Full disclosure: Pullinger may have had an advantage with this reader when she used that volcanic eruption and resulting flight shutdown to frame her story. Mrs. KfC was on a trekking vacation to Spain when that Iceland volcano erupted — both her trip there and scheduled return home were disrupted by the highly unusual shutdown of virtually all European air space so I have some personal experience with the uncertainty that it created.)

Harriet’s husband Michael (a boring actuary) is in New York on business when flights back home are halted. He chooses to head to Toronto to stay with an old flame to await the resumption of air travel — it is a decision that will lead to an event that disrupts the entire family balance for much longer than the air travel shutdown.

And then there is 14-year-old son Jack:

Jack had lived through what felt like millions of school holidays, with their distinct combination of freedom and boredom, like a weekend that never ends, a whole string of exciting Saturdays that turn into dismal Sundays. The Easter holiday was always very long — sixteen days this year, Jack had counted — and his family hadn’t gone away. Sometimes they did go away, Jack and his parents, city breaks in posh hotels with swimming pools. Why did his parents think that all he needed was a swimming pool to compensate for being dragged around endless churches, museums and art galleries? But this year Jack’s dad was in New York on business and Harriet was busy at the radio station.

Jack will be using this freedom to head to the Dukes Meadows for a party, a sort-of outdoor rave. It will prove to have two features: the silent sky (the family lives in Richmond on the Heathrow landing path where the noise of overhead planes is normally a constant feature) and the drug-related death of well-known local lad, a death in which Jack has a minor part.

And finally the author introduces Emily who “buried her father the day the planes stopped flying”. In her own way, Emily is also part of the family. As part of a personal search, she has been stalking Harriet — as a project, the stalking has also involved preparing a video documentary. Indeed, Harriet has been surreptitiously filming Harriet in the supermarket parking lot when she sees Harriet look up and directs her camera into the sky — she captures Yacub’s fall, his non-fatal landing and Harriet’s response.

Those excerpts and descriptions should be warning enough that Pullinger continues to demand licence from her readers as the novel progresses. I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that she rewards this with some highly perceptive observations on what is involved in modern family life, whether or not the planes are flying.

For the most part, I would say that Pullinger succeeds in this project — the novel is both entertaining and engaging and there are a number of chuckle-inducing comic set pieces. I am not certain just how memorable it will turn out to be, but during the reading I was more than willing to go along with the author.

I’ll conclude by noting that there is an aspect to Landing Gear in which I did not take part. Pullinger is Professor of Creative Writing and Digital Media at Bath Spa University and has expanded this creative project to include that latter discipline:

The digital world gives authors and publishers completely new opportunities for experimentation.

With Landing Gear, Random House created an API (application programming interface) that allows programmers to get content in multiple ways. An excerpt-length section of Landing Gear is stored in a content management system and tagged to define characters, locations, events and times. Programmers can access this data and build new products with it.

To get access to the Landing Gear API or see some of the resulting projects, please visit
http://www.randomhouse.ca/LandingGearAPI

I am a reader, not a programmer, so I admit that note was a large “No Go” sign for me and I have not visited the sight. I also acknowledge that that makes me an out-of-date curmudgeon — I would be delighted to receive comments from anyone who has. :-)

The Tivington Nott, by Alex Miller

May 8, 2014

Copy courtesy Allen & Unwin

Copy courtesy Allen & Unwin

Alex Miller left his native England for Australia at age 17. As an author, his 11 novels (this is only my third but I intend to get to them all over time) have concentrated on telling Australian stories — but he never forgot his roots.

The last one reviewed here (Watching The Climbers On The Mountain) can certainly be read as an autobiographical story — set on a cattle station in Queensland, it features an 18-year-old stockboy, newly arrived from England.

The Tivington Nott, first published in 1989, is even more personal — and unlike the rest of Miller’s works, it is set in England. Here is an explanation from the author, included in the 2005 Allen & Unwin version that I read:

All the episodes [which take place in 1952], not just a few of them, may be traced back to actual events and experiences in my life, and in the lives of the people, and some of the animals, portrayed here. There was such a stag as the Tivington nott, a horse such as Kabara, a cocky Australian who owned him, a farmer for whom I laboured for two years and who had rightly earned the nickname, ‘Tiger’, a labourer by the name of Morris with whom I lived, a harbourer who would know himself in the figure of Grabbe, and a huntsman of the Devon and Somerset who broke his neck while chasing a hind one winter afternoon. I loved them all, and loved the landscape they inhabited. Briefly, they were my reality.

In some ways, I could stop this review right there since it is a perfect summary of the book (note in particular “I loved them all”) — perhaps the addition of a personal opinion that Miller tells this story exceptionally well would provide the best conclusion. And in offering that enthusiastic endorsement, let me say it shows that Miller overcame a number of well-ingrained, going-in prejudices.

Firstly, I’m not a fan of memoirs, fictional or otherwise. Too often, I find them to be self-indulgent, manipulated versions of history — I’d rather the author let his or her imagination run wild instead of offering a sanitized version of what happened. Miller disposed of this personal bias from the opening paragraph: The Tivington Nott may be based on real events that Miller lived through but the author applies himself conscientiously and completely to developing a fair portrait of what he experienced, including the people (and animals) that were involved.

Secondly, the elements of the story lie far from my interests. Until I picked up the book, I did not know what a “nott” is (a stag without antlers, if you share my ignorance). While I knew elements of rural English society hunted foxes to their death while mounted and chasing a pack of hunting dogs, I wasn’t aware that in parts of the country this also involved deer. I can say with certainty that if I lived in England, then or now, I would be firmly anti-hunt. Once the characters have been introduced, The Tivington Nott is the story of a hunt — to Miller’s credit, I was sympathetically engrossed in the narrative throughout.

Let me offer an extended excerpt where Miller introduces both himself and some of the characters noted above as in illustration of how the author both offers insight of those around him and places himself suitably in the picture:

Even though he is a real grinder I did not mind working for the Tiger. He is not just an uncomplicated farmer. His hard good sense about managing the farm deserts him when it comes to the matter of hunting the wild deer on Exmoor. He fears this passion as a disability and is forever guarding himself against it. Everything he does is complicated for him by this duality in his nature. He tried to get me to address him as ‘Master’ when I first came here from London two years ago. It is the tradition and Morris [the senior farm labourer] abides by it. I respect traditions and have one or two of my own. One of them is not calling people ‘Master’. I could see how much it meant to Tiger to have me conform, however, so I did have a go at it, just to be fair. But it was no good. I couldn’t look him in the eye and say it. I wasn’t being stubborn. There was more to it than that.

Tiger is just a tenant farmer and, as noted, a “grinder” who works his staff hard. But when it comes to the hunt, as that excerpt indicates, his self-image becomes more one of “nearly a squire”. His class is undoubtedly a cut or two below the other hunters, but in both dress and behavior, he tries to narrow the gap. The “grinder” becomes a bit of a sycophant.

What sets the drama off is the arrival in the neighborhood of the “cocky Australian”, Alsop, and his impressive hunting stud, Kabara. Like Tiger, Alsop has pretensions to become one of the upper, hunting classes — unlike Tiger, he has the money to follow through on them.

Alsop’s plan comes apart early in the book when he crashes his car into a rural stone wall and disables himself. He needs someone to look after Kabara and looks to Tiger, whose own hunting stock consists of two, not impressive, geldings. Sensing that Alsop will need to sell the stud (at almost any price) Tiger accepts — and turns the stud over to the narrator.

Miller proves to be an excellent hand at this, exclusively because he lets Kabara have his head and only offers gentle guidance — the stud is more than willing to go along with this bargain. The narrator is fully aware that Tiger, with his “dominate the horse” approach to riding and hunting, will face immediate disaster if he ever mounts the horse — the horse will definitely best the man.

All of which sets up the hunt that occupies most of the 167 pages of the novel. Tiger agrees to take Kabara along as his “second” horse, tended by the narrator. But he instructs Miller to hunt the horse hard, rather than just standing by — he wants the horse to return from the hunt exhausted in order to lower the price he will offer Alsop.

All of that suggests a narrative of simple lives in a closed society that has its own complicated set of hierarchy and rules, all of which the author develops with careful precision. The narrator is certainly an active participant but you can tell from the start that Miller, when he actually lived these events, was every bit as much an acute observer as he was a part of the action.

Miller’s prose is definitely one of the reasons this endeavour succeeded so well for me. For the most part, it is tight and almost journalistic — but when he decides to divert into extended description of nature or action, he does it perfectly.

His eye for characters, and the ability to bring them to life, is equally impressive. This novel, particularly when we get to the hunt, involves a number of individuals from very different classes in a community. Miller finds the ideal balance between sympathetic and critical portrayal to bring both the individuals and broader community to impressive life.

Discipline in writing, discipline in character and, perhaps most impressively, discipline in length — too many authors who can deliver on the first two often fail on that final one. The Tivington Nott is a longish novella/short novel (I read it in one extended sitting) that does not have a single extraneous word. On more than one occasion while reading the book, I thought of J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, another gem of a book (with a somewhat similar story) whose author knew exactly what it would take to tell his story.

That makes Alex Miller three for three for me (Autumn Laing is the one I have not yet mentioned). While the three have some similarities, they are very different novels — although each one truly showcases a rare talent for prose. This Australian sure can write and I am delighted to know that I have eight more novels to go (and he is still publishing — yeah!). Stay tuned.

2014 kimbofo While I have an ongoing Alex Miller project, I saved this novel for this month as part of Kimbofo at Reading Matters May project encouraging the reading of Australian and New Zealand books. For full details on the project (and links to reviews from others who are participating), click here. I hope to get to at least two other Antipodean books before the month is out.

Us Conductors, by Sean Michaels

April 22, 2014

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

My reading of Us Conductors was very much influenced by the confluence of two streams of personal serendipity, so it seems only right that I acknowledge them before discussing the novel itself.

Strange as it may seem, stream one originates with the hugely entertaining UK television series, Midsomer Murders. Mrs. KfC and I are fans and have been entertaining ourselves in the last few months by revisiting our DVD collection. Along the way, we paused to watch the show’s tenth anniversary special and I was intrigued when the series music director talked about his decision to use the “theremin” in Midsomer Murders’ distinctive theme. While I enjoy many types of music (and almost always have something playing while I read), I’m no expert — and I’d never heard of the theremin. Some quick Internet research left me intrigued.

Stream two has a much stronger literary connection. Since 1996, Random House of Canada has been running its New Face of Fiction program. Every year the publisher features at least one (and often more) debut Canadian novel and they have an enviable record of success in spotting superb new writers. Ann-Marie MacDonald, Yann Martel, Timothy Taylor, Drew Hayden Taylor and Alexi Zentner are just a few of the exceptional authors who first appeared under the New Face of Fiction banner (you can see the full list here — I’ve read many and heartily recommend almost every title).

Us Conductors is this year’s only title. I was looking forward to it and (here comes the confluence) became even more intrigued when the book arrived — it’s based on the life story of Lev Termen, the Russian scientist and inventor who in the early decades of the twentieth century gave the world the theremin. Three weeks before I had never even heard of the instrument and here’s a whole novel about its inventor!

A theremin

A theremin

What’s a theremin? It’s an electronic box, much like the one by your tv set, with two antennas emerging from it — one sticking straight up, the other a loop. The world’s first electronic musical instrument (pre-Moog synthesizer, although Moog markets the modern version), the straight antenna controls pitch, the looped one volume. The musician “plays” the instrument with movements much like an orchestra conductor (the cover of the novel is a fair representation), the right hand controlling pitch, the left volume. The sound is very distinctive but talented players can produce quite recognizable versions of classic pieces (more on this later in the review).

That’s enough background on KfC’s going-in attitude — let’s get to the book itself. Part One of Us Conductors consists of a journal that Lev Termen is writing from a below-decks locked cabin on a ship, the Stary Bolshevik. He is on his way back to Russia (obviously as at least a semi-prisoner) after some decades in the United States. He is addressing his journal to Clara Rockmore: “My one true love, finest theremin player the world will ever know”. Here’s the way the novel opens:

I was Leon Termen before I was Dr Theremin and before I was Leon, I was Lev Sergeyvich. The instrument that is now known as a theremin could as easily have been called a leon, a lyova, a sergeyvich. It could have been called a clara, after its greatest player. Pash liked “termenvox.” He likes its connotations of science and authority. But this name always made me laugh. Termenvox — the voice of Termen. As if this device replicated my own voice. As if the theremin’s trembling soprano were the song of this scientist from Leningrad.

I laughed at this notion, and yet in a way I think I also believed it. Not that the theremin emulated my voice, but that with it I gave voice to something. To the invisible. To the ether. I, Lev Sergeyvich Termin, mouthpiece of the universe.

As Lev chronicles his story, we learn that his first invention, while still at Petrograd University, was “the radio watchman”:

I was still a student, scarcely out of adolescence, and I invented a magical box. The radio watchman emits an invisible electro-magnetic field and then waits for a disruption. If a human body passes inside this field, the circuit closes and an alarm goes off.

Imagine a vigilant wireless set, keeping guard.

The principles of the radio watchman eventually evolve into the idea of the theremin — Lev begins developing it while employed at the Physico-Technical Institute in 1921. He demonstrates his first model to the engineers and physicists there and they are impressed. Indeed, so impressed that he soon demonstrates it to Lenin himself. And the new Russian rulers, eager to show people that their regime equals exciting new science send him on a tour to give concerts around the country.

It is not long before global politics takes over. Lev’s discovery (and it is only one of many that spring from his brain) is viewed as a national asset that needs to be exploited. With Pash as his minder (Lev is hopeless at normal things like administration and business), he is sent to America — not as a normal type of “spy” but rather an early version of global corporate espionage. Lev’s inventions get the pair into companies like RCA Victor (which actually contracted to build the first commercial theremins — the Crash of 1929 coincided with their launch and sales were few); once inside the organizations, Pash goes to work on finding information that is of use to the mother country.

While things are going well in the initial pre-Crash years, Lev does all this from a posh suite at the Plaza Hotel. When those bills mount up, the wealthy husband of one of his theremin students offers him the use of a four-storey midtown brownstone that becomes rehearsal hall, laboratory and living quarters. It is the jazz age and Lev is living the good life — he meets Clara (who switches from the violin to theremin), falls in love with her despite her being much younger and enjoys considerable early success.

Throughout Part One of the novel, I found myself comparing it favorably to Jean Echenoz’s Lightning, an excellent novella based on the American adventures of Nikolai Tesla, another Russian scientific genius (also with no everyday life skills), who a century before Lev Termen had followed the same route. Both books not only make invention and science an interesting story, they offer insightful pictures of the New York of the day.

Clara Rockmore playing her theremin

Clara Rockmore playing her theremin

Part One of Us Conductors exceeded all my considerable expectations — I even spent $10 to buy Clara Rockmore’s “Lost Theremin” album from iTunes to play along as I read it. (If you are interested but not up to the investment, a You Tube of her playing Saint-Saens’ The Swan can be found here — she’s accompanied on the piano by her sister, who also features in the novel).

Alas, Us Conductors has a Part Two and that locked cabin on the Stary Bolshevik is ample foreboding. Part Two is also a journal directed to Clara — this one written in 1947, eight years after Lev’s return to Russia. Stalin was firmly in control when he arrived, his American experience was viewed as treason not a service to the state and he was soon off to the Gulag. He has “escaped” that fate by the time he is writing the journal — his inventing abilities are now being exploited in Moscow where he is resident in one of the state’s “scientific prisons”.

While Part One was an entertaining and illuminating fantasy, despite its basis in real life, Part Two fell flat with me — I have trouble reading fiction about Stalinist prison life when it is written by Russians who experienced it and balk completely at versions produced by Western writers. To Michaels’ credit, he does conclude with a plot twist that restored my interest.

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

Perhaps, in the interests of being honest myself, I should follow Michaels’ approach. My Midsomer Murders and previous New Face of Fiction experience left me inclined to like this novel — and I very much did, until another stream of serendipity (aversion to Gulag fiction) provided a stronger, negative current. Other readers may well not experience the disappointment in the second part of the book that I did. And even with that caveat, I would call this another success for the New Face of Fiction project.

Embers, by Sándor Márai

April 14, 2014

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Translated by Carol Brown Janeway

While it was hardly a deliberate decision on my part, Embers is the third “dinner-based” translated novel that I have read in the last year:

Herman Koch’s The Dinner involves two contemporary Dutch couples. The first third of this one is an hilarious put-down of those restaurants where the waiter spends more time explaining what is on the plate he just put in front of you than it takes you to eat it. Then the book takes a turn to the dark side and the four become increasingly selfish and dislikable as the novel proceeds — by the time you finish it, you can’t stand any one of them.

Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast opens with a mother and two children preparing the meal of the title while they await the arrival of father. Again, about a third of the way through the book it turns noir as the child narrator begins revealing more and more about her father’s abusive nature. The feast is anything but joyous.

Embers, first published in Hungary in 1942, predates both those works by decades but a quick Google scan shows that it has been a reader favorite ever since. The dinner in this one involves neither a pretentious restaurant nor a waiting family — rather it is a meal involving two military men who have not seen each other for decades.

It does involve appropriate formality: in the opening pages, the host (“the General”) instructs his gamekeeper to harness the Landau, don full-dress livery and head to the White Eagle in the nearby town and tell them that the carriage awaits the Captain who is staying there. And author Marai wastes little time in letting the reader know that this dinner will involve a return to an ominous shared history:

There was a calendar hanging on the wall. Its fist-sized numbers showed August 14. The General looked up at the ceiling and counted: August 14. July 2. He was calculating how much time had elapsed between that long ago and today. “Forty-one years,” he said finally, half aloud. Recently he had been talking to himself even when he was alone in the room. “Forty years”, he then said, confused, and blushed like a schoolboy who’s stumbled in the middle of a lesson, tilted his head back and closed his watering eyes. His neck reddened and bulged over the maize-yellow collar of his jacket. “July 2, 1899, was the day of the hunt,” he murmured, then fell silent. Propping his elbows on the desk like a student at his studies, he want back to staring at the letter [which announced the Captain's impending arrival] with its brief handwritten message. “Forty-one,” he said again, hoarsely. “And forty-three days. Yes, exactly.”

The General has been living in a single room of his castle since that day:

For decades now, since he had moved into this wing of the building, and torn down the dividing wall, this large, shadowy chamber had replaced the two rooms. Seventeen paces from the door to the bed. Eighteen paces from the wall on the garden side to the balcony. Both distances counted off exactly.

He lived here as an invalid lives within the space he has learned to inhabit. As if the room had been tailored to his body. Years passed without him setting foot in the other wing of the castle, in which salon after salon opened one into the next, first green, then blue, then red, all hung with gold chandeliers.

It is worth noting the details in those excerpts, because that approach will continue throughout the 213-page volume. As you can probably tell from the foreboding in those brief excerpts, the General has been nursing vengeance throughout those 41 years — when he instructs his “nurse” (he’s 75, she’s 91, but the clock has effectively been stopped for some time for the two of them) to open the dining room in the castle and set the table for two, we know that the dinner will serve as his excuse to exercise it.

Just a bit of back story, to help set the stage. The General and the Captain first met as pre-teenage youths at a military academy and became inseparable friends. While both came from military families, the General has both breeding and money — the Captain came from a military tradition but his Polish parents have fallen on tough economic times and are sacrificing everything to enable him to attend the academy. And to add a bit of spice to the story, he’s a distant relative of Chopin and is musical himself — even as a child, the General could not understand this “emotional”, non-rational interest/talent of his friend.

Once that back story is in place, the dinner can begin. While it is ostensibly a conversation between the two, Embers, like The Mussel Feast, is effectively a monologue — the General has been preparing for this occasion since that fateful hunt 41 years ago and he gives his guest precious few openings to take part in the conversation.

Part of what is so impressive about Embers is the careful, precise way that the General proceeds with his story over dinner and I don’t want to spoil that by revealing details. He is a deliberate, non-emotional, calculating soul — like any accomplished military man, he has prepared his “assault” with careful precision. For the reader, part of the strength of the book is the chilling way that he moves in on his target and what happened on that day of the hunt — and the lonely pain that has dominated his life ever since.

The result of all of this is an engrossing, compelling read. If anything, the General’s total lack of emotion makes the story even more fearsome as it unfolds. To Marai’s credit, it felt like I was sitting at the dinner table myself, between the two combatants, watching with horror as his attack gathered force. Embers is a quick read (I finished it in two sessions) and it is a good thing — I think the author would have been over-reaching if he tried to sustain it for another 100 pages. Having said that, I would be hard pressed to name a more powerful novel that I have read in the last couple of years.

One final observation: All three of the “dinner” books that I have cited invite an allegorical interpretation. Vanderbeke has said that The Mussel Feast is intended as an allegory of life in Soviet-dominated East Germany. Koch’s novel can certainly be read as an allegory for contemporary Europe. And Embers is set in 1940 Hungary during the Nazi era — Marai never references it directly but the Empire that the General and Captain were trained to defend has been replaced by an even more frightful one.

I don’t like to offer my interpretations of allegories in reviews here. It seems to me they are best developed between the author, his story and the individual reader — and putting my version forward here is worse than a bad spoiler. Suffice to say that you will probably find one if you choose to pick up the book — and it is probably every bit as valid today as it was in the war era when this fine novel was written.

Kicking The Sky, by Anthony De Sa

April 6, 2014

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

Anthony De Sa is an author who arrived with some impact for me in 2008 with his debut story collection, Barnacle Love. Shortlisted for that year’s Giller Prize (I liked it every bit as much as the winner, Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce), the collection was actually two distinct sets of linked stories.

The first told the story of Manuel, a Portuguese fisherman, and his arrival as an immigrant in Newfoundland. The second set followed Manuel and his family to Toronto, changed the narrative perspective to his young son Antonio and ended up portraying ethnic life in inner-city Toronto (which happens to be one of the city’s distinctive charms). Both worked for me: Barnacle Love was like two novellas that captured very different aspects of the immigrant experience.

In a sense, De Sa returns to that same world with this debut novel — Antonio is again the central character and the key dramatic incident in this book was the subject of one of the stories in Barnacle Love. That event, based in real life, was the abduction and murder in 1977 of Emanuel Jaques, a shoeshine boy lured to his death by a group of pedophiles with the promise of easy money. The crime became one of those symbols that captures a moment in the development of a city — in this case, the fact that Toronto’s “main street”, Yonge, had descended into the squalor and vice that seems to be part of becoming a metropolis.

Like Antonio’s family, Emanuel was from the Azores and the Portuguese neighborhood where Antonio lives is both preoccupied and outraged by the crime:

It was the summer that no one slept. During the last sticky week in July, the air abandoned us, failing to stir and stream through our streets and between our crooked alleys. The grass in our lanes stood tall and still, barely rooted to an urban soil of gravel and discarded candy wrappers. The narrow brick row houses that lined Palmerston Avenue and Markham Street — painted electric blue or yellow or lime green — became buffers to the city noise. A persistent hum was all we heard.

I can pinpoint the very moment it all started to change, when the calm broke: when news that twelve-year-old Emanuel Jaques had disappeared spread through our neighborhood in the whispered prayers of women returning from Mass. They gathered along their fences and on their verandas speaking in hushed tones that went silent whenever children drew near. We ignored their anxious looks and their occasional shouts to get home and lock the doors.

Eleven-year-old Antonio and his friends, Manny and Ricky, hang out in the back alleys and garages of Toronto’s Little Portugal and they make a pact to go in search of Emanuel’s killer — a pact that goes nowhere when the shoeshine boy’s body is found four days after his disappearance. But just as the crime became a symbol for the larger city, it develops as an even bigger symbol for this young threesome and their lives.

(Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

The early part of Kicking The Sky features many of the elements (indeed, repeating incidents) from Barnacle Love that attracted me to that collection. De Sa’s portrayal of the ethnic neighborhood is both realistic and evocative. Its isolation from the city around it is offset by a collection of preserved customs: Antonio’s front yard features a crèche where a carefully-painted statue of Christ is ensconced behind plexiglass in an old bathtub stood on end, the men and women of the neighborhood annually butcher a pig in one of the back lane garages (a coming-of-age event for Antonio when he is allowed to participate).

In this novel, however, De Sa soon moves to a much darker side. The threesome of youngsters is one example: Antonio’s family is dysfunctional, Manny steals and sells bikes to get along, Ricky (whose drunken father beats him regularly) earns his money by masturbating adult men who stick their penises through a hole in the wall at the local pool hall.

The story acquires an even more foreboding turn with the arrival of James, a stranger who takes up residence in one of the area garages and befriends the young threesome, turning the garage into a clubhouse. De Sa presages bad news around James — while the author takes some time before revealing he is a rent boy (which creates some disturbing elements given Emanuel’s death), when he does it hardly comes as a surprise.

In another development that tested my patience, Antonio finds an image of Christ in a limpet shell — and the owner of the local corner store decides that the boy has acquired divine powers and has “cured” her of a chronic affliction. Antonio’s father, whose basement excavating business is struggling, turns him into a Lourdes-like attraction. Crowds line up outside the family garage (where Manuel has constructed a stage for the boy) to spend a few seconds in front of him so he can perform healing miracles and they can leave their thanks in a handy tin.

By the halfway point of the novel, De Sa has abandoned his sympathetic portrayal of the neighborhood and its inhabitants and focuses instead on laying on one unlikely dark development after another. I’ve spoiled enough with a couple of examples — rest assured, there are many more.

The end result, for this reader at least, was a very disappointing book. There were enough reminders early on of De Sa’s ability to capture a neighborhood and develop ethnic characters that it brought back fond memories of Barnacle Love — alas, as the author moved into the book they became mere echoes of the previous experience and were replaced by far more disturbing (and less convincing) material.

In summation, if you come across a copy of Barnacle Love, pick it up; the two sets of interlinked stories are both substantial achievements and it is a very good collection. This novel, on the other hand, you can easily give a miss.

The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner

March 26, 2014

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Rachel Kushner introduces us to Reno as the young woman is heading across Nevada on her new Moto Valera motorcycle. She is on her way to the Salt Flats of Utah where she is about to a) set a new world speed record for a woman driving a motorcycle and b) as a proponent of Land Art, turn that experience into a work of “art” with her camera.

Let’s address that “art” concept first. Here’s the way author Kushner presents its genesis to the reader:

When I was little, skiing in the Sierras, I felt that I was drawing on the mountain’s face, making big sweeping graceful lines. That was how I had started to draw, I’d told Sandro, as a little girl, five, six years old, on skis. Later, when drawing became a habit, a way of being, of marking time, I always thought of skiing. When I began ski racing, slalom and giant slalom, it was as if I were tracing lines that were already drawn, and the technical challenge that shadowed the primary one, to finish with a competitive time, was to stay perfectly in the lines, to stay early through the gates, to leave no trace, because the harder you set your skis’ metal edge, the bigger wedge of evidence you left, the more you slowed down. You wanted no snow spraying out behind you. You wanted to be traceless. To ride a flat ski as much as possible. The ruts that cut around and under the bamboo gates, deep trenches if the snow was soft, were to be avoided by going high, by picking a high and graceful line, with no sudden swerves or shuddering edges, as I rode the rails to the finish.

Reno will set that record on the salt flats, but the artistic side of the project gets literally blown off course — a gust of wind means she crashes her cycle shortly after crossing the speed measuring line. Even that accident has a side benefit, however. Team Valera is also aiming for the world car speed record. And when their driver has set that, to keep a competing American squad off the flats, they put a bandaged-up Reno in the car — and she proceeds to set the woman’s world record in that class as well.

While Reno was born and schooled in Nevada, she has moved to New York to pursue her art interests and is now part of the 1970s art community in SoHo. She has been taken up as a student and lover by an established installation artist, Sandro — we don’t know yet that he is Sandro Valera, son of the Italian family that makes the motorcycles and cars, but we will soon. He is the one who arranged for her to get that competitive motor cycle although the excuse for the gift was the artistic side of the project.

He pretended I was placed in his life to torture him, when it was really the other way around. He acted smitten but I was the smitten one. Sandro held all the power. He was older by fourteen years and a successful artist, tall and good-looking in his work clothes and steel-toed boots — the same kinds of clothes that Bobby and Scott and Andy [Reno's Nevadan uncle and cousins who had a trucking business] wore, but on Sandro they added up to something else: a guy with a family inheritance who could use a nail gun, a drill press, a person not made effete by money, who dressed like a worker or sometimes a bum but was elegant in those clothes, and never hampered by the question of whether he belonged in a given situation (the question itself was evidence of not belonging).

Anyone who has read Kushner’s debut novel Telex From Cuba (I have and I was quite impressed) will be aware that she has a political side to her (one of its themes is the collapse of American economic imperialism in Cuba) and that theme shows up here as well. It is introduced with a brief prologue from 1917 featuring a Valera who is part of the Italian cycle battalion in that war. In chapters dropped into the main narrative, we follow the Valera family into their support of Mussolini during WWII and their imperialist development of exploitative rubber plantations in Brazil during and after the war. Fast cars and motorcycles may be the Valera firm’s branding — they make most of their considerable fortune off of selling perfectly ordinary tires. Needless to say, Sandro the New York artist rejects the family business, although he is quite content to live off its proceeds.

With those threads in place, author Kushner allows Reno to roam. Much of the book is spent with the contemporary art community in New York — we meet dealers, patrons and most importantly unconventional “artists” pursuing the oddball projects that characterized the era (I won’t even offer an example but they did produce more than the occasional chuckle).

The book also spends some time with the Valera family in Italy. Reno’s world-record status means that she has been invited to take part in a Valera promotional tour, but Sandro insists they must first spend a week with his mother at the family villa on the slopes above Lake Como. It is 1975 and Italy is in political turmoil with Red Brigade demonstrations and kidnappings — needless to say the industrial empire of the Valeras and the family itself are targets.

An unconventional notion of “art”, a troubled love-life and the global politics of inequality — even in summary outline, that suggests a cluttered agenda for the novel and for this reader that was the biggest problem with The Flamethrowers. Each of the story lines held interest, but as the book bounces from one to the other it became a distraction. Each time one thread got interesting, the author moved to another one and the threads never really come together. Kushner is both an accomplished stylist and clever storyteller but the novel never became the sum of its parts.

It is only fair to note that my somewhat grumpy assessment is not shared by an assortment of prize juries, where The Flamethrowers has been a regular feature in recent months — a New York Times 2013 Top Ten book, a finalist for the National Book Award in the U.S., shortlisted for the inaugural Folio Prize in the U.K. and now shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize). While it has not emerged as a winner, that is still an impressive list.

I should also note that while reading the book I found myself frequently comparing it to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, another well-reviewed novel about which I was ambivalent. Tartt’s novel also has a strong “art” element, spends a lot of time in Nevada and New York and sends its central character off to Europe as part of the drama of the plot. If you liked one, I suspect you would like the other — I am quite aware that many readers and critics don’t share my assessment that both books have too much clutter to them.

There is definitely much talent on display in The Flamethrowers — I can’t help but conclude, however, that Kushner has a better book waiting in her future.

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 Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

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.


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