The Best Kind of People, by Zoe Whittall

October 25, 2016 by

Review copy courtesy of House of Anansi Press

Imagine if someone close to you was accused of a sexual crime. Would you stick by them? Throw them to the wolves? Bury your head in the sand? Be perplexed and question just how well you really know them?

This is the premise behind Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People, a fast-paced and timely novel about rape culture that has been shortlisted for the 2016 Giller Prize.

The story kicks off with the arrest of George Woodbury, a popular science teacher who has been accused of sexual misconduct with three female students under his charge on a school ski trip. The allegations are particularly shocking because Woodbury is something of a local hero and has won Teacher of the Year year after year.

When he is detained by police, his family —  his 17-year-old over-achieving daughter; his adult son, who is a lawyer; and his beloved wife, a dedicated and much-loved emergency room nurse — are immediately thrown into disarray. The novel focuses on the outfall on these three characters (their stories are told in alternate chapters), which makes for a gripping and thought-provoking read.

Interestingly, we never hear George’s side of the story, nor do we hear from his accusers. This means the reader is cast in exactly the same position as George’s family, never quite sure of his guilt or innocence, and never finding out the specific details of the allegations.

As the story unfolds it’s interesting to see the effect on George’s loved ones as doubts about his innocence begin to creep in. From the outset his wife, Joan, is steadfast in her belief, telling her not-always-supportive sister: “You don’t stop loving someone in an instant because somebody accuses them of something despicable. Nothing is that black and white.” But later, when she entertains the idea that maybe, just maybe, he might have done something wrong, she tries to find excuses for such abhorrent behaviour:

If George was guilty, and she was far from convinced, then he could be sick. She took a sip of black coffee and contemplated this. She understood sick. Everyone is generally pleased to reduce a complicated situation to the notion of evil. Or a typical sleazeball man. He’s just evil. Evil is a word that’s lost its meaning recently, like bully. Overused, and weakened. She dissolved an antacid tablet in a glass of water. If it’s a sickness, it would not be his fault. There could be an undiagnosed tumour in his orbitofrontal lobe, causing him to have no control over his impulses.

Later still, she asks herself whether it’s “possible to be an intelligent human being — perceptive, intuitive — and also be married to someone who fools you so intensely, who is entirely a fraud, and you have no idea?”

George’s daughter, Sadie, is less sure from the start. She knows the girls involved — she goes to school with them — and isn’t sure why they’d make something like this up. She’s afraid that if he’s guilty, she is guilty by association. Whatever the case, the damage is irreparable.

If only she could have the privilege of believing him entirely. What kind of person, what kind of ungrateful daughter, doesn’t believe her own father? She had never doubted him before. She never thought he was anything but moral and civilized. She wasn’t even sure what those words meant. But if someone puts the possibility of something terrible in your head — and people around you believe it — you can’t go back to thinking it completely inconceivable. The possibility is there whether or not you choose to believe it, and you can’t go back to not knowing that the possibility exists.

His son Andrew is slightly more sympathetic to the situation, not least because as a gay teenager he has firsthand experience at being cast as a social pariah. He’s also very much aware that his first sexual relationship — with a man much older than himself and in a position of power — could so easily have been misunderstood by other people had they been aware of it. But even so, he also goes through moments of doubt, never quite sure of his father’s guilt or innocence, preferring instead to be practical about things and using his legal know-how to help George’s case.

Despite The Best Kind of People being an issues-based novel — it embraces everything from teenage romance to feminism, gay rights to white privilege — this story is nothing short of a page turner. It’s a compelling read for so many reasons — will George be convicted? Will he go to prison? Will the family stay together, or fall apart? Will the local community ever accept the Woodbury family ever again or cast them out into the wilderness forever?

Admittedly, I thought some of the view points and characters presented here were well-worn tropes — the wronged wife, the loyal son, the busy-body interfering sister-in-law — and that some of the writing fell into cliché. But then Whittall would  include a sentence that would make me sit up and take notice. Here’s just two examples:

By his second glass he felt the balm of his arrogance returning, like a sly old lover slipping him a hotel key card.


Improbable as it seemed, they settled into a new routine during this holding pattern — like when you’ve put gauze on a wound, and you’re waiting it out, hoping no infections seep in.

By the end of the book I realised it was nothing short of a stunning character study, for Whittall takes three seemingly normal and ordinary people — albeit white, privileged and living distinctly upper middle class lives  — and shows what happens to them when their worlds are turned upside down through no fault of their own.

What I liked most, however, was that it generates more questions than answers — book groups are going to have an absolute field day with it! — yet one thing is abundantly clear. Regardless of George’s guilt or innocence, the human toll — on his family, himself and his community — is irreparable. Once an accusation like this is out in the open, you can never make it disappear. That, I think, is the real message behind this exceedingly good novel.

For another take on this novel, please see fellow Shadow Giller jury member Naomi’s review.

This review has been cross-posted on Reading Matters.

A couple from the longlist

October 23, 2016 by

willem-de-koonings-paintbrush-canadian-editionAs you may recall way back when the Giller Prize longlist was announced in early September (where does the time go?), there were 12 books on the list. Of course, not all of them could proceed to the next round, but that doesn’t make them any less worthy of our time.

Shadow Giller jury member Naomi has read a couple of the longlisted books that didn’t make the cut. Both just happen to be short story collections.

She describes Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush by Kerry Lee Powell as “fantastic” in terms of stories and prose style. Her review highlights a handful that particularly stood out, including the title story, which is inspired by de Kooning’s “Woman” series of paintings. And from what she’s written in her review (which you can read in full by visiting Naomi’s blog), the book does sound rather brilliant.

Ditto for the second longlisted book Naomi has read: The Two of Us by Kathy Page. The Two of Us“This is a strong collection that kept my interest throughout,” she writes.

Among these 16 stories that vary from 4 to 20 pages, you will come across spouses growing old together, a child and her mother battling it out at the dinner table, a hairdresser and a cancer patient, a lonely mother who has alienated herself from her son, old lovers, new lovers, a woman struggling with weight issues, homeless people trying to find a place to call home,  a swim coach and his protégé. There is nothing outrageous about them; they are snapshots of people’s lives, so many different lives. It’s in reading stories like these that I realize how varied we are, yet still fundamentally the same; we feel pain, love, hurt, betrayal, fear, joy, loneliness, shame. And we all long for the same things: to matter, to belong. “United by her characters’ primal desire for intimacy, these stories reflect our yearning for meaningful connection.”

To read Naomi’s review in full, please visit her blog.

Naomi reviews The Wonder

October 22, 2016 by

The Wonder by Emma DonoghueWith just over two weeks to go until the winner of the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize is announced we, here, on the Shadow Jury are heading into the final straight — most of us have nearly finished reading all the titles on the shortlist, so expect a small flurry of reviews over the next fortnight as we play catch up.

Naomi has just reviewed Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder, which I reviewed a few weeks back — and which you can read here if you missed it first time round.

In this story of a young Irish girl, who is apparently surviving on nothing but air, Donoghue sets up an intriguing narrative that Naomi says immediately pulled her in. But pacing was a problem, because “there was a bit of a lag in the middle” before it picked up again. Overall, however:

This is a good book; the history, the religious politics, the setting, and the characters. In particular, I found the attitudes and beliefs of the characters the most interesting aspect of the story. The doctor was hoping to make a great discovery; the possibility of human existence without the need for food. Anna’s family seemed paralyzed by their religious beliefs. And Nurse Lib was an interesting character; she made mistakes and held a prejudice against the Irish – one that represented the feelings about them in other parts of the world at the time (“What a rabble, the Irish. Shiftless, thriftless, hopeless, hapless, always brooding over past wrongs.”). But she was also strong and passionate about her cause, and a good nurse. “Good nurses follow rules… but the nest know when to break them.”

To read Naomi’s review in full, please visit her blog, Consumed by Ink.

Has anyone else read this book? What did you think?

The Party Wall, by Catherine Leroux

October 16, 2016 by
The Party Wall

Purchased from

“I guess we’ll never really understand where we come from.” So says one of the characters in Catherine Leroux’s The Party Wall, a quote that basically sums up the entire premise of this Giller Prize shortlisted book.

In this complex, multi-layered story — or set of stories bound together by common themes and characters who are connected with one another — there is a strong focus on kinship, biological parentage and the ties that bind siblings together.

Reviewing the book in any great detail, however, isn’t an easy task, because, as my fellow Shadow Giller jury member Naomi has explained, the less you know about it, the more rewarding it is to read. I concur entirely.

Structurally, the book is divided into four sets of characters — sisters Monette and Angie; husband and wife Ariel and Marie; siblings Simon and Carmen; and mother and son Madeleine and Édouard — whose stories are told in interleaving chapters.

Each narrative thread hinges on a revelation that leaves the characters reeling. These revelations all revolve around secrets associated with family history.

While each set of stories (two chapters per pair, though Monette and Angie get seven much shorter chapters) is strong enough to be read as a standalone, the fun is working out the connections between characters in different stories. But this task isn’t entirely straightforward, because the stories are set in different time periods. When the pennies begin to drop, however, it’s quite a mind f**k.

Along with the aforementioned focus on kinship, biological parentage and siblings, there are other common themes relating to pairs — twins, polar opposites, “spitting images”, different halves, duality — running throughout. For example:

The world is an unjust place where the good go bad from never being rewarded, where the truly wicked are very rarely punished and where most folk zigzag between the two extremes, neither saints nor demons, tacking between heartache and joy, their fingers crossed, knocking on wood. Every person split in two, each with a fault around which good and evil spin.


We were on the track that splits the Great Salt Lake exactly in two. Because of the railroad ballast, the lake is divided in half, and the composition of the water isn’t the same in both halves. The northern side is full of wine-red algae, but on the southern side it’s green. The clouds were perfectly mirrored on the surface and took on the colours of the lake. The train rolled along slowly. The air was warm and soft. There was no sound; it was as if the universe had come to a standstill. Right then, I had the feeling that I would never again be hungry or cold or in pain or afraid.

As those extracts may demonstrate, Leroux’s prose style, ably translated from the French by Lazer Lederhendler, is sublime, often filled with vivid imagery, startling similes and universal truths. I found myself highlighting a quote on almost every single page, because there was so much here that surprised me or struck a chord.

I loved all the characters, too. Each story is peopled by deeply flawed humans, all of whom are good-hearted but struggling to come to terms with past hurts or slights. I so enjoyed accompanying them on their individual voyages of self discovery that I felt slightly bereft when I reached the final page. Interestingly, the author explains that most were based on real characters, or inspired by them, but that her characters “should not be regarded as copies of actual persons”.

All in all, The Party Wall is an often startling book about identity and self-discovery, and the things that connect or separate us. It’s an intelligent, innovative and exhilarating read.

This review has been cross-posted on Reading Matters.

Naomi reviews Yiddish for Pirates

October 11, 2016 by

yiddish-for-piratesThere’s no ignoring the fact that Gary Barwin’s Giller shortlisted novel Yiddish for Pirates has an intriguing name, but do the contents live up to the billing? Our Shadow Giller jury member Naomi seems to think so:

“Gary Barwin’s imagination knocked my socks off. History and adventure come together in this remarkable tale full of word play and wit, all told by a 500-year-old Yiddish-speaking parrot.”

Later she adds:

“Yiddish For Pirates is not a quick read, but every word is enjoyable. I giggled and smirked, felt anger and awe, and at the end of it all I shed a tear. I was sad to see Aaron [the parrot] go.”

To read Naomi’s review in full, please visit her blog, Consumed by Ink.

Naomi reviews The Best Kind of People 

October 5, 2016 by

The Shadow Giller jury is continuing to work its way through this year’s shortlist. Naomi, from Consumed by Ink, has read Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People, which she describes as “timely, insightful, and a page-turner”.

“This is a book that will appeal to a wide audience, and will get people talking. And thinking: How would you react if someone you loved and trusted with the worst of crimes? The Best Kind of People is an examination of rape culture; what it looks like and how it affects us, the victims as well as the accused.”

Naomi goes on to say that while the subject matter is heavy, Whittall writes it in such a way that it “feels effortless and conversational. She even throws in some humour to lighten things up”.

To read Naomi’s review in full, please visit her blog.

Wonder, by Emma Donoghue

September 30, 2016 by
The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

Review copy courtesy of Picador UK

It seems rather uncanny that the first two books I’ve read from the 2016 Giller Prize shortlist both happen to revolve around food and fasting, albeit set centuries and continents apart.

In Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl we meet an unhappy woman obsessed with staying thin; in Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder we meet a pious and joyful 11 year old girl who appears to be surviving on nothing but air. Awad’s is a thoroughly contemporary novel set in urban Canada; Donoghue’s is an historical novel set in rural Ireland. But while both novels feature complicated females starving themselves, they are doing so for very different reasons…

The Wonder takes place just seven years after the end of the Great Famine, which occurred between 1845 and 1852. The time period is important, because Anna O’Donnell, the girl at the heart of the story, was born into hunger, but now food is relatively plentiful again. This makes it almost sacrilegious for her to shun it. But that is what she does. Yet, in her refusal to eat, she has not become ill, nor withered away: she is supposedly fit and healthy and has attracted much attention from the Catholic community in which she lives. Anna is being billed as a saint, and people are prepared to travel for miles and miles, just to catch a glimpse of her.

Enter nurse Lib Wright, a young widow from England, who trained under Florence Nightingale on the frontline of the Crimean War. She’s a new breed of nurse: professional, ethical and thorough. But she’s also a non-believer — in God, in religion, in Anna’s ability to live without food — which immediately posits her as an outsider in a country that is deeply religious.

Lib’s job is to keep watch over Anna for two weeks to see whether she is sustaining herself on food acquired secretly. She’s been hired by a local quack, Dr McBrearty, who claims he wants to “bring the truth to light, whatever the truth may be”. A local nun, Sister Michael, is to share the shift work — eight hours at a time around the clock.

From the outset, Lib is suspicious of everyone’s motivations and believes the girl to be a faker. But how does she prove it? And if the girl, who is well-mannered and bright, is somehow eating on the sly, how is she doing it? And who is helping her?

Essentially, The Wonder is a detective story, but it’s not a terribly clever one, for I had figured out the solution long before it was revealed. But as a slice of historical fiction it’s a superb snapshot of a time and place on the outer fringes of Western Europe, where dogma and religion are a way of life. (It is Lib’s constant inability to understand the rituals of Catholicism and to dismiss most of its beliefs as mere fairytale that makes me wonder if the author, presumably a lapsed Catholic, isn’t having a pop at the Church?)

The first third of this book really held me in its sway as I got to know and like the central characters: sweet pious Anna and stern and determined Lib, nursing troubles of her own. Everyone else is relatively subsidiary to them until the journalist William Byrne, from the Irish Times, enters the equation. But then the story seems to run out of steam — there’s only so much you can say about a girl fasting herself that you haven’t already said in earlier chapters — until momentum picks up again around 60 pages from the end when Donoghue drops a little bombshell that changes the course of the narrative.

Yet, when all’s said and done, The Wonder didn’t have enough meat on the bones for me (pun fully intended), because the storyline was simply too thin (sorry, can’t help myself) to sustain almost 300 pages of prose. And the ending was predictable and disappointing.

This might make it sound like I didn’t like the book. The funny thing is I liked it a lot — the writing is gorgeous, the characters are deftly drawn, the mood of the room in which Anna resides is evocative to the point of feeling claustrophobic (well, the author’s had some experience writing about that kind of space before, hasn’t she? — see Kevin’s review of Room) and her depiction of the outsider coming up against a culture she doesn’t understand is spot on. I also very much liked the interaction between the nurse and her patient, and the way this changed over time as the pair developed a genuine fondness for each other.

The Wonder is, indeed, a good read — but that’s all it is. I enjoyed it, but it didn’t wow me. I’d be very surprised if it won the Giller Prize.

This review has been cross-posted on Reading Matters.

Kimbofo reviews ‘ 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl’

September 26, 2016 by

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat GirlWell, this seems rather meta, writing about my own review published on my own site.

It also seems rather fortunate that the one book I managed to read from the Giller Prize longlist just so happens to have made the shortlist.

Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is a short story collection disguised as a novel. It charts one woman’s trajectory from chubby teen to a painfully thin woman whose weight loss has not made her happy: she’s hungry and angry all the time and her relationships, particularly with her husband and work colleagues, are strained.

As I wrote in my review:

It mines a dark psychological seam of people who have an unhealthy relationship with food. It’s wry and funny, but also unsettling, for not only does Awad turn her sharp, perceptive eye towards the all-consuming issue of weight control, she also focuses on how this affects relationships between mothers and daughters, female friends, colleagues, sexual partners and the people we marry.

To read my review in full, please visit my blog, Reading Matters.

Has anyone else read this book? Do you think it will win the Giller Prize when the winner is announced on 7 November?

2016 Giller Prize shortlist

September 26, 2016 by

The wait is over! Earlier today the 2016 Giller Prize shortlist was announced.

The list is as follows:

  • Mona Awad for her novel 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl
  • Gary Barwin for his novel Yiddish for Pirates
  • Emma Donoghue for her novel The Wonder
  • Catherine Leroux for her novel The Party Wall
  • Madeleine Thien for her novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing
  • Zoe Whittall for her novel The Best Kind of People

The Shadow Giller jury will now swing into full reading and reviewing mode as we try to determine who we think should be the winner. We will announce our chosen title a few days before the official winner is named on Monday 7 November.

In the meantime, if you are on Twitter we’re happy to announce that we have set up a Shadow Giller account. You can follow us @ShadowGiller. Please use the hashtag #ShadowGiller

Naomi reviews The Party Wall

September 21, 2016 by

While we wait for the shortlist to be announced next Monday, members of the Shadow Giller jury are reading a few titles from the longlist.

The Party WallNaomi has kicked off her Giller reading with Catherine Leroux’ The Party Wall, the only translated title on the list and one which has already won a prestigious award: the France-Quebec Prize.

Naomi says the novel, which was translated by Lazer Lederhendler,  “is more rewarding the less you know about it”— and her review, which does not give anything way, makes the case for reading creative forms of storytelling:  The Party Wall is made up of interconnected stories.

Connections between the stories are fun, but they’re not the only reason to read this book. The writing is wonderful. And the stories are strong enough to stand alone, or show their connection through theme; duality and siblings are strong themes in this book, in unique and surprising ways.

To read Naomi’s review in full, please visit her blog, Consumed by Ink.

It will be interesting to see whether this one makes the cut. Anyone else read it? Do your views chime with Naomi’s?

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