Archive for March, 2011

The Canal, by Lee Rourke

March 31, 2011

Purchased at

I approached The Canal, a first novel by Lee Rourke, with a very positive going-in point of view, which I think I should disclose up front. Way back in 1979, I spent a full summer in the United Kingdom on a Commonwealth Press Union journalism fellowship. It was both a wonderful and a tedious experience; the memory of it is far better than the living of it was. Events of great interest (an afternoon with Harold Evans, for example, or a day spent listening to the soon-to-be disgraced — and dead — Robert Maxwell) were offset by long periods of utter boredom. We were in London much of the time, billeted in a squalid university dorm just south of Islington.

Lavish banquets and free lunches — not to mention a KfC taste for English bitter and a lot of free time — were taking their toll on the scale, so I had decided to take up jogging in an attempt to stem the weight gain. When we set up camp late in the fellowship in London, it didn’t take me long to discover that the Regent’s Canal was just a few blocks north. Instead of dodging traffic and running lights (both are life-threatening tactics for runners in the London street-level environment), I could jog along uninterrupted on the towpath. Literally, it meant experiencing one of the world’s most vibrant cities not from the ground or the highrises (and we certainly did that), but from the very strange perspective of a quiet, water-centred, badly-littered trench that cut its peaceful, scummy way through the action from Paddington in the west to the Thames in the east.

So when I first came across reviews of The Canal (The Asylum and Just William’s Luck both loved it — it made Will’s 2010 yearend top 10), my first thought was: Hey, that’s my London canal! The wonderful cover of the novel itself brought back decades-old memories of stumbling along (I was a very heavy, neophyte “jogger”, more speeded-up walker than real runner, truth be told) through that unique space.

Rourke’s canal is indeed “my” canal, a mile or two of inner-city water course in both his book and my experience rather than the whole thing, the canal as it passes through Islington and Hackney. This all-too-extended quote which opens the novel is a perfect description of what I experienced, more than three decades ago:

Along the towpath of the canal, halfway between Hackney and Islington, I stopped at a brown bench. It was nestled between two large hedges that had long since overgrown. The towpath was busy with people walking and cycling towards Islington on their way to work. [What — no joggers!!! Or stumblers] Although I could pretty much see everything from the bench, it was hard for passers-by to see me until they were almost in front of me. It was the perfect spot for me to sit, undisturbed; somewhere I could do nothing and simply watch it all go by. The air was still, silent — I could smell the water. It made me think of the dredgers I used to watch as a child, the hard work they did cleansing the bed of the canal. Behind the bench was the exterior wall of a health centre used by the Packington Road Estate tenants. To the immediate left of this wall, if I faced towards the murky canal, was a rusty iron bridge spray-painted in graffiti — the kind of graffiti the perpetrators must have had to defy gravity to apply — near a new-ish sign that reads: Shepherdess Walk. A tangle of iron railings and fences guarded the bridge from people who thought it might have been a good idea to hurl themselves off it into the canal — probably to spare them from embarrassment, as the drop into the canal wouldn’t lead to their deaths due to it being too short.

I am pretty sure that that is the longest quote that this blog has ever indulged in — and it is less than a quarter of Rourke’s opening ode to the “canal” which is the centrepiece of this book. I admit I had to resist typing Centrepoint just there — the concrete carbunkle that looms over London from just a mile or so away represents everything that the Regent’s Canal of this novel is not, and not just its height. Rourke’s canal is like a magnet for his characters (and there are not many) and it deserves to be recognized as such — not a beacon to chase, but a powerful force that draws in its prey.

They aren’t heading into the “underworld” (that would be the catacombs of the Tube), they are looking for some sort of protected middle space. That includes the novel’s unnamed narrator, who defines his circumstances in a short prologue:

Some people think that boredom is a bad thing, that it should be avoided, that we should fill our lives with other stuff in order to keep it at bay. I don’t. I think boredom is a good thing: it shapes us; it moves us. Boredom is powerful. It should never be avoided. In fact, I think boredom should be embraced. It is the power of everyday boredom that compels people to do things — even if that something is nothing.

I don’t mean to dispute the novelist on his central theme, but I would have used a different word to describe his character’s condition: “disengagement” (you can see why I am a blogger, not a novelist). He can see part of the world around him from the trench where the canal is located but, by definition, it is a restricted view, and only a view. It demands no personal involvement beyond what he chooses to make on his required or chosen ventures out of the trench of the canal. At this point in his life, that is all that he is up to. For KfC the jogger, the peace of the canal was a temporary escape — for Rourke’s hero, there is the forlorn hope of a more permanent one.

Like all escapes, alas, the canal and its towpath soon acquire real-world elements of their own. There is a mid-rise office building across the canal from the bench and the character not only observes what is happening behind the windows and on the terrace, he enriches his imaginery stories of the people whom he is watching. And there is a gang of ASBO youths, The Pack Crew, who vandalize both the world of the canal and the bigger world above it, a violent link between the two states. And finally there is a young woman who visits the area — and sits on the bench — whom our hero thinks shares his motivation of “boredom” and with whom he strikes up an acquaintance. A business world, a destructive gang world, an individual world — all representative of the options life offers outside the protected seam of the canal.

Obviously, my own experience with the Regent’s Canal affected my response to the novel. I think I can safely say, however, that anyone who has ever been in one of the world’s great cities and wondered what it would be like to be there, not really personally involved with what was happening, but rather a “perfect observer”, even if the lens was restricted, will find this story interesting. I suspect it speaks more to visitors to London than it does to residents — visitors are already somewhat “disengaged” and confused by what is happening.

Then again, if your regular route to work and back home involves travelling along the Embankment — or the Regent’s Canal, or any of London’s other wonderful diversions — you may find that Lee Rourke has painted a very special picture of what it is like to be both “there” and “not there”. He certainly did for me.


The Afterparty, by Leo Benedictus

March 28, 2011

Purchased at the Book Depository

Debut author Leo Benedictus (a columnist for The Guardian) has a very high opinion of the ground-breaking nature of The Afterparty. In the novel itself, he refers to it as post-post-modern (I am no academic so I’m not really sure what that means). In an online interview (titled “A new kind of novel? I honestly do think so, yes” — taken from an exchange in the interview), he compares himself to Paul Auster, Martin Amis and Italo Calvino. Whatever, he stakes a claim to the innovative nature of the book: it is not “metafiction”, it is “hyperfiction”. If you read that interview, he also thinks he is the first novelist to actually use real quotes from celebrities (Elton John is one) in his book — I find it hard to give credence to that claim.

On the other hand, for this reader, in some ways he was dead on, albeit with negative not positive implications (would that his writing talent was half as substantial as his ego). Less than a quarter of the way through the book, my interest in the novel itself had been overtaken by a rather morbid curiosity: Is The Afterparty an example of what contemporary fiction produced by the texting, twittering, mobile-chained generation is going to look like in the future? I know there is a healthy market in Japan for “novels” written by teenage girls on their cellphones, filed on-line and later turned into conventional pulp-and-paper books. Are we headed that way too? And where does that leave 63-year-old, Jane Austen-loving me?

So, in the spirit of The Afterparty, here’s an attempt at a post-post-modern, hyperfiction review (including the compulsory introduction of the writer — in this case, KfC — into the text). For me, this novel comes in three storylines:

Storyline One: The actual “novel” of the book comes in the form of draft chapters that the author, William Mendez, is submitting to a prospective agent under the title of Publicity, later to be amended to Publicity*****. The staging event for these draft chapters is the 31st birthday party for actor Hugo Marks (who has a new film about to be released in a couple weeks — a major motivating factor in the need for a party to attract the paparazzi) at a private Soho club, Cuzco. Much drink and cocaine will be consumed at the club and the ensuing afterparty.

The Soho party features a number of real-life celebrities (Elton John, Mark Wahlberg and Gordon Ramsay among others — I am not up to date on UK celeb gossip, so a number of them passed me by). A fair grouping of rock stars, including Calvin Vance, a grad of The X-Factor who is about to release an album, are also present. Like most parties of this nature, it is part party, part substance-consuming excuse, part meet-and-greet business. One of Benedictus’ distinguishing post-post-modern contributions is to include a sub-editor from The Standard, Michael, as an observer and participant — in his working life, Michael fine tunes the copy of the paper’s diary columnist and is there on the strength of her invitation, since she had a more important function to attend.

Benendictus writes these chapters from four different points of view and, helpfully for the reading-challenged, each is set in a different typeface in the novel: the actor, Hugo Marks; his wife, the drug-rehabbed but still-addicted supermodel, Mellody; Calvin, the 20-year-old budding rock star and Michael, the hapless sub-editor.

Without giving too much away, at the halfway point in the novel, they all end up at Hugo’s house for the afterparty of the title — either drunk or drugged, but still partying on. Calvin falls off the roof and dies (I gather this is a fictional version of a real event that this North American does not know about and I am not interested enough to google it). A police investigation — and celebrity cover-up — ensues.

Storyline Two: All of the above draft chapters are interpersed with e-mail exchanges between author Mendez and his prospective agent, Valerie Morrell. Benedictus has said that many of these are real copies from his own experience writing the novel and searching for an agent and publisher. Here is a sample, taken from agent Morrell’s response to Mendez between receiving chapters two and three:

Thanks for this. From what I have seen of it so far, I think the book is very promising. I enjoy your style, and the introduction of Calvin adds a valuable extra dimension. You say you are still polishing the rest so I was wondering if there might be any more I could have a look at, perhaps with a synopsis? Let me rephrase that: I’m desperate to know what happens next!

I wasn’t that desperate (as you have already discovered) but I’ll admit that Benedictus uses these emails to significant effect and some humor. Just at the point when I was thinking this novel was a possible Richard and Judy contender, if only Benedictus eliminated a few “fucks” from the narrative, he introduces a scene where a rock musician character tells the story of “fucking” a dog at some previous party. Agent Valerie responds:

Read the new chap this morning, by the way. Splendid stuff, especially the dog sex. I think that’s safely excised you from Richard and Judy’s list…

Storyline Three: In which the reviewer introduces himself into the review. As noted earlier, at about the one-quarter point, curiosity that my own reading tastes might now be consigned to some historical dustbin took over from any real interest in the novel itself. This feeling became even more distressing as the novel progressed and The Afterparty became ever more littered with sophomoric gimmicks.

Author Mendez (that turns out to be pseudonym, incidentally — bet you can’t guess who shows up as a stand-in author?) also includes a number of marketing ideas in his exchanges with his putative agent. He thinks it would be a great idea if online reviewers (at Amazon or on blogs like this one, I presume) were promised that quotes from two reviews would be included on the back cover of the paperback edition of the book to be published in 2012. Even better, the author would promise to introduce a cameo appearance for one lucky reader in that edition — just email your personal details to the publisher and “the most enticing character will be written into the Cuzco party scene under your name. No pets.” Also, if you post a twitter message with an identifying link to the novel’s website it will be included in an appendix to that 2012 edition.

And, guess what? Random House’s Jonathan Cape is promising to do all that — for real — with the next edition of The Afterparty (my UK version of this edition is already in paperback, so I’m assuming Benedictus missed out on a hardcover edition and they are talking about the mass-market version). So this whole project is not so much an exercise in fiction writing, but rather the institutionalization of social media in traditional book publishing. “Hyperfiction” turns out to be an exercise in mass sales promotion.

I did finish the book with a sense of personal dread, I must admit. The cute gimmicks are so appalling — and pervasive — that I had to see them through to the end. My bigger concern, though, was that I had had a similar reaction to another book just a few months ago, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad — and that novel has attracted rave reviews from a wide variety of sources and is a fixture on most U.S. prize lists this spring. And another novel recently reviewed here, Timothy Taylor’s The Blue Light Project, has some similar characteristics of multiple story lines, and internal excerpts from a book about them, although the social media element in that one is a graffiti collective.

There is a major difference, however — Egan and Taylor are both talented writers and, while some of their gimmicks annoyed me, I can understand why others found them persuasive. And neither had the gall to inserts themselves as a character in their book. Benedictus’ novel, on the other hand, is all gimmick with no underlying substance or style. Even the “satire” of the celebrity world is embarrassingly amateurish.

The most positive spin that I can put on this is that it simply represents the emergence of a new genre that doesn’t appeal to me, much like those Japanese cellphone romances. The nagging doubt is that all the prize attention these books are attracting (if The Afterparty makes the Booker longlist I am in serious trouble) means that this reader is being left in the distant wake of the course of contemporary fiction. Fortunately, I have a library of a couple thousand volumes to fall back on. And if you drop in here some time in the future and see that the name of the blog has been changed to CurmudgeonfromCanada, you will know that I have admitted defeat.

Cedilla, by Adam Mars-Jones

March 25, 2011

Purchased at

At 733 pages, Cedilla is the brick-sized volume two in a projected four-book enterprise telling the life story of Stills-stricken, wheelchair-ridden, John Cromer, first introduced in the 525-page Pilcrow. I’ve included those page totals because the commitment required of a reader taking on this project is the equivalent of embarking on War and Peace or perhaps, more appropriately, A Dance to the Music of Time (since this is the equivalent of a late 20th century update of that collection). Adam Mars-Jones is writing an epic and you may, or may not, want to join the parade.

When we left Pilcrow, John was approaching the end of adolescence. He had progressed through a couple of institutions where he was more or less a prisoner, he was beginning to come to difficult terms with his family and he was eager to discover a version of “independence” in the world. He had also discovered an interest in Hindu mythology as a possible antidote to his constricted circumstances — the Stills’ impact severely restricts his options — and was eager to explore that as a way of escaping his present circumstances.

Cedilla does not disappoint on any of those fronts. The massive brick of a volume conveniently breaks into five parts:

Part One — hospital operations to implant the beta-versions of artificial hips with the new McKee version:

McKee’s breakthrough came while he was tinkering with cars and motorbikes. He thought it was a shame that you couldn’t simply replace components in the body that wore out or broke, and he wondered if it might not in fact be possible. His was an engineering perspective, and he set out to solve a medical problem in those terms.

There is a lot of pain and drugs in this section of the book (which links it back to Pilcrow) but what we are doing is transferring John to a new set of circumstances. He is still seriously hobbled but the new hip machinery works — to the point where he can pass a driver’s test and has acquired (through the resources of his dominating Granny) a Mini Cooper. And done well enough on his leaving exams that he has been accepted into Cambridge.

Part Two — before that, however, he has a “gap year”, although in John’s case it is a gap five weeks.

Despite his disabilities, John, inspired by his reading, wants to go to India to meet his guru (long dead, alas, but he still has a following). John’s father is now working at BOAC and negotiates a deal with his colleague at Air India so John can head off to explore his spiritual guide, even though both parents think this is lunacy. I’m going to avoid details and quotes but will conclude that our hero has a most interesting time under the influence of the widow of the author who directed him there. Alas, the spiritual discovery that he sought is not found.

Part Three — so he returns to take up his place at Cambridge.

For me, this was certainly the best section of part two of the John Cromer story. He enters as a Modern Languages student (German and Spanish) and is immediately swept up in the University’s desire to be “accommodating” of the handicapped, but only so accommodating. John is installed in some rooms on the ground floor of Kenny Court at Downing College. He will spend the next three years (except for the inevitable term breaks) here, learning that his notion of independence is perhaps somewhat out of step with the real world.

The University had a motto, of course, but it was a bit on the cryptic side: Hinc lucem et pocula sacra. Roughly, ‘This is where we receive enlightenment and imbibe holiness.’ But the Latin doesn’t make a complete sentence and you have to supply the missing grammar. Hinc means ‘from here’. Good — I’m in the right place. And the next bit is about light and holy tipples (poculum being a diminutive meaning a goblet or the liquid it contains, so ‘little drinks’) and it’s in the accusative, so someone is doing something to the light and holy tipples — or will do something or has done something. ‘Getting them’ is as good a guess as any, and I suppose it may as well be ‘us’ that does it. It’s all rather frustrating — or to put it another way, good practice for construing Sanskrit scriptures.

The best part of this section is when a rowing team adopts John as “Cox”, not for the rowing but for a Cambridge drinking competition — a pint each in eight pubs, all drunk in one hour, no peeing allowed, John to keep time on a stopwatch to make sure they keep pace. They trundle (well, stumble is probably more appropriate) John in his wheelchair down the street on one of their practice runs and abandon him in a pool of vomit at the next-to-last tavern. It is almost enough to make John teetotal.

Part Four — but there is still his family.

We have come to know Father (ex-RAF and very military), mother (needy) and siblings from volume one and they show up again, but in supporting roles only in this volume. The confrontation with his parents has been presaged in volume one and, in fact, does not occur until late in this volume — but John does eventually break free. That may or may not be a good thing.

Part Five — and he discovers his sexuality.

At Cambridge, increasingly aware of his attraction to sexual experience with men, John joins CHAPS — you are going to have to read the book to discover the twisted reasoning that produces the acronym of this addled gay group. Suffice to say, it is a collection of confused, maturing boys who are having trouble finding their way in the complex straight world. Given that he has to be carried in the meetings and then put into his wheelchair, John is even more removed than most of them from the real world. But he does discover his particular leverage.

When I reread all of that, I have to ask: Why would anyone want to read this book? Especially given that it implies a commitment to read four, very long books.

So here’s an answer. Mars-Jones, as he constructs John’s story, also constructs a picture of the times, in the same way that John Updike did with his Rabbit foursome in the U.S. and A.S. Byatt did with her U.K. tetralogy some decades previous to this. The best parts of both of Mars-Jones first two volumes are not in the central story (although I like that well enough) but in his digressions from the story line. Even the parts set in India (which were the least interesting for me) contain the kind of icy observations that make the reading worthwhile.

Do you want to read this book? Well, if you are interested, you need to go back to Pilcrow and start there — the projected four volumes will need to be read in order. Should you undertake that project? I can only say that I am glad that I am enrolled and on my way — but I have a lot of time available for reading. You might want to wait until volumes three and four come out before making up your mind. Then again, why not join the voyage in progress?

Visitation, by Jenny Erpenbeck

March 22, 2011

Purchased at

Translated by Susan Bernofsky

Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation first came to my attention with a positive review from my fellow Shadow Giller judge Trevor at theMookseandtheGripes when this translation was released last summer — more than a quarter of Trevor’s reviews are of translated fiction and when he likes one I pay attention.

I have also had positive experiences with translations of contemporary German works (see my review of Christoph Hein’s Settlement from last year’s IMPAC shortlist). So when Lizzy Siddal at Lizzy’s Literary Life gave this four stars I paid even more attention — Lizzy knows her German literature and a recommendation from her is definitely worth notice.

Both those evaluations have since been confirmed with Visitation being included on every 2011 translation prize longlist that I have seen. I thought I would sneak my thoughts in before the shortlists for those prizes come out.

I also have to admit that a feature of every review of this novel that I have seen (and which I am about to repeat) had a lot of influence. Visitation centres not on characters, but a summer house built on a property just outside Berlin in the early 1930s and what happens to that property over the rest of the century. If that reminds you of Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room (based on the real story of the Villa Tugendhat and my choice for the 2009 Booker Prize), then you are hearing the same echoes that those reviewers and I did.

Erpenbeck actually goes back much further than the 1930s to set her story. A prologue explores the geological history of the area and the glacial action that created the lake which is a feature of the property. The opening chapter (The Wealthy Farmer and His Four Daughters) is a fable-like story that sets the ownership of the land which is in place when the actual novel opens:

Old Wurrach sells the first third of Klara’s Wood to a coffee and tea importer from Frankfurt en der Oder, the second third to a cloth manufacturer from Guben, who enters his son’s name in the contract of sale in order to arrange for his inheritance, and finally Wurrach sells the third third, the part where the big oak tree stands, to an architect from Berlin who discovered this sloping shoreline with its trees and bushes while out for a steamboat ride and wishes to build a summer cottage there for himself and his fiancee.

While the author follows the story of all three of those parcels of land, it is the architect and the cottage he builds that will form the central structural theme of the novel. The reader is introduced to the conflict-driven world of the novel’s characters — and the property — when she first brings the architect into the book:

How bitter it is that he is having to bury everything. The porcelain from Meissen, his pewter pitchers and the silver. As if it were wartime. He himself doesn’t know whether he is burying something or simply laying in provisions for his return. He doesn’t even know if there’s any real difference between the two. In general he knows far less now than he used to. Just before the Russians marched in, his wife had packed up these very plates, these tankards and this silverware in crates and lowered everything into the water on the shoal of the Nackliger which she knew from swimming. That was the place in the middle of the lake that was so shallow when she was swimming far from shore in summer her feet would suddenly get tangled in the water plants and then she would start laughing and pretend to be drowning.

We soon discover that the architect is about to flee East Germany (a dangerous indiscretion has been discovered) and head to the West — and Erpenbeck has completed erecting the superstructure of her story in the first 30 pages. An idyllic property is subdivided and a beautiful cottage is built pre-War; Nazism, Russian invasion and a brutal East German republic are all to come. While the three properties will continue to change as slowly as they have over time, each change of human power will dramatically effect those who own it at the time; and somehow the original architect of the summer house will always remain a participant.

There is another human theme that is as strong as the story of the architect. The cloth manufacturer from Guben who bought one of the parcels was Jewish. We meet the family through the eyes of their 12-year-old daughter Doris who is introduced hidden in a closet of the cottage just days before her death during the war (the protectors who hid her have fled):

As the girl sits there in her dark chamber and from time to time tries to straighten her head against the ceiling of her hiding place, as she opens her eyes wide but nevertheless cannot even see the walls of her chamber, as the darkness is so great that the girl cannot even recognize where her body stops, her head is visited by memories of the days on which her entire field of vision was overflowing with colors. Clouds, sky and leaves, the leaves of oak trees, leaves of the willow hanging down like hair, black dirt between her toes, dry pine needles and grass, pine cones, scaly bark, clouds, sky and leaves, sand, dirt, water and the boards of the dock, clouds, sky and gleaming water in which the sun is reflected, shady water beneath the dock, she can see it through the cracks when she lies on her belly to dry off after a swim. After the departure of her uncle, her grandfather continued to take her sailing for another two summers. Surely her grandfather’s boat is still in the village shipyard. Four years in winter quarters.

The cottage and the lake are not the only continuing, slowly-evolving elements of the novel — they are personified by a gardener who is present throughout the ever-changing political landscape (and in alternating chapters in the novel) and whose work, for the most part, doesn’t change:

In the spring he puts in a flowerbed along the side of the house that faces the road, filling it at the householder’s request with poppies, peonies and yellow coneflowers, with a big angel’s trumpet in the middle. For the border, he just pokes a few box twigs into the earth all around the flowers, they’ll put down roots and grow. In summer he sets out sprinklers on both lawns, twice each day they will bow to one side and then the other for half an hour, once early in the morning and once at dusk, meanwhile he waters the flowerbed, roses and shrubs.

I have included more and longer quotes in this review than I usually do because the flat, almost hypnotic, tone of the author’s prose is what distinguishes this novel (both Trevor’s and Lizzy’s reviews will give you a much better idea of the “story” than this review does). Erpenbeck and Mawer may use similar elements to establish a similar story, but they tell it in very different ways. The strength of Visitation is the way that Erpenbeck continually builds a tension between the slowly evolving (the lake and cottage) and the momentous, life-threatening changes in the human world surrounding them — both have their impact on the characters of the story. The introspective way that the characters of the novel experience those two aspects of change, rather than the drama and upheaval that produce them, is the beauty of the novel.

That strategy of story-telling has its risks and probably will not appeal to some — but it certainly worked for me. Erpenbeck deserves all the praise that she is getting for this ambitious piece of writing.

The Stray Sod Country, by Patrick McCabe

March 18, 2011

Purchased at

This may be a bit of a spoiler for some (although I don’t think so), but it is hard to talk about the Stray Sod Country — the phenomenon as opposed to the book — without offering at least some indication of what it is. The author spends the first third of The Stray Sod Country illustrating and developing elements of it before offering this summary:

In Irish folklore it is routinely asserted that access to the Stray Sod Country is gained by means of the unholy gate. And that once you have reached it, you will find that you have been deceived and that you have now arrived in a place where the world can never be the same again. Your senses will have been overtaken by a heightened faculty of observation which can only result in the most unnamable terror of all — cosmic loneliness.

I have read and reviewed two previous Patrick McCabe novels (The Holy City — the very first post on this blog — and WinterWood). All three of those books feature some characteristics which I’m inclined to label “the McCabe toolbox”. Set in small Irish communities (this one in Cullymore), in the present tense of the novel not much happens — small town life does not have big time events but the little ones are every bit as major to the people who experience them. But looming throughout, and often coming to the fore, are centuries of inescapable Irish history and, most important, folklore which often overtake the mundane of the present with terrifying consequences. What distinguishes McCabe from many of his fellow Irish writers, however, is a third element — the creeping presence of global change (McCabe’s Ireland is the Celtic Tiger, not that of the Troubles) which is imposing new pressures on these sleepy communities just as surely as the folklore of the past is twisting the present.

The “narrator” of The Stray Sod Country, who does make first person appearances and observations particularly in the latter part of the book when he confirms that he is directing the “action”, is what the non-Irish world would call the Devil — he’s known to the locals as Fetch or Nobodaddy. There is no central character to the novel, rather an ensemble of Cullymore residents. The “present” of the novel is 1958 — the Soviets have just launched the dog, Laika, into space. This is the story of a community (influenced by that timeless Devil) and the dramatis personae are the people who live there:

Cullymore was a border town with an equal number of Protestants and Catholics, numbering two thousand in total. It had always been a source of pride for the community that, by and large — unlike so many other places — somehow everyone got along together. Which made it all the more regrettable that the ongoing feud between James Reilly and their parish priest showed no sign of subsiding. In fact, if anything, it appeared to be getting worse.

The setting is Ireland, so you can’t avoid that religious tension but Cullymore is different in the way that it handles it. That parish priest, Father Hand, for example is not preoccupied by Protestant enemies — his nemesis is Father Patrick Peyton, originally from the West of Ireland, now living in the United States where he is known as “a friend to the stars” and for his Rosary Crusade. Father Patrick Peyton, with the help of stars such as Frank Sinatra (yes, the irony of casting Mafia-buddy Frank is deliberate — McCabe has many others as well), is filling Madison Square Garden and his Crusade is attracting much media attention. Father Hand’s response (“…if it’s the last thing I do, I’ll best the infuriatingly smug Mayo toady”) is to commission an Easter week performance of Tenebrae, to be performed in his church by actors recruited from town notables. Preparing for that performance will be one of the key driving narrative forces in the present tense of the novel.

The James Reilly of the previous quote used to be a teacher in the local school until, apparently under the influence of Nobodaddy, he kissed an attractive young male student passionately on the lips one day — he says he doesn’t remember the incident. Led by Father Hand, the community promptly saw to his removal from his job and he now subsides just outside of town in a shack where he carefully maintains a family heirloom, a World War I vintage Lee Enfield rifle, and plots his revenge on the priest. The local constable assumes the rifle is far too old to actually fire; he is devastatingly wrong.

The ensemble cast is very large, but let me introduce just two more: Patsy Murray, the barber, and his wife, Golly (derived somehow from Geraldine).

He’s Catholic, she’s Protestant — Cullymore may be a tolerant community but even then some of the local worthies (most specificly the bank manager’s wife, Blossom Foster) are concerned by the mixed marriage:

— Marrying one of them, Blossom Foster had declared coldly, is of no advantage to anyone and she ought to have known that.

— You know, Protestants have it in them sometimes to be very hard, Patsy Murray heard his wife murmur when they found themselves lying in bed one night, so quietly cruel that it can be difficult to accept.

Like the Father Hand-James Reilly feud, the Golly-Blossom one will continue throughout the novel, escalating slowly but surely under the direction of the omnipresent narrator, be he Fetch or Nobodaddy or the Devil himself.

I have introduced only a handful of the cast (there’s an artist, carpenter, pool hall owner and young IRA recruit among others to be added — and those are just the males) and they all get involved in equally petty feuds. More important for The Stray Sod Country the novel, however, is that every one of them at some point comes under the influence of that Devil and enters the world of “cosmic loneliness” that is the Stray Sod Country of the place where they live.

McCabe’s third element, the inevitable change imposed by the modern world, becomes increasingly a factor in the latter part of the book, but I’ll leave it at that. Suffice it to say that the folk tale which the author works hard to establish in the first half of the book acquires some very modern elements as he brings it to a close.

That supernatural element — and its inherent darkness — means that McCabe is not for everyone since he demands from the reader an acceptance that it might, at the very least, be plausible. If you are willing to grant him that licence, you do enter McCabe’s world of past (the timeless supernatural), present (mundane but marked by continuing petty feuds) and future (there is a bigger world out there that is changing even traditional Ireland).

The fact that I have read three of his works (and have a couple of his earlier novels on the shelves as well) is indication enough that I am willing to enrol in his approach. Personally, I did prefer The Holy City to this one, mainly because the modern thread in that novel was much more present than it is here. Despite that caveat, The Stray Sod Country was an investment of reading time that provided entirely satisfactory results. McCabe’s Ireland differs from that of most of his colleagues — it is an intriguing world nonetheless.

Pigeon English, by Stephen Kelman

March 14, 2011

Review copy courtesy Anansi International

Before we actually get to Pigeon English, let’s contemplate for a moment the history of novels that feature pre-adolescent narrators or points of view. It has been a popular literary device for a long, long time — many of us remember our first introduction to Dickens. And in Canada, W.O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen The Wind (1947) was published the year before I was born and remains a significant seller to this day. Roddy Doyle turned Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha into a Booker winner in 1993. Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night Time won prizes in 2003 and 2004 and also continues to sell. Last year, Emma Donoghue’s Room attracted widespread attention, prize listings and continuing best-seller status.

The attraction for authors is easy to understand. The young central character is not constrained by established social ideas of preference, bias, convention or prejudice — but is starting to discover all of them. That not only permits character development and a distinctive voice, it also opens the door for easily developed commentary on “adult” issues in whatever era the book is set.

That also helps explain why publishers like the concept when they think it is well-executed (Pigeon English, a first novel, apparently provoked a bidding war involving 12 UK publishers). The book not only sells, it backlist sells — and what publisher does not thirst for that.

And the reader attraction is easy to understand as well. I can assure you from searches on this blog for my review of Room that book clubs everywhere are considering it. (Again my Anansi International edition of Pigeon English illustrates this target market — it includes both discussion questions and a short author interview as appendices.) The novels tend to be short (this one is 261 pages) and not too hard to read. Also, child narrator books seem to provoke the kind of diverse reaction that is perfect for book clubs — if you check various forums, there are about equal numbers of readers who a) consider Room one of the best books they ever read or b) abandoned it in disgust.

I am sure there are other examples about, but Kelman’s book is liable to be the leading 2011 entry in the field. Born and raised in Luton, he’s set his novel in an inner-city London housing estate so he knows this world, but there is a crucial difference from his own experience. His 11-year-old narrator/hero, Harrison Opuku, is newly arrived from Ghana (probably illegally) which adds the tensions of race, immigration and experiencing a new culture to the normal pre-adolescent experiences — not to mention the chance to drop in some cross-cultural street language.

The buildings are all mighty around here. My tower is as high as the lighthouse at Jamestown. There are three towers all in a row: Luxembourg House, Stockholm House and Copenhagen House. I live in Copenhagen House. My flat is on floor 9 out of 14. It’s not even hutious, I can look from the window now and my belly doesn’t even turn over. I love going in the lift, it’s brutal, especially when you’re the only one in there. Then you could be a spirit or a spy. You even forget the pissy smell because you’re going so fast.

Hutious? A short glossary says it is Ghanaian-English for “scary, frightening”. You can try to figure out “asweh”, “bogah” or “bo-styles” when they show up in the book for yourself, although they too are in the glossary.

The continuing plot thread of Pigeon English is the murder of another youngster, which opens the book:

You could see the blood. It was darker than you thought. It was all on the ground outside Chicken Joe’s. It just felt crazy.

Jordan: ‘I’ll give you a million quid if you touch it.’

Me: ‘You don’t have a million.’

Jordan: ‘One quid then.’

You wanted to touch it but you couldn’t get close enough. There was a line in the way:


If you cross the line you’ll turn to dust.

Harri and his friends in Year 7 will fancy themselves as detectives in tracking down the murderer. Their key suspect(s) are members of the Year 11 Dell Farm Crew: “The steps outside the cafeteria belong to the Dell Farm Crew. Nobody else is allowed to sit there.”

The novel is not just a child detective story, of course. Home for Harri in the projects also includes his mother and older sister, Lydia. Father and younger sister Agnes are still back in Ghana, trying to put together the money to get to England — money that apparently will go to Auntie Sonia’s boyfriend, Julius, who is always seen carrying a tape-wrapped bat he calls the Persuader and sometimes has a packet of passports.

The structure also allows for riffs on what trainers are best (Harri is the fastest kid in Year 7), discovery of sex (he’s not yet sure what “suck off” means exactly) and the influence, or non-influence, teachers have on their students. One of the advantages of pre-adolescent characters is that they are always experiencing new things and their innocence allows the author to skim a lot, leaving it to the reader to fill in the depth.

I don’t usually quote blurbs at length, but for those who like the genre here is Emma Donoghue’s on this one: “This boy’s love letter to the world made me laugh and tremble all the way through. Pigeon English is a triumph.”

I wouldn’t go that far, for sure, but neither did I at any point consider abandoning the book — like Donoghue’s Room, Pigeon English is a solid 2 1/2 stars out of five if I were to put it on a rating scale. Every major city in the world has immigrant neighborhood’s featuring families like Harri’s and the stabbing that opens the book is, unfortunately, a feature of them all. As is the inner-family tension which, to Kelman’s credit, is well-developed in this book.

Still, as I made my way through the book, I’ll admit I was more curious about the author’s device than I was engaged in his story. I’ll contrast it with Room — I think Donoghue had the potential for a much better book but for me she lost her way when Jack and Ma escaped the Room. Kelman’s effort, on the other hand, is much less ambitious, but he succeeds in maintaining a constant pace throughout the book and there is no doubt that Harri became an interesting, and rather likable, character. Donoghue gets her 2 1/2 for ambition, Kelman for execution.

If you liked previous child narrator books, you’ll probably like this one. If they fell flat for you, I’d predict Pigeon English will land that way as well.

The Blue Light Project, by Timothy Taylor

March 11, 2011

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

I have a soft spot for Timothy Taylor. His first novel, Stanley Park, remains one of my favorites. Not only does he pay homage to Canada’s most outstanding urban park, he contrasts that with some excellent writing about West Coast cuisine and the restaurant business (I’ve confessed to being a sucker for “foodie” novels already) and finishes it off with a delightful, twisted ending. And I liked Story House almost as much — in that second novel he explored architecture in a way that hit a responsive chord with me, although less so with many critics.

So I was looking forward to The Blue Light Project. Taylor ventures into thriller territory with this one and that put him at a bit of a disadvantage with this reviewer — unlike foodie and architecture, it is not one of my favorite genres. I was engaged throughout the novel but admit up front that it did not land as well as his previous two. Read on, however, as that says more about my biases than it does about the value of the book.

The driving incident of the narrative in The Blue Light Project is the Meme Media Crisis. Meme Media is a corporate conglomerate whose most profitable project is KiddieFame, a pre-adolescent version of American Idol and its imitators. The distinguishing gimmick of KiddieFame, however, is the “Killer” feature — despite the audience votes, the most promising sub-teen contestants are often “killed” off arbitrarily.

Television marketing turns into destructive reality when a terrorist disrupts the show, killing two people and takes control of the Meme Media theatre and all its occupants. Here is how we discover the crisis has started:

More sound on the stairs. Otis coming down. Eve could see herself in a wide shot all at once, pulling up the cushions on Nick’s parents’ old couch while, for some unknown reason, a car burned in the plaza opposite Meme Media. While Otis stood in the doorway with an expression Eve had never seen on him before. All his teenaged confidence gone. His eyes wide, mouth seeming to work at some immobilized word. And here came the anchors again, the situation-desk expressions, the pre-fatigue of some event they both knew they’d be talking about for many hours, through the night. An event that already perplexed and astounded. Eve watched a graphic roll on the blue screen. Familiar queues of children. Then the incident banner. It scrolled across the screen like a sash. It read: The Meme Media Crisis.

The Eve of that quote is Eve Latour, an Olympic gold medal winner in the biathalon from some years earlier. An heroic achievement that, since she was hit by a high-tech slingshot that broke her ankle early on in the final “pursuit” phase of the competition. She soldiered on to win and has been a Canadian hero and UNICEF Ambassador since (the novel doesn’t explicitly state she’s Canadian, but Americans don’t remember biathalon heroes the way we Canadians do). In fact, when the Crisis started, she was in the conference room of promotions company Double Vision, high up in an office building on the plaza, exploring an opportunity to capitalize on her fame with endorsements, urged on by her lover, Nick. He used to be a Gerber baby, just to extend the commercial part of the plot.

Tim Taylor’s novels to date have always featured an exploration of the counter-culture and this one is no different. In this novel, it comes in the form of graffiti/graphic artists who are gathered in two conflicting sub-cultures — the Poets on one side, a commercialized version on the other. The author introduces this aspect into the novel while Eve is being pitched by Double Vision. She looks out the window and sees an individual doing a handstand on parapet of the building across the street from the conference room where her video is being screened. She sees him on the parapet again when she is in the alley, preparing to head home:

She wanted to yell: “Don’t!” Or to shout up: “Stop!” But she didn’t, thinking she might startle him and actually cause him to fall. But perhaps more because he was clearly going to jump no matter what she would say. And exactly as she had that thought, the young man stepped back off the parapet and disappeared from view on the hidden rooftop. Eve imagined him flexing his legs, a quick hand down each ankle to stretch the quads. Limbering up. Eyes front, locked on the far side.

She made an involuntary noise, a choked and fearful squeak. But here he was again. He would have leaned forward a fraction before uncoiling. He would have taken a six-step run-up. Bim bim. Bop bop. BAP BAP. And bursting into view, in the open air. He made a long parabola against the gray and cooling sky directly above her. He filled the empty space, his arms spread for balance, his legs tucked. And then, impossibly, he rolled at the top of his arc. He flipped in mid-air, which brought about a micro-second of complete silence and stillness in her. The whole movement was completely dangerous and completely harmonious. And it pinned her to the spot.

It was breathtaking. The most beautiful thing she’d seen in years.

There is another major thread to the novel, told both in the narrative and in three chapters excerpted from the book Black Out, Blue Light by Thom Pegg. He was a journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the black sites where torture was used to force people to confess. Alas, he used a composite character to frame his story (put your hand up if your remember Janet Cooke) and lost his Pulitzer, job and reputation. He now works for L:MN, a magazine that features bitchy interviews with celebrities (that’s how he came to meet Eve) and semi-sexy shots of celebrities. The terrorist says he will only tell his story to Thom.

Can you count the elements? The emptiness of 24/7 news in times of crisis. Our pre-occupation with celebrity — and tearing it down. The purity of the counter-culture — and its inevitable commercialization by destructive elements. There is much more: the plaza where Meme Media is located becomes a protest site for groups ranging from the hymn-singing Christian right to the rock-throwing anarchist left. And who is the terrorist? And what about the child performers who are held hostage inside? Have you noticed I’ve not mentioned the blue light project of the title (yes, it exists, but no spoilers here)?

Not to mention the street art, which I have also overlooked. The novel features nine different photo pages of examples which are actually quite interesting. The U.S. cover features an example, so have a look. I thought some of the others were better.

Is it all too much? I am afraid for me it was, although that may be more a reflection of my problem with thrillers than a fair critique of Taylor’s work. Parts of the book — indeed most of the parts — were just fine, it was simply that the knitting together of those parts asked too much to be credible.

If I can be allowed to criticize myself, I had much the same reaction to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad which made a number of year-end top-10 lists and just won the National Book Critics’ Circle award for best fiction. I think it is a fair comparison to say that both Taylor and Egan consciously adopt an episodic, panoramic approach to telling their stories; they want to address so many elements, that producing an overall cohesion is not possible. In fact, part of their message is we have no reason to expect that cohesion to exist. Taylor’s previous novels had a charm that stayed with me. This one doesn’t, but I have to admit that does not make it a lesser book.

New Face of Fiction, 2011: Every Time We Say Goodbye, by Jamie Zeppa

March 6, 2011

Whatever this is, it isn’t normal. So I am going to run away somewhere else, start over and create a new normal.

There is a consistent theme running through the story threads of Jamie Zeppa’s first novel and those two sentences effectively summarize it. So, in fact, does her opening paragraph (in a chapter appropriately titled The Beginning of the End):

Dawn should have known it was over the night the men showed up with the car. The jig was up, the goose was cooked, it was going to get worse before it got better. It was the beginning of the end, her grandparents would have said, only they would have seen it coming from Day One, if not sooner. This was not unusual: in Frank and Vera’s stories, things often ended before they began.

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

Every Time We Say Goodbye is a generational story, set in the Northern Ontario city of Sault Ste. Marie. The chonological action extends from the late part of World War II to the 1980s, but that is deceiving — Zeppa consciously moves her narrative focus back and forth between all three generations of the Turner family. That’s one of the reasons why those complementary themes of “this can’t be normal” and “the beginning of the end” come to be central to the book.

The event that starts all this action is the seduction of Frank’s sister, Grace, by a neighbor lad, days before he is headed off to the front in France. It results in a pregnancy — after giving birth, Grace parks her infant son, Daniel, with Frank and his new wife Vera and heads off to Toronto to start a new life. Here’s the opening of the chapter titled A Fresh Start:

Frank took her to the bus station in the dark. She didn’t wake Danny; it would have killed her to say goodbye. Not that it would matter. She was dead already. The walking dead.

“Grace, do you have the ticket?”

“Yes.” The talking dead.

“You look very nice, Gracie. That suit is very becoming on you.” The dead wore new clothes, a navy skirt and matching jacket cut and sewn by the liviing.

“We wait over there,” Frank said. The moving dead. The standing dead. The dead could swallow coffee from a paper cup, but they could not taste it.

“You have your wallet? Keep your purse in your lap at all times.”

The dead could nod.

The central character of the middle generation is represented by Dean, who may or may not be a grown up Daniel. He was raised by Frank and Vera and in his early teens discovers that he was adopted. That provokes his first “bolt” — he steals the family car and heads towards North Bay where, he hopes, the Children’s Aid Society records will establish just who exactly he is. This will become “normal” behavior for Dean — throughout the book he is more or less always on the way to “bolting” to some new set of circumstances which surely will be better than the current ones.

Even Dawn, the third generation character who is only eight when the book opens, is on a continuing search for a version of normal, although in her case it comes mainly in the form of hope that things will get better since she has no direct control over her own situation. The opening paragraph I quoted frames the story of Dawn’s first “hopeful” experience — while it foretells an unsuccessful end, the beginning aspect of that is her anticipation of the arrival of Dean and his new wife to pick up Dawn and her brother. They are moving from their grandparents to a new home where she will have “normal” real parents. A decade later as the novel draws to a close, Dawn is still hoping.

There have been a number of Canadian novels centred on those who were left at home during the War, particularly young women like Grace who came to maturity when most of the males in her cohort were away fighting — Jeanette Lynes’ The Factory Voice is another worthy example. There are recent examples as well in both UK fiction (Gerard Woodward’s Nourishment) and US fiction (Maile Meloy’s Liars and Saints). One of the more interesting aspects of the mini-genre is that it shows how different life on the home front was in each of these countries for the women left behind.

For this reader, the greatest challenge that author Zeppa faced and did not completely meet was that each of these three generations requires its own cast of characters. Particularly when she chose a structure that moves the narration from one generation to another, the reader has to keep a relatively lengthy list of non-overlapping characters in mind and the author simply does not have the time or space to adequately develop them. The central characters in each generation acquire depth but those around them simply don’t come to life.

Having said that, Zeppa does come much closer to success in her portrayal of the different approaches her characters take in their pursuit of some acceptable version of “normalcy”. Yes, it is futile but then that is a reflection of life — it is hard not to develop some sympathy for the effort, as ill-guided as it might be. Frank and Vera’s approach — grow a thick skin and adapt — may be the most viable option.

Every Time We Say Goodbye will not be to everyone’s taste, but it is an entirely worthy first novel. For those of us born to these times (I’d be close to the same age as Daniel and/or Dean) it is a valuable reminder of the circumstances that our parents faced. The female characters are better developed than the male ones are, so I suspect female readers would find even more in this book than I did.

The Rehearsal, by Eleanor Catton

March 2, 2011

NZ cover -- Review copy courtesy WordFest

Both The Rehearsal and its youthful author, Eleanor Catton, represent a phenomenon that I predict we are going to see even more of in the near future: a young writer who has roots in no particular country (but experiences from a number) and who focuses her or his fiction on some universals that can take place anywhere. Catton was 20 and a student at New Zealand’s Victoria University when she started writing this novel. Born in Canada, she was raised in New Zealand — the year after its publication there in 2008, she headed off to take her M.A. at the well-respected Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

The Rehearsal has followed a similar kind of global voyage in the book prize world. It won the 2009 New Zealand first novel award. Last spring, following publication in the United Kingdom, it was longlisted for the 2010 Orange Prize. And last week it was shortlisted for Canada’s First Novel Award. Ironically, on that list it joins Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado, another author/book combination with a similar travelling history (in that case, a Filipino author now living in Canada — and a book that won the 2008 Man Asian Literature Prize). If you are looking for other examples of the phenomenon I mentioned, consider Junot Diaz in the fiction world and Naomi Klein on the non-fiction side.

So it is not surprising that The Rehearsal could be set anywhere. Its central theme is a coming-of-age story centred on not one, but a number, of mid-teens, all affected by a scandal that also could have (and has) taken place anywhere: an affair between a teacher and a student who has not yet reached the age of majority. That theme, incidentally, is not about the affair itself but rather the waves that it has produced in the community where it took place.

Canadian cover -- I prefer the NZ version

Given that storyline and the youth of the author, perhaps the most impressive aspect of this first novel is the intricate structure which Catton has used to frame this book. While the affair is always present in the book, its implications are explored in alternating chapters from two very different points of view — one “real”, one “fictional” — which increasingly overlap and co-mingle as the novel moves on.

The “real” storyline is told from the point of view of a saxophone teacher (never named) who has on her student list a number of young women who were classmates of Victoria, the student in the affair — one of them is her younger sister, Isolde, who will eventually become the most central character in this part of the story. But from the start, Catton lets us know that the saxophone teacher also extends this aspect of the story into a fantasy world that is every bit as concrete in her mind. When the book opens, she is conversing with a mother, a Mrs. Henderson, who wants her daughter to move up from clarinet to saxophone:

That was at four. At five there is another knock. The saxophone teacher opens the door.

“Mrs Winter,” she says. “You’ve come about your daughter. Come in and we’ll discuss carving her into half-hour slices to feed me week by week.”

She holds the door wide so Mrs Winter can settle in. It’s the same woman as before, just with a different costume — Winter not Henderson. Some other things are different too, because the woman is a professional and she has thought about the role for a long time. Mrs Winter smiles with only half her mouth, for example. Mrs Winter keeps nodding a few seconds too long. Mrs Winter inhales quietly through her teeth when she is thinking.

They both politely pretend not to notice that it is the same woman as before.

The saxophone teacher does not just imagine this role-playing with the mothers, she does it with her students. She imagines the dull and lumpish Bridget as wanting to play Victoria’s sister because that is a bigger role. And Isolde wanting to play Julia, the maybe-lesbian, a character that would simply be too complex for her.

If that stream of the story imagines a drama imposed on reality, the setting of the alternating thread is a drama school, the Institute, where the acting world increasingly acquires aspects of reality. The central character here is another teenager, Stanley, who aspires (successfully) to be one of the 20 accepted from hundreds of applications and auditions to study at the Institute.

“The first term,” they said, “is essentially a physical and emotional undoing. You will unlearn everything you have ever learned, peeling it off skin by skin, stripping down and down until your impulse shines through.”

“This Institute,” they said, “cannot teach you how to be an actor. We cannot give you a map or a recipe or an alphabet that will teach you how to act of how to feel. What we do at this Institute is not teaching by accumulation, collecting skills as one might collect a marble or a token or a charm. Here at this Institute we teach by elimination. We help you learn to eliminate yourself.”

“You may break or be broken,” they said. “This happens.”

Just as the dramatic aspects of the saxophone teacher’s view of her reality come to dominate that stream, a version of real events comes to loom larger in this “acting” thread of the story. The concluding — and most important — element for the first-year class is a production written, designed and performed by the class itself. They choose to do a dramatization of the affair between teacher and student, which in the community where the novel is set has become a centrepiece of conversation and rumor, again producing a mixture of what really did happen and what rumor says happened. The latter, of course, has become more accepted as fact than the former.

For this reader, the strongest aspect of The Rehearsal was the painstaking way that Catton developed the merging of these two different worlds, one based on real events in the day-to-day world, the other a dramatized version that becomes increasingly real. We all impose imagination on completing the details of our picture of what really happened in any given situation — in this book the entire cast does the same thing. The notion of “rehearsal” and “cast” are very much present in both threads of the story. And by the time the novel comes to a close, both threads have roughly equal portions of fact and imagination.

It is a significant achievement, as the novel’s success in prize competitions shows. I will admit, however, that for me the appreciation of what the author was achieving came to attract more attention than the story itself. Indeed, I am reflecting that in this review by concentrating more on structure and technique than on the characters themselves. Isolde, Julia and Stanley certainly have more depth to them as characters than this review reflects and I am sure other readers will find that. It may be a reflection of my own age and experience as a writer that the author’s finesse became more impressive than the novel itself.

Despite that caveat, this is an exceptional first book. Catton has also had New Zealand success with some of her short stories. Given the reputation and record of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — and the fact that all this published work preceded her attendance there and she is still in her mid-twenties — she is certainly an author to be watching in the future, as well as being appreciated now.

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