Archive for April, 2013

The Hired Man, by Aminatta Forna

April 29, 2013

Purchased from the Book Depository

Purchased from the Book Depository

Fiction set in the Balkans has a special attraction for me. The region is where West meets East — that certainly carries cultural interest but all too often during the last 1,000 years it has also meant devastating conflict, even genocide. Ivo Andrić’s The Bridge on the Drina, published in 1945 and the reason he won the Nobel Prize in 1961, remains one of the most impressive novels that I have ever read (sorry, pre-blog so no review here). The bridge itself is the book’s central character; as control of it moves from East to West, or vice versa, life changes dramatically. For those who live there each change means the wait for the next political reversal has already begun.

And while I have never been to the area, I’ll confess to some personal ties. Sarajevo was host to the 1984 Winter Olympic Games — since my hometown of Calgary was hosting the 1988 version, we paid even more attention than usual. That meant it was even more heart-breaking to witness the pointless and ruthless destruction of Sarajevo in the latest Balkan conflict only a few years later. On the upbeat side, Mrs. KfC is a rambler and some years after peace returned she and her friends went trekking in Croatia in 2008 — she found it incredibly beautiful and would return in a heartbeat.

All of which left me looking forward to Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man with much interest. The present time of the novel is 2007, virtually the same as Mrs. KfC’s visit, and a period of “peace” in the troubled area. It is set in the town of Gost (fictional, as far as I can tell), some miles inland from the sea, but a crossroads for both north-south and east-west routes, so a conflict site when the inevitable troubles do flare up. Forna foreshadows all of that in her opening paragraphs:

At the time of writing I am forty-six years old. My name is Duro Kolak.

Laura came to Gost in the last week of July. I was the first to see her the morning she drove into town. From the hillside you have a view of the road, one of the three that lead into town: the first comes direct from the north, the second and third from the south-east and the south-west respectively. The car was on the road that comes from the south-west, from the coast. An early sun had burned off most of the mist and on a day like this the deer might be encouraged to leave the woods and come down the hill, so I’d turned back to fetch my rifle even though it was not the season to hunt.

Duro has called Gost home for all of his life — even when he was living on the coast, it was still “home”. Later on in the narrative, he will tell Laura that the meaning of “gost” lies somewhere between “visitor” and “guest”. Laura is English and this is her first visit to the “blue” house, next door to Duro’s. Her husband has bought the place which she has never seen as a summer retreat for the family (property on the coast has already soared in value now that peace is here but inland places are a bargain) and she has arrived with her teenage son and daughter to begin the process of bringing it back up to snuff. In the Balkans, not all “occupations” start with the military.

Having observed the arrival of newcomers, Duro immediately heads into town for a coffee at the Zodijak, the bar that is the social media center of Gost, to discover what is up. If Laura and children represent the beginning of the external plot of The Hired Man, the introduction to the Zodijak supplies us with the internal one:

Outside the Zodijak the chairs and tables were already out. I nodded at a couple of the guys — one of them worked in the garage next door. Fabjan had hired a new girl for the summer, who smiled at all the customers, which here is as disconcerting as if she walked through the streets singing. She told me Fabjan was on his way in. I ordered a coffee. Someone else called for a Karlovačko. We sat in silence and watched people passing in the street.

It was close to nine by the time Fabjan showed up. Fabjan drives a custom-sprayed BMW, meaning nobody else has one in the same colour and so he doesn’t need to bother to lock it. He was wearing a new suede jacket, something like the colour of butter, and freshly laundered jeans, faded and tight around the balls. Fabjan’s put on a few kilos over the years and the waistband of his jeans cut into his gut. He wore a year-round tan and the beginning of jowls.

The crossroads of conflict, like Gost, always have their exploitative survivors who somehow figure out who is currently on top and, in the short term, profitably align themselves with them. That’s Fabjan — whatever group might be currently pulling the strings in Gost, they are drinking at the Zodijak and Fabjan is quick to serve (and equally quick to switch sides when the inevitable tides turn).

Duro soon introduces himself to his neighbor and equally quickly becomes “the hired man” of the title — he is a freelance builder, but he also has known the blue house all his life. When Laura’s 15-year-daughter Grace discovers a mosaic hidden beneath the exterior stucco of the house and an even more interesting one in a filled-in pool in the yard, Duro knows just where to go to locate the missing tiles for the restoration project that she undertakes.

Inevitably, he becomes attracted to Laura, but, to Forna’s credit, not in the way that you might think. It may have been thirty years ago, but Duro’s first love, Anka, lived in the blue house. It was that love that introduced him to the harsh world of Croatian politics and he has paid for it ever since. Just as those ruling the Balkans regularly change, the residents of the blue house also change — but that does not mean that the house does not carry the history of its previous occupants with it. And the arrival of an attractive new owner awakens Duro’s memories; the wounds incurred then have left scars that fester continuously in the present.

Forna chooses to tell her story in the form of Duro’s diary, begun the day Laura and children arrived. While that device stretches reality, it is a handy one because it allows the novel to judiciously mix the present with the past. It gives nothing away to say that the past becomes ever more prominent as the book progresses. The occupiers of towns like Gost may change, but people like Duro, Fabjan and others stay — and the conflicts that are set up with the allegiances they choose under occupation remain long after the occupiers have left.

I’ll admit that a concern that I had when I started The Hired Man was the prospect of “appropriation of Balkan voice” or something like that. Aminatta Forna was born in Glasgow, raised in Sierra Leone and Britain and spent periods of her childhood in Iran, Thailand and Zambia. That certainly establishes personal experience in living in areas characterized by conflict, but raises the question of whether Croatia might be a site of convenience more than anything else.

That concern was soon dispelled — Forna’s interest is not in choosing a side (or sides) or even an insider’s look at Croatia’s violent history, but rather portraying what happens to the people who live inside that kind of volatile political world. Her last novel, The Memory of Love explored some similar themes, but it was set in Sierra Leone, much more familiar turf for the author and that showed to both advantage and disadvantage.

From this reader’s perspective, locating this latest novel in an area that she had to “learn” rather than relying on personal past experience enabled the writer to concentrate even more on how these kinds of devastating conflict affect those who are ordinary residents. Yes, she does the Balkans well — even more impressive is the way that she explores the dimensions and impacts of violent, irrational conflict on the people who have to live through it and still live with the consequences afterwards. I liked The Memory of Love a lot, but this novel soars to a much higher level — Duro, Laura and many of the other characters come to life in a way that few authors manage to achieve. It is as good a “human” novel set in the Balkan area of conflict as The Bridge on the Drina is an “historical” one.


KfC’s 2013 Project: Surfacing, by Margaret Atwood

April 22, 2013

Personal first edition

Personal first edition

Margaret Atwood is undoubtedly one of Canada’s best known and most prolific authors. The third volume in her Oryx and Crake trilogy, Maddaddam, is due for publication later this year — it will be novel number fourteen on her resume, published forty-four years after The Edible Woman marked her introduction as a novelist in 1969. At that time, she was already a well-regarded poet — she has continued to publish poetry, children’s books, commentary and criticism throughout her career.

As one who has read her first 10 novels (she and I parted ways with Oryx and Crake), I would argue that there are three quite distinct groupings of Atwood novels:

  • The early “feminist” books, starting with The Edible Woman up to Bodily Harm (1981), including Surfacing, her second novel, published in 1972. “Feminist” is perhaps too lazy a label — the books do feature troubled, youngish female characters who are facing some difficult choices, not all of their own making. The male characters in the books are definitely part of the problem, not the solution, and society in general seems stacked against the heroines.
  • The “historical” novels, starting with Cat’s Eye (1988) and extending through to The Blind Assassin (2000). These four (The Robber Bride and Alias Grace are the other two) are probably her best known and most critically recognized — they all featured on Booker, Orange, Governor-General’s and Giller Prize short lists. While feminism is still present, they have much broader plots and Atwood doesn’t hesitate to introduce her political leanings (she has been an outspoken activist throughout her career) into her fiction.
  • The “dystopian” novels, presaged with The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and fully developed in the Oryx and Crake trilogy beginning in 2003. My distaste for dystopian fiction is profound — I read, but did not much like, The Handmaid’s Tale, and have not even sampled the two most recent works.
  • So before even looking at Surfacing, I should note that this is an Atwood work that may not be familiar — or even representative — to some of her most avid fans. It may well be the least read of her 14 novels (although it is still in print) and at first glance seems an unlikely choice for KfC’s 2013 project of rereading a dozen Canadian authors who influenced me. I’ll extend this introduction further by saying that it does have particular personal significance for me. Atwood also published a critical work in 1972, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, arguing in that volume that most Canadian novels published to that date were brutal stories of how individuals coped with a hostile natural environment. I had some experience with early Canadian fiction at that time and was doing some book reviewing for the Calgary Herald — I remember to this day how a scheduled 45-minute interview with Atwood turned into a two-and-a-half hour conversation. While I have never been a fan of her public persona, I can assure you that face-to-face she was a fascinating, warm, informative subject — a positive assessment that may well have influenced my first response to this novel.

    Indeed, Surfacing itself is as good an example as one can find of the transition from the fiction that Atwood described in Survival to the kind of work that has proved more representative of Canadian writing since the 1970s. To be sure, every publishing season still features some “frontier” works and the challenges that hostile natural elements present, but that has becomes just one of the streams, not the all-pervasive, central one.

    Surfacing definitely has an element of “nature-coping” to it. The first-person narrator is an illustrator who lives in urban Canada (Toronto is suggested, but not named) and who is returning to an island in the rocky Canadian Shield country of Quebec where she was raised, accompanied by her boyfriend Joe and a couple of married friends, David and Anna. She has received word from old friends of her parents that her elderly father (who has retreated, hermit-like, to the rugged island cabin in his retirement) has gone missing — she has persuaded Joe, David and Anna to come along on a two-day trip to see what might have happened.

    Atwood wastes no time in letting the reader know that the conflict between frontier and urban environments will be a feature of the book. It opens:

    I can’t believe I’m on this road again, twisting along past the lake where the white birches are dying, the disease is spreading up from the south, and I notice they now have sea-planes for hire. But this is still near the city limits; we didn’t go through, it’s swelled enough to have a bypass, that’s success.

    I never thought of it as a city but as the last or first outpost depending on which way we were going, an accumulation of sheds and boxes and one main street with a movie theatre, the itz, the oyal, red R burnt out, and two restaurants which served identical grey hamburger steaks plastered with mud gravy and canned peas, watery and pallid as fisheyes, and French fries bleary with lard. Order a poached egg, my mother said, you can tell if it’s fresh by the edges.

    That “survival” conflict will never disappear from the novel — the narrator’s three fellow travelers are all urban people, neophytes in the remote environment who can’t even paddle a canoe, so she is their guide into this remote world. Without giving too much away, as the narrator discovers more about herself the theme becomes even more pervasive and dominates the closing chapters of the book.

    Along the way, however, we get some of Atwood’s more contemporary observations. She’s never been known as a great supporter of America and that thread also gets introduced in the opening chapter:

    Now we’re passing the turnoff to the pit the Americans hollowed out. From here it looks like an innocent hill, spruce-covered, but the thick power lines running into the forest give it away. I heard they’d left, maybe that was a ruse, they could easily still be living in there, the generals in concrete bunkers and the ordinary soldiers in underground apartment buildings where the lights burn all the time. There’s no way of checking because we aren’t allowed in. The city invited them to stay, they were good for business, they drank a lot.

    “That’s where the rockets are,” I say. Were. I don’t correct it.

    David says “Bloody fascist pig Yanks,” as though he’s commenting on the weather.

    And finally, there is the gender tension. Readily-available birth control may have introduced a version of sexual freedom in the 1960s but, in many ways (particularly among pseudo-lefties like these four), it has only increased the dominance of men over women. The narrator and Joe may live and sleep together back in the city, but they are anything but a happy couple. David and Anna may be married, but in no way does that result in Anna being David’s equal. And “sexual freedom” and the remote location supply the excuse for some four-way, male-dominated “play”.

    Of the four novels that I have re-read so far in this project, I would have to say that Surfacing has aged least well. Part of that is certainly my own aging: the tension/abuse between the female and male characters had a present-day reality to it when I first read this novel which simply is only a distant memory now. The anti-American story line seems embarrassingly naïve and simplistic, given current reality. The conflict with a hostile environment (and Atwood does get into some natural spirituality in that thread) is the strongest element but even that did not lead to new insights for me on this read.

    Having said all that, I would say that readers who respond enthusiastically to Atwood’s dystopian works (and there certainly are many of them) might well want to pick up Surfacing for some early indications of where she will be heading in her later writing career. The latter part of the book may have landed flat with me — I suspect there is much more there for readers who find the “naturalism” of Oryx and Crake rewarding.

    As for KfC’s 2013 project, it will be taking a minor detour in the next two months. The first four books have featured well-known Canadian novelists (Robertson Davies, Carol Shields and Mordecai Richler in addition to Atwood) and the last six, while perhaps not so well known to contemporary readers, do have international reputations. My May read is Hugh Hood’s White Figure, White Ground — Hood was my favorite novelist in the 1970s and I would rate him as one of Canada’s most unjustly overlooked authors. And June features Robert Kroetsch’s The Studhorse Man, a Prairie novel that I suspect few visitors here have even heard of. If you have found the first four authors of any interest at all, stay tuned — Hood and Kroetsch may not be as well known, but they are well worth reading.

    Life after Life, by Kate Atkinson

    April 17, 2013

    ‘Time isn’t circular,’ she said to Dr Kellet. ‘It’s like a … palimpsest.’

    ‘Oh dear,’ he said. ‘That sounds vexing.’

    ‘And memories are sometimes in the future.’

    Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

    Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

    While that quote comes from late in the novel, it is a concise summary of the approach to time that is the most distinctive feature of author Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life. She occasionally shortens it to deja vu or even references reincarnation but the notion of a palimpsest offering a number of overlaid potential images — of past, present and future — is the most useful, particularly since as the book proceeds (in normal chronology, it must be said) the author stops at each stage to peel back the palimpsest and offer a version of each alternative.

    To that idea of time, I’d additionally offer a KfC-adjusted platitude by way of summarizing how the narrative is developed: Two steps forward (ending in death). One step back. Restart with three steps forward (death averted).

    Let’s illustrate that with the three versions of the birth of Ursula Todd, the character who lives “life after life” in the novel.

    An icy rush of air, a freezing slipstream on the newly exposed skin. She is, with no warning, outside the inside and the familiar wet, tropical world has suddenly evaporated. Exposed to the elements. A prawn peeled, a nut shelled.

    No breath. All the world come down to this. One breath.

    Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thousand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear.

    Panic. The drowning girl, the falling bird.

    That’s version one. The author takes a step back and moves on with version two. Sylvie Todd is giving birth, assisted only by Bridget, the 14-year-old scullery maid, since a winter snow storm has prevented Dr. Fellowes from reaching Fox Corner, the Todd’s country house.

    ‘Oh, ma’am,’ Bridget cried suddenly, ‘she’s all blue, so she is.’

    ‘A girl?’

    ‘The cord’s wrapped around her neck. Oh, Mary, Mother of God. She’s been strangled, the poor wee thing.’

    And, finally, version three — Dr Fellowes has successfully fought his way through the storm:

    ‘She would have died from the cord around her neck. I arrived at Fox Corner in the nick of time. Literally.’ Dr Fellowes held up his surgical scissors for Sylvie’s admiration. They were small and neat and their sharp points curved upwards at the end. ‘Snip, snip,’ he said. Sylvie made a mental note, a small, vague one, given her exhaustion and the circumstances of it, to buy just such a pair of scissors, in case of similar emergency. (Unlikely it was true.) Or a knife, a good sharp knife to be carried on one’s person at all times, like the robber-girl in The Snow Queen.

    Only a few pages into the novel and already the heroine has died twice — give Atkinson full marks for audacity, if nothing else, and move on with version three as the new starting point. Ursula makes it to her fifth summer “without further mishap” and the Todd family is on holiday in Cornwall. She and her sister Pamela play at jumping the waves, until a huge wave crests over them and they get caught in the undertow. Ursula feels herself “being pulled under, deeper and deeper”, unable to touch bottom, thrashing around waiting for someone to come.

    No one came. And there was only water. Water and more water. Her helpless little heart was beating wildly, a bird trapped in her chest. A thousand bees buzzed in the curled pearl of her ear. No breath. A drowning child, a bird dropped from the sky.

    Darkness fell.

    Take a step back and start again. The two go wave-jumping and get caught in the undertow, observed by a painter who is including them in the water colour landscape he is working on.

    Sylvie was startled to look up from her book and see a man, a stranger, walking towards her along the sand with one of her girls tucked under each arm, as if he was carrying geese or chickens. The girls were sopping wet and tearful. ‘Went out a bit too far,’ the man said. ‘But they’ll be fine.’

    They treated their rescuer, a Mr Winton, a clerk (‘senior’) to tea and cakes in a hotel that overlooked the sea. ‘It’s the least I can do,’ Sylvie said. ‘You have ruined your boots.’

    ‘It was nothing,’ Mr Winton said modestly.

    ‘Oh, no, it was most definitely something‘, Sylvie said.

    I’ve included a lot of quotes to illustrate that point about the palimpsest-like nature of time — and the re-starting of the narrative thread — because author Atkinson never abandons the device in the novel (indeed, the title itself is the most concise summary possible of the pervading theme of the volume). From the advance publicity and early reviews, I was certainly aware of it before I started the book and will admit that it raised a significant level of trepidation — all too often that is the kind of gimmick to which I don’t respond well at all.

    And, indeed, in the first section of the book my unease did not disappear. Slowly but surely, however, I came to the realization that it was no gimmick — while it may have seemed repetitive in those early incidents (note the way the author repeats phrases), Atkinson needs to get her reader accustomed to that warped notion of time and action before she starts showing just how powerful a force it can be when she gets to the serious story threads (perhaps “options” is a better term) of her novel.

    Ursula’s birth occurs in 1910 and the timeline for the novel extends into the 1960s which means it includes both the Great War and World War II. Her first exposure to the looming WWII comes during her “grand” tour of Europe as a young adult in the mid-1930s (not so “grand” — she spends time as a language tutor in Munich, Bologna and Nancy rather than Berlin, Florence and Paris) and experiences the rise of Nazism. She will spend the war years in London working for the War Office and serving as a warden during the Blitz — for Atkinson to adequately portray the “options” for Ursula’s life (or deaths) in those years, she needs a reader who is familiar with her device of the potential end of her character, the step back and the resumption of a story line in which she survives.

    (I am giving those latter sections somewhat short shrift by emphasizing the war experience. By that time, the book has a completely developed cast of characters (not the least of which is Ursula’s family, a dashing aunt, close women friends, an assortment of lovers, fellow sufferers of the Blitz, Eva Braun and Adolf Hitler — yes, those last two do feature in Ursula’s story), all of whom also experience these alternative versions of what happens. Ursula’s favorite dessert during her German experiences is Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte and it is an apt culinary metaphor for the many distinct literary flavors that the author delivers to the reader.)

    I am comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty in novels — actually, I love it — and once I became attuned to the rhthym of Atkinson’s device Life after Life was a genuine treat. Each stage explores a number of options about “what might have been”; while the author needs to choose one for her story to continue, that doesn’t mean that the reader doesn’t pause to consider what it might mean if one of the alternatives was, in fact, the end.

    I can predict comfortably that Life after Life will be a book club favorite since those ambiguities are the kind of things beloved of in book club discussions (my Canadian review copy has a Chatelaine Book Club sticker attached). It is early in the prize season but the novel already is starting to receive attention from more “literary” sources — this week it made the short list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly Orange Prize) and Booker watchers are touting it as a possible longlist contender.

    However it fares on those two fronts, I’d just say it is a damn fine read.

    The Hungry Ghosts, by Shyam Selvadurai

    April 10, 2013

    Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

    Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

    The “hungry ghost” that supplies the title for Shyam Selvadurai’s new novel is the peréthaya, a creature that appears in a number of Buddhist and Sri Lankan myths. Its presence is over-arching in the novel with versions affecting all three generations represented in the story so it is worth quoting the author’s introduction, as drawn from the memory of Shivan Rassiah, the narrator and central character of the book:

    My mother recently told me that she still dreams of her husband, the same dream she has had since his death. In it, she encounters him at my grandmother’s gate or standing by a pillar on the verandah or sometimes outside the market. He is reborn as a peréthaya, a hungry ghost, with stork-like limbs and an enormous belly that he must prop up with his hands. The yellowed flesh of his face is seared to his skull, his mouth no larger than the eye of a needle, so he can never satisfy his hunger. He just stands, staring at her, caught between worlds. For years, the anguish of that dream would continue into her day, because my mother believed she had caused his death by her anger and there was no way to beg his forgiveness, or at least reach some companionable peace with him.

    In Sri Lankan myth, a person is reborn a peréthaya because, during his human life, he desired too much — hence the large stomach that can never be filled through the tiny mouth. The peréthayas that appear to us are always our ancestors, and it is our duty to free them from their sufferings by feeding Buddhist monks and transferring the merit of that deed to our dead relatives.

    In their own way, the three generations represented in the novel all “desire too much” and each time they reach out to satisfy that desire (or hope) they only achieve more frustration and agony, adding a personal requirement for atonement to those of their ancestors which already are part of their burden. While the novel ranges over decades of time, The Hungry Ghost portrays a series of attempts by people trying to make things better (the hungry ghost’s desire to eat) and only making things worse with each effort.

    Shivan’s grandmother’s issues come with her material success. Daya owns a substantial portfolio of rental properties in Colombo ranging from mansions rented to American diplomats (who pay the rent in dollars deposited to her already substantial offshore account in London) to slum dwelllings which she “polices” with the help of a hired goon, since legally evicting tenants who are behind in the rent is not an option in Sri Lanka. The enterprise is successful enough that she lives in a substantial villa herself — and she has a Bentley, with driver, on hand when it comes time to tour the properties.

    The novel opens with Shivan’s memory of his thirteenth birthday when his grandmother takes him out in the Bentley — he hopes they are headed to a shop to buy the bicycle he desires but it turns out to be a tour of the properties. Amassing and maintaining the empire has involved a number of dodgy acts for Daya, with the resulting guilt, and her first step in atonement is to promise that she will hand it all on to her grandson. That is not enough, of course, and as the novel moves on more and more of her time will be devoted to spending her time and assets on building shrines at the temple she attends.

    The asset bequest is skipping a generation because another of Daya’s failings is that she has rejected her daughter Hema, Shivan’s mother. As a teenager, Hema seemed destined for success, ranking first in the Senior School Certificate results. That produced a brief harmony with her mother who decided Hema should head to medical school after her Higher School Certificate exams. The reconciliation began to fall apart when Hema panicked and failed those exams. It broke down completely when her response was to take up with and marry a Tamil — since the family is Sinhalese, that effectively put the couple at the centre of the very violent sectarian disputes that plagued Sri Lanka for the latter half of the twentieth century.

    Daya’s response was to cut the couple off completely. When Hema’s husband dies suddenly she is forced to ask Daya for help — her mother responds by supplying a residence but nothing more. Nothing more, that is, until Shivan’s thirteenth birthday when she unveils her plan to leave him her estate. She still will have nothing to do with her daughter, but begins to take over her grandson’s life — his willing acceptance is the price that is exacted to continue support for his mother and sister.

    Shivan is uncomfortable with this from the start and a few years later, aware that Canada has loosened the rules and is accepting refugees because of Sri Lanka’s troubles, he gets the appropriate documents. Despite Hema’s love of her job with a local newspaper, she agrees that escaping her mother needs to be a priority and the three head off to set up a new life in Toronto.

    Shivan’s looming peréthayas now include both his grandmother and mother — the self-discovery that he is gay adds a personal set of challenges, ones that his grandmother in particular makes worse. Life in Toronto proves to be a predictable problem for the three and, despite Shivan’s and his sister Renu’s apparent success at adapting, a part of all of them remains back in Sri Lanka.

    All these memories and back stories are provoked by the impending trip of Hema and Shivan to Sri Lanka to fetch Daya (who has suffered a series of damaging strokes) and bring her to Toronto for her final years. Each chapter of the novel opens with Shivan getting ready for the trip — and getting distracted by the memories that it raises, each one of which seems to have resulted in more, not less, anguish.

    The Hungry Ghosts is Selvadurai’s (long-awaited) third adult novel, following on the very well-received Funny Boy (short-listed for the inaugural Giller Prize in 1994) and Cinnamon Gardens (1998). I liked both of those books, so can be safely slotted in the “long-awaiting” category when it comes to this one.

    Alas, despite the fifteen year wait, I felt like I had read this book before — twice, actually, since both Funny Boy and Cinnamon Gardens have many of the same themes as this novel. In all three, the Sinhalese-Tamil conflict, and its atrocities, are ever present — understandable, since Selvadurai has a Sinhalese mother and Tamil father and alternates his time between Canada and Sri Lanka, so that conflict cannot be overlooked. All three are equally concerned with generational and class conflict. And both this novel and Funny Boy add the element of a central character who has to fit the discovery of his gay sexual identity into the over-riding conflicts around him.

    What The Hungry Ghosts has that neither of the other two do is the story line of Sri Lankan immigrants living in Toronto and how those coming of age in this new country cope with that new challenge (both Shivan and Renu in this book, since they respond very differently). For this reader, it was the best part of The Hungry Ghosts and I would have welcomed even more. For those who have not read Selvadurai, however, it might be wiser to hunt up a copy of Funny Boy — memory says that the author developed his other over-lapping themes better in that debut novel.

    I’ll Go To Bed At Noon, by Gerard Woodward

    April 3, 2013

    Purchased at

    Purchased at

    I’ll Go To Bed At Noon is volume two of Gerard Woodward’s trilogy chronicling the life of the Jones family. It is very much a continuation of the first volume, August, so a brief reminder of my thoughts about that novel seems in order.

    For the most part, Aldous and Colette Jones (and their children) are the definition of ordinary — he is a North London school teacher, she a stay-at-home wife. They have two children when August opens; two more arrive during the 15-year span of that novel. Author Woodward’s speciality, however, is to occasionally add very distinct elements of the absurd to the story to give it both spice and depth. For example, the first novel opens with Aldous at the end of a four-day bicycle trip from London to Wales: he is scouting for a location for the family’s summer holiday and much of the “action” of the novel will take place at the farm in Llanygwynfa that he discovers to which the family will return each summer. That trip of discovery is by no means the only strange departure from the ordinary in the Jones’ family life, but it serves as a handy warning of a device the author will employ as the book progresses.

    Another important example of Woodward’s device is the glue-sniffing addiction that Colette develops one summer while on holiday: attracted by the smell of the glue from a bicycle tyre repair kit, she samples it and soon develops a full-scale habit that influences much of what occurs in the latter half of the novel.

    I’ll Go To Bed At Noon opens some years after the first novel ended, but some things have not changed. Indeed, self-medication/substance abuse is a trait that will effect not only most of the Joneses as the novel progresses, it is a character flaw shared by many members of their extended family as well, a near universal response to the boredom of commonness or the stresses of even minor disruptions to the established routine. The normal Jones’ approach to a crisis is to see if it can be drunk away.

    Colette and Aldous are preparing to attend the funeral of her sister-in-law as this novel begins, but Woodward wastes no time in introducing that element. Colette has abandoned her glue-sniffing habit, but replaced it with an equally strong addiction to Gold Label Barley Wine (for North American readers, “barley wine” is the English equivalent of malt liquor, a high alcohol beer):

    Colette poured the Gold Label into a glass, where it fizzed half-heartedly, her second of the day. Colette had taken to this tipple recently, initially as a sedative, to reinforce the ever-weakening effect of her sleeping pills. She would drink two or three glasses in the evening, then take four or five Nembutals (the recommended dose was two), which would despatch her to a deep, dreamless sleep for eight hours. The problem was that awakening was a long, slow, painful struggle. She woke as if from a pit of glue, always with a pounding headache, the only cure for which, she soon found, was a morning glass of barley wine. One of those and she was near instantly awake and fresh. A sedative in the evening, a pick-me-up in the morning. Barley wine was her wonder-drink.

    The substance may have changed, but Colette is as much an abuser as ever. And the Jones’ eldest son, Janus, is an apple that has fallen not far from the family tree. His parents are not sure if he will turn up for the impending funeral (probably not) but they are certainly hoping not. Both recall his drunken performance a few years earlier at a cousin’s wedding: “…the trampled-on wedding cake, the shattered bouquets, the drenched, sobbing bridesmaids.”

    Janus’ on-going problems will feature prominently in the novel, as will those of the husband of the woman who is being buried, Colette’s brother Janus Brian (the namesake for her son — the Joneses retroactively added his middle name to distinguish the two). While the death of his wife will send Janus Brian into his own alcoholism, he had his own distinctive trait even earlier: despite living only a mile away, the only time he ever visited Colette was to announce the imminence of his own death:

    It had happened several times, usually as a result of reading some health article or other, that Janus Brian would discover symptoms in himself of a fatal disease. Now she couldn’t even remember what it had been. An innocent pimple, wart, or pedunculated polyp. A benign confusion of cells. A temporary thinning of the blood. As with most hypochondriacs, however, Janus Brian remained annoyingly free of real illness.

    That excerpt comes from our introduction to Janus Brian — like his namesake, his story will also be explored in detail. Indeed, it offers an example of why I find Woodward a difficult author to review: while there is continuing story line in the three novels of his that I have read (Nourishment, a non-Jones novel, is the other), the author develops them by extensively exploring sub-plots, using these almost like building blocks to construct the complete work.

    Janus and Janus Brian’s lives are only a couple of those Woodward uses here: readers also will experience the woes of another of Colette’s brothers (who, no surprise, also turns into an alcoholic), not to mention the stories of her three other children.

    I thoroughly enjoyed both August and Nourishment — as well as this novel — but that endorsement comes with a caveat. To appreciate Woodward, the reader must be willing to go with his flow. For me, all of the Joneses (both nuclear and extended family) became characters of interest and, despite their refuge in substance abuse, some empathy. I can understand, however, why some would find them grating — and if they grate as individuals, some of the author’s unlikely plot twists could become downright annoying. Woodward is definitely not for everyone, but he hits the right chords with me.

    I’d still say, however, that you need to read August before taking on I’ll Go To Bed At Noon. It is a much less intense book so developing an affinity for the characters is a much easier process — there are times in this novel, when that reservoir of affinity is a prerequisite to appreciating what is happening here. If you didn’t like August, or even had a “meh” response to it, I’d give this book a miss. On the other hand, if you came from that novel with at least some empathy for the Joneses (especially Colette), Woodward continues to build on it here. The details that I have cited make it seem more depressing than it is — Woodward has a lot of humor to him, but it isn’t the kind that can easily be captured in a review.

    As a fan, I’ll certainly be reading volume three of the trilogy (A Curious Earth) but I suspect it will likely be some months before I feel up to the challenge — like Gold Label Barley Wine, my experience says Woodward is best experienced with a disciplined approach to consumption.

    %d bloggers like this: