Archive for August, 2013

Harvest, by Jim Crace

August 29, 2013

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Let’s start by considering the notion of “harvest” as it is presented in Jim Crace’s novel bearing that title, since the few days surrounding that event are the sole source of joy presented in the book. It has been a long, hard-working summer with hostile weather a constant threat to the crop that will keep the community of 58 souls fed for the next year and now it is time to complete the work: “If we hoped for sufficient grain to last the year, we’d have to deserve it with some sweat.”

Reap and gossip. That’s the rule. On harvest days, anyone who’s got a pair of legs and arms can expect to earn supper with unceasing labor. Our numbers have been too reduced of late to allow a single useful soul to stay away. […] The broadest shoulders swing their sickles and their scythes at the brimming cliffs of stalks; hares, partridges and sparrows flee before the blades; our wives and daughters bundle up and bind the sheaves, though not too carefully — they work on the principle of ten for the commons and one for the gleaning; our creaking fathers made the lines of stooks, the sun begins to dry what we have harvested. Our work is consecrated by the sun. Compared to winter days, let’s say, or digging days, it’s satisfying work, made all the more so by the company we keep, for on such days all the faces we know and love (as well as those I know but do not like entirely) are gathered in one space and bounded by common ditches and collective hopes.

booker logo The work of the harvest is concluded with a night of feasting: meats and treats from the Master’s stock, much dancing and even more ale. That evening concludes with the selection of “our Lady of the Harvest. She’ll be our Gleaning Queen.” On the following day, she will lead the community on an even happier day: the gleaning of the one sheaf in 11 that has been left in the field, for it is this grain that will be the source of the porridge and home-made ale that are the only “luxuries” residents have to take the edge off winter’s harshness.

Even before describing those few days of joy, however, author Crace has introduced a number of disquieting elements. Two began with plumes of smoke that rose over the tiny community the night of the harvest. One came from just outside the bounds of the community:

It says, New neighbors have arrived; they’ve built a place; they’ve laid a hearth; they know the custom and the law. This first smoke has given them the right to stay. We’ll see.

The other came from Master Kent’s place and the community originally feared it was the manor house itself. When they rush to the scene, they discover it was his hay lofts and stable roofs — someone has set fire to “his pretty, painted dovecote”. The narrator of the novel is fairly certain it was a trio of troublesome community youth, brash under the influence of fairy cap mushrooms. He is out of step with his neighbors — they are convinced it was the intruders on the border.

Less obvious, but perhaps more troubling in the long run, was the presence of a stranger at the final day of harvesting, whom the working people dub Mr. Quill:

A gentleman we did not recognize was watching us reduce our barley field to stub; a visitor, a rare event, exciting and unnerving. We mowed with scythes; he worked with brushes and quills. He was recording us, he said, or more exactly marking down our land, at Master Kent’s request. He tipped his drawing board for anyone that asked and let them see the scratchings on his chart, the geometrics that he said were fields and woods, the squares that stood for cottages, the ponds, the lanes, the foresting.

Nothing is quite what it seems to be in Harvest so let me just indicate a few details to those ominous harvest events that Crace reveals as he develops his picture of the tiny community. The two men and one woman who built that rudimentary hut and lit the fire to establish legal residence just outside the bounds are an external threat that residents understand, because they are of the same stock — indeed, in short order the two men are placed in the literal stocks that represent the community’s version of gaol. Those fairy-cap-eating youth are just the tip of an iceberg — the tightly-knit community is beginning to disintegrate from internal tensions.

And Mr. Quill is indeed the most serious threat of all. Master Kent is master only through marriage. His wife has died and an urban cousin related by blood has been found (it’s hardly Downton Abbey, but the primogeniture principle is the same). Using the land to support a marginal grain-farming settlement doesn’t interest him — he intends to convert the land to more lucrative sheep herding which means support for far fewer people.

Crace spends the first third of Harvest developing that picture. In the second third, all those threats come to violent ends — by the time this section concludes, the community residents have fled, both masters are headed off to get the sheep that will take over the property and the narrator is left to oversee it in virtual isolation.

That’s just a sketch of plot but I hope it provides enough evidence to support the assertion that Harvest is a novel that allow for many allegorical interpretations, e.g. didn’t the UK’s coal mining communities or North America’s rust belt cities face exactly the same issues in the late 20th century? Or how is globalization any more disruptive than converting grain farming land to sheep pastures?

While I was interested enough to contemplate those possible allegories, my positive personal response to the novel came from an entirely different thread: the increasing isolation and loneliness of the narrator. We learn early on that he arrived as the manservant of Master Kent — while the two are on good terms, there is certainly a level of isolation in the class relationship as one is clearly master, the other a servant. He left the master’s manor when he married a local girl, who died some years ago. Despite his continued presence in the community, since her death he has been regarded with suspicion as an outsider who may be a spy for more powerful interests, i.e. the master.

A couple of personal accidents as the plot unfolds mean the narrator is on the sidelines for the “action” of the novel, but still very much present as an observer, which increases his personal isolation. All he can do is help Mister Quill, for whom he acquires substantial respect — indeed he harbors a dream that he will be able to escape to another world as Mister Quill’s assistant when this assignment is finished.

For the first part of the final section I was frustrated by the bleakness of the story but began to fix more and more on the utter loneliness of the narrator and his response. The collapse of the community is mirrored by the collapse of his own limited certainties — the few things that he could hang on to have all literally disappeared.

That is only one interpretation of the novel, but for me it is a powerful one. The portrayal of the collapse of the community was almost as impressive — on a second read, it might be even more moving. A number of visitors here read more translated fiction than I do but throughout the book I was reminded of a number of “non-English” comparisons. The portrayal of the community — and more important, its collapse — reminded me of the settlement at the centre of Laszlo Krasznahorki’s Satantango, a novel that has become more impressive in memory than it was when I just finished it. And the narrator’s loneliness and frustration took me back to Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin, another very impressive book. Crace’s Harvest compares very favorably with both.

I have another possible allegorical interpretation that I intend to explore when I reread Harvest. It is an even more speculative notion than what I have outlined here and could be seen as a misleading spoiler — if you don’t care about spoilers, or have read Harvest, I have sketched it out in the first comment following this post. I’d emphasize that until I reread the book it is more an intriguing idea than a firm thought on how the book might be read. If you have read the novel, I’d be interested whether you think it has any value at all.

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The Testament of Mary, by Colm Tóibín

August 26, 2013

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

I arrived at my reading of The Testament of Mary bearing two significant pieces of mental baggage and it is only fair to reveal them, since both undoubtedly effected my impression:

I am not a religious person and generally don’t react well to fiction based on religious themes — Marilynne Robinson is a good example of an excellent novelist who falls victim to this bias for me. So despite my appreciation of Colm Toibin (this is the fourth of his works reviewed here and I have read others pre-blog), I was not inclined to buy this 104-page novella when it appeared in October last year.

On the positive side, I was intrigued by the project’s history. The Testament of Mary began literary life as a monologue at the 2011 Dublin Theatre Festival. Toibin adapted that script for this volume. The dramatic version also was mounted on Broadway earlier this year, to decidedly mixed results — while it garnered three Tony nominations (including Best Play), small audiences meant it closed after only two weeks of a scheduled 12-week run.

booker logo The novel opens in Ephesus where Mary is living in exile years after the Crucifixion. Two of the disciples are serving as her protectors/keepers/jailers, each probing her experiences for inclusion in their particular Gospel. The conceit of the monologue is that it is Mary’s real thoughts on her life as the mother of Jesus — she has no intention of sharing those with her guardians.

That supplies the most distinctive feature of The Testament of Mary — Toibin’s Mary is very much a cranky, grieving mother, not the Blessed Virgin of conventional religion. She is adamant in seeing herself as the mother of a child named Jesus, not the Mother of the Son of God. (That helps to explain the two-week New York theatre run: the monologue not only does not appeal to the non-religious, believers find it anti-Christian.)

Consider for example her characterization of the “misfits” her son attracts, known as disciples to the faithful:

But I should have paid more attention to that time before he left, to who came to the house, to what was discussed at my table. It was not shyness or reticence that made me spend my time in the kitchen when those I did not know came, it was boredom. Something about the earnestness of those young men repelled me, sent me into the kitchen, or the garden; something of their awkward hunger, or the sense that there was something missing in each one of them, made me want to serve the food, or water, or whatever, and then disappear before I had heard a single word of what they were talking about. They were often silent at first, uneasy, needy, and then the talk was too loud; there were too many of them talking at the same time, or, even worse, when my son would insist on silence and begin to address them as though they were a crowd, his voice all false, and his tone all stilted, and I could not bear to hear him, it was like something grinding and it set my teeth on edge, and I often found myself walking the dusty lanes with a basket as though I needed bread, or visiting a neighbour who did not need visitors in the hope that when I returned the young men would have dispersed or that my son would have stopped speaking.

I suspect even more upsetting to Christian believers is Mary’s reaction when her two guardian disciples explain the virgin birth to her:

I must have looked perplexed.

‘She does not understand,’ he said to his companion, and it was true. I did not understand.

‘He was indeed the Son of God,’ he said.

And then, patiently, he began to explain to me what had happened to me at my son’s conception as the other nodded and encouraged him. I barely listened. I had other things to do. I know what happened. I know that my own happiness in those first months when I was with child felt strange and special, that I lived in a way that was different, that I often stood at the window and looked at the light outside and felt that the new life within me, the second heart beating, fulfilled me beyond anything I had ever imagined. Later, I learned that this is how we all prepare ourselves to give birth and to nurture, that it comes from the body itself and makes its way into the spirit and it does not seem ordinary. So I smiled when they spoke because they seemed to know something that was true about the light and grace that came at that time and for once I liked how eager and sure they were.

The Testament of Mary revisits a number of events in Christ’s life, seen through the eyes of that unconventional version of Mary — the marriage at Cana, the raising of Lazarus, the trial, crucifixion and resurrection. In all of them, Mary’s main interest is an attempt to get Jesus away from his preaching and so-called miracles and back to a simple, safe life in Nazareth.

As a literary exercise, that approach to Mary had enough curiosity value to make the 75 minutes it took to read the book worthwhile. I felt throughout that the stage version would probably have been a better experience — a talented actress would use intonation and gesture to add depth to the text. Anyone who is interested in the project might want to consider the audio version of the book which is narrated by Meryl Streep, since I suspect it would capture at least part of that dramatic value.

I’ll admit that I would never have picked up The Testament of Mary if it had not been longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize. The two pieces of mental baggage I confessed to at the start of this review were augmented by a third: What could a literary jury have found in this book that caused them to rate it as one of the 13 best novels published this year?

After reading the book, I have no answer to that question. Toibin’s considerable literary skills are certainly apparent in the testament, but at best it is an unorthodox look at a story that has spawned countless other versions (and some very fine art). I can understand why it would provoke outrage in some but that hardly seems to warrant a prize-listing. In the final analysis, I am left scratching my head wondering just whom the author thought his audience would be.

Five Star Billionaire, by Tash Aw

August 22, 2013

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

For the most part, cities with exploding economies and those with imploding ones are studies in contrast, but they do share one characteristic: both represent attractive territory for novelists who want a contemporary setting. This year’s Booker longlist contains examples of each type. I’ll get to the collapsing economy nominee, Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart based on fallout from the end of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger, in a few weeks — for now, let’s look at life in the booming world of Shanghai as presented in Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire.

In little more than a generation, Shanghai has evolved from being the backward trading port of a near-feudal economy to arguably the world’s current leading example of market economy run wild with all the corruption, shady dealing and trauma that that kind of over-heating inevitably brings with it. Aw is interested in that bigger picture only for context purposes, however — his concern is in looking at examples of the type of people who are attracted to that kind of world and what it does to them.

booker logoIn fact, the author narrows his focus even further, reflecting his own background. While Aw was born in China (Taipei) he grew up in Malaysia. And while most of the millions who are descending on modern Shanghai to seek their version of fortune are from rural China, all five of the characters whose stories he develops in this novel are emigrants from Malaysia or neighboring countries in South-East Asia.

The author develops those story lines independently so let’s sketch the worlds of each of the five characters:

  • Phoebe started her life in China in a down-market apparel factory in Guangzhou — while there she picked up a self-help book, (Secrets of a Five-Star Billionaire), that advised keeping a “Journal of Your Secret Self”, daily writing down your terrors on one page and your dreams on the facing one. The promised job that brought her to Shanghai (in search of either/both fortune and a rich husband) turned out not to exist, making the journal even more important in capturing her challenges and hopes:

    Sometimes Shanghai bore down on her with the weight of ten skyscrapers. The people were so haughty; their dialect was harsh to her ears. If someone talked to her in their language, she would feel attacked just by the sound of it. She had come here full of hope, but on some nights, even after she had deposited all her loathing and terror into her secret journal, she still felt that she was tumbling down, down, and there was no way up. It had been a mistake to gamble as she did.

  • Gary grew up in a town of two hundred in Malaysia and rocketed to fame at age 17 in a television talent competition, viewed by four million people. In eight years since in Taipei, he has released four albums, each of which sold more than three million copies. He collapsed just before a concert a few months back (fatigue and anemia, it was said) but a strict regime since has led his management company to conclude he is ready for the even bigger market of Shanghai:

    The giant billboards that stood along the elevated highway bore the poster announcing Gary’s groundbreaking concert in Shanghai. MUSIC ANGEL HAS ARRIVED! THE ANGEL OF MUSIC IS HERE TO SAVE US…. His image was spread across each billboard — his newly gym-toned torso showing through a shirt that had been strategically slashed to display his abdominal muscles, which were the result of eight months’ work with a personal trainer. His head was bowed to show off his thick black hair, which looked slick with sweat, and computer trickery had provided him with a giant pair of angel wings that gave the impression that he was landing gently on earth after a celestial journey. It was impossible to miss these posters.

    Alas, that breakdown a few months back was more than fatigue and anemia — growing older is catching up with teen-age fame and Gary is going through his own Lindsay Lohan/Justin Bieber “breakdown” with substance abuse and porn his self-medications of choice.

  • By contrast to Gary’s instant fame, Yinghui (the daughter of a Malaysian minister accused of corruption) has made her own way. Her first business, a Malaysian “artsy” café, may have been an economic disaster but things have been looking up on her ventures in Shanghai, as is shown when she does her daily email review:

    There were, among other upbeat messages, an invitation to the opening of a new hotel on the river in Shiliupu and an interesting proposition from someone wanting to build a carbon-neutral cultural center in the middle of town. New contacts and possibilities revealed themselves nowadays without her even having to seek them out. What a change, she thought, as she finished her coffee.

    Yinghui’s current business is two upmarket lingerie stores which are flourishing but she has more ambitious plans — a teenage clothes chain (FILGirl — Fly in Love Girl), an Internet-based cosmetics brand (Shhh) and a luxury spa modeled on a northern Thai village. She is one of those entrepreneurial types who is forever in search of the next, even bigger opportunity.

  • On the other hand, Justin C.K. Lim is the Asian version of “old money”. The sprawling conglomerate, L.K.H. Holdings, was founded by his grandfather — this is how the Business Times described Justin just before the family firm sent him to Shanghai:

    Property clairvoyant. Groomed from a young age to take over the reins of the real estate division of LKH. Steady hands. Wisdom beyond his years.

    Unfortunately, the year of his arrival is 2008 and the global real estate collapse takes LKH Holdings down with it. Despite the continuing good prospects in Shanghai, the family has no chance to seize them. And Justin’s “wisdom beyond his years” does not include surviving in tough times — like Gary the “angel” singer, he is hopelessly floundering in a sea of opportunity.

  • And finally there is the Five-Star Billionaire of the title, who also happens to be the author of the book Phoebe found, although he wrote it under a female pseudonym to avoid public attention (which he hates). He too started life in poverty in Malaysia but has already made a massive fortune in a series of ventures, mainly property. His sections of the book are written as direct messages to the reader — like many successful entrepreneurs, he too is always looking for the next gamble. In his opening contribution in the novel (“How To Achieve Greatness”), he concludes with a summary of his latest idea:

    Some might say that my beginnings are irrelevant; that, wherever I came from, a man like me would still have been a success. Who I am today cannot be attributed to that little school. But that would be ungenerous, and I wish to acknowledge those early days, because when I look back at them I feel something. Not much, but a faint glow of recognition nonetheless.

    Despite the charitable nature of its aims, my project will not be modest. It will not be a modern version of the old village school. Its reach will be wide and deep and long lasting. A hundred years from now, it beneficial impact should still be felt. Every venture needs a physical space, its own village school, as it were. I think I know where mine will be situated — I’ve drawn up a short list of cities — and I am in the process of considering a suitable architect. At the moment I am leaning toward Rem Koolaas, or perhaps Zaha Hadid. Someone iconic, in any case, whose work, like mine, will last well into the future.

    When planning any venture, always think of how it will be remembered by future generations.

  • It is no spoiler (although it does require granting the author substantial artistic licence) to say that all five of those stories will eventually become linked in the economic stew of modern Shanghai. Since all four of the aspirants want to become a version of “Five Star Billionaire”, it is appropriate that he eventually sits at the centre of each of their futures.

    A word of warning for those considering this novel: if you are looking for a novel that captures the political, human rights and democracy issues that are part of China’s economic emergence, this is not the book for you. While author Aw uses the city as his setting, he makes no attempt to explore those elements — his interest is much more in trying to capture the drives (and disasters) that come with the entrepreneurial personality.

    As a summer read, Five Star Billionaire succeeds on that restricted ambition. Flawed as they all are, the five characters are more than adequately developed — the exaggerations and coincidences that are required for the plot are easily tolerated. Having said that, the novel is much closer to being a “beach read” than it is an “expose of entrepreneurial ambition” — an entertaining enough excursion but not one that calls out for a second reading to explore any deeper meaning.

    Caught, by Lisa Moore

    August 19, 2013

    Purchased at Indigo.ca

    Purchased at Indigo.ca

    We meet Slaney sliding down an embankment beside a Nova Scotia highway. It is about three in the morning — one hour (and he figures about two miles) after he escaped from Springhill Prison where he has spent the last four years on a drugs charge. He was determined to get out before his twenty-fifth birthday and he has made it, by a single day.

    Slaney figures the authorities will count on him to head west, as he eventually will. But for a start, in an arrangement put together by a friendly fellow con for a price, he is waiting for a transport truck carrying Lays potato chips that will first take him east some miles to Guysborough. He intends to hide out there for a few days in a room above a bar owned by the con’s grandmother, before beginning his westward journey.

    He’d broken out of prison and he was going back to Colombia. He’d learned from the first trip down there, the trip that had landed him in jail, that the most serious mistakes are the easiest to make. There are mistakes that stand in the centre of an empty field and cry out for love.

    The largest mistake, that time, was that Slaney and Hearn had underestimated the Newfoundland fishermen of Capelin Cove. The fishermen had known about the caves the boys had dug for stashing weed. They’d seen the guys with their long hair and shovels and picks drive in from town and set up tents in an empty field. They’d watched them down at the beach all day, heard them at night with their guitars around the bonfire. The fishermen had called the cops.

    Lisa Moore has a deserved reputation as a Newfoundland-based literary novelist — her most recent, February, won this year’s Canada Reads competition and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Two previous works, Alligator and the story collection Open, made the Giller longlist. The opening to Caught suggests that she is moving from “literary” to “crime” in this work.

    That impression changes early on, however, when the reader is introduced to Patterson, a middle-aged staff sergeant in the Toronto Drug Section, as he arrives in Nova Scotia. He has finally been promised a promotion, but it is contingent on him arresting the Hearn mentioned in the excerpt above. Knowing that Slaney will hook up with Hearn, the authorities have “allowed” his escape and intend to track him.

    Patterson’s first contact is with a truck driver who had picked up Slaney early on in his journey west to catch up with Hearn in Vancouver:

    Where’s Slaney? Patterson said. The guy flicked the billfold closed and put it back in his pocket.

    I picked him up. We were together a good three hours. I had him.

    He’s gone, Patterson said.

    I stopped to get gas, the man said. A few snacks. I come out and he’s gone. The only thing I can figure, there was a station wagon on the lot when I went into the store and I guess he got a ride with the lady. Housewife, it looked like. All I can tell you. He was willing to have me take him to Montreal, drop him off where we said. But I come out and he’s gone.

    Without giving too much away, Caught will follow Slaney’s journey to Montreal where he also hides out for a bit, west to Vancouver where he finds Hearn to get details on this latest plot to bring weed from Colombia, a sailboat voyage to Colombia itself. All of that fairly conventional crime novel fare. The novel’s plot makes extended stops along the way as Moore works on developing Slaney, the character, as opposed to Slaney, the dope-runner — old girl friends, new ones, remembering his past all feature in these.

    I don’t read much crime fiction but will confess to an affection for the more literary versions — regular visitors here will know my enthusiasm for Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley novels. In all crime fiction, there needs to be a careful tilting of the balance between “crime” and “character”. Conventional novels in the genre lean on the former; literary authors who venture into it successfully emphasize the latter (Tom Ripley is far more interesting than his crimes in all five Ripley novels).

    For this reader, Lisa Moore’s problem in Caught is that she never finds that balance. The novel bounces back and forth between the two — as much as she tries to develop Slaney, Patterson and the rest of the cast as characters, the plot demands of telling the crime side of the story keep intruding in often lengthy, all too obvious, episodes. The result makes for a frustrating read: extended bursts of predictable action followed by sections focused on character development with the two threads never really successfully coming together.

    I will qualify that assessment with the observation that prize juries (and other readers) often find more in Moore’s work than I do. I have read all three of her prize-nominated works and none of them rated more than “okay” with me — all promised more in the description than they delivered in the reading. As we await the fall lists for Canada’s key literary prizes we shall see if that holds true for Caught as well. Lisa Moore is a talented enough wordsmith whom I am sure is capable of producing an excellent novel — Caught is not it.

    TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann

    August 15, 2013

    Purchased at Indigo.ca

    Purchased at Indigo.ca

    I think it is a fair assumption to say that you could fill quite a large bookshelf with nothing but novels based on the Irish diaspora to North America. It is a genre that shows no signs of abating: Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side (2011) and Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn (2009) are but two recent examples. Both earned Booker longlist recognition.

    So it is no surprise to see TransAtlantic by Colum McCann on the 2013 Booker longlist. He himself is part of the contemporary diaspora, born and raised in Ireland, now living in New York City. This version, however, comes with a distinct twist. In Book One of the three part novel, McCann turns the premise around, developing three story threads based on “returns” to Ireland, all featuring non-Irish central characters. While the three threads span 150 years, the author does not present them chronologically and I will respect that here:

  • The first (“Cloudshadow”), set in 1919, is the story of Alcock and Brown flying from Newfoundland to Ireland in a modified Great War bomber, a Vickers Vimy, with a bag of letters, the first trans-Atlantic “airmail”. Much of this section is set in St. John’s as the frustrated pair wait for appropriate weather to take-off — there is a prize for the first crossing and they have competitors. The latter part does provide an account of their struggles with storms in the air…and their near-crash landing in an Irish peat bog.
  • The second (“Freeman”) turns the clock back to 1845-46 and tells the story of the escaped American slave, Frederick Douglass, and his historic visit to Ireland. He is on a mission to promote the abolitionist cause, raise funds for it and, perhaps most important, promote his own book (to acquire enough money to buy his freedom). We meet him first in Dublin, uncomfortably resident in the home of his Irish publisher; he eventually moves on to Cork in Northern Ireland. Throught his stay, he grapples with the comparisons between his own slavery of being “owned”, the slavery imposed by Irish class behavior and the slavery resulting from the potato blight.
  • The third (“Para Bellum”) moves to 1998 and centres on Senator George Mitchell, born to parents of Irish lineage but raised by a Lebanese family after being orphaned in childhood. We meet him as he prepares to depart New York for Belfast for the crucial weekend of negotiations that will eventually produce the Good Friday Agreement that finally brings relative peace to Northern Ireland — most of the section concerns his personal activities during those high-tension days.
  • booker logoAll three of those threads feature real-life individuals who emerge as heroes in real-life events — McCann wants to make it clear that Ireland does not just send people to North America but that at least parts of Ireland’s history are reflected in the outcome of “return voyages”.

    In Book Two, however, the author returns to the traditional flow, as he begins to weave his three strands together. While those opening parts outlined “global” stories based on individuals known to this day, the central characters in this section are ordinary, very Irish, individuals, all of whom were introduced as minor accessories in the first third of the book.

    The most important is Lily, whom Douglass first met as an indentured maid in the house of his Dublin publisher. She later showed up at the Cork house where he was staying: inspired by his speeches, she has “escaped” servitude and is on her way to America. We pick up her story a couple of decades later in “Icehouse”; she is married to an American who harvests ice in northern Missouri in the winter and prospers by hauling it to St. Louis in the warmer months.

    In the Alcock/Brown thread, McCann also introduced a Newfoundland reporter, Emily Ehrlich, and her photographer daughter, Lottie, who are covering the departure (“Alcock and Brown have been warned to be on their guard, since the mother and daughter have, by all accounts, a tendency towards nostalgia and firey Irish tempers.”) Despite that warning, Brown has developed a respect for Emily. In fact, on the morning of the departure, she hands him a packet of sandwiches and a sealed envelope to carry on the “first airmail” journey, a bit of “illegal” commerce in the enterprise. In this later section, we follow Emily and Lottie on their first trip to Europe, a six-month magazine assignment that starts with a first-class ocean liner trip and ends with a visit to the aging, alcoholic Brown in Wales.

    Daughter Lottie is also the central character in the third thread of Book Two — now a grandmother she is teaching her grandson tennis at the same Belfast club where Sen. Mitchell relaxes in stolen moments from the peace negotiation process.

    Having updated and braided his threads together in Book Two, McCann moves to 2011 in Book Three (“The Garden of Remembrance”) to bring all the stories into the present day. I won’t try to describe this section here beyond saying I found it the weakest part of the novel — while sympathetic, interesting characters were the strength of the first two books, in this one tidying up story lines seems to take precedence. Alas, that seems to be an issue that most authors of “widescreen” novels have to face.

    I like to provide excerpts from books I review so visitors here get at least a sense of the author’s style. Unfortunately, McCann’s prose approach makes that hard to do — I noticed the same thing in the only other McCann that I have read, the multi-prize-winning Let The Great World Spin. Still, I’ll give it a go. Here’s an example of his detached, almost formal, approach to story narration, in this case Emily and Lottie watching Alcock and Brown’s Vimy as it leaves St. John’s:

    She stands with her daughter at the third-floor window, hands on the wooden frame. They are sure at first that it is an illusion, a bird in the foreground. But then she hears the faint report of the engines, and they both know they have missed the moment — no photograph either — yet there is also a strange exaltation about seeing it from a distance, the plane disappearing into the east, silver, not gray, framed by the lens of a hotel window. This is a human victory over war, the triumph of endurance over memory.

    Out there, the blue sky lies cloudless and uninterrupted. Emily likes the sound of the ink rising into her fountain pen, the noise of its body being screwed shut. Two men are flying nonstop across the Atlantic to arrive with a sack of mail, a small white linen bag with 197 letters, specially stamped, and if they make it, it will be the first aerial mail to cross from the New World to the Old. A brand-new thought: Transatlantic airmail. She tests the phrase, scratching it out on the paper, over and over, transatlantic, trans atlas, trans antic. The distance finally broken.

    Description, by contrast, is almost stream of consciousness. This excerpt follows immediately from the passage quoted above:

    Floating icebergs below. The roughly furrowed sea. They know there will be no turning back. It is all mathematics now. To convert the fuel into time and distance. To set the throttle for the optimum burn. To know the angles and the edges, and the spaces in between.

    Brown wipes the moisture from his goggles, reaches into the wooden compartment behind his head, grabs the sandwiches, unwraps the waxed paper. He passes one to Alcock who keeps one gloved hand on the yoke. It is one of the many things that brings a smile to Alcock’s lips: how extraordinary it is to be munching on a ham-and-butter sandwich put together by a young woman in a St. John’s hotel more than a thousand feet below. The sandwich is made more delicious by how far they have already come. Wheat bread, fresh ham, a light mustard mixed in with the butter.

    Despite the awards, Let The Great World Spin provoked a mixed response from readers and I am sure Transatlantic will as well. On the one hand, McCann likes the “grand” — a grand city in the former case, grand global events in this one. But his real passion in both books is ordinary people and the way they form part of that “grand” scheme — if that scheme represents the impressive oak tree towering above the ground (more than 150 years old in this novel), those characters are part of the essential ball of roots that sustains and grows it.

    Some readers (that includes me) take to that approach while others find it frustrating. For me, McCann’s characters — both the grand and not-so-grand ones — are multi-dimensional, their stories both comprehensive and interesting. And I fully support the concept that the tallest, broadest tree needs roots that we don’t ordinarily see but should appreciate. There may be a bookcase full of previous Irish/North American novels but space deserves to be made for this one as well.

    KfC’s 2013 Project: The Diviners, by Margaret Laurence

    August 11, 2013

    Personal collection

    Personal collection

    The memory journey that is the story line of The Diviners begins when Morag Gunn awakes in her Southeastern Ontario log home to find a note from her 18-year-old daughter, Pique, on the kitchen table. It opens “now please do not get uptight, Ma” — Pique has left and is headed West.

    The note is like the flipping of a mental light switch to “on” inside Morag’s own head. Now 47, it sparks a memory of Morag’s own youthful departure from Manawaka, Manitoba — only she headed east, not west. It starts with a curiosity about the present: “Would Pique go to Manawaka? If she did, would she find anything there which would have meaning for her?”

    That in turn sends Morag off on a search of her house which sets her journey in motion: pulling out six photographs from her own first five years.

    These photographs from the past never agreed to get lost. Odd because she had tried hard enough, over the years, to lose them, or thought she had. She had treated them carelessly, shoved them away in seldom-opened suitcases or in dresser drawers filled with discarded underwear, scorning to put them into anything as neat as an album. They were jammed any-old-how into an ancient tattered manila envelope that Christie had given her once when she was a kid, and which said McVitie & Pearl, Barristers and Solicitors, Manawaka, Manitoba. Christie must have found it at the dump — the Nuisance Grounds, as they were known; what an incredible name, when you thought of the implications.

    I’ve kept them, of course, because something in me doesn’t want to lose them, or perhaps doesn’t dare. Perhaps they’re my totems, or contain a portion of my spirit. Yeh, and perhaps they are exactly what they seem to be — a jumbled mess of old snapshots which I’ll still be lugging along with me when I’m an old lady, clutching them as I enter or am shoved into the Salvation Army Old People’s home or wherever it is that I’ll find my death.

    Those two paragraphs are effectively a “mission statement” for The Diviners, so let’s fill in just a bit of the detail. Those six snapshots (each of which get described in some detail and context early in the novel) are all that remains from Morag’s life with her biological parents, both of whom died when she was five. Young Morag is adopted by Christie and Prin Logan, who raise her — Christie is the town “scavenger” (rubbish remover) and the Nuisance Grounds is the Manawaka name for the local garbage dump.

    All of that is told in some small level of introductory detail in the novel’s short opening section, “River of Now and Then”. The Diviners is a recollection of a life lived, or at least almost half a century of a life lived. The bulk of the novel (which does weigh in at a fairly hefty 450 pages in the New Canadian Library paperback published in 1978 which is in my collection) comes in three sections:

  • “The Nuisance Grounds” is the story of Morag’s growth into young adulthood, the experience of growing up with Christie and Prin. Christie may just be a scavenger but he is a natural oral historian — his stories of Piper Gunn leading the Scots onto the ship headed to the New World, their arrival on the shores of Hudson Bay and eventual relocation to southern Manitoba are etched indelibly in Morag’s mind. As are the stories he tells of the Metis, the ancestors of the family of Jules “Skinner” Tonnerre, a childhood acquaintance of Morag’s who fathers Pique in a one-night stand and then shows up all too infrequently later in her life. Laurence is also adept throughout this section at bringing into sharp focus the day-to-day life (with all the inherent small-town prejudices) of a rural community.
  • “Halls of Sion” begins with Morag’s “escape” from the repression she feels in Manawaka — she heads off to college in Winnipeg, takes up with and marries one of her professors and ends up moving with him to Toronto. Brooke Skelton (whom we are told in a present-day section has just become a university president) is not a bad man, but he is a traditional one. For Morag, the repression of the small town in this decade of her life is replaced by the repression of a “small-minded” spouse who confines her growth just as much as the town did, albeit in a totally different way. It closes when she flees him — for that one-night stand with Skinner Tonnerre.
  • “Rites of Passage” is the story of the development of the mature Morag, who in the present tense of the narrative is the successful author of five novels. It starts with her relocation to Vancouver (if you have not guessed, Morag’s response to stress is starting all over again somewhere else) as a single mother, includes a stint in London and eventually leads to the purchase of the riverside log house in Southeastern Ontario where Morag is living as she goes through this memory journey.
  • Those who know Margaret Laurence’s work are probably wondering: when is KfC going to get to the real back story? So here you are. Margaret Laurence, whose parents died when she was four, wrote this novel at age 47 when she was living in a cabin on the Otonabee River, just outside Peterborough in Southeastern Ontario. She was born and raised in Neepawa, Manitoba, attended college in Winnipeg, married early and lived in Vancouver and London before leaving her husband.

    Further, The Diviners — published in 1974, the present day of the novel itself — is her fifth and final novel and also book five in her “Manawaka cycle”. The cycle includes four novels (The Stone Angel (1964), A Jest of God (1966) and The Fire-Dwellers (1969) in addition to this volume) and one story collection, A Bird in the House (1970). Laurence herself described that collection as “fictionalized autobiography” — it is fair to say that applies to the entire cycle, with this novel in particular being the best example of her thoughts on the life she has lived.

    In his excellent introduction to the weathered NCL version that I read (and if you decide to buy the book, it is worth searching for a used copy of that edition because the introduction supplies much context — the more recent publication pictured at the top of this review features an afterword from Timothy Findley), academic and critic David Staines suggests The Diviners is in the tradition of Mordecai Richler’s St. Urbain’s Horseman (1971), Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women (1971) and Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle (1976) as an exploration of the development of an artist:

    Such portraits of the Canadian writer are a testimony to the self-consciousness and maturity of contemporary Canadian fiction. [It should be noted that Staines wrote the introduction in 1978 — we have come some way since then.] Like these Canadian novels The Diviners belongs in the long tradition of the Bildungsroman, the novel that records the growth, education, and maturing of the individual. Following the pattern of other celebrated members of this tradition, most notably Dickens’ David Copperfield and Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Laurence’s novel focuses on the familiar and social environments that surround the young writer. In reliving her past Morag recounts the stages of her artistic growth, and it is not coincidental that “The Nuisance Grounds” ends with her employment on the local newspaper, “Halls of Sion” ends with the public reaction to her first novel, and “Rites of Passage” ends with the completion of her most recent novel, Shadow of Eden.

    I would add another historical element: you don’t have to be an avid feminist to appreciate that the The Diviners is a stunning example of the development not just of a writer, but most particularly a female writer. Throughout my latest reading of the novel, I was struck by how often I was comparing it to Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries, the second novel I reviewed in this project, and another example of a woman’s struggle to realize her potential in the twentieth century, even if Shields’ novel appeared almost two decades later.

    While I think Laurence’s reputation remains large with Canadian readers, I don’t think she has captured the international attention of Richler, Munro and Atwood (or even Shields). Following this reread, I am convinced she deserves it — while some aspects of The Diviners do show its age, Morag Gunn is as complete a fictional character (however autobiographical she may by) as any reader could demand.


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