Archive for September, 2013

We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo

September 24, 2013

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Junot Diaz chose to start his review of We Need New Names in the Boston Review by quoting the opening paragraph: “NoViolet Bulawayo’s honesty, her voice, and her formidable command of her craft — all were apparent from the first page.” While I come to quite a different conclusion, I can’t fault Diaz’s tactic — as much as I would like to be original, here is that opening paragraph;

We were on our way to Budapest: Bastard and Chipo and Godknows and Sbho and Stina and me. We are going even though we are not allowed to cross Mzilikazi Road, even though Bastard is supposed to be watching his little sister Fraction, even though Mother would kill me dead if she found out; we are just going. There are guavas to steal in Budapest, and right now I’d rather die for guavas. We didn’t eat this morning and my stomach feels like somebody just took a shovel and dug everything out.

The setting is present day Zimbabwe. The narrator is 10-year-old Darling — she and her running mates live in a shantytown but frequently head off to upper-class Budapest to steal guavas. They even have a rather sophisticated plan to “harvest” the fruit street by street, despite the fact that eating it so quickly leads to significant digestive problems. Food is food, after all.

booker logoChild narrators are a convenient device for authors, particularly in troubled settings like Zimbabwe, and it is easy to understand why. The pre-teen point of view allows the author to abandon nuance and concentrate on a few major themes (poverty, oppression) as they are experienced by a maturing youth. The problem, of course, is the very loss of that nuance — unless the major themes are drawn so precisely and deliberately, they read like a statement of the obvious.

The opening paragraph supplies one example, so let’s try another. The gang is on their way back to Paradise, the shantytown where they live:

Going back to Paradise, we do not run. We just walk nicely like Budapest is now our country too, like we built it even, eating guavas along the way and spitting the peels all over to make the place dirty. We stop at the corner of AU Street for Chipo to vomit; it happens most of the time she eats. Today her vomit looks like urine, only thicker. We leave it there uncovered.

One day I will live here, in a house just like that, Sbho says, biting into a thick guava. She points to the big blue house with the long row of steps, flowers all around it. A really nice house, but not nicer than where we just got the guavas. Sbho’s voice sounds like she is not playing, like she knows what she is talking about. I watch her chew, her cheeks bulging. She swallows, starts to peel what is left of the guava with her side teeth.

How are you going to do that? I ask. Sbho spits the peels and says, with her big eyes, I just know it.

It is election time in Zimbabwe and that plays a role in the novel as well. The families of the gang are on the wrong side (non Mugabe, although he is never mentioned by name) — that is how they ended up in the shantytown in the first place. Needless to say, the election does not turn out well for them,

And there is also the Sickness. Darling’s father returns from working the mines in South Africa, literally a mere shadow of his former self due to the Sickness. He retreats to a cot and his inevitable death.

While those kinds of themes occupy the first half of the novel, Bulawayo expands her canvas in the second half by sending Darling to stay with an aunt in America (Destroyedmichygen is her port of entry):

With all the snow, with the sun not there, with the cold and the dreariness, this place doesn’t look like my America, doesn’t even look real. It’s like we are in a terrible story, like we’re in the crazy parts of the Bible, there where God is busy punishing people for their sins and is making them miserable with all the weather. The sky, for example, has stayed white all this time I have been here, which tells you that something is not right. Even the stones know that a sky is supposed to be blue, so blue you can spray Clorox on it and wipe it with a paper towel and it wouldn’t even come off.

The child narrator story becomes a coming-of-age one in America — unfortunately the events that take place there are every bit as predictable as the ones in Africa were.

In the final analysis, predictability is the problem that I had with We Need New Names. Bulawayo certainly has her charming moments, but they are only moments. Corrupt politics, AIDS, racism in American schools and other weighty issues arise in predictable fashion and receive a treatment that supplies no surprises or insight — the story simply moves on. Perhaps if I had been able to more deeply engage with Darling I would have found more in the book; for me she was pretty much a normal 10-year-old facing challenging circumstances.

Given their interest in unusual structures, as shown by the longlist, I have trouble fathoming how the Booker Jury came to move this one on to the shortlist. The novel features a completely conventional structure, the story has been told before — We Need New Names is a readable book, but not one that will live on in memory.

2013 Giller Prize longlist

September 16, 2013

11shadow logoHere’s the 2013 Giller Prize longlist — the good news for KfC is that I only have to order seven of the 13. 🙂 First a brief note on each title and then some observations, as well as Shadow Giller Jury plans.

Already reviewed here

2013 messudThe Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud. Nora Eldridge is one angry woman: Not only is she not the “Great Artist” that she aspired to be, the elementary school teacher has just gone through an extended experience that exposed her shortcomings and frustrations even more. I can’t help but think that Real Giller juror Margaret Atwood was reminded of her own “Edible Woman” when she read this one.
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2013 mooreCaught, by Lisa Moore. While I was not overly impressed with this novel, I did note in my review that juries tend to like Moore’s books better than I do — and it has happened again. Caught is both a crime story and a character study: Slaney, a Newfoundlander already caught once importing dope, escapes from a Nova Scotia prison, heads west to hook up with his old co-conspirator and launches a new drug importing scheme.

Reviews to come soon

1aagradyEmancipation Day, by Wayne Grady. The author started this as a non-fiction project when he discovered his own Afro-American roots — many rewrites and 20 years later, it appears as the first novel from a writer who has a lengthy non-fiction publication list. Set in wartime Newfoundland and then moving on to Windsor, it tells the story of navy musician Jack Lewis — who responds to his own racial issues with denial, denial, denial.
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1aajohnstonThe Son of a Certain Woman, by Wayne Johnston. Johnston is a Giller longlist regular and his latest promises to again feature the oddball, idiosyncratic characters he loves. Set in Johnston’s native Newfoundland, this is the story of Percy Joyce — disfigured with both a massive port wine birthmark that covers his face and overly large hands and feet. Everyone, including Percy, wants to bed his mother. And, in true Johnston fashion, the leaders of St. Johns’ Catholic church bring authority into play by “adopting” the misshapen boy as a personal favorite.

1aa davidsonCataract City, by Craig Davidson. Niagara Falls is the “cataract city” of the title — understandably, it is a favorite setting for Canadian fiction. In Davidson’s novel, Owen Stuckey and Duncan Diggs are childhood friends who have grown to maturity in the Ontario city. According to the cover blurb, their friendship is now being tested as they find themselves on opposite sides of the law.
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1aaboydenThe Orenda, by Joseph Boyden. This is volume three in Boyden’s trilogy that started with Three Day Road and continued in a modern setting with the Giller-winning Through Black Spruce. This volume retreats in time to the conflict between the Iroquois and Huron nations — and adds the intrusive element of the Jesuit missionaries. Just released last week, it has attracted very strong reviews in the professional press and would have to be considered the early favorite for the 2013 prize. (EDIT: This is NOT volume three in the trilogy — in comments Brett has provided a link to a Maclean’s article where Boyden says this was an idea that diverted him from volume three and demanded to be written.)

Books I had to order today

1aabockGoing Home Again, by Dennis Bock. I’ve read and appreciated Bock’s two previous novels (The Ash Garden andThe Communist’s Daughter) so I am not surprised to see this one on the list. The publisher’s description promises “A wrenching and dramatic story that explores the fabric of family: sibling rivalries, marriages on the rocks, hurt children, midlife crises — in short, modern life”.
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1aacoadyHellgoing, by Lynn Coady. Coady was shortlisted in 2011 for The Antagonist, the engaging story of a rough-and-tumble hockey enforcer remembering his childhood that attracted much positive attention. That novel indicated she would be adept at short stories, so I am looking forward to reading this collection. Short story collections are popular in Canadian publishing and the Giller longlist always includes a couple — juries in the past have a good record of picking out some of the most interesting ones.
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1aademariaffiHow To Get Along With Women, by Elisabeth De Mariaffi. Another short story collection, this one a debut volume from an author who is unknown to me. It appeared last October and has not attracted much attention. The publisher’s blurb promises: ” Infused with a close and present danger, these stories tighten the knot around power, identity, and sexuality, and draw the reader into the pivotal moments where — for better or for worse — we see ourselves for what we truly are.” The volume’s title suggests that feminism of some sort will be a common theme.

1aagilmorExtraordinary, by David Gilmour. Gilmour is one of Canada’s mid-list authors whom I have overlooked: A Perfect Night to Go to China won the 2005 Governor-General’s Award. I’ll admit I looked at this one earlier this year and put it off because I was not attracted by the subject matter: A man and his half-sister meet at her request to spend the evening preparing for her assisted death. I’ll try to approach the novel with an open mind when I do get to it.
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1aawinter1 Minister Without Portfolio, by Michael Winter. This novel promises to address Canada’s participation in the war in Afghanistan — the central character is working with an army-affiliated contracting crew when a routine patrol becomes fatal. Shadow Giller juror Alison Gzowski knows the author well and has read the book — she has promised a guest review here in a couple of weeks so I will probably leave this one until relatively late in my longlist reading.
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1aa vyletaThe Crooked Maid, by Dan Vyleta. Like Real Juror Esi Edugyan’s Giller-winning Half Blood Blues, this is a war story, set in Vienna, 1948. Two strangers meet on their way back to the city, where a war-crimes trial is taking place — the description promises an exploration of a city “haunted by its sins” for its collaboration with the Nazis.
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1aa hamelinOctober 1970, by Louis Hamelin. The only translated novel on this year’s longlist, October 1970 gives Wayne Grady a double hit — he is the translator. The novel (which is not due for release until Sept. 21) promises to revisit Canada’s FLQ crisis — “Thirty years after the October Crisis, Sam Nihilo, a freelance writer whose career is in a slump, is drawn to the conspiracy theories that have proliferated in the wake of the events.” I was 22 years old and a rookie journalist when it took place — I’ll admit that I am looking forward to this view of the events, since they have not often been addressed in Canadian fiction.

Overall, I would say this year’s longlist is impressive for its range. Established writers are certainly represented — Boyden, Coady, Johnston, Bock. (As far as I can tell, De Mariaffi is the only debut writer, although Emancipation Day is Grady’s first novel.) Two story collections, one translated work. And certainly a wide range of settings, both geographical and in time.

I am a little surprised by a couple of omissions, The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (which is on the Booker shortlist) and The Hungry Ghosts, Shyam Selvadurai’s long-awaited third novel. Having said that, neither would have been an obvious favorite for me — and they obviously were not for the Real Jury.

And so the 2013 Shadow Giller Jury starts its work. Trevor and Kim may read a title or two, but they don’t really kick into action until the shortlist is released. Alison and I have both read four of the titles — alas we have overlapped with both of us reading Messud, Moore and Johnston. We may try to split our timing on some of the remaining nine in an attempt to get as many of the titles read by at least one of us as possible before the shortlist is announced on Oct. 8. I’m afraid with only 22 days between long and short lists, we are unlikely to get all 13 read in time but I do promise to read and review them all eventually.

So if you have read any of the titles towards the bottom of this post, please don’t hesitate to offer your opinion in a comment — as always, the Shadow Giller Jury welcomes the thoughts of visitors here.

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

September 12, 2013

Available from McClelland & Stewart

Available from McClelland & Stewart

The Luminaries opens with Walter Moody innocently entering the smoking room of the Crown Hotel in the mining community of Hokitika on New Zealand’s west shore. The year is 1866 — while Moody has trained as a lawyer back home in the Mother country, he has just arrived in the port, following his father and brother to the colonies to seek his fortune as a hardscrabble miner in the latest gold boom where economic security for a lifetime is just one lucky nugget find away.

It is also fair to say that he is young enough to want some adventure before settling down and (conveniently for both author and reader) the crew in the room at the Crown will provide it:

The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met. From the variety of their comportments and dress — frock coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, and twill — they might have been twelve strangers on a railway car, each bound for a separate quarter of a city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them; indeed, the studied isolation of each man as he pored over his paper, or leaned forward to tap his ashes into the grate, or placed the splay of his hand upon the baize to take his shot at billiards, conspired to form the very type of bodily silence that occurs, late in the evening, on a public railway — deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the fat clatter of the rain.

booker logoIndeed, Moody has stumbled upon a hastily-called conference whose participants have immediately retreated into silence upon his entry. Two weeks earlier, three things happened on a single night in Hokitika. A drunken hermit, Charlie Wells, was found dead in his cabin outside the town — the presence of a phial of laudanum and, even more important, £4,000 worth of smelted gold hidden away has made his demise suspicious. His body was found by Alistair Lauderback and his aides who are on their way across the mountain pass above the village — the West Canterbury area has earned a seat in Parliament and Lauderback is seeking to become its first member. Lauderback also features in the discovery of the second happening:

On the outskirts of Hokitika their company was further delayed. As they advanced upon the township they came upon a woman, utterly insensate and soaking wet, lying in the middle of the thoroughfare. She was alive, but only barely. Lauderback guessed that she had been drugged, but he could not elicit any kind of intelligence from her beyond a moan. He dispatched his aides to find a duty sergeant, lifted her body out of the mud, and, while he waited for his aides to return, reflected that his electoral campaign was off to a rather morbid start. The first three introductions he would make, in town, would be with the magistrate, the coroner, and the editor of the West Coast Times.

The woman is Anna Wetherell, a fairly recent (and very attractive) addition to the town’s supply of whores. She is charged with attempted suicide, once she comes to in the town gaol.

The third event of that evening is the disappearance of the town’s richest man, Emery Staines, a prospector in his early 20s who has found enormous fortune with some very significant strikes. No one knows whether he is dead, missing or simply departed back home.

A lot of questions have been raised during the two weeks since those events and each of the 12 men in the smoking room at the Crown has reason to be concerned. None is definitely guilty of anything, but each might be guilty of something — and collectively they might be guilty of a lot. While they had gathered to discuss strategy, the device of Moody’s uninvited arrival gives the author the chance to have a number of them relate their part in the background of the story. The group is a disparate lot — a banker, hotelier, shipping agent, Anna’s whoremaster (himself a goldfields magnate), and a Chinese who runs the local opium den are just a sampling of the spread.

Since the most readily apparent distinctive feature of The Luminaries is its length (832 pages), I don’t think it is a spoiler to say that it takes author Catton 360 pages to set the elements of her plot in place through the telling of those stories at the Crown. After all, if you are reading the book itself, you can physically tell that you still are not half way through by the time that first section is completed. The two excerpts that I have quoted illustrate her attention to detail on the micro-level — rest assured, she is equally as assiduous when it comes to character and the nuances of plot.

Having said that, don’t let the prospect of length put you off (unless, of course, the cascading sentence in that first excerpt has already done that — if it has, give the novel a miss). The Luminaries is a Victorian-style novel in the tradition of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life or one of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester books in that it chronicles the tale of an entire community with a large cast of characters, each of whom is given significant attention — although Catton’s community is a rough-and-tumble mining town not a class- and cleric-dominated English shire.

Indeed, perhaps a better comparison would be some recent Victorian-style mysteries such as Sarah Waters The Little Stranger or D.J. Taylor’s Derby Day both of which also found favor with Booker Prize juries and earned a place on the shortlist. These kind of novels may not be to everyone’s taste, but when well-executed they certainly impress some.

I have noted in my reviews of some other 2013 Booker titles that this year’s jury has an affection for books that use an uncommon structure: jury chair Robert Macfarlane confirmed that when the shortlist was announced this week, taking pride that they had produced a list of “novel novels”.

The Luminaries is one of those, employing a device I have certainly not seen before: Catton uses the golden ratio when it comes to determining the length of her chapters. There are 12: the first is 360 pages long, the second 158, the third 104 — and then you come to the tenth at 8, the 11th 6, the last 3. While that makes for some heavy sledding in the first few sections, it does have an interesting side effect. I can’t believe I am writing this, but the final 150 pages positively galloped along.

There is another aspect of The Luminaries on which I am totally unqualified to comment that deserves mention. You may notice from the review that there were 12 men in the Crown smoking room and 12 sections to the book. The novel has an astrological side as well: each section is introduced with an astrological chart, those 12 men each have a related house (both in the sky and on the ground) and sub-chapter headings continue the theme (“Jupiter in Sagittarius” is an example). My lack of interest in astrology is exceeded only by my complete lack of knowledge of it — those with interest and knowledge may find a theme that completely passed me by.

Eleanor Catton made a major splash with her first novel The Rehearsal, published when she was just 23 — you can count me as one of those who was mightily impressed as you can tell from my review. She is only 28 now and can already add a Booker short-listing to her resume. Not just that, but this novel, with its historical theme and all its complexity, is completely different from The Rehearsal. No one call tell at this point whether she is just experimenting with form or whether she intends to keep on doing that. What cannot be denied is that she is a young author of enormous talent — while either (or both) her books might not suit your taste, they are exceptionally well done.

Catton was raised in New Zealand and resides there now (although she wrote The Luminaries while at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop), but she was born in Canada and retains citizenship — which makes this novel Giller eligible. We will find out on Monday next if this year’s Giller jury (Margaret Atwood, Esi Edugyan and Jonathan Lethem) is as enthusiastic with this “novel novel” as the Booker Jury is. Personally, despite the non-Canadian subject matter, I would be surprised if it does not show up on the Giller longlist.

2013 Booker Prize short list and 2013 Shadow Giller Prize Jury plans

September 10, 2013

booker logoThe 2013 Booker Prize shortlist is out and, whatever its overall quality may be, the news is generally good for the KfC blog: two of the six have already been reviewed here, a third is due to be reviewed in two days, a fourth was already next in line for reading, a fifth is in the mail and the sixth is a novel that drew positive comments from visitors here when the longlist was announced. Here’s the list, starting with those I have reviewed.

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Harvest, by Jim Crace. My favorite of the six longlisted titles that I have read, this is an allegorical tale of a rural English village under threat (Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart has that same theme only it is set in a contemporary Irish village, but I digress). It has an almost European style to it, reminding me of several authors (such as Gerbrand Bakker) whom I have read in translation. The novel has a haunting feel throughout and the way that it deals with the theme of how a community and individuals cope with change coming from the outside has much current relevance.

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

The Testament of Mary, by Colm Toibin. Definitely the surprise pick of the shortlist and that comment comes from someone who is a major Toibin fan. A number of readers question whether the novella-length book (104 pages) meets the Booker “full novel” requirement; others (check the comment discussion following my review) wonder about the worth of the work itself. The Testament of Mary started life as a monologue play — I’m inclined to think that was better than the book, but this year’s jury obviously disagrees. For me, the novella had curiosity value that made it worth reading but I expect more from a Booker shortlisted volume.

2013 catton The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton. A Victorian-style crime story set in New Zealand in the 1860s, this is the 2013 Booker doorstopper — Catton extends her tale to almost 850 pages (and in the hardcover version I read, those pages are lush and thick, not onion skin — it is a brick). It starts with a suspicious death and an apparent suicide attempt, quickly draws in a dozen semi-conspirators and then explores (at length) the cat’s cradle of links involving this cast. (My review will be posted in a few days.) Canadians take note: Catton was born in Canada (but raised and currently resident in New Zealand) so this novel is Giller eligible — we’ll see if it makes that longlist next week.

2013 bualwayo We Need New Names, by Noviolet Bulawayo. Another shortlist surprise, this debut novel starts with a 10-year-old in troubled Zimbabwe and then moves on to her “escape” to the hope of America, which she finds a bigger challenge than she thought. As the publisher describes it, a novel of “displacement and arrival”.
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2013 lahiri The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri. I’ve been looking forward to this one for months — it was just released today in the UK (two more weeks before its North American release), although apparently booksellers there have been “cheating” and putting copies on shelves ahead of time. Like many of Lahiri’s stories, it is set in both India and America and centres on two brothers, one rebellious, the other conventional, both of whom find themselves players in the conflict of politics and values in their homeland (and chosen escape). Lahiri is a writer of considerable talent and that outline promises she is on turf that she knows well.

2013 ozeki A Tale For The Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki. Kudos to Dina and Brett — when the longlist was announced and I said this was one I would not be reading, they both commented that it deserved attention and I will be reading it after all. This one, also, has Canadian connections (Ozeki spends half the year on Vancouver Island) — a novelist named Ruth on a Canadian island discovers a lunch box (from the 2011 tsunami?) that contains the diary of a 16-year-old Japanese girl.

As I’ve noted, the shortlist does have a couple of surprise inclusions. And exclusions — when Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire and Colum McCann’s TransAtlanctic made the longlist it seemed the jury had a taste for populist conventional stories but neither has advanced. I liked both but can understand why they were left off. I am disappointed that Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart did not advance — it is the kind of book that deserves Booker attention.

2013 SHADOW GILLER JURY PLANS

11shadow logo

It has become a KfC blog tradition, that the Booker shortlist announcement also supplies the occasion to announce that year’s Shadow Giller Jury. It is year number 20 for the Real Giller, and year 19 for the Shadow Jury — for a bit of history on how we came into being, check out the 2011 announcement of Shadow Giller plans here.

This year’s Shadow Jury is the same as last year’s. Trevor from The Mookse and the Gripes in Utah and Kimbofo from Reading Matters in London will bring an international perspective; Alison Gzowski, an editor at the Globe and Mail in Toronto, will celebrate her 11th year as a Shadow Giller juror.

The Giller longlist is to be announced Sept. 16 and will be featured in a post here (let’s hope I have managed to read a couple). The shortlist is due October 8 which means we certainly cannot all read the entire longlist — as usual, we will try to make sure at least one of us has read each book.

Trevor, Kim and I all intend to review each of the five-book shortlist and Alison will check in with guest reviews or comments on the three blogs involved. We promise a full report on our deliberations — and the Shadow Jury choice — a few days in advance of the Real Giller announcement which takes place on Nov. 5.

Please join with us. Comments and opinions are certainly welcome on all three blogs.

The Spinning Heart, by Donal Ryan

September 6, 2013

Purchased from the Book Depository

Purchased from the Book Depository

The 2013 Booker longlist contains a number of examples of what seems to be a new favorite structure for contemporary authors: independent narrative streams telling the stories of different central characters which are eventually braided together. TransAtlantic by Colum McCann features three historical tales set 150 years apart — the unifying feature turns out to be a four-generation story involving characters who appear secondarily in each of the streams. Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw takes place entirely in present-day Shanghai but involves five different Malaysian fortune-seekers whose stories are developed independently but eventually overlap (not entirely convincingly, it must be said). The device is certainly not unknown in fiction but it seems to be becoming more common — or perhaps it is just that it appeals to this year’s jury.

In one sense, Donal Ryan’s debut novel, The Spinning Heart, represents an extreme use of the approach: the tightly-written 156-page novel consists of first-person vignettes from 21 different characters, many of them only four or five pages long. They all live in the same Irish village and are all involved (in varying degrees) with the over-arching events of the narrative, but each has a unique experience with them.

booker logoIn another sense, however, Ryan uses the device quite differently. Where McCann and Aw end up braiding the streams together, Ryan treats his 21 “chapters” like tiles of a mosaic — he lays them all out but leaves it to the reader to put the overall arrangement together.

It needs to be said that the novel is not as random as that description suggests. The opening chapter (“Bobby”) is the narrative of the closest thing the book has to a central character — Ryan is also wise enough to use it to introduce one man’s version of those over-arching events that affect the entire cast.

The most pervasive of these is the demise of Pokey Burke’s house construction “business” (where Bobby is the foreman), a product both of the economic collapse of the Celtic Tiger and Pokey’s criminality. We see its impact initially through Bobby describing fellow worker Mickey Briar’s response to losing his job:

He went over and started to beat the prefab door until Pokey opened it a crack and threw an envelope at him and slammed the door again, just as Mickey put his head down and went to ram him like an old billy goat. Mickey’s hard old skull splintered that door and very nearly gave way. Pokey must have shat himself inside. I want my fuckin pension you little prick, Mickey roared and roared. I want my fuckin pension and the rest of my stamps. Come out you bollocks till I kill you. For a finish he went on a rampage around the place, turning over barrows and pulling formwork apart and when he picked up a shovel and started swinging, we all ran for cover. Except poor innocent Timmy Hanrahan: he only stood grinning back to his two ears like the gom that he is.

And Mickey Briars lamped Timmy Hanrahan twice across both sides of his innocent young head before we subdued him.

Pokey hasn’t been keeping his accounts with the government square — as far as the authorities are concerned, the laid-off workers have never existed. Ryan may be using a contemporary setting but he preserves a frequent theme of Irish fiction: the powerful always punish the powerless (and the powerless tend to take their resulting anger out on each other).

Generational conflict is another constant in Ryan’s anonymous village. The author opens the book by introducing Bobby’s version of it:

My father still lives back the road past the weir in the cottage I was reared in. I go there every day to see is he dead and every day he lets me down. He hasn’t yet missed a day of letting me down. He smiles at me; that terrible smile. He knows I’m coming to check is he dead. He knows I know he knows. He laughs his crooked laugh. I ask is he okay for everything and he only laughs.

Bobby’s description of his generational conflict may be a bit extreme but many of the 21 characters have their own version. The novel suggests that it is an inevitable by-product of a community where there is not much opportunity and not much changes.

And finally (for review purposes because other themes do get introduced), there is the tension between the sexes that also comes from being part of what is essentially a closed community. Here’s how Bobby describes meeting his wife, Triona:

I always knew Pokey Burke was a bit afraid of me. Triona say I exuded menace when she met me first. She has a lovely way of putting things. There was no one stopping her doing honors English. She says I stood against the bar inside in the disco in town and stared at her. Her friend said what the fuck is that freak looking at, but Triona knew the friend was only raging I wasn’t staring at her. Oh, don’t look back, for Christ’s sake, the friend said, he’s from an awful family, they live in a hovel, the father is a weirdo and the mother never speaks — but Triona looked back all the same and when I scowled at her she knew I was trying to smile, and when I hardly spoke to her on the way home she knew deep down that I was terrified of the lightness and loveliness of her, and when she said are we going to shift so or what, I thought I’d never again regain the power of movement.

I’ll admit that Bobby’s story had me engaged with this novel from the start — the sketches of those themes outlined above (and the others I have not mentioned) were ample enough structure for me. And in the next few chapters, Ryan broadens it aptly. We next hear the story of Pokey’s father which enhances the economic disaster background. And then comes Lily’s story of sleeping around. It is followed by that of Vasya, one of the immigrant workers dragged into Pokey’s economic web. The portrait of the village inhabitants begins to acquire depth.

My enthusiasm continued throughout the first two-thirds of the book, heightened as we are given the views of characters we have met in previous chapters.

Unfortunately, at about that point the challenges of Ryan’s dramatic structure start to exceed the author’s ability to deal with them. We have already heard from most of the central characters in the village story, so he needs to rely on increasingly peripheral ones. He also resorts to introducing a new plot line to keep his story going — it was not convincing to me and has drawn negative comment from others who have read the novel.

When it comes time to bring the book to a close (he has saved the stories of a few key characters), I was only too aware of the biggest drawback of the narrative approach. It simply does not allow for a robust enough development of characters (because this is a novel about people who are trapped in situations they do not control) for its conclusion to have the impact it deserves.

I would give Ryan an A for ambition in the way he has chosen to tell his story — I think anyone who reads much fiction would have the same reaction and the book is worth reading for that alone. Alas, the marks for execution are much lower. I did read the book twice because I wanted him to succeed — I’m afraid the second reading produced the same concerns that resulted from the first one. Is that an inevitable result of the structure or simply the author’s inability to deliver on it? I’m inclined to think the former.

The Spinning Heart deserved its Booker longlisting and I would be happy to see it on the shortlist — readers need to be introduced to authors who are willing to take chances. Alas, I would be disappointed if the jury is so enthusiastic about the effort that they choose to reward it with the 2013 Prize itself.

KfC’s 2013 Project: Cabbagetown, by Hugh Garner

September 2, 2013

Personal collection

Personal collection

Before looking at Hugh Garner’s portrayal of Toronto’s Cabbagetown district, let’s consider a contemporary description of the now-trendy neighborhood (with thanks to realtor Susanne Hudson, from whose website I stole this):

Beautiful Cabbagetown is a very charming ‘village’ in downtown Toronto and has the highest concentration of Victorian homes in North America! Cabbagetown is an engaging part of town and it is a wonderful oasis for the Torontonians lucky enough to live there. Their homes, ‘cottages’, semis and detached Victorians have almost all been lovingly restored. And these cherished homes are the centrepiece of the lives of many interesting professional singles, couples and vibrant young families.

The row houses sell for about $750,000, the “cottages” over $1 million and you don’t want to know what the Victorian “mansions” cost. How times have changed.

Garner’s Cabbagetown is the same physical neighborhood. The 1968 volume that I read features chapter break “maps” that define its boundaries, Queen Street on the south, Parliament on the west, Gerrard on the north and the Don River on the east — about two square miles that has been a part of Toronto since the mid-1800s. Originally settled by the Irish, it was an arriving-immigrant neighborhood for more than a century — the gentrification process only started about 35 years ago.

(EDIT: Thanks to a comment from Bruce, I have to admit the above para is in error. The Cabbagetown of today is on the north and west edges of the neighborhood described in this book — the community that Garner is writing about has simply disappeared from the map. I would argue that makes the novel even more poignant.)

In spirit, however, Garner’s Cabbagetown is light years removed from the posh contemporary “village”. The novel originally appeared in 1950 in far different form as a “cheap pocketbook” (that’s the author’s description). It was reissued, uncut and unexpurgated, in 1968 — the edition I read — and introduced with a passionate preface from the author:

Toronto’s Cabbagetown remains only a memory to those of us who lived in it when it was a slum. Less than half a mile long and even narrower from north to south, it was situated in the east-central part of the city […].

This continent’s slums have been the living quarters of many immigrant and ethnic poor: Negro, Mexican, Jew, Indian, Italian, Irish, Central European and Puerto Rican. The French Canadians have their Saint-Henri in Montreal and Saint-Saveur in Quebec. Cabbagetown, before 1940, was the home of the social majority, white Protestant English and Scots. It was a sociological phenomenon, the largest Anglo-Saxon slum in North America.

That political agenda is underlined by the time frame of the novel. Book One (“Genesis”) opens in March 1929, coincident with the Wall Street crash. Book Two (“Transition”) is confined to June 1932 to October 1933; Book Three (“Exodus”) extends from the 1933 to 1937 — the depth of the Great Depression.

And having set expectations up for a Canadian version of the (excellent) leftish polemics of Sinclair Lewis or John Steinbeck, let me say that, in its first two sections, Cabbagetown is anything but. Hugh Garner may be angry about what happened to Cabbagetown, but he is determined to paint a picture of a community where struggling individuals find strength in relating to each other and through that build a vision of hope for the future.

Ken Tilling is the first and foremost of these. We meet him on his sixteenth birthday as his school principal says goodbye because Ken is heading into the working world:

He was bitter at his after-school delivery job keeping him from sports and dramatics, and of having to refuse party invitations because of his shabby clothes. He had remained an outsider from the cliques revolving around athletics, the school magazine, the auditorium stage, the possession of a Model T Ford —

But now all this was past. Tomorrow he would get a job, and the money he earned would give him equality with those among whom he had not been equal before. Getting a job was an easy step in the early months of 1929. Business and employment were climbing to unprecedented heights. Columns of help-wanted ads beckoned to anyone able and willing to work. The store windows were full of the retail manifestations of prosperity: bright yellow square-toed shoes to be worn at Easter, new gray suits, the cumbersome polished shells containing the new wonders of radio. Everywhere were new clothes, iceless refrigerators, Rudy Vallee records, banjo ukuleles, bridge lamps, imported English prams, home-brewing supplies, the new Model A Ford, Amos ‘n Andy’s pictures, sporty looking Chevrolets.

When you have grown up in a slum, with an alcoholic single mother, that checklist is a version of what the dream of the future looks like. Ken Tilling, a decent, law-abiding Cabbagetown boy, is determined to pursue it.

There are, of course, other ways out of the slum and Garner is scrupulous in developing them. Crime is one option — Ken does get involved with some friends who choose this path to escape. Aligning yourself with the powerful is another — Ken’s neighbor, Theodore East, opts for this route and casts his fate with the anti-Semitic, fascist forces that were part of Canada’s 1930s. The girls of Cabbagetown have less choice — marrying up is a possibility, but a slim one; trading sexual favors has a quicker return. Ken’s infatuation with Myrla, who makes that latter choice, is a story thread that runs throughout the novel.

What most impressed this reader on my latest reread was the way that Garner kept his anger in check throughout Books One and Two of the novel. Every one of the characters is searching for a better future — and they are dependent on the “safety net” of Cabbagetown, the community, to help them. And I have mentioned only a few — the novel features many, many more from a number of generations.

Alas, this is the 1930s, the post-crash era of the Great Depression, and Garner refuses to sugar coat reality. Ken has to take to riding the rails and 20-cent-a-day forced labor camps. Myrla’s easy choices produce predictable results. Crime doesn’t work and ends in violent death. Book Three (“Exodus”) is relentless, harsh realism without succour — the barriers to escaping Cabbagetown are simply too high for even the nicest of people to scale.

In many ways, I found this revisit of Cabbagetown resulted in two very different novels. The first two Books develop and portray a neighborhood and community of great strength, individuals fighting against the odds and leaning on each other. Whatever route the individual has chosen to get out of Cabbagetown, we want them to succeed. And then, in the final section, Garner delivers the harsh reality: as much as we would like a happy ending, the take-no-prisoners world of capitalist economics refuses to allow it.

We live in a much more complicated economic world now, so parts of Cabbagetown do have a dated feel. Having said that, the forces that are at the root of Garner’s story — both positive and negative — are still very much in play. Cabbagetown, the neighborhood, may have gentrified, but the support that Garner found there is still very much present. In developing the stories of Ken, Myrla and their neighbors, Garner has put a face to the individuals who have to play that game — it may be 70 years since he wrote the first version, but the rules are still the same.

I think it is fair to say that Cabbagetown has fallen off the table of Canadian “must reads” — it deserves more attention. I certainly found this reread rewarding.


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