Archive for October, 2013

Cataract City, by Craig Davidson

October 14, 2013

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

Craig Davidson introduces Cataract City with a nine-page prologue that sketches the present time for his novel. Duncan Diggs is about to leave the Kingston Penitentiary after serving eight years. He is being met by Owen Stuckey for the four-hour drive back to Niagara Falls, the Cataract City of the title. The two were childhood friends. Owen also happened to be the guy who put Dunk in prison — when they hit adulthood, the two chose different paths when it came to respecting the law.

Having set that in place, the author returns to the past. Cataract City tells its story in four sections narrated by either Dunk or Owen — three visiting earlier times to bring the story up to the present, the fourth picks it up where the prologue leaves off.

Those sections feature a similar structure, so I am going to concentrate on the first in this review. In each, Davidson spends a fair bit of time carefully putting in place the background and elements of the story that Dunk and Owen face at that point. When that is complete, also in each section, he sends the pair into a dramatic episode that is relentlessly bleak, masculine and violent — each of the four is the literary version of a beautiful summer day giving way to a vicious thunderstorm that refuses to stop.

11shadow logoBefore we learn much about Dunk and Owen as pre-teens however, Davidson uses Owen’s words to introduce a third “character” that will be as important as the two boys/men: the city of Niagara Falls itself. Most of the world knows that city for its magnificent waterfall. North American residents of a certain age (say mine) also remember it as a Honeymoon Capital for the lower classes — cheap, kitschy motels and even cheaper, kitschier tourist attractions and shops. When that market disappeared, Niagara Falls recast itself as a Canadian casino capital aimed at American gamblers; the irony of a community blessed with one of the world’s natural wonders choosing to attract people with windowless, neon-lit caverns being overlooked. Alas, with the advent of American Indian casinos across the border, that rebirth has also now run its course.

The Cataract City of Davidson’s novel is not like either of those versions of Niagara Falls — it is a hardscrabble, working-class town of the first order. Looking back from the present, here is how Owen describes it:

As a kid, I found it hard to get a grip on my hometown’s place in the world. What could I compare it to? New York, Paris, Rome? It wasn’t even a dot on the globe. The nearest city, Toronto, was just a hazy smear across Lake Ontario, downtown skyscrapers like values on a bar graph. I figured most places must be like where I lived: dominated by rowhouses with tarpaper roofs, squat apartment blocks painted the colour of boiled meat, rusted playgrounds, butcher shops and cramped corner stores where you could buy loose cigarettes for a dime apiece.
….
My father worked at the Nabisco factory on Grand Avenue. The Bisk, as it was known. If you grew up in Cataract City and earned a university degree, chances are you left town. If you grew up in Cataract City and managed to finish high school, chances are you took a job at the dry docks, Redpath Sugar, the General Motors plant in St. Catharines or the Bisk. Plenty of the jobs were simple enough that any half-competent person could master them by the end of their first shift. One of my schoolmates’ dads filled sacks of iced tea mix. Another drilled holes in ignition-collar locks. The only question was whether you could do that same task eight hours a day for the next forty years.

The first seven years of my life, my father worked on the Nilla Wafers line. I don’t know what he did beyond that. (…) Dunk’s father worked at the Bisk, too. Chips Ahoy line. Our dads carried the smell of their lines back home with them. It became a forever quality of their clothes. It crept under their skin and perfumed the sweat coming from their pores. I used to keep score at the Bisk company’s softball games; after a while I knew the batting order by smell alone: first up was Triscuits, second was Fig Newtons, third was Cheese Nips. The mighty Nutter Butter batted cleanup.

I’ve included that lengthy excerpt because Davidson’s writing in his “set-up” sections contains some of the most precise, cogent observations I can remember reading in a long time. While a cookie factory is hardly a “rust-belt” industry, Niagara Falls is on the northern edge of that belt. Males of the era who graduated from high school could find a decent-paying, stable, if boring, job that enabled them to live a middle-class life. It is a world that has disappeared in the last couple of decades — undoubtedly the best part of reading Cataract City for me, was the way Davidson recaptured that world. (Full disclosure: I was born and raised in Kitchener, Ontario, 80 miles west of Niagara Falls, but very much part of that same economic world. On my way to and from school each day, I walked by both a Dominion Tire factory and Schneider’s meat-packing plant, both now long-closed.)

Davidson is equally good at setting up the story of Dunk and Owen. Both were young misfits, but they found each other when they were 10. Owen was getting beat up by Clyde Hillicker, who outweighed him by about 40 pounds. Clyde was doing his imitation of pro wrestler Bruiser Mahoney; Dunk (who had never spoken to Owen before) stepped in to rescue him.

As readers, we have actually had a reference to Bruiser before this — when Dunk was leaving Kingston Pen he checked his shoebox of personal treasures, one of which is a picture of Dunk, Owen and Bruiser, with Bruiser’s autograph. The ten-year-old boys were wrestling fans, having convinced their fathers to take them to the Saturday night matches and Bruiser is their hero.

We ran down the aisle as Bruiser Mahoney’s music began: John Henry was a Steel-Driving’ Man.

“Somebody is cruisin’ for a bruuuuuisin!

The crowd rose to a thunderous roar as Bruiser Mahoney burst through a rainbow of sizzling fireworks. He ran with a high-kneed and almost clumsy gait, robe billowing off his heels. His face was set in an expression of controlled wrath — of joy. You could imagine a Spartan warrior running into battle with that same teeth-gritted, cockeyed look.

(Full disclosure number two: Kitchener was part of the same wrestling circuit as Niagara Falls and St. Catharines. My grade eight teacher moonlighted with a televised exercise show that was taped immediately after the local studio wrestling show. His stories about Andre the Giant, Sweet Daddy Sikh and the Kalmakoff Brothers — and others Davidson mentions — were far more interesting than anything he taught us.)

In fact, Bruiser Mahoney is the character that sets off the “dramatic” part of Section One. The boys and their fathers have been at a wrestling match but on the way out the men get involved in a fight with two other men that attracts police attention (Dunk’s father had cheated on his son’s entry in the Kub Kar Rally by embedding a chunk of lead in the wood-block body of the model car — a couple of other fathers who have drank too many beers want revenge.)

With Owen and Dunk’s father obviously headed to the nick, at least for a few hours, Bruiser “rescues” the boys and takes them into the wilderness of the Niagara Peninsula forest. Unfortunately, Bruiser has mistaken a bottle of drugs that produce hallucinations for his pain-killers — the “rescue” turns into three-days of survivalist hell that will eventually lead to his death and apparently endless wandering in the freezing cold for the boys.

The delightful set-up of section one takes up 41 pages, the wandering in the woods 85. The lyricism of the first part disappears in a relentless, repetitive description of the threats of the frozen wilderness — frankly, after the first 15 of those 85, I was just wanting it be over. Indeed, had this novel not been on the Giller longlist, I would have abandoned it by page 100.

I didn’t, and in the final analysis, I am glad that I went on. Davidson’s set up portions in the next three sections are every bit as good as the first one was — alas, the much longer “dramatic” sections are every bit as gruelling. Dog fighting, no-rules bare-knuckle human fighting and a cross-border cigarette smuggling episode that goes awry (that’s what led to Dunk’s conviction) were just a few of the things that came along to test my reading patience.

I can forgive the author for insisting that memories of working-class reality also, at least in his story, demand disturbing criminal-class realism — the romanticism of bringing back my own childhood needed to be offset with reminders that some of my classmates ended up following that criminal path. Still, I wish Davidson had been more economical with his prose when it came to those reminders.

I can also understand why the three authors who comprise this year’s Giller Jury put this book on the shortlist. The contrast that Davidson presents between the two parts of the story both in content and tone — in all four sections — represents a substantial writerly achievement. I confess it disturbed and upset me during the reading; I will be quite interested in how it eventually lands in memory over time. Cataract City may end up being quite a memorable novel (I am reminded of Patrick Lane’s Red Dog, Red Dog which has some similar themes, including despicable dog-fighting); on the other hand, it could end up being quite a forgettable one. Only time will tell.

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Alice Munro wins Nobel Prize

October 10, 2013

aaalicemunroAlice Munro today was named the first-ever Canadian winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, so we’ll pause to engage in a little celebrating here.

Her name has come up every fall in recent years (and the bookies had her as second favorite this year) but the announcement is still a bit of a surprise. The Nobel jury has tended to favor writers who have a “political” side to their fiction — “political” is one adjective that would not apply to Alice’s work.

What she is is a decent, generous human being with an exceptional talent for both observation and the ability to capture the results of that observation in words. Every one of her stories is like a carefully sculpted, three dimensional word picture. When considered as a body of work, they capture an entire community — there is a reason why southwestern Ontario is known as Munro country.

She is 82 now and has announced that Dear Life, the collection released late last year, would be her last. If you are looking for it on a Giller list, incidentally, you won’t find it — it is a sign of Munro’s humility that after winning the Prize twice she asked her publishers to stop submitting her books for consideration.

I have read all of Alice’s collections, but most of that reading took place before I started blogging here. You will find reviews of three here: The View From Castle Rock, the autobiographical collection which traces her own family history starting in Scotland; Too Much Happiness, her 2009 collection; and the previously mentioned Dear Life.

And I have another review schedule to close out 2013 — I will be re-reading her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, as the concluding book in my 2013 project of revisiting 12 Canadian authors who influenced me. I first read it when it was published in 1968 and I was 20 years old. Today’s Nobel announcement underlined that I have been reading, enjoying and appreciating Alice Munro’s work for most of my adult life — I have every intention of revisiting some of her other early collections as well.

Alice Munro is a deserving winner — and I am sure that many Canadian readers are as proud as I am that her work has received the international recognition that the Nobel Prize represents.

Trevor reviews Going Home Again, by Dennis Bock

October 9, 2013

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Here’s the first Shadow Giller Jury review, Trevor’s thoughts on Going Home Again, by Dennis Bock. I have only posted the opening paragraphs — for the full review click here.

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I love being a part of the Shadow Giller Jury (headed by KevinfromCanada, who is writing up a lot more than me here). It’s one of the best things that has come from my blogging. This will mark my . . . fifth year? Holy cow, time flies. So, with yesterday’s announcement of the shortlist, my work begins now: Dennis Bock’s third novel, Going Home Again (2013).

I won’t be coy. I didn’t like this book, despite the fact that it treads on one of my favorite themes: memories of the past, especially those we hoped we’d forgotten, haunt the present.

When the book begins, Charlie Bellerose, our first-person narrator, has just learned that someone with a strange name is dead, and Charlie’s brother is missing. We then quickly flash back one year, to the summer of 2005, and find Charlie returning to his home in Toronto. He’s just separated from his wife, Isabel, and left her in Madrid where they’d lived for nearly two decades. With that separation, he’s also left his twelve-year-old daughter, Ava. And so, here he is, returning home again, to a life he’d been able to forget mostly, since he was so far from it.

In Toronto he is nervous to reacquaint himself with his brother, Nate. The last time he spent any time with Nate was over ten years ago, in 1993, when Nate visited Madrid and made a complete idiot of himself. Wary, Charlie is surprised to find that he likes his brother, who is also going through a divorce, one that separates a family with two boys.

I will say that I was already having a hard time with this book at this early stage, and it may well have been an issue of timing. I was very impatient with it from the get-go, finding the dialogue strained first, and then getting annoyed because I felt I could see Bock’s manipulations all over the place as he put the pieces of his story into place. The book comes off as a series of set pieces, and most are misfires since they attempt to add some intensity and metaphor to the story but then Bock balks just as those set pieces begin to take over the story. Consequently, the intensity is undercut, the themes suffer in the background, and the novel feels uneven and unsure.

2013 Giller Prize shortlist

October 8, 2013

Here is the shortlist for the 2013 Giller Prize — and, yes, the biggest surprise is that Joseph Boyden has not made the list with The Orenda. More on that later, but let’s look at the list:

2013 moore Caught, by Lisa Moore. A combination of a crime story and character study, Lisa Moore’s novel did not land well with me — but I did note in my review that prize juries like her better than I do. Slaney is a minor drug-running criminal whom we meet escaping from prison in Springhill, Nova Scotia, ready to seek his next score. He heads across Canada to meet his co-smuggler and set up try number two. My problem was that author Moore never figured out whether she was telling a story or developing a character — the jury obviously disagreed with that assessment.

1aa davidsonCataract City, by Craig Davidson. A review of this one is next up on the blog, in a couple of days. Cataract City has three central “characters” — Duncan Diggs, a kid who moved to the wrong side of the law; his schoolyard pal, Owen, who opted to join the police; and the city of Niagara Falls, which supplies the title for the novel. The “Falls” may be what made Niagara famous, but the city has become a trap for those who live there. Dunc opts for one way out, Owe chooses another — and Niagara Falls has its pull on both. Stay tuned for more expanded thoughts.

1aacoadyHellgoing, by Lynn Coady. The Giller always wants to include a short story collection and Coady’s Hellgoing is this year’s representative. Coady is no stranger to the Giller shortlist — her novel, The Antagonist, made the 2011 list. I have read this collection and the review will be up in a week. Unlike Alice Munro with her character studies, Coady is what I would call an “episodic” short story writer — creating a set of circumstances and then letting her characters handle them. As a preview to my thoughts, I found every story readable — alas, I also did not find very many “memorable”.

1aa vyletaThe Crooked Maid, by Dan Vyleta. This will be next on my reading agenda. Vyleta made the 2011 Rogers shortlist with The Quiet Twin, a novel set in pre-WWII Vienna. The German-Canadian author returns to Vienna and the same characters with this novel, but it is set a decade later. The reviews that I have read say it does stand alone and does not have to be regarded as a sequel — since I have not read The Quiet Twin, I will be testing that thesis.

1aabockGoing Home Again, by Dennis Bock. Bock’s previous novels (The Ash Garden and The Communist’s Daughter) have been historical war fiction, but this one has a tighter focus — two brothers come together after a couple of decades apart, their failed marriages supplying the reuniting force. I’d say this is the biggest surprise of a generally surprising shortlist — reviews that I have read of the novel have been generally positive, but not really enthusiastic.

While I have two reviews yet to be posted, I only have Vyleta and Bock yet to read, so the entire shortlist should be reviewed here within two weeks. And I’ll be adding The Orenda into the my reading quickly — like most Giller followers, I felt it was a certainty for the shortlist and had been “saving” reading it while I looked at some other “lesser” contenders (two of which did make the shortlist :-)). I can only assume that the jury felt Boyden is already well established and they chose to highlight some other authors.

My fellow Shadow Giller jurors are going to have some reading to do in the next few weeks. We will arrange to get books to Trevor at The Mookse and the Gripes and Kimbofo at Reading Matters. I will post the opening paras of their reviews as they go up, with links to the full review. And Alison will be commenting with her thoughts on all our blogs.

The short period between long and short lists means that Giller attention doesn’t really start until the short list is up. As always, your comments are most welcome.

The Son of a Certain Woman, by Wayne Johnston

October 7, 2013

Most of the people who knew my mother either slept with her or wished they had, including me, my aunt Medina and a man who boarded with us; though he was neither old nor someone’s father, he went by the name of “Pops”. I know that’s ambiguous, but it’s better left ambiguous for now. As for me wanting to sleep with my mother, if you disapprove, try spending your childhood with a face that looks long past its prime, with hands and feet like the paws of some prehuman that foraged on all fours — and then get back to me. Or better yet, read on.

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

That is the opening paragraph of The Son of a Certain Woman and, with one very important exception, it is as concise a précis of this novel as you could ever ask for. The setting is St. John’s, Newfoundland; the time is the near present; and our “hero” is Percy Joyce, a grotesquely birth-marked, gangly-pawed freak whose mind, it will turn out, is every bit as challenging as the look of his face and his over-sized hands and feet.

Let’s deal with the face first:

You may have seen people with birthmarks like mine. Something like mine, anyway, for mine are at the far worst end of the spectrum. Doctors call them “port wine stains” even though no one, when they see one, thinks of port. They’re also described as strawberry-colored, even thought they’re not. My mother said they call them “strawberry” to “put the best face on it”, then apologized for what was an unintended pun.

11shadow logoThose excerpts come from the first two pages of Wayne Johnston’s latest novel and those who have read him before will not be surprised. The Newfoundland born-and-raised novelist loves his “home” and its quirks — that’s the realism aspect that anchors his novels. But to tell his story, it is important that his “realist” world has an over-riding element of the absurd, in this case the grotesque look of his narrator, the young Percy, and some of the “rebounds” that look produces.

Like most of the men and boys of St. John’s, Percy is sexually attracted to his mother — he is only five when he discovers this, but it will become more important as the novel proceeds. The reference to Medina and Pops in that first excerpt will also become essential and it is worth developing here.

Medina is the sister of Percy’s father — Penelope was engaged to Jim Joyce when Percy was conceived. Jim fled the scene but Penny saw the pregnancy through and adopted the Joyce name after Percy was born. Also, she took up a lesbian relationship with his sister Medina. That activity is still frowned-upon in St. John’s so their liaisons are conducted under strictly controlled circumstances.

Penny also needs support for both herself and Percy, which is where Pops comes in. He is a chemistry teacher and vice-principal at Brother Rice High School, just across the street from the Joyce residence. He is also a boarder in the house, paying an outrageously inflated rent, which entitles him to one night a month in Penny’s bed. The rent not only keeps her and Percy above water, it also allows her to pass money on to Medina to keep her afloat.

Author Johnston is conscientious about his “micro” stories and that should give you a fair notion of those elements in this novel. As is typical of his novels that I have read, however, that is just a foundation for his “macro” story — in this novel, that would be the influence of the Catholic Church on the St. John’s of the day. That is the element that was absent in the opening paragraph but becomes ever more pervasive as the book proceeds.

The Joyces live part way up the Mount in St. John’s, dominated by the Basilica at its peak. There are no fewer than seven Catholic schools (elementary, middle and high) located on the Mount. Through Pops’ job, the Joyces are already connected to one of them — Percy will work his way through three others as the novel progresses. It is no spoiler to reveal at this point that Percy is not merely an unreliable narrator, he is a deliberately inventive one. He is intelligent far beyond his age (okay, that is a necessary device for the plot) — his ability to invent “productions” with himself at the centre to compensate for his grotesqueness is his means of survival.

The over-arching factor in all of this — and the one not referenced in the opening paragraph which I quoted at the start of this review — is the role of the Church:

Catholicism Central. It was a kind of smaller-scale Vatican City. There were seven Christian Brothers-and-nuns-run schools within a stone’s throw of each other: St. Pat’s and St. Bon’s, rival junior all-boys schools run by the CBs, as the Irish Christian Brothers were called; Brother Rice, an all-boys high school run by CBs; Holy Heart of Mary, an all-girls high school run by some Mercy but mostly Presentation nuns; the Mercy Convent girls’ school on Barnes Road; the Presentation Convent girls’ school’ and Belvedere, an all-girls, junior school-aged orphanage that was also run by nuns.

Penny Joyce is anything but religious but she and Percy get drawn into this Catholic web. On one level, it is purely financial — once-a-month Pops is central to the Joyce economic well-being and his job is dependent on the Church. Things move to an entirely different level, however, when the Archbishop “adopts” Percy as a special cause — while that gives the grotesque boy protection from priestly discipline and abuse, the reader knows that it will eventually extract a price.

Johnston is a comic writer of the first order and the first 200 pages of The Son of a Certain Woman were laugh out loud delightful — the section where Percy, seeing himself as a Christ-like figure, indulges in the “blessing of the school buses” over a period of some days is a particular delight.

Alas, this is 435-page book and at about the halfway point I came to the same hurdle that I have with other Johnston novels: so just where is all this going? As good a comic writer as he is, it is obvious that the author sees himself as a satirist. From the halfway point on, the novel gets more “serious” — for this reader, at least, it got less and less interesting and at times verged on the offensive.

Do not take that as a rejection of Johnston or the novel. Authors who can execute comedy are few and far between and Johnston can certainly do that. In the final analysis, the strengths of the first half of this one outweigh the weaknesses of the latter half — I look forward to the day when Johnston nails that final half because it would produce a book of exceptional worth.

Emancipation Day, by Wayne Grady

October 1, 2013

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

Jackson “Jack” Lewis may be the central character of Emancipation Day, but author Wayne Grady wants the reader to know from the start that where he came from is every bit as important as wherever he happens to be now. And so the novel opens with a chapter featuring Jack’s father, William Henry Lewis, stopping in for a morning shave at the two-chair downtown Windsor barbershop run by his brother Harlan — something he has been doing virtually every day since their father died 32 years ago.

As usual, the two engage in a wandering conversation on current affairs: William’s plastering business, the state of the war, coloureds moving to Detroit across the river, whites already moving out of the city, William’s family. That last topic sends William into memory, bringing back a scene that will prove essential background as the novel progresses. He and his fiancé, Josie, are in the registry office where a clerk is filling out the form for their marriage licence. Josie is an orphanage girl who doesn’t know much about her past (her place of birth, for example) and the clerk has already humiliated her by leaving out a couple of her middle names.

…And in the box marked Spinster or Widow, he put “Coloured”.

“Coloured a state of marriage now, is it?” Josie said, she always did have a tongue on her, but the clerk didn’t even look up. And on William Henry’s form, under Nationality, the clerk again wrote “Coloured”. It was like he was registering mongrel pups at the city pound. Josie glared at the man and held her peace, but [William] had to practically drag her out of there.

11shadow logoHarlan interrupts that memory with the offer of some bay rum (“Nothing ever tasted so good as the first drink of the day”) and the chapter comes to a close. The story moves to St. John’s, Newfoundland. Jack Lewis is stationed there as a member of the Navy Band — he’d joined the band back in Windsor, figuring it was the likeliest way of avoiding actual battle. The Band’s role is to supply the send-off to the thousands of troops boarding ships headed to the front; the best part of the posting is that it leaves plenty of free evenings for Jack to front a pick-up jazz group at the Knights of Columbus Hall.

He’d always been quick with the jokes. He fronted the King’s Men because he could tell a joke and knew the lyrics to all the songs. Got people on their feet. Give him the first bar and he’d sing the whole song, he loved it, the looks on the faces of the dancers when the music got to them. When a person is singing he looks you straight in the eye, ever notice that? He wasn’t himself anymore when he was a frontman, he was someone else, like an actor, someone with no past outside the song. He sang with his heart, like he was proposing to his best girl, like he was talking his way into barracks after lights-out.

It was at the K of C Hall a few weeks back where Jack met Vivian, who’d brought him sandwiches during a break. He walked her home and has taken her out a few times: “…but she was a real tease. Her eyes tell me yes, yes, yes, but her knees tell me no, no, no. Still, she might get him places he couldn’t go by himself. He’d call her when he got back to barracks.”

Jack’s in for a surprise as he thinks about making that call. Instead of lining up on the pier to play the troops aboard, the band is ordered on board itself — they are headed off overseas on a destroyer escorting a convoy of more than 50 merchant ships. It will be several weeks, and a number of disasters, before he gets around to making the call.

The time at sea brings a number of things into focus for Jack, which I’ll leave you to discover for yourself. Things do go well with Vivian (she’s the child of what stands for a prominent family in Newfoundland) on his return and the two get married.

All of that takes less than a third of the book — Grady is a patient writer with an attention to detail, both past and present, which I’ve tried to illustrate with my choice of excerpts. As a reader, you know simply from the heft of the book that something else must be coming and it is.

Jack is a light-skinned “coloured” (it grates to type that word, but it is Grady’s choice and was the word of the time) and has chosen to live as much of his life as he could as a white person. Since arriving in Newfoundland, “as much as he could” is conveniently “all the time”. He hasn’t shared this with Vivian and has no intention of doing so. When the war ends and Vivian wants to go to Windsor to meet his family, Jack faces a problem.

As I said, “patience” is one of Grady’s traits and I will respect that. Suffice to say that Jack’s efforts to maintain his “status” provide the opportunity for the author not just to develop that individual aspect of his plot, but also to explore the tangled state of race relations in both post-war Detroit and its Canadian twin, Windsor.

Emancipation Day is Wayne Grady’s first novel, but it is hardly his first book. He has published fourteen non-fiction books and translated fifteen novels — nominated for three Governor-General’s awards in that category, winning once. He also has a “double” on this year’s Giller longlist — as the author of this book and as the translator of Louis Hamelin’s October 1970.

(UNUSUAL SPOILERS AHEAD)

As he states in an afterword and has said often in promotional interviews, Grady started writing this novel more than 20 years ago when he discovered his own mixed-blood background. The project proved to be a challenge: “If anyone tries to tell you that writing a novel is easy, send them to Queen’s University Archives and let them read the twenty-two drafts that trace Emancipation Day’s metamorphoses.”

I knew that back story before I began reading the book and I’ll admit that it became more and more important to my impressions as I continued reading (which is why I am indulging in the spoiler here — although Grady certainly has not tried to hide it in his promotional appearances). The story of an Afro-American living as a white person has been told a number of times before; on that basis, this version simply does not hold up to the one I remember best, Philip Roth’s portrayal of Coleman Silk in The Human Stain.

On the other hand, when viewed as an author’s attempt to capture more than 200 years and five generations of his own history, Emancipation Day has much to recommend it. Normally, I am inclined to say that novelists have to produce a work that stands by itself, that a knowledge of the author’s background and intent should not be required to appreciate the work. Fiction purists may object, but I broke that rule when I came to this book — and I am glad that I did. As a novel, I don’t think it is the best I have read on the Giller list. As an example of an author who has chosen to undertake a daunting task, it was well worth the read and deserves its inclusion on the longlist.


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