Archive for September, 2016

Wonder, by Emma Donoghue

September 30, 2016
The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

Review copy courtesy of Picador UK

It seems rather uncanny that the first two books I’ve read from the 2016 Giller Prize shortlist both happen to revolve around food and fasting, albeit set centuries and continents apart.

In Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl we meet an unhappy woman obsessed with staying thin; in Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder we meet a pious and joyful 11 year old girl who appears to be surviving on nothing but air. Awad’s is a thoroughly contemporary novel set in urban Canada; Donoghue’s is an historical novel set in rural Ireland. But while both novels feature complicated females starving themselves, they are doing so for very different reasons…

The Wonder takes place just seven years after the end of the Great Famine, which occurred between 1845 and 1852. The time period is important, because Anna O’Donnell, the girl at the heart of the story, was born into hunger, but now food is relatively plentiful again. This makes it almost sacrilegious for her to shun it. But that is what she does. Yet, in her refusal to eat, she has not become ill, nor withered away: she is supposedly fit and healthy and has attracted much attention from the Catholic community in which she lives. Anna is being billed as a saint, and people are prepared to travel for miles and miles, just to catch a glimpse of her.

Enter nurse Lib Wright, a young widow from England, who trained under Florence Nightingale on the frontline of the Crimean War. She’s a new breed of nurse: professional, ethical and thorough. But she’s also a non-believer — in God, in religion, in Anna’s ability to live without food — which immediately posits her as an outsider in a country that is deeply religious.

Lib’s job is to keep watch over Anna for two weeks to see whether she is sustaining herself on food acquired secretly. She’s been hired by a local quack, Dr McBrearty, who claims he wants to “bring the truth to light, whatever the truth may be”. A local nun, Sister Michael, is to share the shift work — eight hours at a time around the clock.

From the outset, Lib is suspicious of everyone’s motivations and believes the girl to be a faker. But how does she prove it? And if the girl, who is well-mannered and bright, is somehow eating on the sly, how is she doing it? And who is helping her?

Essentially, The Wonder is a detective story, but it’s not a terribly clever one, for I had figured out the solution long before it was revealed. But as a slice of historical fiction it’s a superb snapshot of a time and place on the outer fringes of Western Europe, where dogma and religion are a way of life. (It is Lib’s constant inability to understand the rituals of Catholicism and to dismiss most of its beliefs as mere fairytale that makes me wonder if the author, presumably a lapsed Catholic, isn’t having a pop at the Church?)

The first third of this book really held me in its sway as I got to know and like the central characters: sweet pious Anna and stern and determined Lib, nursing troubles of her own. Everyone else is relatively subsidiary to them until the journalist William Byrne, from the Irish Times, enters the equation. But then the story seems to run out of steam — there’s only so much you can say about a girl fasting herself that you haven’t already said in earlier chapters — until momentum picks up again around 60 pages from the end when Donoghue drops a little bombshell that changes the course of the narrative.

Yet, when all’s said and done, The Wonder didn’t have enough meat on the bones for me (pun fully intended), because the storyline was simply too thin (sorry, can’t help myself) to sustain almost 300 pages of prose. And the ending was predictable and disappointing.

This might make it sound like I didn’t like the book. The funny thing is I liked it a lot — the writing is gorgeous, the characters are deftly drawn, the mood of the room in which Anna resides is evocative to the point of feeling claustrophobic (well, the author’s had some experience writing about that kind of space before, hasn’t she? — see Kevin’s review of Room) and her depiction of the outsider coming up against a culture she doesn’t understand is spot on. I also very much liked the interaction between the nurse and her patient, and the way this changed over time as the pair developed a genuine fondness for each other.

The Wonder is, indeed, a good read — but that’s all it is. I enjoyed it, but it didn’t wow me. I’d be very surprised if it won the Giller Prize.

This review has been cross-posted on Reading Matters.


Kimbofo reviews 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl

September 26, 2016

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat GirlWell, this seems rather meta, writing about my own review published on my own site.

It also seems rather fortunate that the one book I managed to read from the Giller Prize longlist just so happens to have made the shortlist.

Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is a short story collection disguised as a novel. It charts one woman’s trajectory from chubby teen to a painfully thin woman whose weight loss has not made her happy: she’s hungry and angry all the time and her relationships, particularly with her husband and work colleagues, are strained.

As I wrote in my review:

It mines a dark psychological seam of people who have an unhealthy relationship with food. It’s wry and funny, but also unsettling, for not only does Awad turn her sharp, perceptive eye towards the all-consuming issue of weight control, she also focuses on how this affects relationships between mothers and daughters, female friends, colleagues, sexual partners and the people we marry.

To read my review in full, please visit my blog, Reading Matters.

Has anyone else read this book? Do you think it will win the Giller Prize when the winner is announced on 7 November?

2016 Giller Prize shortlist

September 26, 2016

The wait is over! Earlier today the 2016 Giller Prize shortlist was announced.

The list is as follows:

  • Mona Awad for her novel 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl
  • Gary Barwin for his novel Yiddish for Pirates
  • Emma Donoghue for her novel The Wonder
  • Catherine Leroux for her novel The Party Wall
  • Madeleine Thien for her novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing
  • Zoe Whittall for her novel The Best Kind of People

The Shadow Giller jury will now swing into full reading and reviewing mode as we try to determine who we think should be the winner. We will announce our chosen title a few days before the official winner is named on Monday 7 November.

In the meantime, if you are on Twitter we’re happy to announce that we have set up a Shadow Giller account. You can follow us @ShadowGiller. Please use the hashtag #ShadowGiller

Naomi reviews The Party Wall

September 21, 2016

While we wait for the shortlist to be announced next Monday, members of the Shadow Giller jury are reading a few titles from the longlist.

The Party WallNaomi has kicked off her Giller reading with Catherine Leroux’ The Party Wall, the only translated title on the list and one which has already won a prestigious award: the France-Quebec Prize.

Naomi says the novel, which was translated by Lazer Lederhendler,  “is more rewarding the less you know about it”— and her review, which does not give anything way, makes the case for reading creative forms of storytelling:  The Party Wall is made up of interconnected stories.

Connections between the stories are fun, but they’re not the only reason to read this book. The writing is wonderful. And the stories are strong enough to stand alone, or show their connection through theme; duality and siblings are strong themes in this book, in unique and surprising ways.

To read Naomi’s review in full, please visit her blog, Consumed by Ink.

It will be interesting to see whether this one makes the cut. Anyone else read it? Do your views chime with Naomi’s?

The Shadow Jury is back for 2016!

September 12, 2016

Shadow Giller logo

Hello, this is Kim from Reading Matters once again. I’m pleased to let you know…

**drum roll, please**

…that the Shadow Giller Jury has decided to return for 2016!

Ever since the longlist was announced last week, we’ve been talking behind the scenes to see whether it was possible to shadow the prize again without our much-loved chairman to guide us along. It feels bittersweet to continue what has become an annual tradition without Kevin steering the ship, but we felt it was the best way to honour him and I’m sure it’s something he would like us to do given that championing Canadian literature was so dear to his heart. And, as the kicker says on Kevin’s banner above, “the show must go on…”

(Regular visitors will know that Kevin chaired a “shadow jury” since year two of the Giller — you can find the story of its history here.)

The make up of this year’s jury will be slightly different to previous years. I will be continuing as per usual, as will Alison Gzowski, who is an editor at The Globe and Mail. Sadly, Trevor Berrett, who blogs at The Mookse and the Gripes, has decided to bow out owing to other commitments (he’s judging the Best Translated Book Award), though he may chime in with comments and perhaps review one or two shortlisted books on his blog. We are sad to see him go.

In his place, we’re excited to announce that Naomi MacKinnon, who blogs at Consumed by Ink, has agreed to take part in this year’s jury. Naomi, who is from Nova Scotia, is another enthusiastic champion of Canadian literature and if you haven’t discovered her wonderful blog yet, please do pop along and check it out.

During the course of Giller Prize season, Kevin’s blog will feature excerpts of reviews by Naomi (with links to the full version), I will crosspost my own reviews here and on my own blog, and Alison promises to contribute a few guest posts and be actively involved in the comments, too. Because of the short timing between the longlist and shortlist announcement, it’s unlikely we’ll be reviewing the entire longlist, but we will endeavour to read every title on the shortlist and take it from there…

In the long-established tradition of the Shadow Giller Jury, we will announce our winner a few days in advance of the official Giller Prize announcement on November 7.

Please do add comments and chime in with your own thoughts on the titles as we review them. Taking part in the Shadow Giller has always been a highlight of my reading year, but it’s made all the better when booklovers from across the world jump in and take part.

2016 Giller Prize longlist

September 8, 2016

It’s that time of year again: the longlist for the Giller Prize has been announced.

The list comprises 10 novels and two short story collections by a mix of mainstream publishers and independent presses.

The list is as follows (hyperlinks take you to publisher websites):

  • Mona Awad for her novel 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, published by Penguin Canada
  • Gary Barwin for his novel Yiddish for Pirates, published by Random House Canada
  • Andrew Battershill for his novel Pillow, published by Coach House Books
  • David Bergen for his novel Stranger, published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd
  • Emma Donoghue for her novel The Wonder, published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd
  • Catherine Leroux for her novel The Party Wall, published by Biblioasis International Translation Series, translated by Lazer Lederhendler
  • Kathy Page for her story collection The Two of Us, published by A John Metcalf Book, an imprint of Biblioasis
  • Susan Perly for her novel Death Valley, published by Buckrider Books, an imprint of Wolsak and Wynn Publishers
  • Kerry Lee Powell for her story collection Willem De Kooning’s Paintbrush, published by HarperAvenue, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd
  • Steven Price for his novel By Gaslight, published by McClelland & Stewart
  • Madeleine Thien for her novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing, published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada
  • Zoe Whittall for her novel The Best Kind of People, published by House of Anansi Press Inc.

The shortlist will be announced on Monday 26 September, and the winner of the $100,000 prize named on Monday 7 November.

To find out more about the Scotiabank Giller Prize, please visit the official website.

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