Archive for the ‘2009 Giller Prize’ Category

The Golden Mean, by Annabel Lyon

October 14, 2009

Purchased at

Purchased at Owl's Nest Books

Every story has a back story. And Canadian author Annabel Lyon has gone a long way back to find her story in The Golden Mean — an aging Aristotle is recruited by Philip of Macedon to tutor his young son, Alexander (not yet the Great, but he will be) and introduce some thoughtful moderation into a royal life that is, and will always be, based on action. As much as he would like to devote his attention to something else (a treatise on theatre, actually), Aristotle is up to the challenge. In fact, he is equally entranced by the prospect of tutoring Alexander’s older — and disadvantaged — brother, Arrhidaeus, who has been coolly rejected by all his family because of his disability.

The golden mean of the title in this Giller Prize short-listed novel is the conflict between contemplation (as represented by Aristotle) and action (Alexander). As Aristotle complains to Alexander, late in the book:

“Your father suffers from what in an ordinary man we would call an excess of the virtue of pride. I’m not sure if such a thing is possible in a king. We are wasting time.” I’m angry suddenly and don’t care if he knows. I’m Macedonian to the Athenians and Athenian to the Macedonians. Maedi was a triumph; the Academy is not a pressing issue. “We are wasting each other’s time. You would like to be with the army and I would like to be in Athens writing books. Alas, we are left to each other’s company. Shall we make the best of an unpleasant situation and get this lesson over with as quickly as possible so we can each return to our own solitary pursuits? Show me your notes from last time.”

giller avatarLyon avoids the temptation to follow Philip — and eventually Alexander — through their various wars and conflicts. She does pay attention to various diplomatic and courtly intrigues, but her focus is always on Aristotle’s pursuit of the mean:

“My few meagre tools with which I try to order the universe. You must look for the mean between the extremes, the point of balance. The point will differ from man to man. There is not a universal standard of virtue to cover all situations at all times. Context must be taken into account, specificity, what is best at a particular place and time. You must–“

Alexander interrupts. There is a limit to his willingness to contemplate.

While the author remains true to keeping that central theme in focus, she also remains true to history. Despite the forthright focus of the novel, an introductory cast of characters, in order of appearance, has 43 names and all of them come into play. Aristotle’s pursuit of the golden mean is not limited to Alexander, it extends to everyone with whom he has contact from the king to the lowliest slave.

All of this makes for a somewhat frustrating book. While there is a lot of action around it, there is not much action in it — rather it is a study of the complex web of relationships that an outcast (as noted in the quote above, Aristotle is not at home anywhere) must maintain if he is to survive in the upper echelons of a warring world. For the reader, that plays out as moving from sideline to sideline, always aware of the real game that is being played but never being taken to the centre of it. Aristotle remains appropriately philosophical and curious throughout; while Alexander matures as the novel progresses, he never actually acquires the depth of character that this reader would have liked.

One side effect of that is that Aristotle’s wife, Pythias, (awarded to him by another king in gratitude) becomes a much more interesting character than he who will become the Great. Devoted to her husband, and much more aware of the aspects of real politic, Pythias’ dinners and positioning become every bit as important to Aristotle’s success as his tutoring and philosophy. And there are some very nice set pieces when the philosopher buys his wife a new slave, who happens to be a witch and limits most of her conversation with the male master to “fuck off”.

Alas, for this reader, that was not enough to save the novel. It is a straightforward, decently written book but in the final analysis the back story is simply not enough to carry the book. As the end approaches and Alexander ventures forth into the real world of conquest, while Aristotle stays behind, there is a distinct feeling that we have seen only part of the story — and perhaps not the most interesting part. Despite the lengthy list of characters, the reader has been exposed only to sub-plots. The book that Aristotle wanted to write about Greek theatre might have been more interesting after all.

(EDIT, Oct. 14 — The Golden Mean was named today to the Governor-General’s award fiction shortlist along with Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness and Michael Crummey’s Galore (reviewed by Shadow Giller juror Trevor on his blog here). Other finalists are Kate Pullinger for The Mistress of Nothing (which I promise to get to soon) and Deborah Willis for her short story collection, Vanishing and Other Stories. My initial guess (and this will be the KfC kiss of death) is that Munro wins the G-G award in a walk. The absence of Atwood is yet another indication of how bad her book is.)

A Book by its Cover

October 13, 2009

U.K. hardcover

U.K. hardcover

U.S. cover

U.S. cover

Canadian hardcover

Canadian hardcover

Can. paperback

Can. paperback

Here are four different versions of covers for the same book. I would say that Anne Michaels has confused her cover designers as much as she has confused this reader. Review of the book is here — you can figure out which cover suits you best.

Trevor reviews Fall

October 13, 2009

U.S. cover

U.S. cover

The Shadow Giller jury is now in full swing, with Trevor Berrett’s review of Colin McAdam’s Fall. Here is a teaser from Shadow juror Trevor’s review:

Most of the book is told either in the first person by Noel, who is looking back, or in a stream of consciousness by Julius, who is very much in the moment. Julius is well liked at school. Noel is bookish and insular and, we’ll find out soon enough, downright creepy. To make things worse for Noel, he has a twitch in one of his eyes, earning him the nickname Wink. The only reason Noel and Julius are roommates is because everyone thought Julius would already have a roommate, so they got someone else. Noel was who was left over when it turned out Julius didn’t have a roommate. For almost a year Julius has been dating the beautiful Fall, and they seem to be developing a genuine loving relationship for a couple as young as they are. In the meantime, Julius and Noel have come to confide in one another. A friendship might even be budding. Noel is thrilled when he and Julius together pull a prank on another student. Only Julius is caught, and he doesn’t implicate Noel. In the ensuing punishment, Julius asks Noel if he’ll relay notes to Fall for him.

Canadian cover

Canadian cover

You can find the full review at the Mookse and the Gripes here. And you can check out KfC’s earlier review of the book here. I must say the Americans got a better-looking cover than we Canadians did, but those of us who know the Ottawa River (which is quite relevant to the plot of the book) know that it looks nothing at all like the U.S. cover and certainly has no railway tracks running along it.

2009 Giller shortlist; Booker winner

October 6, 2009

Well, both halves of today’s book prize announcements confirm past practice — KevinfromCanada and prize juries don’t have much in common. I liked Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room for the Booker but Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall wins — not really a surprise when you consider the historical novels that were on the short list. As for the Giller, of the four books I listed as my favorites in a comment yesterday, not one made the 2009 Giller Prize shortlist (although the two I had tied for fifth both did). I’m still quite happy with the list, admittedly because it does not include Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, a book that I was very much not looking forward to reading. Four of the five have been reviewed here — the fifth has been read by Shadow juror Alison Gzowski and I’ll try to get a full review up here next week. The shortlist:

echlinThe Disappeared, Kim Echlin

A young Montreal woman falls in love with a Cambodian and follows him back to his home during the era of the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields. A very readable book, perhaps lacking in depth for me — I read it some months ago when it first appeared so I may need to revisit it before Nov. 10 prize day. Full review here.

lyonThe Golden Mean, Anabel Lyon

A story concerning Aristotle and his young pupil, Alexander (not yet The Great), it is the only finalist that I have not read. Shadow jury member Alison Gzowski has and here are thumbnail thoughts: “The golden mean is the perfect balance between extremes, and in this case Aristotle and Alexander are those extremes, a lonely man of ideas, an immoderate young man of action. There’s a “cast in order of appearance” at the front (a list of the characters and how they relate) as the beginning does introduce quite a number. The main ones though are Aristotle, his wife and of course Alexander. Lyon does a good job of putting the reader in that place and time and, as reviewers have noted, of getting inside Aristotle’s head. I liked the women in the book – Aristotle’s wife Pythias and their tart-tongued slave.” I’ll try to get my review up as quickly as possible.

macintyreThe Bishop’s Man, Linden MacIntyre

A novel that has become very topical — the real-life Bishop of Antigonish (who is the fictional bishop of the title) resigned recently after being charged with two counts of possessing pornography. The bishop’s man of the title is an “exorcist” responsible for disciplining wayward priests. That chore and his return to a parish in his native Cape Breton Island have produced a crisis of confidence and identity, surfacing a number of past conflicts. I didn’t love it by any means but can certainly see its appeal . Full review here.

mcadamFall, Colin McAdam

A “school” novel set in Ottawa, the central character is 17-year old Noel, son of a Canadian diplomat, and his relationship with Julius, the son of the U.S. ambassador to Canada. The “Fall” of the title is Fallon, the beautiful female student whom most of the male students have crushes on. I like school novels (and McAdam’s first novel as well) and was quite looking forward to it — for me, however, the execution did not work and this was the most disappointing of the four shortlist books that I have read. Full review here..

michaelsThe Winter Vault, Anne Michaels

Avery Escher is an engineer, in charge of moving the temple of Abu Simbel from its original location on the Nile which will be flooded when the Aswan Dam is completed. Many communities also need to be resettled. His Canadian wife, Jean, is with him — the two had met on a somewhat similar project, the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway in Canada, which also dislocated communities. The second part of the book moves to Toronto and, in its own way, explores the dislocation of Warsaw caused by the Nazis. I found the first part strong, the latter weak — it has been many months since I read it and I do plan a reread in the next few weeks. Full original review here.

Shadow Giller international judge Trevor Berrett has not read any of these books but is eager to meet the challenge in the next five weeks and will be posting reviews on his blog, The Mookse and the Gripes. I will be posting excerpts from his reviews here (along with some additional comments of my own) and our fellow Shadow juror Alison will offer occasional comments on both sites. Comments from visitors — on books already reviewed here and on Trevor’s reviews — are certainly welcome. The Shadow Giller jury will be announcing its winner in advance of the Real Giller decision on Nov. 10.

Hilary Mantel has won the 2009 Booker Prize for Wolf Hall. I did not like the book but cannot say that I am surprised at the decision — when three long historical novels are on the short list, you have to think that represents the jury’s taste. I can certainly understand why people like the book, but it is not one that suits my taste. On the other hand, that is a question of taste not judgment — if you like historical fiction, it is a fine book.

The Heart Specialist, by Claire Holden Rothman

October 5, 2009

Purchased at

Purchased at

I owe a debt of gratitude to the 2009 jury for the Nobel Prize for Medicine for providing a timely lead to this review. Today they announced that the 2009 medicine Nobel goes to three Americans — Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider and Jack Szostak — for their work on chromosomes. Blackburn and Greider become only the ninth and tenth women (out of a total of 192 laureates) to win the prize since it was first awarded in 1901. Indeed, the first female winner in the category — Gerty Cori — was not named until 1947.

So, you may rightfully ask, what on earth does that have to do with a blog that reviews literary fiction?

The Heart Specialist, by Claire Holden Rothman, was inspired by the real life story of Dr. Maude Abbot, one of the first female physicians in Montreal (at almost the same time as the first Nobel was awarded). Holden Rothman makes it clear that her heroine, Agnes White, is an inspiration, not a representation, of Dr. Abbot — but one of the central themes in this thoroughly rewarding novel is the immense difficulty that Canadian women faced in taking their rightful place in the scientific world as the nineteenth century came to a close. As the Nobel numbers above indicate, that struggle continues more than a century later.

giller avatarRegular visitors to this blog probably have noted that KfC has some problems with historical novels as a genre. I struggled to finish both Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, two 600-plus page blockbusters on this year’s Booker Prize shortlist, either of which may claim the prize when it is announced tomorrow. How did Holden Rothman succeed for this reader in her first novel (she has published two short story collections) when those two renowned novelists failed?

First, and most important, she made the novel Agnes White’s story (and she manages to tell it in only 325 pages). While breaking new ground for women in medicine is the constant framework for the story, it is only a framework. Agnes is introduced in a prelude, a memory of a moment that occured just before she turned five. She awakes to find her scandal-ridden doctor father — recently accused, but cleared, of murdering his crippled sister — weeping over her as he prepares to depart forever. It is a moment that she will never forget:

For the longest time I felt that I had chased my father away. My tears had sent him running. His face had been there one moment and then, after I shut my eyes and wept, he was gone. A child’s logic, I suppose, but logic nonetheless. What if I had kept still, I later could not help thinking. What if I had reached out my childish arms to embrace him? From that day on I lived with one thought paramount in my mind. I would find my dark, sad father and win him back. Though I could not claim to have known him well, and my first memory of him was almost my last, it did not matter. His face stayed with me through the years, as clear as on that night in January when he went away.

That introduces the first of Agnes’ motivations but it is another memory that drives what will become the quest of her working life. Her father’s specialty (he was a professor at McGill University before being released as a result of the scandal) was “morbid anatomy” and he kept a “Death Room” at home where he did dissections. When her mother died a few years after her father’s disappearance, Agnes managed to hide away his microscope and a box of slides — when the proper novel opens, at the age of 11 she has established her own dissection room in her grandmother’s barn (although she is working on animals, not humans, at this point). Her grandmother guardian wants all elements of her father erased from her life; a sympathetic governess, on the other hand, encourages Agnes’ interest in science.

She is smart and wins a full scholarship to McGill. She is equally successful there and passes her bachelor’s with flying colors. Agnes, and four other women, want to become the first female students ever in McGill’s medical school. Told that $250,000 must be raised to cover the extra costs of educating the women (they can’t share classes with males, after all), she succeeds with the help of some well-connected Montreal matrons. The entrance committee still refuses her entry, in a unanimous vote.

Agnes eventually graduates from Bishop’s University (a distant second to McGill as Montreal’s other English language school) as a doctor, but her fledgling practice is minuscule — people don’t go to women doctors. One of the professors at Bishop’s who had taken her under his wing is now dean of medicine at McGil. He offers her a job as custodian of McGill’s medical museum.

I am foreshortening the story dreadfully, but Agnes soon discovers that many of the preserved body parts (particularly hearts) in the museum are, in fact, from her father’s old collection. They have been provided by a former student of her father, Dr. William Howlett, who is now a rising star at Johns Hopkins University in the United States, arguably that country’s best medical school at the time. Howlett also happened to be on the McGill entrance committee that rejected her. To the obsessions of finding her father and her role in science, Agnes adds a third — impressing and serving this new mentor to her cause. The irony of a feminist being driven by two male models is not lost on the reader. What other choice is there?

Howlett certainly helps, in his way, and Agnes begins to acquire an international reputation. A particularly good part of the book, which I don’t have the space to explore in detail in this review, comes with the arrival of the Great War. Most of the McGill medical school heads off to set up a Canadian field hospital on the war front. Agnes is conflicted — she would like to go and do her patriotic part, yet the very absence of all those people has suddenly made her an attractive visiting international expert in the U.S. (still not in the war). Holden Rothman does a particularly good job of exploring how the war-driven need to expand the role of women creates its own internal conflict for the women involved — a theme that is also present in another Giller longlist book, Jeanette Lynes’ The Factory Voice (reviewed here).

Agnes White becomes a fully-developed character as all this unfolds — that for me is the major difference between my reaction to this novel as opposed to Mantel and Byatt. Instead of characters merely serving the historical story, this book is an exploration of how the story effects the character. (I’m fully aware that those who love Wolf Hall are going to dispute that assessment and argue it is all about a fascinating Thomas Cromwell. I found him more a narrative voice than a developed character, but I digress.)

The other thing that I very much appreciated in The Heart Specialist is that Holden Rothman never lets her prose style get in the way of her purpose. Again with Byatt and Mantel, I often found that soaring and inflated language served only to muddy an incomplete story. Straightforward prose may seem to be damning with faint praise, but in a complicated historical novel it is a definite asset. One more illustration, this time Agnes’ reaction after the McGill entrance committee has rejected her:

I stood, not trusting myself to speak. It was all I could do to get my body out of the chair and out of Laidlaw’s office, away from the intrusive eyes of these men whom I now understood had never intended to admit me, no matter what feats I performed. Dr. Howlett jumped up as soon as I rose and offered me his arm, but I did not take it. I could not stand any reminder of my gender. In the alcove the secretary looked up, but I looked right past her without speaking. One word and the floodgates would open.

The Heart Specialist explores some complex issues in an equally complex period of history, but the author makes sure that both are appropriately contained. It does this by focusing on how these circumstances effect its principal character, who comes to life in a fully-developed way. As today’s Nobel announcement shows, the issues remain timely. And the book does this in a reader-friendly prose style that never gets in the way of the story. While the theme and subject matter will not be to everyone’s taste, for this reader that made for a quite successful novel.

The Incident Report, by Martha Baillie

October 4, 2009

Purchased from

Purchased from

Of the 19 longlisted 2009 Booker and Giller Prize titles that I have now read, Martha Baillie’s The Incident Report is without question the most innovative in concept and form. While the execution does have its problems, the bonus points I give the author for taking that chance — plus the fact that I found it an intriguing read — earn it a place on my personal Giller shortlist. I do suspect the Real jury may take a somewhat stricter view.

The Incident Report is in fact 144 Incident Reports (in a 196-page book) from the Allan Gardens branch of the Toronto Public Library. Allan Gardens (and its well-known conservatory, which does have a role in the book) is located in a marginal part of downtown Toronto and is home to some pretty marginal people. Each time there is an incident at the library, the librarian in charge (Miriam Gordon, age 35, formerly a “Clerical” but recently upgraded to “Public Service Assistant”) is required to fill out and file a report — Baillie helpfully provides a copy of the actual form at the front of the book, although she wisely doesn’t adhere to it. Here are a couple of samples:

Incident Report 4

This afternoon at 4:55, a stout female patron, having spent several minutes exploring the contents of her purse, pulled out a small object. It lay in the plump of her hand. She thrust her arm across the desk. “This is for you,” she explained. She was rewarding me. I’d provided her with the books she needed. In its brightly coloured wrapper, the condom resembled a candy. At first I thought it was a candy. She was not a regular. I had never seen her before. Naturally, I thanked her for the gift.

Incident Report 11

At 12:30 this afternoon, a female patron, grey-haired and well-dressed, entered the library, pushing a male patron, equally respectable, in his wheelchair. She took him right up to the shelves. He pointed to the books he wanted. She lifted down the volumes, filled the cloth sack that hung from the back of his chair, then wheeled both him and his selection over to the circulation desk.

There the man and the woman switched places, the man getting out of his wheelchair. She sat down. He unloaded the sack of books, checked them out, packed them in again and wheeled her through the exit, seemingly without effort. As he pushed, she hummed a little tune of contentment.

giller avatarNone of these perpetrators ever acquire a real name in the book, but many have “librarian” names — Sheep Woman, Suitcase Man, Wire Stripper Man, Morality Man, to name just a few. A number are library regulars and appear more than once, many show up only for one incident.

Martha Baillie knows whereof she writes — a Toronto native, she has worked part-time in that city’s public library system for more than 20 years. She has also published three previous novels (none of which I have read) and her poems have appeared in numerous Canadian literary publications. She not only has a way with words, she is a perceptive observer.

It is at this point that I should declare a personal conflict of interest regarding this novel. For the first 14 years of my journalism career, The Calgary Herald was located in the centre of downtown Calgary (only three blocks from the library, as it happens). Like the library, the newspaper was a magnet for the “lost souls” that wander around ever urban centre and they would often drop by the newsroom to try to generate interest in their story — some regularly, others occasionally, some only once. Many were obviously not well and others were more than annoying, but some were out-and-out interesting. Baillie includes examples of each kind.

The conceit of an actual incident report cannot be maintained for the whole book and the author does not attempt it. While these oddball characters continue to show up throughout the novel, Baillie uses other reports to develop and ruminate on a set of story lines that supply a structure for the book.

The most interesting is the mysterious person who thinks he is Rigoletto (from the opera) and that Miriam is his daughter, Gilda. For those who don’t know the opera, Rigoletto is tricked into kidnapping Gilda for the lascivious Duke, whom she does already know and loves. Rigoletto hires a murderer to kill the Duke, Gilda gets wind of the plot and inserts herself in the Duke’s place. As Rigoletto is unwrapping her body to celebrate his revenge, the Duke can be heard in the background singing “la donna e mobile”.

The library Rigoletto never reveals himself but does leave a number of notes and opera scores around the facility for discovery. While Miriam is initially fearful for herself and appropriate authorities are alerted, she eventually realizes that whoever Rigoletto is he views himself as her protector from unseen forces that apparently threaten her. It is no spoiler to say that she never does discover who the real person is.

Less successful is the story line of Miriam’s affair with Janko, a refugee Slovenian fresco painter now driving taxi while searching for better opportunities — again, every city has similar versions of taxi drivers. Despite having her heart broken at age 18 and swearing to never fall in love again, they become lovers. In a book where the absurd is normal, I’m afraid the affair did stretch the envelope perhaps just a bit too much.

There are a couple of other continuing story lines — staff relations at the branch, Miriam’s childhood history — that help to put substance to the book and Miriam’s personal story. More than anything else, however, it consists of 144 vignettes that through location and personality establish an intriguing and interesting picture of what happens at a community institution. Strange as some of the incidents are, there is a consistent air of realism to the whole project.

Miriam certainly becomes a real person:

Incdent Report 5

In the library workroom, a schedule hangs from two clips. As always, the day has been divided into compartments, as if it were a train about to set out on a well-planned voyage along shining rails. My initials have been pencilled into many of the little boxes that correspond to each hour between 9 AM and 8:30 PM. We, the staff, don’t always greet the public with enthusiasm. We don’t feel, every one of us without fail, that we are travelling out, embarked upon an adventure, and yet there we are, inscibed in our little boxes, as if the day were pulled by a solid locomotive.

Every morning in the warmth of my bed, as I surface from sleep, fear — small as a cherry stone, it cracks open behind my breastbone. I don’t want the fruit. With each quick breath the fear grows, a rustling of leaves in the cavity of my chest. But soon I’ve washed, dressed, drunk a cup of tea, eaten a piece of toast, and am on my way to work, riding my bicycle in the prescribed direction.

It is hard to say how much my recent Prize reading influenced my reaction to this book (both Booker and Giller have a lot of wordy traditional historical novels this year). I was delighted to see an author take risks and deliver on them — while she was not totally successful the result was more than good enough for me. And while I would be surprised to see this book winning the Giller, I would love to see it on the shortlist. I have a feeling the Martha Baillie would put her $5,000 shortlist prize to very good use.

The Bishop’s Man, by Linden MacIntyre

October 2, 2009

Purchased from

Purchased from

For all of its isolation and incredible beauty (the Cabot Trail is one of the most stunning drives anywhere), Canada’s Cape Breton Island — population just under 150,000 — has many other claims to fame. Alexander Graham Bell spent much of his working life there on his estate on Bras D’Or Lakes; Marconi sent the first transatlantic message from Cape Breton in 1902. And then there is the tradition of music. Internationally known fiddlers Ashley McIsaac and Natalie MacMaster are only the beginning of a long list of Cape Bretoners who play that instrument with distinction; Rita MacNeil and the Rankin family start off the vocal side.

And then there are the authors, starting with Hugh MacLennan (perhaps better known for his Montreal works). Alistair MacLeod, the chair of this year’s Real Giller Prize jury, has become the modern voice of Cape Breton, with his short stories (collected in Island) and his award-winning novel, No Great Mischief.

giller avatarNow Linden MacIntyre, best-known as one of Canada’s better television journalists as the co-host of the fifth estate, adds his name to that author list, following up his memoir, Causeway, with his second novel, The Bishop’s Man. MacLeod himself said of the memoir:

Causeway explores a world which depicts a certain region of Cape Breton as it was ‘before Canada joined it.’ The book aches with details that are both rational and emotional…MacIntyre is a fine writer.”

I include that blurb because the description applies equally to this novel. It is a book of much despair and misery and “aches with details that are both rational and emotional.”

Father Duncan MacAskill has been re-assigned from a Nova Scotia Catholic university to the rural parish of Creignish near where he was born and raised, just across the Canso Causeway to the island. (Aside: His fictional father is Angus MacAskill — in real life, Angus MacAskill was a legendary Cape Breton giant and circus performer and I can’t believe that repeating the name is not deliberate.) Father MacAskill did not so much consciously choose the priesthood as his vocation as enter it by default:

Isolation? I had, though perhaps imperfectly, mastered celibacy, the institutional denial of the most human of transactions. I was and am, to a degree, excluded from my peer group, my brothers in the priesthood, for complex reasons that will soon become apparent. But at the time I thought that I had discovered an important universal truth: that isolation, willingly embraced, becomes the gift of solitude; that discipline ennobles flesh.

In that evanescent moment of tranquility, I was feeling okay. I see it as another life, the man I was, a stranger now.

All priests are isolated, but as Father Duncan indicates, he is more isolated than most because of his long-time role as the Bishop’s man, called on to deal with the priests who are sexual abusers, drinkers or whatever (the central underlying story thread of the book):

I guess by then a part of me accepted that I’d become a specialist in discipline. Technically it’s part of the dean’s job, and I was officially a dean. In truth I had neither the academic not the occupational background for such a post. Just the temperment and, by default, the practical experience. I was a clergyman posted to a small, nominally Catholic university because my bishop didn’t really know where else to put me. At the peak of my usefulness I was attached to the diocesan chancery, but I soon became too controversial for that busy place. Toxic, I suppose, is not too strong a word. My colleagues know about my history, my experience rooting out perversions, disciplining other priests, and sometimes students, when the cases are particularly sensitive. The Exorcist they’ve called me. Behind my back, of course.

Now, even the university role has become too much. MacIntyre does not take long in letting the reader know (through Father Duncan’s words — the novel is told in the first person, almost as an extended confession) that it isn’t just the discipline that is causing his stress. He is also expected to be part of the cover-up that keeps the scandals hidden; the bishop refuses to even use the word “victims” to describe the abused.

The Bishop’s Man has acquired a somewhat eerie topicality in the last week. The Bishop of Antigonish, Nova Scotia resigned earlier this week after his laptop computer was seized at the Ottawa airport. Earlier this summer, he was responsible for negotiating a $15 million settlement with people who said they were abused by priests as children. He is now facing two charges for possessing and importing child pornography. I live on the other side of the country but I’m pretty sure Cape Breton Island is in the diocese of Antigonish.

Despite that topicality — or perhaps because of it — I found The Bishop’s Man a very difficult book with which to engage. Given that it is about a priest, there is remarkably little religion or spirituality to the book. And while the scandals never go away, they are not even the principal source of Father Duncan’s personal misery. While they set off his contemplation, he discovers in his return to Cape Breton far deeper causes for his uncertainty and discontent.

That includes an abusive father, teenage relationships that rise in the memory and, even more important, thoughts of a previous entanglement during another two-year “respite” stint in Honduras. That introspection leads to alcohol abuse, opening a whole new set of issues.

Part of my difficulty with the book is that Father Duncan’s misery is shared by virtually every secondary character in the book, and there are quite a few of them. Given MacIntyre’s prose style (the examples above are reasonably typical), the litany of depressing events and scenes wears thin, since there doesn’t seem to be much purpose to them. I ended up neither liking nor disliking Father Duncan — he is so completely isolated that even as a reader I could not make contact with his story. I do concede that exploring his misery is MacIntyre’s principal objective and that readers who are more familiar with the church than I am may find more substance and food for thought in this book than I did.

The Factory Voice, by Jeanette Lynes

September 30, 2009

“Reading almost 100 works of Canadian fiction, as one of the judges for this year’s Giller, is a life-enhancing experience, and gives a glimpse into the culture. The Canadian for ‘gutter’ is ‘eavestrough,’ which is picturesque. Everyone is wearing a ‘tuque,’ or ‘toque,’ which in English-English suggests the lofty headgear worn by Queen Mary but is actually a little woolly hat. And in the holiday cottages among Ontario’s northern lakes and forests – evidently, the prime setting for emotional turmoil – they sit, brooding, on Muskoka chairs. (Look those up on the net.)”

That is a quote from 2009 Giller Prize judge Victoria Glendinning in a Financial Times column (read the full column here) that is causing considerable angst in the Canadian literary community. Having honored Ms. Glendinning with a judgeship how dare she make fun of our fiction? (There are some even better comments on the unique character of “acknowledgements” in Canadian books if you go to the full column.) While Glendinning said she was referring to the “mid” ranking of those 100-plus books, not the best, (and was taking off from a comment that Booker Prize chair James Naughtie had made about “dreadful” books lower down on that list), this veteran Canadian reader has to admit that her observations were pretty much dead on.

Purchased at

Purchased at

So it is very, very surprising that a first novel — The Factory Voice, by Jeanette Lynes — set in Northern Ontario during World War II, in which a “toque” plays a key role, should find its way to the Giller Prize longlist. Okay, there is no eavestrough (much cold and snow, however) or Muskoka chairs (we know they are out there), but this novel seems to fall squarely into the hinterland Canadian fiction tradition that Glendinning gently mocks.

And, good Canadian that I am, I loved it. Perhaps that statement is a bit strong — I read it avidly, finishing it in two sessions, and enjoyed every page. It isn’t a great book by any means (and may not even make my personal Giller shortlist), but it was certainly fun to read and I have not been able to say that about many books lately.

giller avatarThe Factory Voice of the title is the internal house organ at Fort William Aviation, a manufacturing facility at the western head of Lake Superior (now part of Thunder Bay) where Mosquito aircraft are being built for the war effort by a staff of about 2,000 — mainly women — recruited from just about everywhere in Canada. There are also three internment camps in the area, one of which has just had an escape; the area is home to Red Finns of questionable commitment to the war effort; and recent mishaps on test flights indicate possible subversive activity inside the plant, so security is an issue.

Into this mix comes Audrey Leona Foley, age 16, who is running away from a ranch in Spruce Grove, Alberta, because her parents want her to marry the ranch hand:

Like I said, away from the ranch hand with the face like clabbered milk and huge, thunking hands that would wed me between yanking slick red calves out into the world. (I can breathe better; on I go again). He talked to my father. My father talked to my mother. She talked to me. I talked to the moon.

I’ll bet that sounds queer to you, but if you’ve ever been an only child like me it might sound less queerlike. A girl has to tell someone, and the red staggering calves aren’t my idea of a good sounding board. My parents said “oh, dandy, you two can marry, carry on the ranch.” That was more useful than finishing high school, they firmly believed. I told you they were cave-era parents.

Audrey gets hired, as the snack cart girl, immediately upon showing up at the plant. But Ruby Kovak, the stenographer who hires her, says she is to do more than just trundle the cart around — Ruby is an aspiring investigative journalist (and sole editor and writer of The Factory Voice) and wants Audrey to serve as her eyes and ears on questionable happenings on the plant floor. Ruby is hoping for a scoop that will enable her to leave manufacturing life — and typing letters — forever. Audrey finds that assignment much more interesting than being a ranch child or matron.

Audrey actually arrived in Fort William on the same train as Muriel McGregor, the plant’s new chief engineer, the first of her gender to achieve that status. Muriel brings her own baggage with her — she has just seen her mother, a retired judge, after an estrangement of many years (dating back to WWI, actually) when her mother sent 13-year-old Muriel’s best friend, a lefty, to prison for two years. As it happens, that very man is the most dangerous of the escapees from the nearby internment camp (okay, you have to grant Lynes a lot of licence to get along well with this book).

There is another equally implausible twist to the Muriel part of the story, but it would be a spoiler to reveal it here. Let’s just say there is some hanky-panky going on inside the plant. And Muriel needs to sort out why test planes keep crashing, before she moves on to her main personal objective, perfecting a design for landing skis so that planes can takeoff and land on snow, which we have quite a bit of for many months of the year in Canada.

Lynes develops this story through a series of rapid-fire chapters from the viewpoint of the various characters, each helpfully identified with a graphic at the start of the chapter indicating who is the focus of that instalment. That is not a conventional — nor recommended — approach for a literary novel, but this book is a story and it worked just fine for me.

Muskoka chair

Muskoka chair

As much fun as I had with this book, I couldn’t help but wondering when I finished it how Glendinning let it get to the longlist, given what she said in the FT column. It isn’t just the story itself. The acknowledgements do take up two full pages, thank just about everybody you can imagine (more than 40 names), including various government grant agencies — they are a perfect example of what Glendinning grumped about on that front.

Canadian toque

Canadian toque

I’m only sorry there were no eavestroughs or Muskoka chairs. Either — or both — would have added significantly to the Canadian character of the book.

The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood

September 30, 2009

atwoodShadow Giller international judge Trevor Berrett has posted his review of The Year of the Flood. Here is his opening paragraph, which fairly summarizes his conclusions:

Here is my first review as a member of this year’s Giller Prize Shadow Jury: The Year of the Flood (2009) (long listed for 2009 Giller Prize). I’m excited to discuss this book! However, because I don’t want that sentiment to mislead any Atwood lovers into reading a highly irreverent review you’d rather avoid, I must forego witholding my opinion of this book and forewarn you: my basic response to The Year of the Flood was (1) giddiness because the first half, to me, was ”So Bad It’s Great!”; (2) indifference as the book became nothing more than a faux-literary thriller, with all of the conventions and lack of depth so that it read more like Stephen King than Margaret Atwood; and (3) indignation at the author’s pretensions, particularly in the self-promoting build-up to this novel’s release and as showcased on the “Acknowledgements” page. In brief, this is not a glowing review. In fact this might be my most negative review yet, and I usually avoid such negativity. However, it’s worth discussing this book, negativity and all (well, negativity is about all that’s here), and not just because of the Shadow Jury. There are a lot of books out there that don’t pretend to be literature; they have their place and meet their expectations. Then there is an ugly class of books that pretend to be more than they are. I don’t like it when an author who knows better presents that faux literature as something profound. And it’s almost offensive when that author’s methods for promoting that faux literature are beyond pretentious.

While Trevor obviously did not like the book, his review goes to some lengths to explain why — and he does that very well. You can see the entire review at his blog here . It is definitely worth the visit. Thanks, Trevor, for adding to the 2009 Shadow Giller archive.

Valmiki’s Daughter, by Shani Mootoo

September 27, 2009

Review copy courtesy WordFest

Review copy courtesy WordFest

One of the great strengths of the Giller Prize, since year one, has been the attention that it has drawn to works by authors who now live in Canada but were born and raised elsewhere — and have chosen to return to those roots in their fiction. Indeed, of 15 winners to date, four meet that description — M. G. Vassanji’s The Book of Secrets and The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance and Austin Clarke’s The Polished Hoe. So it is a delight to report that 2009’s longlist features another title from that tradition — Valmiki’s Daughter, by Shani Mootoo — a book that at this early stage in my longlist reading I very much look forward to seeing on the shortlist.

Born in Ireland and raised in Trinidad, Mootoo has lived in Canada (Vancouver, Edmonton and Toronto) for more than 20 years. Her first novel, Cereus Blooms at Night, made the Giller short list; her second, He Drown She In The Sea, was IMPAC longlisted — so she is no stranger to international prize competitions.

giller avatarValmiki’s Daughter is set in Trinidad and, as the title suggests, focuses on that island’s Indian community that V.S. Naipul has made familiar to readers internationally. Valmiki Krishnu is a well-off doctor, with two maturing daughters Viveka and Vashti. He also has a private life shrouded in intrigue:

Just before moving onward, you will be hit with a strong, sweet whiff of garlic, scallions and ginger as they are sauteed, a street away, in peanut and sesame oil. You will smell, but you won’t see, The Victory Hotel, which houses The Golden Dragon Chinese Restaurant, the best hotel and the best restaurant this side of the oil refinery. The hotel is mostly used by visitors to the island, but it is known to be available on occasion to certain businessmen and professionals who are willing to pay the daily double-room rate for the privacy of their illicit pleasures. The Golden Dragon is where the aldermen, the mayor, and lawyers take their lunch, and where some of the doctors take theirs too. On occasion you will find Dr. Krishnu there. He usually requests one of several private dining suites at the back of the restaurant. He will, of course, not be alone, but the staff is discreet.

Those companions tend to be married, white women but that is not Dr. Krishnu’s biggest secret. He has taken up hunting (at which he is hopeless) because it gives him the chance to retreat to the woods for the weekend with Saul: “These days, Saul was the object of Valmiki’s most powerful and basest desires.” Saul has re-awakened in Dr. Vishnu the passions and memories of his student days and the compromise that he made in abandoning them to pursue a “normal” life.

While Mootoo is careful to indicate that the doctor’s wife, Devika, actively avoids approaching this issue, the author leaves little doubt that the wife is fully aware of it. Indeed, as the early parts of the novel unfold, it is becoming even more threatening. Eldest daughter Viveka is not only mannish in appearance and attitude, she displays no interest in any possible suitor: Has she inherited her father’s “tendencies”? Viveka wants to join a local all-women’s sports club that meets twice a week to play volleyball, immediately arousing her mother’s suspicion:

Devika asked her if she was crazy, wanting to go and play a game in a club that was open to anybody and, of all places, in that part of the city. Whereupon Viveka reminded them that Helen, daughter of their financial adviser, was on a team that played there. Devika had responded, “I don’t care if the Queen’s children play on that court, my children are not playing there. You should know better than asking.”

Those quotes pretty much sum up the tensions around which Mootoo builds her story. There is the tension of class and its requirement for appropriate behavior. There are the tensions of family history and the fear that the failings of the previous generation will be revisited in this one. And, as the novel unfolds, there is the tension of a young woman facing the conflict between what she knows she wants (however “wrong” it might be) and what is expected of her.

That last tension is brought to a head with the arrival back home from Canada of Nayan, son of the local cocoa farming magnate, and his French wife, Anick. Anick brings both North American and European modernism to the stilted culture of upper-class Trinidad; it is not long until her friendship with Viveka brings the hidden issues that all of the Krishnu family want to avoid to the forefront.

While that is a rather slim story line, Mootoo carries it off with aplomb. She has a very perceptive eye for detail, not just in personal relationships but for the surrounding environment as well. And she is adroit at slowly but surely building the stretching of the tensions that are central to the book. Valmiki, Devika and Viveka all become fully-developed characters — as does the story of how each is imprisoned by the social mores that surround them.

The result, for this reader, is a highly successful, thoughtful novel. It is neither earth-shattering, nor post-colonial (the politics of Trinidad and race play almost no part). Rather it is an intriguing study of the internal conflict faced by a young woman and the price that conflict extracts from her family.

(EDIT) A final note about this book — it was originally published in November 2008, too late for last year’s Giller but eligible for this year. The paperback edition will be available in early November. I read an advance copy, thoughtfully provided by WordFest, the Banff-Calgary authors’ festival, where Shani Mootoo will be appearing. It was a finished book, so I’m going to assume that Mootoo’s publishers, Canada’s well-regarded House of Anansi, will be pushing forward the release date now that it has been Giller longlisted. For the sake of eager readers, I certainly hope so — it is a very good book.

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