Archive for the ‘2011 Giller Prize’ Category

Trevor reviews Half Blood Blues

October 19, 2011

UK cover

Shadow Giller juror Trevor has posted his review of Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues which, along with Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, hit the Prize quadractor — shortlisted for the Booker, Giller, Governor-General’s and Writers’ Trust prizes. He has done such a good job of setting up both the book and Edugyan’s “voice” (and it has been a long while since KfC’s review) that I am posting an extended excerpt for those who might be interested in the book — check out his full review for even more:

The premise and the well rendered voice of the narrator, Sid Griffiths, an American black octogenerian, are the book’s two main strengths. First, to the premise. In the 1930s many of America’s best black jazz musicians fled to Europe in order to escape Jim Crow laws. In Europe the jazz culture flourished, for a while. Our central characters, the narrator Sid and his childhood friend Chip Jones, are two American black men who went to Berlin where they formed an exceptional jazz band. Here, to highlight Sid’s jazzy cadence as a narrator, is Sid’s introduction to this background:

“See, I was born here, in Baltimore, before the Great War. And when you’re born in Baltimore before the Great War you think of getting out. Especially if you’re poor, black and full of sky-high hopes. Sure B-more ain’t south south, sure my family was light-skinned, but if you think Jim Crow hurt only gumbo country, you blind. My pals and I was as much welcome in white diners as some Byron Meriwether would be breaking bread in Jojo’s Crab House. Things was bitter. Some of my mama’s family — two of her brothers and a schoolteacher sister — they was passing as whites down Charlottesville way. Cut us off entirely. You don’t know how I dreamed of showing up there, breaking up their parade. I ain’t so sure about it now, I suppose they was just trying to get by best they could. We could’ve passed too, said we was bohunks or something, but my pa ain’t never gone for that. Negro is what the lord made us, he always said. Don’t want to be nothing else.”

Canadian cover

Edugyan, to me, does a great job of creating this voice without overdoing it and forcing the reader to reread simply to decode what was being said about Jojo’s Crab House.

In Berlin, Sid and Chip meet up with a couple of other jazz players, one in particular, “the kid,” twenty-year old Hieronymous Falk (or Hiero), would go into history as one of the best jazz trumpeters ever. Hiero’s back story is also very interesting. His mother was German, but his father was one of the black soldiers sent by the French to occupy Germany after World War I; he’s the “half-blood” of the title (“Half-Blood Blues” is also the name of one of the groups most famous songs, which, again, has a fascinating history). These soldiers would be known as “the Black Shame, the Scourge, the Black Infamy”; it was presumed that any woman who had a child with one of the soldiers was either a prostitute or a rape victim. Hieronymous Falk is a legend (and Edugyan doesn’t hesitate to create verisimilitude by listing real jazz musicians who were inspired by this fictional character), but there’s little of him. The book opens in Paris in 1939. The group fled Berlin when the Nazis rose to power, but they didn’t get as far away as they should have. At the end of the first section, Hiero is arrested by the Gestapo, never to be heard from again (we lovers of literature know that it is not rare this story of a legendary, obviously masterful artist whose life was cut tragically short by the Nazis).

I’ll admit that I was ambivalent about Half Blood Blues when I first read it but, if you check the comments following my post, some very good readers have already convinced me that I may have under-rated it — I’ll be having another look before the Shadow Jury takes up serious deliberations.

Trevor reviews The Cat’s Table

October 14, 2011

Here’s the opening paragraph from Trevor’s review of The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje. His full review is here, Kimbofo’s is here and KfC’s is here.

I’ve never really gotten into Michael Ondaatje, partially because I’ve never really given him a chance. Several years ago I started The English Patient, but I gave up after about 100 pages. Though I feel it must be the case, no one has ever tried to convince me I’m missing out on much. Earlier this year, however, I read and enjoyed an excerpt from The Cat’s Table (2011) in The New Yorker (my thoughts on the excerpt here). It was unique, somehow both rambling and direct, intense and placid. It had the best elements of a story where the narrator is enjoying the telling for the sake of the telling, because someone is listening. I wasn’t sure I’d like a whole book that went that way, though, so I’m not sure I would have read the novel had it not been chosen as a finalist for the Giller Prize. But what a great experience I had reading this book! It was even more enjoyable than the excerpt led me to expect.

The Little Shadows, by Marina Endicott

October 12, 2011

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

The year is 1912. The Avery family is in disorder. Their school teacher father, depressed by his young’s son’s death, has killed himself. The matriarch, Flora, is searching for a path to survival. She is a vaudeville veteran and her daughters — Aurora, 16; Clover, 15; and Bella, 13 — are the only available asset. She may be stuck in the rural Saskatchewan of Canada but vaudeville, creating an “act” featuring her daughters, is the obvious way out.

The sisters — “the Little Shadows” of the title — are on their way to their first-ever professional audition in Fort Macleod, Alberta at The Empress, a minor theatre if ever there was one, but still a start to a professional career:

The door stuck — jammed — and their mama jerked her head so someone would help her pull. Bella did (no glove to soil, her right-hand one gone missing that morning and nothing for it but to keep her hand in her pocket, or in Mama’s) and then Clover, too. They yanked off-time — then again, together, and the door burst open. They fell back, then moved forward into a blur of darkness and warmth, with somewhere in the distance red velvet and those arpeggios, very much louder now. Inside, a lobby gradually framed itself for their dazzled eyes, and a lighter square, two doors standing open into the theatre hall. An old scrubwoman, busy on the floor, grabbed her bucket away from the clumsy boots. Bella whispered an apology; after one glare the woman let her by and went back to her scrubbing.

Marina Endicott arrived on the Canadian literary scene with some flair in 2008 with her debut novel, Good To A Fault, which made the Giller shortlist. A traffic accident in a Saskatchewan city opens a Pandora’s box of emotions, hopes and plots and the author successfully developed an interior story of desire and intrigue around the children of the woman who was injured in that accident and the woman who caused it. Readers who loved it really loved it.

So it would be fair to say that there has been some anticipation awaiting Endicott’s next novel. And it would be equally fair to say that she has gone somewhere completely different — The Little Shadows does share some of Good To A Fault’s narrative techniques, but it is a very different novel. The author has already been recognized with a Giller longlisting (but no shortlisting) and a Governor-General’s literary award shortlisting — you would have to conclude Endicott has officially arrived as one of the emerging authors on the new Canadian A-list.

Above all else, The Little Shadows is an historical novel, one that chronicles the vaudeville world in Western North America in the pre-Great War years and during the war itself. The teenage Avery sisters will flunk that Fort Macleod audition, but they are impressive enough that the departure of another act opens a slot for them:

Cleveland said, ‘I’ve lost my opener. I’ll take your girls to do it in one, right off the top. Start tomorrow. Dispense with the baby frills, let them sing in shirtwaists and skirts. More high-tone, if you get me. And stick with the heartfelt ballads for now.’

He held out a booking sheet. ‘We’re here till Tuesday, then packed up and a one-night stand in High River and then we’re out to Crowsnest for three –‘

Fort Macleod, High River, the Crowsnest Pass, Butte, Helena — these are hardly the centre of the entertainment world, either then or now. Indeed, gigs in Calgary and Edmonton — also not exactly the big time — represent a major step up. And always in the dreams of the Avery sisters (they will come to be known as “the Bella Auroras”, a play on two of the three names) the prospect of an eventual booking in Chicago, or even New York, at a thousand a week is what keeps them going.

That, plus there is nothing else that they can do.

The strongest storyline in Endicott’s novel is that one, the obscure history of what the vaudeville world was like in the barren wastelands of Western North America as the Great War loomed. The show promoters share questionable business ethics and they exploit their performers, to the point of entering affairs with, or even marrying, some of the more attractive ones (yes, that does happen to not just one, but two, of the Avery sisters). The performers, meanwhile, have little alternative but to put up with this distorted set of rules. Performing is the only thing that they know and their only option to make a living and sometimes performing extends beyond the stage.

If the world of vaudeville is the essential backdrop, Endicott has another set of story lines in the form of exploring the maturing of three teenage girls, each with her own claim to distinction. Aurora is classically beautiful, Clover has a dark attractiveness and Bella a giddy playfulness — in the entertainment world, that makes each of the three compelling in her own way. And much of the novel is devoted to examining how those different kinds of attractions play out.

The result of all this is a very entertaining novel, albeit one that for me came up a little short on the “impact” front. It is quite long (538 pages in my version) and, to be frank, the two dominant plot lines of vaudeville history and teenage love affairs just were not strong enough to sustain it. On the other hand, the writing is more than adequate and some of the secondary characters are very well developed. If you are headed off on holiday and want a longish book that can be read in 30-50 page stretches, you could do a lot worse than take this one along.

The Little Shadows is different enough that it deserved its Giller longlisting — indeed, it is an interesting examination of one of the worlds that resulted in the developing West that Guy Vanderhaeghe described in A Good Man. But it is also slight enough that the jury was right in leaving it off the shortlist. The Avery sisters (or Bella Auroras) are a good act, but they aren’t yet ready to occupy the coveted slot of show “closers”.

Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, by Zsuzsi Gartner

October 7, 2011

Purchased at

Perhaps the most effective way of capturing the overall tone of Zsuzsi Gartner’s short story collection (and I acknowledge that Trevor has already done this in his review) is to simply list the titles of the other nine stories in the book — the intriguing title of the volume comes from the final story in the collection:

Summer of the Flesh Eater
Once, We Were Swedes
Floating Like a Goat
Investment Results May Vary
The Adopted Chinese Daughters’ Rebellion
What Are We Doing Here?
Someone Is Killing the Great Motivational Speakers of Amerika
Mister Kakami
We Come In Peace

A quick scan of the Contents page, therefore, suggests a writer who not only enjoys providing a title that more than hints at the absurd but also one who will deliver on that promise — and indeed Gartner does. I’ll point to Trevor’s review again — he goes into some detail on a number of the stories, so I’ll concentrate on some of the others.

Consider, for example, “Once, We Were Swedes”. Alex is a teacher of Journalism 100 and tell us early in the story “as for news, baby, these kids wouldn’t notice news if it kicked down their doors in the dull of night and set their hair on fire”:

What they had were opinions. And in their opinion Journalism 100 badly sucked. Where was the equipment? Where were the DVCPRO digital camcorders, the Avid XP editing suite, the chroma wall for weather, the skyline backdrop? And why do research for news stories when you could blog or tweet what you already knew? That the two “newsroom” printers were dot matrix was cause for much hilarity. The archetypal steno pad and rollerball pen, iconic to Alex, might as well have been the mandible fragments of an iguanodon.

Who were they, these wounded children of the new diaspora with their burnt offerings of exploding car radiators and near rapes in strip-mall ATM lobbies as excuses? Who was forcing them to be here? One sallow boy with gaping nostrils had shown up last month, assignment incomplete as usual, his right hand swathed in gauze like a badly applied diaper. He held it up as if taking a citizenship oath, claiming second-degree burns. Three days later, Alex caught that same hand, unscathed save for its tattooed knuckles, giving her the finger as she wrote, yet again, on the whiteboard: Who, What, Where, When and Why?

What she should have written: Why bother?

I’ve included that extended quote because it is representative of Gartner’s approach in many of these stories. She loves lists; she also loves including modern brand names, often with the trademark symbol. Forced metaphors and similes are frequent. Virtually every story features a conflict centred on the commonly-accepted (the five Ws) being rejected by the “modern” characters in the story.

Alex is a former foreign correspondent who spent time reporting on insurgents in Chad and Sudan. Now she and her companion of seven years, Rufus, are settled in a rapidly gentrifying area of Vancouver where they “talk IKEA” — that’s where the story title comes from and it concludes with helpful page-long glossary of IKEA products that have been cited in it. And the conflict in the story between the accepted and the “new” involves not just her students but the gentrifying adults around Alex and Rufus:

Others were going on spiritual pilgrimages to Varanisi or Amankora or joining the circus. In fact, all around the city children were abandoned to aging relatives or the newly minted private kiddie kennels by their thrill-seeking parents. The older children banded together, moving nomad-like from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, performing odd pantomimes for spare change. How can we have children? We are children! the parents laughed as they formed human pyramids or checked their supply of water-purification tablets needed to survive their third-world spirit quest.

Mainly, though, there was a lot of talk about moving off-grid. The grid, that matrix of power and telecommunications, heat and light on command, was something Alex could understand. She had a healthy respect for the grid. Like IKEA, like steel-cut Scottish oats and cargo pants, the grid represented common sense.

That element of obvious satire is another common feature of the stories. In “The Adopted Chinese Daughters’ Rebellion”, it is introduced in a sub-section titled “The Year of the Stork”:

We watched, those of use who were too old, too divorced, too medicated (too selfish, some said, too lazy) to have adopted Chinese daughters. We watched some dozen years ago as couples living on our cul-de-sac disappeared into the smog-cloaked air of Guangdong Province — one of the most polluted places on the earth, where the clang and clatter of an almost desperate progress hearkened back to Dickensian England — and returned with tiny, clear-eyed girls whose provenance was a mystery, known only to the hollow-armed mothers who had forsaken them, and whose only forms of identification, besides the Resident alien stamps beside their names in their new passports, were the ragged pieces of rice paper, marked with their footprints in red ink, that their new parents framed behind glass and hung above their cribs in white bedrooms overlooking the ocean, as if to say, Watch your step.

The “absurd” element in this story is that the new parents, collectively, decide to follow the traditional practice of binding the girl’s feet, which provokes the rebellion of the title. It is a conceit that sparks interest but, as is the problem with many of the stories, when the reader gets to the end it just has not gone anywhere.

I did not do the author any favor by reading this collection in two sittings: despite very different circumstances in the narrative, the stories acquire a sameness in approach (and even more sameness in positives and negatives) that makes for frustrating reading. If I had come across any one of the stories in a periodical, I would have found it worthwhile — a collection of 10 merely serves to underline the author’s consistent weaknesses. As individual stories they are just fine, but taken together the sum for the whole ends up being of significantly less value than its parts.

I have been enthusiastic about this year’s Giller Jury (and their choices are still well on the positive side overall) but I can’t see why they chose this collection for the shortlist. The Giller has always been kind to the short story, a decision that I heartily endorse. I have read one of the other two longlisted story collections (The Meagre Tarmac by Clark Blaise — review should be up in 10 days) and found it clearly superior to this one. Ironically, both collections share the theme of “dislocation”; for my money, Blaise does a much better job of making it real. Gartner’s collection is a worthwhile read, but there are better ones on offer.

2011 Official Giller Prize shortlist

October 3, 2011

Here’s the Official Giller Prize shortlist, with links to reviews already posted from Shadow Giller jurors:

The Free World, by David Bezmozgis. KfC’s review here. Trevor’s review here.

The Antagonist, by Lynn Coady. KfC’s review here.

The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt. Kimbofo’s review here, Trevor’s review here, KfC’s review here.

Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan. KfC review here.

Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, by Zsuzsi Gartner. Trevor’s review here. KfC review here.

The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje. Kimbofo’s review here, KfC’s review here.

There is no doubt that it is strong list — the 17 book longlist gave the Real Jurors lots of options. If I had an early observation, it would be that the shortlist is strangely “conventional” given some of the more experimental works on the longlist. Both Booker short-listed novels (deWitt and Edugyan) also make the Giller shortlist and Ondaatje was probably the “best known” name on the longlist. More adventuresome works, such as Dany Laferriere’s The Return and Clark Blaise’s The Meagre Tarmac, have fallen by the wayside.

If you read on into the Shadow Jury’s shortlist thoughts below, you will find that we opted for some of the riskier works — our split from the Real Jury is not a criticism, just different tastes. We did mention three of the six, although two of those mentions came from the Booker shortlisting. Whatever — if you are looking for some very good reads that are not on the Giller shortlist, try some of the other novels that impressed us.

At least one Shadow Juror has managed to review each of the shortlisted titles and the three of us who blog will now set ourselves down to reviewing all six, so please stay tuned. Alison will contribute through comments and guest posts, whichever she finds most appropriate. I personally only have one to go (Better Living Through Plastic Explosives) but I will be posting excerpts from Kimbofo and Trevor’s review when they go up. And please join us by commenting on the various reviews as you work your own way through the shortlist — it promises to be an enjoyable reading experience.


With 17 books on the longlist and only four weeks between longlist and shortlist, there is no way that the Shadow Giller Jury can read enough of the books to put together an “official Shadow shortlist”. But…between the four of us, at least one juror has read each of the 17 titles and while we haven’t posted reviews on all of them (we’ll get to that, I promise), we do have some thoughts.

So, with the Official Jury shortlist due tomorrow morning, here are some “shortlist worthy” titles in the opinion of the four Shadow jurors. Click on the title for a link to the full review from that juror — the sidebar at the right has links to all the reviews we have posted.

From Kimbofo at Reading Matters (Kim is in London, so has faced some access issues — we will get all the shortlist to her): I really feel that at this stage I can only nominate one — and that is Alexi Zentner’s Touch. As a debut novel, I thought it was exceptionally well written — evocative, atmospheric and magical are words that first come to mind — and, despite a complicated structure in which past and present storylines were interleaved, it was an effortless and entertaining read. It embraced some big themes — faith, survival, loss — all set in the Canadian wilderness, and yet the narrator’s voice was personal and accessible, as if he’d invited you to sit round the fire with him while he told stories about his family’s history.

I may add The Free World to my selection, but until I finish it, I’m not sure how I really feel about the book.

From Trevor at the Mookse and the Gripes: My two choices from the five I read — and I really hope each makes it — are Michael Christie’s The Beggar’s Garden and Clark Blaise’s The Meagre Tarmac. The Beggar’s Garden is a series of disparate short stories set in the rough neighborhood of Vancouver where characters struggle with drug addiction, poverty, or just sheer loneliness. In each case, their mind is unclear, but the prose is exact as Christie gives us an unsentimental but touching glimpse at their lives.

As skillfully rendered are the linked stories in The Meagre Tarmac which build, line-upon-line, to an illuminating look at the emptiness at the center of the lives of the very successfull — beyond their wildest dreams successful — immigrants from South Asia. At the same time the story builds to a great overarching theme, Blaise lingers on the intimate moments when his characters are vulnerable and completely recognizable.

From Alison Gzowski: The Free World by David Bezmozgis, is a novel I look forward to rereading as it packed a dense punch; he so ably depicts a world and also worlds within worlds, that there is nothing to suggest he is a debut novelist. It’s an intelligent, moving and accomplished work.

From KfC: A Good Man completes Guy Vanderhaeghe’s Western trilogy in outstanding fashion (and you don’t have to read the first two before reading this one). Set in the Cypress Hills Country of Canada and northern Montana just weeks after the Battle of Little Big Horn, it explores the tensions, challenges and deprivations of the “invading” European settlers in a compelling, readable “epic”.

I’m not normally a fan of memoirs or poetry so my inclusion of The Return by Dany Laferriere as “shortlist worthy” is significant. Part memoir, part introspective personal history, part ode to a father he never knew, Laferriere’s combination of free verse and conventional narrative chronicles his return to the Haiti he left 33 years earlier — and a search for the life story of the recently-deceased father whom he had not seen for more than half a century.

The Giller shortlist is normally five titles — so there are six that we find worthy of the shortlist. Perceptive visitors here will note that two Booker-shortlisted novels (Half Blood Blues and The Sisters Brothers) did not make the Shadow jurors’ selections. Both are good books and it would be no surprise to see either or even both on the shortlist tomorrow — the fact that they are not included in the six favorites cited here is an indication of just how strong this year’s Giller longlist is. Not every one of the 17 books is great, but most are — and the jury has done an excellent job of finding well-written novels and short story collections that span a wide variety of “types”. They will have a difficult time picking the final five.

Kimbofo reviews Solitaria; Trevor on Better Living Through Plastic Explosives

October 3, 2011

Here are the opening paras on Kimbofo’s review of Solitaria, by Genni Gunn. Her full review is here and Trevor’s can be found here:

Genni Gunn’s Solitaria opens in dramatic style: workers restoring a dilapidated Italian villa discover a body on the site. It turns out to be a male murder victim and his name is Vito Santoro. He has been dead for some 50 years.

But this is not a crime novel — it’s a family history. And the decaying villa is a metaphor for the Santoro family:

“And family, too, can become the rubble around you, the millstones and boulders, the pebbles and stones – a virtual quarry impeding your every step.”

Thanks to the help of the television show Chi l’Ha Visto?, which reports on unsolved crimes, the victim’s family — an assorted collection of brothers and sisters who live in Italy, Australia and Canada — is tracked down. Each of them thought Vito, the eldest sibling, had emigrated to Argentina — and Piera, the eldest sister, has correspondence from him to prove it.

Trevor, our short story expert, has completed reading the third and final collection, Zsuzsi Gartner’s Better Living Through Plastic Explosives. Trevor’s full review is here — this is his opening paragraph:

Last year I had some problems with Giller shortlisted story collection This Cake Is for the Party, by Sarah Selecky (my review here). In the acknowledgments page of this year’s third story collection, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives (2011), author Zsuzsi Gartner thanks Sarah Selecky for “jetpacks of psychic fuel.” Knowing nothing more about this book or about Gartner’s relationship with (or literary similarities to) Selecky, just that mention made me wary to read this story collection. I can say, with certainty, that Better Living Through Plastic Explosives is much better than This Cake Is for the Party. The writing here is spontaneous and interesting, if not always (or even mostly) on target. Gartner eschews both formal and substantive realism (one story ends with a page-long string of “huh”; a marmot has a point of view; a man digresses to adolescence) as she pokes and prods contemporary North America, while Selecky’s collection was rather conventional and drab and rote. All of that is not to say that I think Better Living Through Plastic Explosives to be a good short story collection. Cheers to Gartner for stripping whatever constraints she felt within realism and cheers to her for making each sentence its own, but the end result is a scatter-shot style that says little and that is often quite unfun even as it basks in its freedom.

The Return, by Dany Laferrière

September 30, 2011

Purchased at

Translated by David Homel

Dany Laferriere is one of those “mean-to” authors for me, in the sense that I’ve been “meaning to” get to one of his books for a number of years. Born in Haiti in 1953, Laferriere has been part of the Haitian writing community in Montreal since he emigrated there in 1976. He writes originally in French — as best I can tell ten of his 14 novels have been translated (David Homel seems to be a regular partner). How To Make Love To A Negro Without Getting Tired (1987), Down Among The Dead Men (1997) and I Am A Japanese Writer (2010) are probably the best known in English. As the publication dates indicate, he has been at this for a while. The Giller jury having finally moved me to action, I’ll say that The Return was impressive enough that I will definitely be exploring his back catalogue.

This “novel” has already won a slew of recognition in its French-language version: the Prix Medicis, the Grand Prix de Livre de Montreal and short-listed for a number of other prizes including Canada’s Governor-General’s award for French-language fiction. I put “novel” in quotes because it seems to be a useful catch-all label to describe The Return, a book which is part memoir and part free verse, with conventional fictional elements in the form of short narrative sections added in, almost as a binder to bring the rest together.

The book opens in 2009 with a phone call from New York to Montreal. The Dany Laferriere of the book has been in the “never-ending winter” of Montreal since 1976; his father, Windsor, had fled Haiti to New York in the 1960s and the two have not talked since. Here’s the opening of the book, a representative sample of what I am calling the “free verse” of the book:

The news cuts the night in two.
The inevitable phone call
that every middle-aged man
one day will receive.
My father has died.

I got on the road early this morning.
No destination.
The way my life will be from now on.

The estrangement between father and son has not just been for the last 30+ years in North America — it started in Haiti when Dany was four, his rebel father headed into the countryside to evade Papa Doc and his killers and the young Laferriere sent to live with his grandmother. This opening section is entitled “Slow Preparations For Departure”, an aptly ambiguous label that captures the author’s confusion both as he gets ready to go to New York and his brief stay there.

That section also firmly establishes why Laferriere chose the mixed narrative forms of verse and conventional prose to tell his story. The free verse parts are not so much poetry as they are representative of those fleeting thoughts that come into our minds when we are faced with a new set of circumstances — part memory, part uncertainty, part the forming of resolutions about what the future might hold and they all get mixed up as we think them.

In an early chapter titled “Exile”, the grieving narrator pulls out “the photo my mother slipped/into my pocket just as I/closed the low green gate” to depart Haiti 33 years ago when he was 23. The photo brings a flood of memories:

If I didn’t know then that
I was going to leave
and never return,
my mother, so careworn
that day,
must have felt it
in the most secret part of her body.

We’re stuck in a bad novel
ruled by a tropical dictator
who keeps ordering
the beheading of his subjects.
We scarcely have time
to escape between the lines
toward the margin that borders the Caribbean Sea.

Here I am years later
in a snow-covered city
walking and thinking of nothing.
I am guided only
by the movements of frigid air
and that fragile neck ahead of me.

I hope those two quotes illustrate the nature of Laferriere’s “verse”: it comes not as poetry but disjointed, interrupted narrative, the pauses marked by each line representing the kind of mental pauses our brain takes when it is in a contemplative mode. The conventional narrative parts, by contrast, are straight-forward, outward-looking and tightly-phrased. When he gets to New York, Dany discovers that his father had left a suitcase in a safety deposit box:

We want to retrieve the suitcase my father deposited at the Chase Manhattan Bank. Since I have the same first name, the employee gives me the key to his safety deposit box and asks me to follow him into the bank’s vault. I step inside quietly with my uncles. That quality of silence exists nowhere but in a bank, a church or a library. Men fall silent only before Money, God and Knowledge — the great wheel that crushes them. All around us, small individual safety deposit boxes filled with personal belongings of New York, city of high finances and great misery. The employee leaves us alone. I open my father’s box and discover an attache case inside.

Dany does not have the code that would enable him to open the attache case. And he can’t risk being caught in an attempt to sign it out. So it goes back, unopened, into the safety deposit box. We already know that his father’s death has caused him to resolve to return to Haiti; the experience in the bank vault means that he will carry with him the baggage of unknown memories of a man with whom he had no contact for more than half a century.

The opening section takes up about one-quarter of the book; the remainder takes place in Haiti. While both father and son were forced into exile by the excesses of the Duvalier regime, this part is anything but polemical, rather it is a study in the tactics of survival. The present time is 2009 and Duvalier is long gone — but for those trying to live a life, not much has changed. Laferriere effectively captures a braided triple stream of memory and discovery: what kind of life did his father live before he went into exile? what are his own memories of his 23 years in Haiti? and a 23-year-old nephew, a present day version of the young Dany, supplies the platform to explore how the current generation is getting along.

The author so firmly establishes his own character and uncertainty in that opening section that this voyage of self-discovery is one which the reader has no trouble joining. As Dany embarks on his own set of explorations and experiences in a devastated country he left 33 years ago (and which this reader has never visited), it is an honor to be asked along. It is the kind of reward that every fiction lover (or poetry reader) welcomes as the sign of great writing.

The Giller jury deserves fulsome praise for including this book on its longlist, even if it did mean stretching the definition of “novel” just a little bit. This is exactly the kind of work that literary prizes are meant to draw to the attention of serious readers. If you click on the book cover at the top of the review, it will take you to Laferriere’s page at his English language publisher, Douglas & McIntyre, and you can check out not just this book but three others that they have published in translation. He as an author that I am glad has finally moved from my “mean to” category to “started on” — I will be returning for more, I assure you.

Monoceros, by Suzette Mayr — a guest post from Alison Gzowski

September 28, 2011

Welcome to Alison Gzowski’s first-ever blog book review. While the blog may be a first for her, she is no book amateur. Alison worked for several years in The Globe and Mail’s book section (Canada’s best) and produced the CBC radio series, Talking Books — she is now an editor in the Globe’s Features department. And she has been a Shadow Giller juror for the last nine years. Over to you, Alison:

Published by Coach House Books

One of the many great pleasures of serving on the Shadow Giller jury (aside from writing my first book blog review, of course) is being delighted by a book that otherwise wouldn’t have crossed my path. Two years ago, the surprise was Martha Baillie’s clever book set inside a library, The Incident Report (KfC’s review is here).

From this fall’s long list, I was surprised by Suzette Mayr’s Monoceros.

I hadn’t heard of Mayr before I bought the novel, the fourth by this Calgary-based writer whose previous books have been shortlisted for significant prizes (including a Commonwealth), I learned. As I seem to have done with my introduction here, I backed into the book: I read her bio notes and, I have to say, winced a little at the plot’s description that starts with a teen suicide and ends with the promise of a drag queen named Crepe Suzette “changing everything.” I opened the book expecting a kitschy over-the-top romp of sorts. Was I ever wrong.

Here’s how it opens:

Because u r a fag is scrawled in black Jiffy marker across his locker. Because after school last Thursday, the girlfriend of the guy he loves hurled frozen dog shit at him, and her friends frisbeed his skateboard into the river. Even though he stomped and cracked through the ice shelving the banks, waded in to rescue it — after the shouting and shoving, they’re stronger than they look, all those girls with their cello-and violin-playing fingers, yanking him back by handfuls of coat, handfuls of hair, hooking with their elbows and digging with their fingernails as he scrambled after his skateboard — the banks too slippery and shattered with the ice, the current too swift, the water too cold and deep and brown…

This first chapter (called The End) builds tension by continually starting sections with “because…” until the final…

Because he can’t bear it.

He can’t bear any of it. It will never get better.

Because he wants to be in charge of his own ending.

With these haunting pages, the scene is set. Seventeen-year-old Patrick Furey has decided to kill himself. He had fallen in love with a boy nicknamed Ginger who, while having trysts with Patrick in the cemetery, has officially been seeing another student, Petra. After Petra figures out this deception, she starts threatening and publicly bullying Patrick and Ginger ceases all communication. Heartbroken and isolated, Patrick hangs himself.

While I’ve just given the flat plotline description, Mayr grabs the reader with a powerful opening chapter that takes a difficult topic, allows it to unfold dramatically but without sentimentality. Throughout the book I found her convincingly good at rendering vernacular with a writer’s eye and intelligent wordplay.

Monoceros, as the cover depicts, is a constellation (KfC note: Sorry, I can’t find a large enough image to show the cover depiction clearly — it does show up on the actual cover.) That seems appropriate to Mayr’s approach as she tackles the ripple effect of suicide beyond Patrick’s immediate family to include those who should have protected him, and even those who use his tragedy to emote.

Among those in Patrick’s constellation are Max, the school principal in a longterm yet secret relationship with the affable guidance counsellor Walter, Mrs. Mochinski, Patrick’s homeroom teacher, and assorted students — the aforementioned Ginger and Petra — and Faraday, a lost classmate who is obsessed with unicorns.

(There are others including Patrick’s parents, and Crepe Suzette, a drag queen by night, waiter by day. I can’t mention all characters and themes, so have stuck with those in the Catholic Calgary high school Patrick attended.)

Monoceros is not a plot-driven novel. Instead, the story unfolds as we are given snippets of the past (Ginger and Patrick’s romance) and current dilemmas (the tension for Max and Walter in hiding their live-in relationship from colleagues). Each chapter is told from a different character’s point of view and Mayr wisely doesn’t give equal time to each voice, a technique I sometimes find frustrating in some books as I skim one voice to return to the characters I find more interesting. Instead, she brings in a character’s monologue to move the story along and add context.

What most impressed me with this novel was the direct, edgy, almost playful voices of the characters. Mayr is gifted at capturing the teenage voice with all its high drama and nakedly assured observations. There was an immediacy in all her characters that kept the book moving and a raging use of words that I often loved. Although the premise of the story is tragic, there was a comic element developed by these characters raging at the world and perceived injustices.

My criticisms came as I got well into the book. As much as I found the characters fresh, I started to feel that the word buildup and even sometimes a standout phrase was used in a way that the voices were becoming less distinct from each other and so at times I felt a sameness that dragged the book down.

As well, the ending invoked a magic realism which didn’t work for me after being engaged by inner turmoils and hard-hitting realism. It felt to me as if Mayr had painted herself into a corner and opted for a deus ex magica.

Despite those flaws, I am glad this novel was longlisted; there was much to enjoy in this book and its sadly topical tragicomedy.

The Antagonist, by Lynn Coady

September 26, 2011

Review copy courtesy House of Anansi

Author Lynn Coady wastes little time in introducing the reader to the “antagonistic” nature of her central character, Gordon Rankin, universally known since childhood as “Rank” since he shares his name with his father. Here is her opening paragraph:

There you are in the picture looking chubby and pompous, and it makes me remember how you told me that time you were afraid of fat people. That is, afraid of being fat, and hating those who were, so fear and hating, like of a contagion, the same way homophobes — guys who are actually maybe gay or have the potential for gayness within them — are thought to be afraid of homos. So want to annihilate them, make them not exist. You said you were embarrassed by it, though, your hatred of fat people, your fear. You knew it was shallow. You knew it was wrong. You thought it was a prejudice that it was beneath the enlighted likes of you. And now, with all this time gone by, here you are in the picture. Looking chubby and pompous.

What has provoked this outburst? Rank’s old college running-mate, Adam, has just published a book. Rank thinks he recognizes his college self in the book and he doesn’t like the portrayal. So he’s decided to take the summer to write his own “book” in retaliation — in the form of a string of lengthy emails to Adam. The fact that Rank is now approaching 40 and the events of both “books” (we never get to see any of Adam’s beyond some of Rank’s impressions) took place a couple of decades ago would seem proof positive that our antagonist is capable of holding a grudge for a very, very long time.

Here’s another early expansion of Rank’s character, still in his first email to Adam, which also introduces most of the elements of his “story”:

I was born in a small town. That is not such a big feat in this country. You were born in a small town, John Cougar [Mellencamp] was, Springsteen the Jew, everybody was born in a small town. Whoop-de-shit. Let’s not name a specific territory. We both know they are all the fucking same.

There was a dad, there was a mom. You know this too, approximately. The dad was a prick, the mom was a goddess. Gord and Sylvie.

Already this feels like a cliche, which is the fault of none other than Adam. It wouldn’t feel that way if you didn’t exist. It wouldn’t be part of someone else’s fairy tale, it would just be my own nameless stench, hanging over me. The biggest pisser? The fact that the cliche of me was all you really took, you boiled an entire life, an entire human being, Adam, down into his most basic, boneheaded elements. Good mom plus bad dad hinting at the predictable Oedipal (oh give me a fucking break) background of — voila — Danger Man! One seriously messed up dude. Not very creative of you is what I’m saying.

This review has featured a couple of long quotes already because it seems only fair to let the author establish her own story. If you find them off-putting, this is not the book for you. If they strike a responsive chord or even a neutral one, read on.

While Adam serves as the lightning rod for Rank’s current burst of outrage, there are obviously a number of large chips on his shoulder that extend back well before his college days. Most of them focus on his “father”, Gord — Rank, born out of wedlock, was adopted and Gord announced to the nuns when the quite large 10-pound infant was introduced to him and Sylvie “the little bastard’s old enough to drive.” Gord has delighted in telling that story, with the double entendre of “bastard” since it is a description he frequently uses, ever since.

As Rank sees it, Gord (who is only 5’5 1/2″) has small persons’ syndrome, among his many other failings. So when Rank has his first growth spurt at age 14 (there will be another) and turns into a very large hulk early on, Gord (at least in Rank’s opinion) engages in some serious projection on his adopted son. Rank’s first job in his early teens is to serve as a parking lot bouncer at Icy Dream, Gord’s Dairy Queen-like business, sending drug dealers and users on their way — a violent incident in the lot ends up with Rank heading to reform school. While imprisoned there, a sympathetic counsellor puts Rank into hockey where his size proves such an advantage that he ends up with a hockey scholarship at a New Brunswick university — hockey goons have to come from somewhere after all. His refusal to obey a coach’s instruction to beat up the opposition means an end to that scholarship and begins the series of incidents with Adam (a bookish nerd who is one of an unlikely quartet including Rank who hang around together) that provoke this book. I won’t reveal them.

There is no doubt that anger and resentment are the dominant themes in the novel, all serving Rank’s victim identity. And the death of three National Hockey League versions of Rank this summer (two by suicide, one an overdose) add a topicality to the story that Coady could not have foreseen.

On the less depressing side of the coin, however, it should be noted that Coady does find moments in her novel to introduce some perceptive observations. Consider, for example, how Icy Dream came to be the family business:

Another example of my father’s monomania: he always tells the story of how, once he got the loans together to buy some kind of franchise, he had “the choice” between an Icy Dream and a Java Joe’s. Like it could only possibly be one or the other — the wrong choice and the right. As if some kind of celestial fast-food overseer descended from the heavens with a ID cone in one hand and crumpled JJ’s cup in the other — obliterating all possibility of, say, a Pizza Hut, a Mickey Dee’s — displayed them both to Gord and thundered: Pick!

As Rank notes with some delight (since he loathes Gord even more than Adam), in the town of 7,500 his dad’s lone Icy Dream is currently surrounded by no less than six JJ’s coffee outlets: “‘I never claimed to be a prophet,’ shrugs Gord when the topic of the Great ID Wrong Decision of 1981 comes up.” Canadians, at least, will find a number of similar observations about how events and decisions made in the 1980s produced the country and communities of 2009, the present tense of the novel.

It was those elements that kept me interested in The Antagonist. A secondary theme, perhaps even stronger, is that I have known a few versions of Rank in my time: Canada does have enough young hockey thugs who grow into men, often resentful, that most mature males know more than one or two. The problem, however, is that Rank is not only an unsympathetic character, he is a pretty one-dimensional one, in both his youth and current middle age. Were it not for the memories that Coady raised of similar people that I knew, I would have had even more issues with the book.

I suspect that is true of most coming-of-age novels: if they don’t spark personal memories, or if the character is not made interesting, they just don’t work. Coady obviously succeeded in doing this with members of the Giller jury with her book being chosen for the longlist — I am not sure she will be that successful with many readers.

A Good Man, by Guy Vanderhaeghe

September 23, 2011

Review copy courtest McClelland & Stewart

The time is July, 1876 — three weeks after Sitting Bull and the Sioux have defeated Custer at Little Big Horn. The opening setting is Fort Walsh in Canada’s Cypress Hills, in the deep southwest corner of what is now Saskatchewan. Wesley Case is the failed son of a wealthy Ottawa-based lumber baron (the law, journalism and a possible military scandal are all part of that list) whose father has just “bought” his son’s way out of the Northwest Mounted Police. Senior Case wants Wesley to take up a political career with a safe seat in Parliament; Wesley has plans to establish a cattle and horse ranch near Fort Benton, 150 miles south of Fort Walsh in Montana.

Forts Walsh and Benton may be on the opposite sides of an international border but they are inextricably linked at the time. No one knows where Sitting Bull and the Sioux are — the Americans are determined to annihilate him and his tribe. The Canadians have a different concern. The native people recognize no national border — will the Sioux chief head north and build a coalition of tribes that will continue (or respond to) the violence?

And, just to make things more complex, there is serious ongoing tension between the new Dominion of Canada (created in 1867) and an America that is still emerging from the Civil War. Throw in the Fenian raids on Canada and the War of 1812, still a living memory, and you have a triangle of forces — two European-founded countries that don’t really trust each other but both intent on moving into the western frontier and native peoples who are resisting.

Fans of Guy Vanderheaghe (and yes I am one) will recognize this as familiar territory, literally and figuratively, for the author. The Englishman’s Boy and The Last Crossing — both highly regarded novels — were set in this same region at virtually the same time. A Good Man completes Vanderhaeghe’s Western trilogy. If you haven’t read either of the first two, don’t worry; these three novels complement each other and can be read in any order since they explore different aspects of what was happening at the time. And each has components which take the book off into a unique direction.

If you have read the first two, you will know that both climax with fictional versions of deplorable real-life massacres of native people. A Good Man is different — the battle (and the killing went the other way this time) has already taken place when the book opens. This novel explores what is happening in the European policing, trade and settler community in the wake of that battle. Uncertainty is at play everywhere and rugged people don’t respond well to that.

One of the things that I admire most about Vanderhaeghe’s trilogy is his ability to explore the complexity of the forces at play. On the grand scale, the tensions between the invading forces and the native bands. At a community level, the concerns in both Fort Walsh and Fort Benton about what the near-term future holds. And at the personal level, for Wesley Case and his friends, life continues to go on, ranches needed to be looked after and people fall in love. Author Vanderhaeghe delivers on all those fronts (and many more minor ones, I must say).

Here’s how Wesley’s decision about his ranching future is introduced, in an entry in his personal journal, responding to the letter from his father saying he has bought out his son’s commission and “smoothed your way back into civilian life”, saying that his intervention with Sir John A. Macdonald “left the impression your candidacy [for Parliament] is not out of the question”. It is a long quote, but I would like to give visitors here a flavor of the author’s narrative style:

Since I could not take him by the shoulders, shake him, shout, “Let me be!” I blew out the candle, consigning Father and his blather to the shadows. It is the place for him; he is a shady man. So why do I take the trouble to copy choice selections of his tirade into this journal? Because at some future date I shall surely wish to relive my triumph over the Baron. He may puff himself up for unlocking my cell door, assume that I will meekly do his bidding, fulfill his defeated ambitions by becoming his parliamentary proxy, but if he thinks that will happen, he has another think coming. In the two months since this letter arrived I have had plenty of time to make my own plans, to prepare to roll the dice and become a rancher. A chancy business, but I have enlisted Joe McMullen to help me bring it to fruition. So to hell with Father. The struggle between his higher organ which prompted him towards the world of politics, and his lower organ, which urged him towards Solange [the maid for whom Case’s father deserted his mother], was settled long ago. His lower organ won. Let him live with the consequences of it.

That sets the ranching story line (and offers proof of Wesley’s damaging stubborness, although some of that is a necessary characteristic for survival in frontier country). To create the vehicle for the “community tension, where is Sitting Bull?” thread, Vanderhaeghe has Wesley sign up as a go-between to deliver information back and forth between Major Walsh at Fort Walsh in Canada and his counterpart in Fort Benton. The two not only have distrust sown by different national agendas, they have very different attitudes toward how to deal with native people — and personally they hate each other’s guts, which makes co-operation an even more difficult prospect. The narrative does get stretched at points, but readers do get a very good picture of military “commanders” in total confusion around whatever threats they face.

What perhaps impressed me most about the book, however, was the device that Vanderhaeghe uses to frame his “global” story (the Canada-U.S. conflict): a love story. The Fort Benton town lawyer has been threatened and he has hired one Michael Dunne to “protect” his wife, Ada Tarr. The laywer will die but before he does Dunne has become obsessed with her — and Wesley is destined to fall in love with the well-read Ada.

We discover in Dunne’s background story one of the most disagreeable characters in recent fiction. An informer in Toronto when Confederates were seeking both money and men from there to fight the Union, he moved on to become an enforcer for Fenian elements, on both their real and perceived enemies. He has brought this violent streak to the Cypress Hills-Fort Benton country, where the continual suspicion on all sides offers many chances to profitably exploit his talents. It is no stretch of imagination to see that he will eventually adapt them to serve his obsession for Ada Tarr.

There is a very real sense in this book that the conflict between the armed forces, traders and settlers and the native bands is now playing out its final acts — the massacres of the previous two books illustrated a continuing conflict, but that has now been decided. What is at play here is what the “winners” do with their victory (again at the national, community and personal levels) and they can’t unlearn the despicable behavior that got them here when it comes to dealing with this new world.

In the broad context, A Good Man is an epic (and I don’t use that word often) account of what was happening in Western North America in the late 1870s — a story that does deserve to be revisited. In its details, however, the book chooses to do that through a very different set of devices, delving into what individuals were feeling and doing as all this went on. As the novel moved from thread to thread, I never lost interest for a moment. For this reader (a champion of the first two novels, I admit) Vanderhaeghe has produced a true tour-de-force to complete his trilogy.

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