Archive for the ‘2013 Giller Prize’ Category

Hellgoing, by Lynn Coady

October 22, 2013

Purchased at

Purchased at

Lynn Coady came to serious literary attention when her novel, The Antagonist, was shortlisted for the 2011 Giller Prize. The central character in that one, Rank, is a former hockey bully, now a middle-aged teacher. Rank’s distinguishing characteristic, beyond his critical review of his own upbringing, is a current rage at just about everything around him, but most particularly his father and a former college buddy who intends to write a novel based on those days (The Antagonist is structured as a series of angry e-mails to that buddy).

That description hardly promises a “literary novel”, so Coady’s success was a bit of a surprise. I thought at the time that what made her premise succeed was her ability to develop the novel as a series of set pieces — and those set pieces were uniformly good.

All of which implied that she might be a very good short story writer, so I was not totally surprised when her collection, Hellgoing, showed up on the 2013 Giller longlist (and has now advanced to the shortlist). I’ll cut right to the chase: the collection confirms that she is a “good” short story writer but I am not at all sure that this collection is good enough to deserve the shortlisting.

11shadow logoMost of the stories in Hellgoing feature a female central character who is undergoing “relationship” issues — be that with a lover, family or friends. The various relationships are in a period of tension, not yet shattering but a growing one that does carry threats. And in most of these stories the growth in tension comes when one set of “relationships” starts to overlap with another.

The title story opens with 44-year-old Theresa informing a hen party of friends that her recent Thanksgiving visit home was most notable for her father’s opening observation that she was “fat” — and that has plunged her into a review of her family relationship. Her mother died a few months ago and her brother, the recently-divorced Ricky (whom she never got along with), has moved in with her father — it was Ricky who asked Theresa to make a Thanksgiving visit home.

She had expected the worst when [Ricky] decided to move in with their father after their mother’s death and Ricky’s divorce. She had expected the two men, who were so alike already, to simply merge into one horrific masculine amalgam. And end up one of those bachelor pairs of fathers and sons that she knew so well from back home, finishing each other’s sentences, eating the same thing every day — cereal, cheddar, toast, bologna with ketchup — pissing in the kitchen sink because the bathroom was too far away, wiping their hands on the arms of chairs after finishing up a meal of cereal and cheese. Served on a TV tray. A TV tray never folded and put away, never scrubbed free of solidified ketchup puddles, never not stationed in front of a chair.

What she discovers is far different: “Theresa arrived in her childhood home to finds things neat, dust-free and zero TV trays in sight. Their father was expected to come to the table when his tea was ready — he didn’t get it brought to him, like their mother would have done.” Far from finding this a pleasant surprise, Theresa moves into a mode of questioning her own self-confidence, one that gets worse when her father refers to her weight (“I have had babies! Put on some pounds? I’ve put on some pounds?“)

The story takes a different turn when Coady reveals that Theresa has been telling this story to her friends, obviously looking for sympathy, and they respond by telling their own stories rather than commiserating with hers.

She was the Assistant Chair of her department. She had a paper coming out in Hypatia. She was flying to Innsbruck, Austria, in the spring to deliver that very paper. There would be another conference in Santa Cruz a few months later where she was the keynote motherfucking speaker. She was being flown down there. I am being flown down there, she’d hacked, asphyxiating on the rest of the sentence.

Relationship issues aren’t the source of Theresa’s identity problem — they just bring it into sudden focus.

The story “Body Condom” features Kim, another woman in middle-age, who a few months ago “agreed to be in love with Hart.” The two are just-getting-by musicians but don’t have much else in common:

At first, deciding to be in love felt to Kim like a process of having to explain to Hart, in different ways, every day, that she was nothing like him. And Hart not believing her, and her having to convince him. Then one day the process came to an end — Hart abruptly agreed to consider each one of them as individual people with separate experiences and different points of view.

“You’re not as gregarious as I am,” Hart announced one day after failing to drag her to a friend’s open mic event. “You don’t need as much social stimulation.”

The relationship tension escalator in this one is a visit to Vancouver Island to meet Hart’s divorced parents — his mother and brother live in Port Alice on one end of the island and his father (whose “girl friend” is Kim’s age) lives an eight-hour drive away on the other (it is a big island, after all). Hart knows there may be problems, so they will be camping rather than staying with either parent — and he’s arranged both a two-day yoga retreat and one day of surfing lessons (the “body condom” of the title is a reference to the “two-inch-thick elephant skins of neoprene” they wear for surfing) to offset whatever family-based stresses might arise.

As in “Hellgoing”, most of this story is about the heightened identity issues for Kim that all this brings into focus — her love affair is shaky at best, adding in the family issues only makes that worse. End of story.

As I said earlier, these stories (and the other seven in the book) read just fine. If I had come across any of them in the New Yorker (just about the only source with short stories that I come across except for collections), I’d finish each one with a “that was okay” and move on to the next article.

The problem is that a truly successful story does more than that: despite its lack of length, it plants itself in memory and causes the reader to invent his or her own twists and turns that are based on the story. Coady’s stories don’t do that, they slip away. I finished reading the book a couple weeks before sitting down to write this review and had to check the opening of each of the nine to remind me what they were about — and even the two that I chose to feature (because I did remember them best) needed re-reading before I started to write the review since neither had grown or even lived on in memory.

The Real Giller jury features some talented short story writers so they obviously discovered more in the collection than I did — I can’t help but wonder if female readers may find more in the characters than landed with me. I am more than happy that the jury has again put on short story collection on the short list because the genre deserves promotion — equally, however, I can’t help but think they could have found a better example.

Kimbofo reviews Going Home Again, by Dennis Bock

October 21, 2013

1aabockKimbofo has checked in with her review of Dennis Bock’s Going Home Again, so the flood of Shadow Giller Jury reviews has started. You can read her full review here — in the meantime here are Kim’s opening paragraphs from that review:

I’ll admit that I was in two minds about reading Dennis Bock’s Going Home Again, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. I wanted to read it, because I generally like stories about repatriation; but I also didn’t want to read it, because I know Trevor, from The Mookse and The Gripes, didn’t like it. [Trevor’s review is here.]

Yet, when I opened this book on Saturday afternoon, thinking I’d just read a couple of chapters, I found myself completely absorbed by this tale of two divorced men and their fragile relationships with those around them, and before I knew it I had almost finished the entire novel.

The story is narrated by Charlie Bellerose, a Canadian who has spent the best part of 20 years living in Madrid, where he is married with a 12-year-old daughter. But things are not as cosy as they first seem. Charlie and his Spanish wife are estranged, and Charlie has made the decision to return home to Toronto, where he plans to open his fifth foreign language school and start his life afresh.

And it is here in Toronto that he re-establishes contact with his older brother, Nate, with whom he has a troubled relationship. The last time he saw Nate was a decade ago — and the two have not been on speaking terms since. But things are different now — Nate seems older and wiser, even if he is going through a rather messy divorce with his wife, Monica, and he is sharing responsibility for bringing up their two sons, Titus and Quinn.

Over the course of a year, we follow Charlie’s ups and downs: his struggle to adjust to life without his daughter, whom he adores; the joy of taking on a fatherly role to Titus and Quinn, often looking after them while Nate is away on business; his reconnection with Holly, an old girlfriend, who is now happily married; and the happiness of finding a new girlfriend. As these events unfold, Bock uses flashbacks to tell Charlie’s back story: his upbringing by a kindly uncle after his parents were killed in a car crash; his life at university in which his best friend — Holly’s boyfriend — jumped off a bridge and died; his subsequent meanderings through Spain and how he met his wife; the tense, stressful — and wary — relationship he has with Nate.

Shadow Giller Jury announces call-in title

October 16, 2013

11shadow logoFor the first time in its 19 year history, the Shadow Giller Jury has decided to include a call-in title when it considers this year’s shortlist: The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden. The decision was unanimous — two members of the Shadow Jury have read it and found it excellent, the other two (one of them is KfC) are looking forward to it.

Boyden has already won the Giller in 2008 for Through Black Spruce, volume two in a projected trilogy. When the longlist was announced (and The Orenda had just been released) I mistakenly said it was the third volume — it is not.

1aaboydenThe Shadow Jury will treat The Orenda simply as a sixth title on our short list. You will eventually see reviews here as well as at Reading Matters and the Mookse and the Gripes — Alison will offer her thoughts on one of our blogs.

As usual, the Shadow Jury will make its deliberations transparent. In the event that the call-in title wins our Prize, we will conduct a second vote that is limited to the five titles of the Real Jury shortlist.

None of us has yet reviewed The Orenda. In the meantime, here is the publisher’s description of the novel:

A visceral portrait of life at a crossroads, The Orenda opens with a brutal massacre and the kidnapping of the young Iroquois Snow Falls, a spirited girl with a special gift. Her captor, Bird, is an elder and one of the Huron Nation’s great warriors and statesmen. It has been years since the murder of his family and yet they are never far from his mind. In Snow Falls, Bird recognizes the ghost of his lost daughter and sees the girl possesses powerful magic that will be useful to him on the troubled road ahead. Bird’s people have battled the Iroquois for as long as he can remember, but both tribes now face a new, more dangerous threat from afar.

Christophe, a charismatic Jesuit missionary, has found his calling amongst the Huron and devotes himself to learning and understanding their customs and language in order to lead them to Christ. An emissary from distant lands, he brings much more than his faith to the new world.

As these three souls dance each other through intricately woven acts of duplicity, small battles erupt into bigger wars and a nation emerges from worlds in flux.

The 2013 Real Giller Jury is already under intense scrutiny as a result of its decision to leave Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, winner of the Booker Prize, off the Giller long list. I have read it — and it certainly would have made my shortlist. The Shadow Giller Jury’s decision to add another call-in can only further lead to questions about the ability of this year’s Real Jury. Your comments and thoughts, as usual, are more than welcome. And if our call-in title does win the Shadow Giller, I will be encouraging my fellow jurors to read Catton’s Booker winner and offer yet another vote on the best “Canadian” book of the year.

Cataract City, by Craig Davidson

October 14, 2013

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Somebody is cruisin’ for a bruuuuuisin!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trevor reviews Going Home Again, by Dennis Bock

October 9, 2013

11shadow logo

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


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

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

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

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

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

2013 Giller Prize shortlist

October 8, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Son of a Certain Woman, by Wayne Johnston

October 7, 2013

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

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

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

Let’s deal with the face first:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emancipation Day, by Wayne Grady

October 1, 2013

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

2013 Giller Prize longlist

September 16, 2013

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

Already reviewed here

2013 messudThe Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud. Nora Eldridge is one angry woman: Not only is she not the “Great Artist” that she aspired to be, the elementary school teacher has just gone through an extended experience that exposed her shortcomings and frustrations even more. I can’t help but think that Real Giller juror Margaret Atwood was reminded of her own “Edible Woman” when she read this one.

2013 mooreCaught, by Lisa Moore. While I was not overly impressed with this novel, I did note in my review that juries tend to like Moore’s books better than I do — and it has happened again. Caught is both a crime story and a character study: Slaney, a Newfoundlander already caught once importing dope, escapes from a Nova Scotia prison, heads west to hook up with his old co-conspirator and launches a new drug importing scheme.

Reviews to come soon

1aagradyEmancipation Day, by Wayne Grady. The author started this as a non-fiction project when he discovered his own Afro-American roots — many rewrites and 20 years later, it appears as the first novel from a writer who has a lengthy non-fiction publication list. Set in wartime Newfoundland and then moving on to Windsor, it tells the story of navy musician Jack Lewis — who responds to his own racial issues with denial, denial, denial.

1aajohnstonThe Son of a Certain Woman, by Wayne Johnston. Johnston is a Giller longlist regular and his latest promises to again feature the oddball, idiosyncratic characters he loves. Set in Johnston’s native Newfoundland, this is the story of Percy Joyce — disfigured with both a massive port wine birthmark that covers his face and overly large hands and feet. Everyone, including Percy, wants to bed his mother. And, in true Johnston fashion, the leaders of St. Johns’ Catholic church bring authority into play by “adopting” the misshapen boy as a personal favorite.

1aa davidsonCataract City, by Craig Davidson. Niagara Falls is the “cataract city” of the title — understandably, it is a favorite setting for Canadian fiction. In Davidson’s novel, Owen Stuckey and Duncan Diggs are childhood friends who have grown to maturity in the Ontario city. According to the cover blurb, their friendship is now being tested as they find themselves on opposite sides of the law.

1aaboydenThe Orenda, by Joseph Boyden. This is volume three in Boyden’s trilogy that started with Three Day Road and continued in a modern setting with the Giller-winning Through Black Spruce. This volume retreats in time to the conflict between the Iroquois and Huron nations — and adds the intrusive element of the Jesuit missionaries. Just released last week, it has attracted very strong reviews in the professional press and would have to be considered the early favorite for the 2013 prize. (EDIT: This is NOT volume three in the trilogy — in comments Brett has provided a link to a Maclean’s article where Boyden says this was an idea that diverted him from volume three and demanded to be written.)

Books I had to order today

1aabockGoing Home Again, by Dennis Bock. I’ve read and appreciated Bock’s two previous novels (The Ash Garden andThe Communist’s Daughter) so I am not surprised to see this one on the list. The publisher’s description promises “A wrenching and dramatic story that explores the fabric of family: sibling rivalries, marriages on the rocks, hurt children, midlife crises — in short, modern life”.

1aacoadyHellgoing, by Lynn Coady. Coady was shortlisted in 2011 for The Antagonist, the engaging story of a rough-and-tumble hockey enforcer remembering his childhood that attracted much positive attention. That novel indicated she would be adept at short stories, so I am looking forward to reading this collection. Short story collections are popular in Canadian publishing and the Giller longlist always includes a couple — juries in the past have a good record of picking out some of the most interesting ones.

1aademariaffiHow To Get Along With Women, by Elisabeth De Mariaffi. Another short story collection, this one a debut volume from an author who is unknown to me. It appeared last October and has not attracted much attention. The publisher’s blurb promises: ” Infused with a close and present danger, these stories tighten the knot around power, identity, and sexuality, and draw the reader into the pivotal moments where — for better or for worse — we see ourselves for what we truly are.” The volume’s title suggests that feminism of some sort will be a common theme.

1aagilmorExtraordinary, by David Gilmour. Gilmour is one of Canada’s mid-list authors whom I have overlooked: A Perfect Night to Go to China won the 2005 Governor-General’s Award. I’ll admit I looked at this one earlier this year and put it off because I was not attracted by the subject matter: A man and his half-sister meet at her request to spend the evening preparing for her assisted death. I’ll try to approach the novel with an open mind when I do get to it.

1aawinter1 Minister Without Portfolio, by Michael Winter. This novel promises to address Canada’s participation in the war in Afghanistan — the central character is working with an army-affiliated contracting crew when a routine patrol becomes fatal. Shadow Giller juror Alison Gzowski knows the author well and has read the book — she has promised a guest review here in a couple of weeks so I will probably leave this one until relatively late in my longlist reading.

1aa vyletaThe Crooked Maid, by Dan Vyleta. Like Real Juror Esi Edugyan’s Giller-winning Half Blood Blues, this is a war story, set in Vienna, 1948. Two strangers meet on their way back to the city, where a war-crimes trial is taking place — the description promises an exploration of a city “haunted by its sins” for its collaboration with the Nazis.

1aa hamelinOctober 1970, by Louis Hamelin. The only translated novel on this year’s longlist, October 1970 gives Wayne Grady a double hit — he is the translator. The novel (which is not due for release until Sept. 21) promises to revisit Canada’s FLQ crisis — “Thirty years after the October Crisis, Sam Nihilo, a freelance writer whose career is in a slump, is drawn to the conspiracy theories that have proliferated in the wake of the events.” I was 22 years old and a rookie journalist when it took place — I’ll admit that I am looking forward to this view of the events, since they have not often been addressed in Canadian fiction.

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

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

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

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

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

September 12, 2013

Available from McClelland & Stewart

Available from McClelland & Stewart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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