Archive for the ‘2014 Giller Prize’ Category

The 2014 Real Giller Prize winner is…

November 10, 2014

The Real Giller jury actually agreed with the Shadow Giller jury — what more can I say?

Then again, they read all the books and we read all the shortlist, so maybe the decision(s) shouldn’t be such a surprise — although I certainly was when I heard the announcement.

Keep scrolling to discovery how the Shadow Jury reached its decision. And you will find links to both Kimbofo and my reviews of Us Conductors.


The 2014 Shadow Giller Prize winner is…

November 9, 2014

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2014 michaels

…Sean Michaels, for Us Conductors.

Before offering some thoughts on the (surprise) winner, allow me to digress briefly on this year’s deliberations. Alison Gzowski, a Shadow Jury veteran of more than 10 years, prefaced her original vote submission with the following: “I have to say this was the toughest Shadow Giller yet. There is no standout, I have not been impressed by the list and not sure of my opinion as reading one book hit close to home.” I think the other three of us would agree with that sentiment: this year’s list was characterized by good (perhaps even very good) but not great books, all of which had their flaws as well as strengths. And given that there was no obvious standout (as The Orenda was last year), the way that finalist books hit a particular personal chord (or prejudice) influenced every juror.

In fact, after two rounds of voting, we came down to a virtual tie between Us Conductors and Frances Itani’s Tell — Kimbofo’s enthusiastic support for Sean Michaels’ book and the fact that it is his debut were enough to lead me as chair to suggest we give it the nod.

Us Conductors is a fictionalized biography of the Russian engineer and physicist Lev Termen, inventor of (among many other things) the theremin, which is sort of a precursor of the Moog synthesizer. The first section of the book takes place in upscale New York — Termen is promoting his instrument from a suite at the Plaza, with concerts at Carnegie Hall. Things start to go downhill (more from hopeless financial mismanagement than anything else) and the naïve scientist slips into a role as a spy. That leads to section two of the novel: Termen’s spell in the gulag, since his spying career was hardly stellar and he is a convenient scapegoat. And finally, section three takes place in Moscow — he is still a prisoner, but now he is back to being an inventing scientist as well.

You can read Kimbofo’s recently posted review in full here — this is how she concludes it:

At times [Lev] seems alarmingly trusting — for instance, he leaves all his business decisions to a man he knows little about and then seems unfazed when he’s barely got a dime to rub together. But just when you have Leon pegged as being a passive character, he does something completely left of field (I can’t reveal it here, because it’s a bit of a plot spoiler) and you realise you should never under-estimate him.

This is what makes Us Conductors such an intriguing read. But it’s also an intriguing read because it’s so ambitious in scope and theme. It’s a story about music, invention, emigration, science, love, espionage, money, fame, crime and punishment. It’s part New York novel, part prison memoir, part espionage tale, part romance. But, most of all, it’s epic, life-affirming — and fun.

I’d say that is a fair summary of what the rest of us thought, perhaps a bit more enthusiastic. As Trevor said “it has its ups and downs” and I concluded my review of it last spring (you can find the full version here) with:

I’d like to quote Michaels’ “Author’s Note and Acknowledgements” as an indication of the spirit of the novel. While it is based on known facts about Termen’s life, “it is full of distortions, elisions, omission, and lies”. In the real life, the author saw the elements of a good story — and at least in the first half, he certainly delivered on it.

As usual, the Shadow Giller Jury wishes to be totally transparent in how it reached its conclusions. As chair, I followed the same approach that we had used in the past three years, giving each juror 100 points to spread among the six shortlist titles. Here is what that produced:

Kim: Michaels 38, Itani 26, Bezmozgis 11, O’Neill 10, Toews 9, Viswanathan 5
Alison: Bezmozgis 32, Toews 32, Michaels 15, Itani 11, O’Neill 5, Viswanathan 5
Trevor: Itani 24, Bezmozgis 20, O’Neill 18, Michaels 17, Toews 16, Viswanathan 5
Kevin: Itani 28, Michaels 26, Bezmozgis 19, O’Neill 13, Viswanathan 9, Toews 5

Total: Michaels 96, Itani 89, Bezmozgis 82, Toews 62, O’Neill 46, Viswanathan 24

As you can see, we were spread all over in our opinions of the best book — O’Neill and Viswanathan had no support, but all the other four did.

(A brief aside on Miriam Toews All My Puny Sorrows. I have confessed to not liking it at all — it is a book about suicide with the central story being one sister’s struggle with how to help her sibling successfully kill herself when she has failed many times before. As is well known in the Canadian publishing community, it is a fictionalized account of the author’s own recent experiences. Toews is an engaging, popular person in that community and I suspect that has influenced the critical response. The book obviously succeeds for some people (see Alison’s total). For the other three of us — who are primarily readers rather than members of the literary community — it was far less impressive).

We headed into a second ballot — this time I asked that 100 points be spread between Michaels, Itani and Bezmozgis. Alas, Alison was on a board retreat and out of touch (for an organization founded by her father, the Peter Gzowski Invitational golf tournaments which raise more than $1 million a year for literary organizations in Canada — so she was very much present in spirit), so this one only had three jurors voting. The results:

Trevor: Itani 36, Michaels 32, Bezmozgis 32
Kim: Michaels 50, Itani 40, Bezmozgis 10
Kevin: Itani 40, Michaels 34, Bezmozgis 26

All three of us agreed that we would be happy with any of the three as a winner — I explained above how it came to be Michaels.

Given that even in that second ballot Itani’s Tell was the favorite of two of us, it hardly seems fair to end this year’s Shadow Jury deliberations without some acknowledgement of it. In my review, I called it a Canadian version of the “Irish village” novel — the story involves two couples, each with there own set of difficulties, in a small Ontario town in the aftermath of the Great War. Here is what Trevor had to say about it when he submitted his vote:

I was not anxious to read this book when I read about its plot. War novels are dime a dozen, and this year I received dozens of World War I books in the mail. There are masterpieces out there, but I unfortunately tend to refuse the books the benefit of the doubt. I was shocked at how much this book suited my desire for an introspective look at community. I loved the writing itself — slow, detailed, delicate — as it grew increasingly complex. And I’m a freak for small-towns!

As he notes, it has been a big year for Great War novels and for many readers (you can include me) that has produced some “war fiction fatigue”. Rest assured, Tell is a very good novel that is worth the read: you can find Kim’s review here and KfC’s here.

Our congratulations to Sean Michaels — Us Conductors was a most rewarding read for all of us. And now, the Shadow Jury will sit back and await the Real Jury’s decision. For what it is worth, we are not expecting them to agree with us — our prediction is that Miriam Toews will be picking up the $100,000 cheque tomorrow night. (The Globe and Mail this Saturday reported on a poll of 30 “industry” people and their predictions of the winner: Toews 19, Bezmozgis 4, Itani 3, O’Neill 2, Viswanathan 2, Michaels 0. Obviously, the Shadow Giller readers are out of touch with the industry consensus.)

Finally, I realize that my reading has run ahead of my reviewing and three of the shortlist (All My Puny Sorrows, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night and The Ever After of Ashwin Rao) have not yet been reviewed here. They should be up within the next two weeks.

Kimbofo reviews The Betrayers

November 4, 2014

1aaa bezmogis Kimbofo and I are both trying to get as many Giller shortlist reviews posted as possible before next Monday’s Gala and prize announcement — and she is doing a better job than KfC is. Here are the opening paragraphs to her review of David Bezmozgis’ The Betrayers — you can find her full review here and KfC’s here.

David Bezmozgis’ The Betrayers has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. It’s not the first time he’s made the cut — his first novel, The Free World, was shortlisted in 2011.

This new book is also focussed on Russian Jews but is vastly different. Set in current times, and spanning just 24 hours, it focuses on two aged men — a Russian dissident turned Israeli politician, who is embroiled in a sex scandal, and a 70-year-old Soviet exile, who is in poor health and struggling to make ends meet — whose paths cross in Yalta, a holiday resort on the Crimean peninsula.

The book is divided into four main parts — the first focuses on the politician, Baruch Kotler; the second on Vladimir Tankilevich, the Jew who informed on Kotler 40 years earlier; the third on their reunion; and the fourth on the outfall of their meeting.

In a nutshell, the story goes something like this: in his role as a cabinet minister, Kotler has taken a stand against the destruction of West Bank settlements and has refused to be blackmailed into keeping quiet. As a result, photographs of him in a compromising position with his young assistant, Leora, have been published in the papers. Kotler and Leora decide to lay low by taking a short vacation in the Crimea, where they rent a room from a Russian woman. By coincidence, it turns out that the Russian woman is married to Tankilevich. The two men meet, have a long conversation about their past, and then Kotler and Leora return home to face the consequences of their actions.

Of course, it would spoil things to outline the detail of the conversation between Kotler and Tankilevich, which makes up the bulk of the book, but suffice to say it largely fleshes out the novel’s theme, which — as the title would suggest — is very much focussed on betrayal and its long-lasting repercussions. This betrayal is not only between the two men at the heart of the story, but also on other characters, including Kotler’s betrayal of his longstanding wife Miriam (by taking up with Leora) and Leora’s betrayal of Kotler’s daughter, Dafna, with whom she is very good friends ( by taking up with her father).

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Kimbofo reviews Tell

November 3, 2014

The Giller Gala is only one week away, so I should be posting a few reviews this week. Here is the opening to Kimbofo’s review of Frances Itani’s Tell — you can find her full review here. (She also makes reference to my review of Tell — you can find it here).

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The aftermath of the Great War on the residents of a small village in Canada is the subject of France’s Itani’s latest novel, Tell, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize.

I read it back-to-back with William Trevor’s Love and Summer [KfC’s review of that one is here] and couldn’t help but see the similarities between them. Both are gentle, comforting, slow-paced reads, about people quietly getting on with their lives in a small, close-knit community. Indeed, in KevinfromCanada’s review of Tell, he suggests the book is a Canadian version of the Irish village novel in which “a collection of ordinary people try to deal with life, even if they have been touched by extraordinary events like war”.

Perhaps the only major difference — aside from setting and era — is that Itani’s book has a slightly more complicated structure, because it interleaves two main narrative threads instead of focusing on just a single story.

Tell spans just a couple of months — November 1919 to January 1920 — and is set in Deseronto, a small town in Ontario on the edge of a bay.

Here, we meet Kenan, a young shell-shocked soldier, who has returned from the war badly injured. He has a dead arm, has lost the sight in one eye and his face is terribly disfigured. He is too traumatised to leave the house, despite this wife, Tress, offering as much support and comfort as she can muster. The book follows their individual struggles to keep their marriage alive despite the fact that the war has changed both of them — physically and psychologically — forever.

The second storyline focuses on Kenan’s aunt and uncle, who also live in the village. Am and Maggie have been married for a long time, but their relationship has “stalled” in the sense that they barely have a thing to say to one another. Am seeks solace in his work maintaining the village clock tower and keeping his nephew company, while Maggie spends time with her new friends — an outgoing woman called Zel, and an Eastern European refugee called Luc — both of whom she met through the village choir. It is her relationship with choir master Luc, in particular, which threatens to destroy the fragile state of her marriage.

Kimbofo reviews The Ever After of Ashwin Rao

October 24, 2014

1aaa vasShadow Giller juror Kimbofo has posted her review of another Giller shortlisted novel, Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao. Here are the opening paragraphs to whet your interest, you can find the full review here.

Padma Viswanathan’s second novel, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. The Ashwin Rao of the title is an Indian psychologist who returns to Canada — where he trained — to do a “study of comparative grief”.

His subjects are the family members who survived a terrorist attack in which Air India flight 182 was bombed over the Atlantic en route from Montreal to Delhi, via London Heathrow, in 1985. More than 300 people were killed — mainly Canadian citizens — but the case was not brought to trial until 2004, the year in which the book is set.

Rao wants to find out how these people coped — “by what means did they go on?” — but his study is not exactly objective. He, too, lost family members in the tragedy — his sister and her two children — but he’s not always forthcoming about this, because he wants to keep his “professional distance”. But as the story progresses it becomes clear that in examining other people’s grief he is essentially exploring his own — even if he might not know it.

The novel, which spans summer 2004 to spring 2005, is structured around Rao’s interviews with survivors. Their individual stories — how their loved ones came to be on the flight, how they coped in the aftermath of the tragedy, what their lives have involved in the 18 years since — are “imagined” using a psychological technique Rao has been practising for his entire professional career.

The Betrayers, by David Bezmozgis

October 19, 2014

Purchased at

Purchased at

The notion of betrayal and how an act of betrayal effects everyone involved (not just the betrayer and the betrayed, but all those close to both) is ever-present in David Bezmozgis’ new novel.

The “action” of the novel may be confined to a single day but the streams of events (and there are a number) which have led to this climatic 24 hours extend back more than 40 years — and every one of those streams is put in motion by an act of betrayal.

The first took place in Moscow. Boris Kotler, a Jewish refusenik, was betrayed by his roommate, another refusenik who turned out to be a KGB informer, accusing Kotler of being a CIA plant. A show trial followed and Kotler spent 13 years in an assortment of Soviet prisons and labor camps.

Throughout those 13 years, his young wife, Miriam (who had received a coveted visa and emigrated to Israel a year previously), led an international campaign that never let Kotler’s fate escape attention. When that campaign eventually produced results, his own voyage to Israel came as a hero, arriving via a private jet, accompanied by prominent state authorities eager to be seen as contributing to the success of the campaign.

11shadow logoIn Israel, Kotler (now Baruch, not Boris) lived a life of success. At the time the novel opens, he is a minister in the cabinet (albeit representing a minor party in the coalition). His political future looks grim, however — he has both voted and spoken against the latest decision to destruct some West Bank settlements in the never-ending chess game of Israeli politics.

That was a highly-principled stand, but within hours recent acts of betrayal come back to haunt him. Baruch may be 70 but a year or so ago he betrayed Miriam (their relationship was never quite the same after his imprisonment) and took up with his assistant, Leora, who is decades younger. And in the rough and tumble world of Isaeli politics, it is only hours after his vote that a shadowy operator presents Baruch with pictures confirming the affair — if he does not change his stand, they will be forwarded to all the national newspapers.

Kotler’s act of betrayal is not to renounce his principles, although he does effectively desert them. Rather, it is to betray the entire world, career and family he has built as an Israeli hero and head to Yalta (where he remembers seaside holidays from his time as a child living in Moscow) with Leora — with no real plans beyond sharing the next few days with his young mistress. A symbol of the extent of his betrayal is that he chooses to introduce himself as Boris to the Russian woman at the bus station who is offering bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

If only for the purposes of reaching back in time, the use of his old name seemed appropriate. Not until he said it did he realize the extent to which simply identifying himself as Boris evoked a former self. A self very distinct from the man he had resolutely chosen to become. Boris. He might as well have said Borinka, the pet name his parents had used for him. His heart swelled at the ghostly sound of it in his head. And though he recognized that he was in a delicate frame of mind, still he was surprised by how vulnerable, how sentimental he had become. How easily and intensely he could be moved by his own thoughts and recollections.

Kotler’s idyllic, sexy escape lasts only a few hours. The very evening he arrives he is outside the decrepit residence where they are staying when he looks into the window — and sees that the husband of the woman who rented Baruch/Boris and Leora the room is one Tankilevich, the man who betrayed him to the KGB 40 years earlier.

As Bezmozgis develops that thread of the story, we learn that Tankilevich has been obsessed for the last 40 years with consequences of that betrayal — which from his point of view was not a betrayal but accepting the least worse choice given the pressure the KGB was applying. When they had no more use for him, he was given a new identity and a ticket to the Crimea to lose himself. He has kept up with Kotler’s fortunes over the years — while Kotler has experienced nothing but success, Tankilevich has been dealt nothing but failure. Indeed, his own current crisis is the threatened withdrawal of his only “income”, pitiful welfare payments from the local Jewish charity (based on yet again betraying his past but I’ll forego revealing those details).

It is important to note that while those events and threads provide the structure of the novel, the author is most interested in what produces betrayal and what its consequences are; he does this mainly through conversations between the characters. Kotler and Tankilevich have a number, not just about what happened 40 years ago, but what has happened since, including the last few days. Leola and Tankilevich’s wife Svetlana also have a couple — both defending their male partner while indirectly revealing the price that each has paid for his betrayals.

And there is a lengthy email letter from Miriam which pretty much goes through her experience of the whole 40 years, leading up to the pain of the last few days. By the time it takes place in the novel, the reader already knows Kotler’s version — Miriam’s letter is the viewpoint of an innocent (and aggrieved) partner in his betrayals.

Those who have read Bezmozgis’ first novel, The Free World (which impressed the Shadow Jury enough that it was our choice for the 2011 prize), will recognize that many of these elements of conflict between principle and situational morality for Jewish Russian emigres were present in that book. There is a key difference between The Betrayers and that novel however — while The Free World was more about how characters “used” (and sometimes paid for) those choices, The Betrayers is much more of a metaphysical look at the idea of betrayal, how the choice to betray is made and the cascade of consequences that follow.

I will confess to liking The Free World more than I liked this one, mainly because of the way that the author located his characters in the unfamiliar émigré world around them and the coping strategies they needed to develop to survive. This novel is a much more introspective book — while we are told what Kotler and Tankilevich were and have become, Bezmozgis is more interested in exploring the idea of betrayal than he is in fully developing the different worlds that the two lived in. While he certainly succeeds in doing that, he also succeeded in reminding me that I appreciate books that portray external context and conflict more than I do ones that focus on their internal versions.

Moving Forward Sideways Like A Crab, by Shani Mootoo

October 13, 2014

Purchased at

Purchased at

Shani Mootoo has featured on this blog before: an enthusiastic review of the 2009 Giller-longlisted Valmiki’s Daughter. In that one, Mootoo — born in Ireland, raised in Trinidad, resident of Canada for some while — focused on an upper-class Trinidadian family, the father a doctor struggling with his homosexuality, a daughter effectively flaunting her lesbianism against local convention and the arrival back in Trinidad of a family acquaintance and his “best-friend” wife who have made good in North America.

Given that, let’s consider the main elements of Moving Forwards Sideways Like A Crab:

  • Jonathan Lewis-Abbey is heading to Trinidad from Toronto. The mother he knew as “Sid” (not his biological mother, but her partner) for the first nine years of his life has been “Sydney” for the last 30. After decades of missing his “mother”, Jonathan found Syd about ten years back and has visited frequently since — this trip is taking place because Syd is dying and wants Jonathan there to impart some last messages.
  • Sydney mainly wants Jonathan there so he can explain why he left their Toronto home without warning, why he opted for a surgical sex change and why he needed to come “home” to Trinidad after his North American experience.
  • An important part of that is Sydney’s need to return to his own coming-out experience, his friendship in school days with Zain that evolved into a lover’s obsession, Zain’s return of that friendship even after she married and became a mother of two and a harmless, but compromising, incident involving Sid and Zain that Syd believes led to her murder.
  • 11shadow logoThose bullet points are the background of the plot — Moving Sideways Like A Crab is set in the present tense so all of that comes from back stories which form the bulk of the novel. After a few “here is what really happened” exchanges with Jonathan, Syd dies and the Toronto son is left as the key family member to look after the mourning and cremation. Syd has not just left a final few verbal stories, he has also left letters and journals that Jonathan digs into, trying to understand how his mother “Sid” became his generational parent “Sydney”.

    A prologue from one of Sydney’s notebooks outlines the challenge that he feels he is facing in setting all this in motion as his death approaches:

    In the end, I hope that Jonathan will understand why, after coming to Canada in search of some sort of authenticity, after living in Toronto for more than three decades, I returned home — I returned, that is, to live again in Trinidad. But how do I explain it so that he doesn’t think I ran away, gave up, failed?

    One more chance is all I ask for. But time is against me, and there is so much to tell.

    Contrast that with the following excerpt from Jonathan (Moving Forward Sideways Like A Crab is structured as a memoir from him, although it frequently digresses into Sydney’s notebooks and straightforward narrative) as his plane is about to land in Trinidad. This flight is taking place only two months after his last visit — Sydney’s looming death has changed all schedules.

    It amuses me how the instant the fasten-seatbelts sign is turned off during the flight from Toronto to Port of Spain, Trinidadians get up and strut about. They seem to know one another; they congregate in the aisles unabashedly airing their business, telling jokes, heckling each other or reminiscing. Their anticipation is palpable. Some begin the journey as strangers, but through conversations struck up in the interminable lineups at the airport or during the five-hour flight itself, they inevitably learn that they know someone in common or are even related. I have always envied their ease and willing camaraderie, and having been to their island numerous times over the past decade, have often wanted to contribute my penny’s worth; but discretion — on account of being just a visitor to the island — has prevailed.

    (A digression, which won’t make sense to anybody but Canadian visitors here, but I suspect will strike a bell with many of that group: I was totally taken with that paragraph from a purely Canadian perspective. I’m not a Nova Scotian, but I have flown into and out of Halifax many times — on every flight, it seemed to me that it took less than an hour for the three people in the row behind me to discover a common friend (or enemy) and, more than once, a relative. That is a sense of community that not much of the world gets to experience.)

    I have chosen those excerpts quite deliberately to illustrate the high expectations that Mootoo’s opening pages produced for me. On the one hand, a dying individual struggling to explain (perhaps even justify?) her/his past decisions. And on the other a “traveller” — certainly a knowledgable one, but someone who realizes he is entering a culture that he may know but is not part of.

    That promised a lot, particularly given my enthusiasm for Valmiki’s Daughter with its similar elements. Unfortunately, I have to report that, for this reader at least, Moving Forward Sideways Like A Crab does not deliver on the promise.

    Much of the narrative of the novel revolves around Jonathan trying to come to terms with why Sid did what she did to become Sydney. While I can certainly appreciate that that is a compelling topic for some readers, I think for most it is a case of “looking at” rather than “being part of”. And I am afraid that Jonathan, as he proceeds along this final path of life with Sid/Sydney, shrinks, rather than grows, in interest.

    And while Trinidad is always part of the story (indeed, part of my problem is that Toronto and lives there — both Sid/Syd’s and Jonathan’s — never get addressed by the author), it does not becomes three-dimensional — local custom and behavior are never investigated beyond how they played with the high-school Sid, the dying Sydney or his funeral rites. As I read the novel, I frequently found it comparing not well with Sam Selvon’s final Moses novel.

    Shani Mootoo is a very talented writer — and I salute her attempts to produce books that include conflicts of immigration with its challenging attitudes and circumstances, the difficulty of dealing with both old and new cultures and, perhaps most pressingly, sexuality. For this reader, it worked very well in Valmiki’s Daughter — this novel falls well short of that mark. I certainly do not fault the Giller Jury for including this on the longlist; neither do I dispute their decision not to advance it.

    2014 Giller Prize shortlist

    October 6, 2014

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    The Giller Prize shortlist was announced this morning:

    The Betrayers, by David Bezmozgis

    Tell, by Francis Itani

    Us Conductors, by Sean Michaels

    The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, by Heather O’Neill

    All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews

    The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, by Padma Viswanathan

    I have read three — you can find a review of Us Conductors here and Tell here. As I said when the longlist was announced, I was so disappointed with All My Puny Sorrows that I decided not to review it when I read it in the spring — I will be giving it another read to see if I missed something the first time around.

    My fellow Shadow Jurors don’t really get started until now, but there are a couple of reviews already up. Kim’s review of The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is here and you can find another review of Us Conductors on Trevor’s site here.

    I have read three other books from the longlist: Shani Mootoo’s Moving Forward Sideways Like A Crab, Claire Holden Rothman’s My October and Rivka Galchen’s story collection American Innovations. I’ll be posting reviews of all three in the next couple weeks — for now, I’ll just say that while I am happy to have read them I have no quarrel with leaving any of the three off the short list.

    My planned reading order for the three I have not yet read will be Bezmozgis, O’Neill and finally Viswanathan. I’ll post reviews shortly after finishing each and should have them up well before the Nov. 10 Prize announcement. I’ll also do my best to get to the three longlisted books I have yet to read that did not make the shortlist.

    As usual, your thoughts on the list and the books you have read are more than welcome.

    Tell, by Frances Itani

    October 4, 2014

    Purchased at

    Purchased at

    It is November, 1919 and the town of Deseronto, Ontario on the Bay of Quinte at the eastern end of Lake Ontario has just held its first Remembrance Day ceremony “to thank Desoronto’s red-blooded manhood for its sacrifices, its heroism and its gallantry on the far-flung battlefield”.

    Kenan Oak is one of those being honored, but he has not attended the ceremony. Indeed, since returning from the war as one of the “walking wounded”, Kenan has not left the house he shares with wife Tress, save to occasionally sit on the veranda and contemplate the bay. Kenan was witness to the devastating gas attacks that both killed and permanently damaged soldiers, but that is not what ended his war. Rather, it was an explosion that left him with a useless arm, a blind left eye and a badly-scarred face.

    He may be a recluse, but without being consciously deliberate about it he has mapped his own plan for recovery and re-entry into the real world. He does receive a few family visitors at home, most importantly his Uncle Am who has managed to find Kenan employment as a home-based bookkeeper for the local pharmacist. And he is beginning to explore and expand the limits of his restricted mobility — his legs are fine but, one-armed, one-eyed and mentally shaken, Kenan is very careful about just what risks he is willing to take.

    He was in the parlour now, the soles of his shoes pacing a thin carpet Tress had laid over the floor. He took no step for granted; each was slow and considered. Feet could be swallowed by bottomless holes. Had he not watched men his own age swallowed by sinkholes? He had. He carried on, reached out with right hand, right arm. He felt for familiar objects as he began to trace a known sequence through his narrow house.

    He did this only when Tress was out, only when he was certain that she would be away for hours, working in the dining room of her parents’ hotel at the other end of Main Street. If she were to witness the treks he made through the house with his good eye closed, she would think he was crazed by war. No, that was unfair. Tress wanted to bring him back from the darkness that held him down. She had not given up, nor was she likely to. Or so he told himself.

    That excerpt comes from the opening chapter of Tell and, after the author has briefly ventured into explanations of Kenan’s history as a youth and his war experience, the young man ventures from the house for the first time since returning from the war. He wants no part of meeting people, so he turns away from town and follows a path he remembers well from his youth (“Kenan knew every rock, root and shrub”). The excursion is one of what will be a series of tipping points that frame his hopes for recovery.

    On that initial excursion, Kenan avoids contact with anyone else, but he has been observed — by his Uncle Am, who is sitting in his retreat at the top of the clock tower in the three-storey post office building where he is superintendent, handyman and resident (he and his wife Maggie live in the third floor apartment of the building).

    So. The boy was finally out in the open. First time since he’d come home from the war. Am still thought of him as a boy. Kenan was in his mid-twenties compared to Am’s fiftieth birthday coming up. Because Am was related — his niece Tress had married Kenan just before the war — he was one of the few permitted to visit after the boy had returned home.

    Kenan had never objected to Am’s presence. During the early months, Kenan hadn’t spoken at all. The two men sat in the glassed-in back veranda, often on a Sunday afternoon, side by side in wicker chairs arranged to face the bay. The silence was not uncomfortable. When Am spoke, it was to talk about boats on the water, who owned which, who drifted over from Napanee, who was out on a Sunday excursion, who had caught the biggest walleye or bullhead that week, who was unlucky enough to be bailing water from a leaky-bottomed boat.

    A few posts back, in a review of Niall Williams’ History of the Rain, I described it as an “Irish village” novel in the tradition of authors like John McGahern, Colm Toibin and others. Tell is very much a Canadian version of the genre, although with a distinct difference from most other Canadian examples — there is no harsh climate or brutal nature in this novel, just a collection of ordinary people trying to deal with life, even if they have been touched by extraordinary events like war. Author Itani highlights that “village” character by including news briefs from the Deseronto Post as one-page chapter breaks.

    Her story unfolds with slow deliberation but eventually evolves into two parallel (but contrasting) narratives.

    The first is that of Kenan and Tress, dealt that cruel blow of wartime injury but both in their own way determined to somehow build a new life together. The progress they make comes tentatively, but it is still touching.

    The second thread, which becomes more prominent as the novel unfolds, is the story of Am and Maggie. If the war has suddenly altered the young couple’s life together, Am and Maggie’s relationship is one that has been withering over the years through boredom and ennui. The two have pretty much stopped talking to each other, except for commonplace daily exchanges. While Am retreats to his clock tower aerie, Maggie has found a revived life in a new friend, Zel, and her participation in the village choral society. Maggie has always had a musical bent — the newly-arrived choral society director Lukas (himself a different kind of war refugee) has decided that she will feature as a soloist in the village choral concert. A quiet, withdrawn woman, Maggie has never before faced that kind of public attention.

    The challenge with “village” novels, be they Irish or Canadian, is maintaining reader interest, given that almost by definition not much happens in a rural village. Authors need to turn ordinary people into three-dimensional characters because it is the people, not events, who are the heart of the book.

    For this reader, Itani succeeded superbly in delivering on that challenge. Kenan, Tress, Am and Maggie all come fully to life — as do their relationships as couples, the way the four relate to each other and the roles they each play in the community where they live. As the novel proceeded, I felt more and more a part of the Deseronto community where these four live.

    As I noted earlier, Tell is different from most “Canadian village” novels because Mother Nature in this book is a tame, far from hostile, creature — indeed, her major contribution here is freezing the bay so the town can shovel off a skating rink that serves as the central social gathering point for the winter. Any Canadian who grew up skating on the frozen local pond (as I did) will find those passages taking them back to their own childhood.

    I have not been as keen as others on Itani’s previous works (Deafening attracted much critical praise, but fell flat with me) but I salute the Real Giller Jury for including this one on the longlist because without that recognition I probably would have skipped it. I suspect it is too delicate and fragile to be the Prize winner, but I would be quite happy to see it advance to the short list. In the final analysis, it is an engaging and heart-warming read — the characters may be “ordinary” in both their strengths and flaws, but they are creations whom I am delighted to have met.

    Kimbofo reviews Paradise & Elsewhere, by Kathy Page

    October 1, 2014

    1aaa pageKathy Page’s Paradise & Elsewhere is one of two short story collections on the 2014 Giller Prize longlist — I am currently at the halfway mark in Rivka Galchen’s American Innovations which is the other. Here are the opening paragraphs of Kimbofo’s review of Paradise & Elsewhere; you can find the full review here:

    Kathy Page’s extraordinary short story collection Paradise & Elsewhere has been long listed for this year’s Giller Prize. I say “extraordinary” because it’s the best word I could come up with to describe the book in its entirety. Each of the 14 stories within it are magical little portholes into other worlds, or, as the author puts it herself (in the Acknowledgements), “explorations into the hinterland between realism and myth”.

    Indeed, reading many of these stories is a slightly dislocating experience. That’s because the places in which Page sets them feel real and recognisable — deserts, rural communities, suburbia, to name but a few — and yet somewhere at the mid-way point of each story, or near the end, she drops in a little detail that makes you realise these are not places you’ve ever been — or are likely to want to visit.

    Some are set now, others in the future after an unexplained and presumably catastrophic event has changed civilisation in subtle but oh-so important ways.

    There’s definitely an undercurrent of menace in many of these tales. People are never to be taken on face value, never to be trusted, because underneath they’ve all got their own private, self-interested agendas. Many characters are manipulative, dark and dangerous. Others are weak and naive -— and are always taken advantage of.

    This all adds up to some pretty edgy and deeply disturbing short stories, I must say, but Page reigns it in beautifully. There’s no pyrotechnics or melodrama, although the climax of each story is often surprising or unexpected. The writing is restrained throughout; there’s almost a journalistic quality to it and I was often reminded of the very best kind of travel reportage that not only transports you to foreign climes but describes the culture, the food, the people and tries to put it into context.

    Some tales also read as fables — not dull, overly simplistic, fables, but ones with dark moral messages at the core reminiscent of British writer Magnus Mills.

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