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 Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

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.

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

September 26, 2014

1aaa oneillThe 2014 Shadow Giller review season is under way — and Kimbofo has beaten me to the punch with a review of The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, by Heather O’Neill. It is O’Neill’s second novel, Kimbofo had liked her first (Lullabies for Little Criminals) and had this one on hand when the longlist was announced.

Here are the opening paragraphs from Kim’s review — you can read the entire review at her newly redesigned website here:

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is set in the bohemian quarter of Montreal during the 1995 Referendum. The story is told through the eyes of 19-year-old Nouschka Tremblay, whose life changes dramatically over the course of the novel: she begins night school, leaves home, marries a schizophrenic and falls pregnant. She also — rather unexpectedly — meets her long-lost mother for the first time since she was a little girl.

It is, essentially, a coming-of-age tale, but it’s not your usual run-of-the-mill one. For a start, Nouschka has an unbreakable bond with her twin brother, Nicolas, whom she loves and loathes in equal measure. The pair still live at home with the elderly grandfather, Loulou, who raised them. They even share a bed (aged 19, remember), but have spectacular yelling matches and physical punch-ups, often in public view.

“The thing is that Nicolas and I were afraid to be without each other. And whenever you are dependent on someone, then you naturally start to resent them. Everybody is born with an inkling, a desire to be free.”

And that desire to be free is one of the key themes of this novel: Nouschka craves it, but is also terrified by it. Despite being raised in a relatively Bohemian household and working a full-time job (in a magazine shop since leaving school aged 16), she hasn’t really grown up and is very much repressed by her father’s fame.

Her father, Etienne Tremblay, was a famous Québécois folk singer in the early 1970s with a knack for writing witty songs (apparently their humour made up for his inability to keep a tune). He took Nouschka and Nicolas on stage and television chat shows with him all the time and made them “wave wildly at the audience and blow kisses and say adorable things that he’d written”. Now, 15 years later, the twins are still recognised on the street, which keeps them unwittingly trapped in roles they should have long grown out of.

I promise that I will be in action soon, with a review of Frances Itani’s Tell — I have one or two previously read books to review and then my own 2014 Giller season will be in full swing.

Orfeo, by Richard Powers

September 22, 2014

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

A lot of readers whom I respect have nothing but good to say about Orfeo. It received very positive reviews in the professional press. Just last week, it was named to the National Book Award longlist. Earlier, it was one of the first four novels by U.S. authors to be named to the Booker Prize longlist, although it failed to make the shortlist. And at Trevor’s Booker forum, five of the 10 people who read it at the longlist stage ranked it best overall.

I’ll cut right to the chase and admit that I am an outlier on this one. For this reader, Orfeo was difficult, disappointing and unrewarding — it was a real chore getting to the finish.

Powers introduces us to the book’s central character, Peter Els, in his home microbiology lab, “clad in mufti, protective goggles, and latex hospital gloves”, where he is engaged in his project to alter and reconstruct DNA:

No one thinks twice about the quiet, older bohemian in the American Craftsman at 806 South Linden. The man is retired, and people take up all kinds of hobbies in retirement. They visit the birthplaces of Civil War generals. They practice the euphonium. They learn the tai chi or collect Petoskey stones or photograph rock formations in the shape of human faces.

But Peter Els wants only one thing before he dies: to break free of time and hear the future. He’s never wanted anything else. And late in the evening, in this perversely fine spring, wanting that seems at least as reasonable as wanting anything.

That quiet retirement is about to change dramatically. Peter’s dog, Fidelio, has just died. Obviously in the early stages of dementia, Els has called 911 — even though all he wants to do is bury his faithful companion wrapped in a treasured quilt in the back yard. While the EMTs tell him to call Animal Care and Control, they also take quiet note of the lab paraphernalia and pass those observations along to Homeland Security authorities.

booker logoEls is an adjunct professor at Verrata College, an avant-garde composer who still teaches a music appreciation course at a nearby senior citizen’s residence. It is while there that he hears his house has been surrounded by police and yellow tape, invaded by haz-mat-suited scene of crime officers determined to find out just what kind of terrorist science is going on here.

In fact, Els has just been pursuing a lifelong interest in the inextricable links between the roots of music and science. Rather than returning home to explain that, he chooses to take flight — one can’t help but think that dementia is having its way with him again.

Okay, that premise had promise, particularly in the way that Powers develops some of the background. One of the reasons that Els loved Fidelio so much was that “music launched her into ecstasies…when any human sustained a pitch for more than a heartbeat, she couldn’t help joining in.” For Els, music (and chemistry for that matter) isn’t something that is “composed” it is just “there”, waiting to be discovered. And we return to the young Peter, who even at age eight was equally fascinated by his clarinet and chemistry set.

While the investigation of Els and his flight will remain a constant backdrop in the novel, Powers soon reduces it to a secondary role. Els’ decision to flee is accompanied by a kaleidoscopic return to his past and how he has come to where he is — and it is the process of that where the author’s real interest lies. And while along the way we meet some worthwhile secondary characters in his wife and best friend (a musical director, rather than composer) from college, they too are only supporting factors in the novelist’s over-riding story.

Unfortunately for this reader, much of that is expressed in pages long explorations of avant garde classical music and the deeper meaning of its attachment to events. I am paraphrasing but Els comes from a school that feels that “beautiful” music is a trite travesty — they want atonal (you can insert other adjectives here — I love music, but I come from the beautiful is just fine school) compositions that disturb, not comfort, listeners. And for what it is worth, I like to make up my own mind about what music (or art for that matter) has to say rather than assuming there is some complex version of reality behind it that I have to discover.

Powers’ first excursion into a lengthy explanation linking music with harsh reality, how Messaien came to compose Quartet for the End of Time when he was a prisoner of war, initially sparked some interest on my part — but halfway through I was unconvinced and finding it a dreadful slog. Alas, that was merely a sign of more to come — we go through similar excursions into Els’ youthful compositions, a John Cage experience while at college and an opera that he was commissioned (highly improbably, since he is unknown with no established record) to compose for the New York City Opera.

Those who have an affinity for avant garde music undoubtedly might find something in these passages. I am afraid my response was much like that of his separated wife (who is one of the people he seeks out in his flight). While she was initially impressed and interested in his search for music, his failure to find anything eventually caused her to urge him to take up a real life — and when he didn’t, she took off with his daughter in tow.

Powers also indulges in some digressions into the relationship between music and chemistry (the search for a mathematical formula that results in both) which I found equally unrewarding. Again, as the reviews and response from other readers show, that negative response may well say more about me that it does about the novel.

If your response to all this is “well, KfC just wasn’t up to this one”, I’ll have to admit you may well be right. I did finish Orfeo, but after the opening quarter, it was an exercise in frustration.

2014 Giller Prize longlist

September 16, 2014

Here’s the Giller Prize longlist — if you click on the image it will take you to the publisher’s page with an extended description:

Waiting for the Man, by Arjun Basu

Waiting for the Man, by Arjun Basu

The Betrayers, by David Bezmozgis

The Betrayers, by David Bezmogis

American Innovations, by Rivka Galchen

American Innovations, by Rivka Galchen

Tell, by Frances Itani

Tell, by Frances Itani

Watch How We Walk, by Jennifer LoveGrove

Watch How We Walk, by Jennifer LoveGrove

Us Conductors, by Sean Michaels

Us Conductors, by Sean Michaels

Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab, by Shani Mootoo

Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab, by Shani Mootoo

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

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

Paradise and Elsewhere, by Kathy Page

Paradise and Elsewhere, by Kathy Page

My October, by Claire Holden Rothman

My October, by Claire Holden Rothman

All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews

All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews

The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, by Padma Viswanathan

The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, by Padma Viswanathan

Okay, I will admit I am surprised by this list. I have only read two: Sean Michaels’ Us Conductors (review is here — I quite liked it) and Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows which has the distinction of being one of the few novels that so disappointed me I did not feel up to a review. I promise I will give it a re-read and post a review shortly.

What is most notable about the list is the absence of eligible titles from writers who I would say are on Canada’s A-list — Margaret Atwood, David Bergen, Ann-Marie Macdonald, Michael Crummey, Alexis Zentner, Kathleen Winter, to name just a few. I am only guessing, but I’d say we have a jury whose attitude is “let’s give some recognition to established, but overlooked authors”. I’d put Itani, Mootoo, Toews, Viswanathan into that category — I have read works by them all, but did not feel motivated to purchase these latest volumes when they were released. Certainly, they would fit my idea of midlist authors — I will be reading them because of the longlisting, but none fall into my “highly anticipated” category.

The Shadow Giller Jury will now swing into action. Trevor at the Mookse and the Gripes is our short story expert and he will be reading the two collections, Galchen and Page. After I re-read the Toews, my plan would be schedule Bezmozgis, Mootoo, and Itani as next on my agenda. Kimbofo and Alison will be free to set their own schedules.

Let’s hope my surprise is a pleasant one. The 2014 Shadow Giller is now under way — by all means join us on the journey.

2014 Booker Prize shortlist — and 2014 Shadow Giller Jury plans

September 9, 2014

booker logoThe 2014 Booker Prize Jury has done it again: completely befuddled KfC with its shortlist. I had read six of the longlist (reviews of Orfeo and The Bone Clocks are still to come) and figured at least four of those would be on the shortlist. Not so fast, Kevin — only two, one of which I hated. Whatever, here is the official list.

Already reviewed here

2014 flanaganThe Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan. A truly worthwhile novel that will likely end up being my choice for the Prize. Dorrigo Evans is an Australian doctor, the senior officer at a POW camp involved in building the Siam to Burma railway for the brutal Japanese. The highly dramatic POW experience is bookended with less satisfying (for me at least) sections on Dorrigo as a love-struck youth and as an unworthy, yet heroic, survivor of the war, damaged forever by his prison camp experience.

2014 ferris1To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris. I couldn’t understand how this disappointing novel made the longlist — a shortlisting is totally beyond me. Paul O’Rourke is a successful Park Avenue dentist — the rest of his life is pretty much a disaster. The downward spiral gets worse when a reasonably accurate website for his practice that he has nothing to do with suddenly shows up, soon to be followed with Facebook and Twitter accounts. That “identity theft” part of the novel is actually quite funny, but it heads into absurd (and thoroughly non-entertaining) territory when those social media accounts start to quote “scripture” from a long lost, forgotten Israeli tribe and the book becomes a cult exploration.

Reviews to come

2014 mukharjeeThe Lives of Others, by Neel Mukherjee. I have a fondness for multi-generational Indian sagas (Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance remains my favorite novel), so I was personally not disappointed to see this one on the list, even if it has met very mixed (actually, mainly negative) reviews from readers whom I respect. The Ghosh family starts out rich but is headed into decline as the novel opens. That produces a wealth of inter-family disputes. And when one son heads into radical politics, the door is opened to exploring the abuses and brutality of the Indira Gandhi era.

2014 fowlerWe Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. I had every intention of giving this one a pass, but a couple of positive comments here from visitors when the longlist was announced have convinced me it deserves a try. Still…the story of a 20-year-old whose parents decided to raise her with a chimpanzee for a sister? By the author of the best-selling Jane Austen Book Club? Doesn’t seem like my cup of tea, but I guess that on occasion I should try one of these more “populist” works.

2014 smithHow to be Both, by Ali Smith. I have respect for Smith’s work and planned on reading this one (it is just out) but early reviews from acknowledged Smith fans say it is not up to her usual standard, so I am somewhat concerned. The novel is actually two linked novellas — one set in Italy in the fifteenth century, the other in modern day Cambridge. Then again, I do like “art” books and there is an art theme to this one.

And one I won’t be reading

2014 jacobsonJ, by Howard Jacobson. I don’t like Howard Jacobson books (see my troubles with his Booker-winning The Finkler Question). And I loathe dystopian novels. So this dystopian tale by Howard Jacobson (promoted on its cover as a new 1984 or Brave New World — although there are rumors Jacobson writes his own blurbs) has no appeal whatsoever. Here’s a link to Mookse’s Booker Forum discussion of J for those who want more data — so far those who have read it seem to share my distaste.

All in all, I find this quite a bizarre shortlist. I thought Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World was an amibitious effort, even if it had some weaknesses. Niall Williams’ History of the Rain was an impressive “Irish village” novel. And I’ll tease my upcoming review of The Bone Clocks by saying it is my new favorite David Mitchell novel — and I have read every one that he has written. So I really can’t understand what the Booker Jury was thinking — perhaps the Booker and KfC are finally parting ways.

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On to a more positive note: the 21st Giller Prize Jury will announce its longlist one week from today. And that will open the deliberations of the 20th year of the Shadow Giller Jury, chaired by KfC. I’ve repeated the Shadow Giller story so many times here that I won’t be doing it again this year — if you are new to this site, here’s a link that tells the story.

For the first time in history, the Shadow Giller Jury last year was so unimpressed with the Real Giller shortlist that we were forced to “call in” an additional title for our own shortlist deliberations — and Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda emerged as the Shadow Giller winner. Let’s hope this year’s Real Giller Jury shows better judgment than their predecessors (or this year’s Booker Jury for that matter).

This year’s Shadow Jury will be the same as it has been for the last four years: Our American judge, Trevor, who blogs at The Mookse and the Gripes; Kimbofo, our London-based Australian ex-pat, who blogs at Reading Matters, Alison Gzowski from the Globe and Mail (who doesn’t blog but comments on the three who do) and KfC. We are even more international than the Real Giller Jury.

As is usual with only three weeks between longlist and shortlist, the Giller is a challenge for the Shadow Jury — we try to make sure at least one of us reads each longlisted book before the shortlist is announced, but our real action doesn’t start until then. Trevor and Kimbofo will be posting their thoughts on shortlisted titles on their blogs — I will offer excerpts from those reviews here and there will be a sidebar on the right where you will find links to reviews from all Shadow Jury members as they are posted.

And, of course, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Please join us for another exciting Giller Prize year.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan

September 1, 2014

Purchased from the Book Depository

Purchased from the Book Depository

Richard Flanagan opens The Narrow Road to the Deep North with a series of literary snapshots that serve as a virtual executive summary of what is to come.

First we have a quick picture of Dorrigo Evans in the kitchen of his Tasmanian home in the 1920s. The five-year-old has dropped a rock on his thumb, creating a blood blister under the nail. While his mother pierces the nail to relieve the pressure, a visiting Jackie Maguire laments the disappearance of his wife the week before. The young Dorrigo remembers seeing his much older brother Tom with Mrs. Maguire the week before she vanished: “…his brother with his hand reaching up inside her skirt, as she — a small, intense woman of exotic darkness — leaned up against the shed behind the coaching house.”

Next, we meet Dorrigo eighteen years later, lying in bed with Amy in a third floor room of a run-down hotel in Adelaide — by this time, he is studying medicine at the University of Melbourne. The two have an idle lovers’ conversation that turns suddenly serious: “Will you leave Ella?…Will you leave Keith?” The conversation ends abruptly when Dorrigo tells Amy he is shipping out to the war the next Wednesday.

And finally we meet Dorrigo Evans, now 77, again in a hotel bed, this time with 52-year-old Lynette Maison, the wife of a close colleague:

Inexplicably to him, he had in recent years become a war hero, a famous and celebrated surgeon, the public image of a time and a tragedy, the subject of biographies, plays and documentaries. The object of veneration, hagiographies, adulation. He understood that he shared certain features, habits and history with the war hero. But he was not him. He’d just had more success at living than at dying, and there were no longer so many left to carry the mantle for the POWs. To deny the reverence seemed to insult the memory of those who had died. He couldn’t do that. And besides, he no longer had the energy.

Whatever they called him — hero, coward, fraud — all of it now seemed to have less and less to do with him. It belonged to a world that was ever more vaporous to him. He understood he was admired by the nation, if despaired of by those who had to work with him as an ageing surgeon, and mildly disdained and possibly envied by the many other doctors who had done similar things in other POW camps but who sensed, unhappily, that there was something in his character that was not in theirs which had elevated him far above them in the nation’s affection.

That memory arises because the Dorrigo has just finished writing the foreword for a book of illustrations that were done by a fellow POW in the camps and it has brought on a flood: “For good reason, the POWs refer to the slow descent into madness that followed simply with two words: the Line.” Flanagan concludes this extended overview of his story with some memories of incidents of brutality that were a daily feature of life on the Line.

booker logoWhat follows (and forms the bulk of the novel) are three extended sections that effectively flesh out the summary.

The first is the story of Dorrigo and Amy. He is doing his final training as an army medic in late 1940 when he receives a telegram from elder brother Tom urging him to visit their uncle Keith who runs a pub in Adelaide. Tasmanian Dorrigo knows almost no one in Australia, so he decides to make the trip. Shortly before, however, he has an enigmatic and entrancing encounter with a beautiful young woman at a book launch in Melbourne. Dorrigo is engaged to Emma in what is best described as a “contract of convenience” — his response to meeting this girl underlines the fragility of that engagement.

That woman is Amy — and it turns out she is the youthful second wife of Uncle Keith. Dorrigo does visit the pub/hotel and the two begin a passionate affair that means Dorrigo spends all his free time in Adelaide. This youthful life experience — and this section of the book — comes to an end with two near simultaneous events: Dorrigo’s shipping out to war and an explosion and fire that destroy the pub, taking four lives in the process.

Section two of the book is the longest and by far the most intense. The combat portion of Dorrigo’s war does not last long and we next find him in a POW camp. While the Brits had contemplated building a railway linking Siam and Burma (one version of the “narrow road to the deep north” of the title — Basho’s poetic travelogue would be another), they abandoned the idea as an impossibility. The Japanese, eager to invade India, have declared it a necessity and further that it must be completed in 18 months. It will be built by POWs and forced labor from Asian countries the Japanese have conquered.

All of this section takes place in the POW camp and be forewarned it is truly brutal. Dorrigo is the senior Australian officer in the camp and the Japanese masters respect hierarchy. Daily, it falls to him to determine which prisoners will be sent off to build the Line and who will remain in camp in the tents of the dying and near-dying — once he has “assigned” the work force (the Japanese decree just how many hundred that will be each day), Dorrigo spends the rest of his day trying to keep the near-dying as alive as he can.

I won’t go into detail, but this is definitely the best-realized portion of the book — I’d love to offer an excerpt, but I am afraid each incident goes on for pages and a paragraph or two would be an inadequate illustration. Flanagan develops three-dimensional characters of both prisoners and their keepers. A wide assortment of atrocities and brutalities are described in excruciating, painful detail. Certainly, there are examples of what would qualify as “heroism”, but mainly it is a picture of living hell.

And finally, there is the post-war section of the book. Dorrigo is not the only prisoner survivor — we also return to the stories of others who are every bit as emotionally damaged as he is. And Flanagan also follows the stories of some of the Japanese prison minders who managed to escape post-war prosecution, mainly because the Allied winners just didn’t have the time to get to them all. It brings us up to date with the Dorrigo Evans we met in the opening sketch that summarized the book.

As much as I admire the ambition and much of the execution of the novel, I have to admit that I have some disappointment with the overall result — basically, the POW section is so powerful that it makes the other two seem woefully weak in comparison. Dorrigo’s affair with Amy is a satisfactory presentation of youthful infatuation (and sexual attraction) when you read it — it seems empty once Flanagan gets to the prison camp.

The final section suffers from the same flaw. We know from that opening part that Dorrigo has become an Australian success as a surgeon, not to mention war hero — but that 50 year portion of his life is left curiously under-developed in the novel. Certainly the war has left him severely emotionally damaged but he seems to have recovered well enough to manage a string of recognized accomplishments — Flanagan just does not create the tension that shows how he managed to do both. Alas, the Japanese tormenters who were three-dimensional in the prison camp also become two-dimensional in this part of the novel.

I do realize that at least part of this was deliberate on the author’s part: war damages the psyche of all who are involved, be they temporary “winners” or the final ones, and all combatants live damaged lives from then on. But I can’t help but wonder if Flanagan was as emotionally exhausted in the writing following the powerful portrayal of the POW camp as I was in the reading. I was more than ready to discover how Dorrigo had become a nationally recognized, if personally conflicted, success — and that just didn’t happen. When I started that final section, I was quite prepared for The Narrow Road to the Deep North to emerge as a truly stunning novel; instead it slipped to being just a quite good one.

History of the Rain, by Niall Williams

August 27, 2014

We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only live now in the telling. That’s how it seems to me, being alive for a little while, the teller and the told.

Purchased at the Book Depository

Purchased at the Book Depository

Ruth Swain pens that credo on the opening page of her personal opus which will become History of the Rain. By age 15, the precocious Ruth was a “sufferer of Smart Girl Syndrome” (Ruth uses a lot of capital letters, as her writing coach notes). But when she headed to Trinity College, she collapsed and came home again: “I have had Something Amiss, Something Puzzling, and We’re Not Sure Yet.”

So Ruth is confined to her bedroom in the attic of the Swain family cottage in Faha, Ireland, in search of something to do. Her room has two distinguishing features — two skylights that let her track the rain (and occasional welcome sun) and 3,958 books (carefully catalogued by her father who collected them) in tottering stacks that virtually surround her. It is those books that inspire her project to tell the Swain family story.

Mainly, she wants to recount the story of her father’s life, but to do that she needs to go back as far as her great-grandfather, the Reverend Absalom Swain of Salisbury, Wiltshire, who created the foundation axiom of the Swain family:

What the Reverend bequeaths to our story is the Swain Philosophy of Impossible Standard. In the year eighteen hundred and ninety-five he leaves it to his son at the christening, dipping the boy into the large cold name Abraham, and stepping back from the wailing, jutting the jaw. He wants his son to aspire. He wants him to outreach the ordinary and be a proof to God of the excellence of His Creation. That is how I think of it. The basis of the Philosophy of Impossible Standard is that no matter how hard you try you can’t ever be good enough. The Standard raises as you do. You have to keep polishing your soul ahead of Entering the Presence. Something like that.

booker logoWe will learn more about the Reverend (including his affection for the Pole-vault — “firing himself into the sky”), but that is probably indicator enough for review purposes. The Reverend sends Abraham off to Oxford to read the classics and Prepare for Life, which pretty much comes down to “waiting to get The Call”. A Call does come, but it is not from the Almighty — rather it is the arrival of the Great War and Abraham’s decision to enlist.

Abraham’s war does not last long. He is seriously wounded on his very first offensive, before he has even fired a shot. His life is saved first by a sympathetic German soldier who applies a tourniquet rather than finishing him off with a bayonet — and then by a young English doctor, Oliver Cissley, who “has come to war to save lives”.

Abraham will spend the rest of the war in a home for injured soldiers and Cissley will die in it — but saving Abraham’s life has left a mark that will stretch on. The doctor’s mother visits Abraham in the home and shares with him her son’s letters and his pride in saving Abraham. The Cissley family has done well out of the war (they manufactured “two million Mills grenade bombs”) and wants to give Abraham a house and lands in Ireland that they own in memory of their son.

Ireland (well, at least the Ireland of fiction) is notorious for having land that is hostile to farming and the plot that Abraham Swain is given is even more resistant to cultivation than most. While he struggles along for some years, slowly but surely he develops an obsession with salmon fishing. He records every catch he makes in succeeding decades and eventually produces a book, The Salmon in Ireland, with “Seventy-eight Illustrations from Photographs and Two Maps” — the novel features a number of excerpts.

Ruth’s father, Virgil, has no better luck farming the plot than his own father did and, like Abraham, develops his own obsession (hopeless obsessions are an essential of the Swain Philosophy of Impossible Standard). It starts with collecting and reading books (those 3,958 volumes that are Ruth’s constant companions) and evolves into endlessly writing poetry. He never actually gets any poetry published, but the people of Faha do regard him as the town laureate.

There is a fourth generation of male Swains present as well in the History of the Rain, Ruth’s twin brother, Aeney. She tells us early on that he is no longer with us — she takes a fair while to tell the story of his death.

That family history is the superstructure of this book, but it would be wrong to imply that that is all there is to it. Ruth’s manuscript is as much written contemporary oral history as it is historical story — each chapter opens in the here-and-now with incidents from her own confined life, be it the visit of townsfolk, domestic crises or the latest on her mother’s mother, the ninety-seven-year old Nan (or is she ninety-nine?) who continues to rule the Swain cottage from her seat by the fire.

Indeed, it is those contemporary thoughts that supply History of the Rain with one of its most distinctive features. Ruth is a product of all those ancient books she has read (Dickens is a particular favorite) and her prose when she is writing about her ancestors reflects that — to the reader, for the most part it feels as through the book was written many decades ago. And then, out of the blue, there come references to Facebook or the latest economic collapse and we are abruptly reminded that Ruth’s chronicle is very much being written in the present by a 20-year-old girl.

All of this made for a pleasant enough read. While this is the first Niall Williams I have read, it is his ninth novel — and, as I have come to expect from Irish authors, he certainly knows how to use the language. As the novel went on, I came to quite like and appreciate Ruth — her pictures of the male generations of the family were not quite as well developed but they too become real-enough characters.

The problem is that History of the Rain is what I call an “Irish village” novel and that sub-genre has some challenges of its own. “Irish village” novels do acknowledge that there are global issues at play (be it a famine, the Great War, the Troubles or the latest economic collapse) but those are so remote and beyond the influence of the book’s characters that they are just “there”. Of far greater consequence are the localized, personal issues (such as Ruth’s illness or Nan’s latest problems) that do genuinely impact on day-to-day life. Alas, there is an inherent limitation in focussing on the “small” while only acknowledging the “large” — and it takes some special skill to make it memorable.

All of which means that while I found History of the Rain to be an entirely worthwhile read, this fan of “Irish village” novels would have to admit that it did not measure up to the best in the genre. I would point to John McGahern’s That They May Face The Rising Sun, John Borderick’s The Pilgrimage and even Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart (which was Booker longlisted last year) as better examples of the sub-genre. (And Colm Toibin has more than one that would be worthy of including on that short list.)

Don’t let that put you off History of the Rain — but if you don’t yet have your own list of “Irish village” favorites and want to expand it, there are better places to start than this one.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris

August 12, 2014

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Imagine a youngish chef (say in his late 30s) who has decided he has had enough of all traditional cuisine, be it French, nouvelle or any of the more recent fusions. He’s going to create his own — he’ll still use a stove, pots and pans and knives but this mix of Inuit, Brazilian and Eritrean is going to be something special. A few of his customers end up thinking he is brilliant, many at least appreciate the creative effort and some (more than a few it has to be said) think the whole thing is just plain silly.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is the third novel from 39-year-old Joshua Ferris, but I’d say he has already “typed” himself as a writing version of that young chef. I sampled his first, Then We Came to the End (2007), and found it an enjoyable, if somewhat frothy, romp. Set in a failing Chicago ad agency, it had some truly comic moments and diversions, enough to offset the parts that just didn’t make sense — other readers had a much more negative reaction than mine. I was not tempted by his second, The Unnamed (2010), because reviews indicated it was more of the same. And I would have given this one a pass as well had it not been one of the original American novels to make the Booker longlist.

So just what story “cuisines” does Ferris try to fuse together in this one?

booker logoThe foundation one is dentistry of all things. The central character, Paul O’Rourke, is a Park Avenue dentist of some repute, with five treatment rooms (no office — the rent is expensive and that would mean one less chair) and a thriving practice. He’s proud of his work, so don’t think as a reader you won’t get some dental treatment reading, painful as it might be. As well, all but one of the other story threads are rooted in aspects of the dental practice.

Next into the mix is Ferris’ comic strain — and I knew from his debut (and some New Yorker stories) that he is a fine comic writer. Dentist O’Rourke, despite his reliance on his “me-machine” (that’s what he calls his cellphone) is techno-fearful and has always resisted the creation of a website for his practice:

I was a dentist, not a website. I was a muddle, not a brand. I was a man, not a profile. They wanted to contain my life with a summary of its purchases and preferences, prescription medications, and predictable behaviors. That was not a man. That was an animal in a cage.

And then one day, Paul’s receptionist/office manager (and ex-lover), Connie, calls him to the computer station: on-screen is a website for O’Rourke Dental, complete with accurate information and real, if dated, pictures of the staff. The novelist spins this out not so much as “identity theft” but “identity virus” — the website eventually is supplemented with a Facebook page and Twitter account. Given Paul’s own fascination with his me-machine, this particular thread supplies the platform for some quite good satire on modern social media.

Stream three springs from the clinic staff — in addition to Connie (Jewish, but not observant), there is his hygienist, Mrs. Convoy (who is a devout Catholic) and Paul’s aide, Abby, who appears in the novel only behind her pink paper mask and never says a word. Ferris doesn’t use this threesome so much as characters as he does metaphors for Paul’s historical love life:

I don’t get pussy whipped. I get cunt gripped. I get cunt gripped and just hope to get out alive. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, as the saying goes — so you can look forward to that one irrecuperable battering ram of a ballbreaker that will finally do you in.

To be cunt gripped means to show up at the door unannounced. It means calling at all hours. It means saying “I love you” far too soon, on or around the second date, and saying it all too frequently thereafter. When they caution that I might be moving too fast, I double down and send them flowers and fruit. To be cunt gripped is to believe that I have found everything heretofore lacking in my life.

This has happened four times in Paul’s life. The first two were in puberty and don’t really count at this stage of the story. The third, Sam Santacroce, came in university; the fourth was Connie. And we soon discover that Paul’s fascination was not with either Sam or Connie as individuals, but with their families, specifically their religious commitment and the “community” that that created — rabidly Catholic in Sam’s case, Jewish in Connie’s. Paul is not religious at all but he has a desperate compulsion for the security of the formality, ceremony, structure and discipline, above all discipline, that comes with fervent religious belief, whomever the particular superior being might be.

That desire fuels the fourth thread of the novel, which segues off both it and the “identity virus” and becomes the dominant one for most of the book. Whoever has created the website and other social media for O’Rourke Dental is a sect leader and excerpts from the religious texts of a lost Levantine tribe subject to frequent attempts at genocide start to appear on the various social media vehicles of the “virtual” Paul. Without giving too much away, the source of the identity virus is the founder of the religion of Ulm (whose central tenet is doubt in everything, starting with whether or not there is a God — not atheist or agnostic, just doubtful) and who is identifying and recruiting individuals (like Paul) whom he has decided have ancestral roots in the lost tribe.

And finally, just to put some icing on the cake and add some offbeat spice to the story (sorry about that — couldn’t resist extending the mixed metaphor, but Ferris has that effect on me), Paul is a lifelong Red Sox fan who watches, tapes and saves every game but always absents himself from the room for the sixth inning. Actually, he was more a fan of the Curse of the Bambino — since the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, his enthusiasm has ebbed but old obsessions are hard to shed.

Much like Harriet Burden in the last book and first Booker longlister reviewed here (The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt), Paul is a character searching for his identity (which makes the “virtual” one perhaps the most innovative aspect of the novel). Unlike Harriet, however, who has a number of substantial identities that she is trying to meld into a single one, Paul’s quest is self-evidently hopeless from the start.

And, for this reader at least, silly.

While the early parts of the novel had their moments — especially the bits around social media — once the real and pseudo religious ones took over, it became positively distasteful (okay, my metaphor is now totally out of control — blame Ferris). And I would have to say that the twist that Ferris uses to end the book said to me that he was every bit as confused by his fusion as I was and had to grasp to find a conclusion.

I could accept To Rise Again at a Decent Hour as an acceptable, if failed, effort at literary risk-taking that deserved to be published. For the life of me, I can’t understand how the Booker Jury decided it was one of the thirteen best novels of 2014.


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