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Franklin’s Folly: A Winter’s Tale

Cultures and societies live by myths and legends — narratives that tell us who we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going.  Think of America’s Wild West lore, its straight-shooting, take-charge cowboy persona that’s touched the psyche of millions. Other grand narratives speak of failure and calamity; they inspire us with their breathtaking idiocy. Canada’s seminal myth is one of these cautionary tales, the subject of a wonderful first novel.

On the Proper Use of Stars by Dominique Fortier gives a fictional account of  the doomed Franklin Expedition. Those of you with no Canadian smarts, read on: In 1845, two sailing ships (with 129 men and five years worth of provisions) left Britain to find the Northwest Passage through Arctic waters and claim it for the British Empire. Having set sail in May of the year, they were hemmed in for winter by Arctic pack ice. Three years later, the ice hadn’t budged and neither had the ships. With rations depleted and sailors dying (some of them from toxic tinned food), the survivors embarked on a death march across the ice, dragging behind them canoes full of useless artifacts, including flatware, button polish, bibles, wax seals, bedroom slippers and curtain rods. Behind them remained the detritus of British civilization, scattered across the ice in a massive garbage heap around the two stranded vessels, and not a Blue Bin in sight. Needless to say, things did not end well.

Fortier unfolds this novel through an impressive grab-bag of narrative techniques and wild juxtapositions, all of which move the story along and mirror its subtext of civilization’s clutter rendered useless by the crushing force of ice and snow. The novel navigates between the voyage itself and the drawing rooms of England, told through both first- and third-person narrative and from multiple points of view, including those of the confident Captain Franklin, his second-in-command Francis Crozier (a voice of rectitude and moderation), and Lady Jane Franklin (whose intelligent assessment fails to persuade the admiralty of the need of a rescue mission). Most poignant are the bunkroom conversations between chilled sailors grown hungry and desperate. Their anguish is rivaled only by Crozier’s sorrow over his unrequited love for Lady Jane’s niece Sophia, left behind in a country forever lost to him.

The literary flotsam scattered throughout this tale includes Lady Jane’s Christmas dinner menu, a play script, excerpts from journals and diaries and various undecipherable scribbles (A 19th century plum pudding recipe is appended to the text). This entertaining overflow of detail makes the reader uneasy; like the doomed voyage, it hints at excess, reminding us that we know the characters’ fates before they do, and that their fate may be ours.

One year into the ships’ imprisonment in the ice, champagne is still being poured at the captain’s table; later, as conditions worsen, the remaining officers are served “brownish gruel” on silver trays. Yet as flawed as her characters may be, Fortier allows us to care about their fates, reminding us that their human frailty and depth of denial are a distant echo of our own.

On the Proper Use of Stars by Dominique Fortier is translated from the French by Sheila Fischman. It was published in Toronto in 2010 by McClelland and Stewart.

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A Family Writ Large: Genni Gunn’s Solitaria

In the world of books, there’s nothing more satisfying than a novel that you can’t put down. Genni Gunn’s novel Solitaria (the recluse) is a gripping and beautifully written work that deserves to be a bestseller.  Gunn is a Canadian writer born in Trieste, Italy and the author of eight books. For reasons I can’t explain — or excuse — she’s managed to evade my notice.  It’s fortunate that awards juries aren’t quite as dozy as this reviewer. The novel was selected for the 2011 Giller Prize longlist.

Solitaria is Gunn’s third novel, and it’s built of an admirable combination of depth, language, and compelling storytelling. It concerns the discovery of the body of Vito, eldest brother in a large Italian family, a man murdered in the 1950s and thought by his siblings (and his abandoned wife, Teresa) to be living in Argentina.  It’s clear that contact with Vito was not a priority for his brothers and sisters, but neither did they draw close to big sister Piera, who narrates much of this story. Seen by her siblings as bossy, domineering and sharp-tongued, she nonetheless eased the family out of poverty by a marriage of convenience to a wealthy man. Her sole confidant is her nephew David, a professor in Canada who spent summers with his aunt in Italy while his mother Clarissa — Piera’s sister and a world-renowned opera singer — traveled the globe.  He feels close to his aunt, who responds to the discovery of her brother Vito’s body by taking to her bed and refusing to speak to the family members who’ve gathered for the funeral.

The family saga unfolds as Piera shares a cache of old photos — and well-worn memories — with her nephew David. As we learn about the impoverished life of Piera’s family during the Second World War, we wonder whose version of events is true: Piera’s view of herself as long-suffering and generous, or her siblings contention that she’s brought them nothing but misery. It’s this tension — and the seamless shifts in point of view — that propel the story along. Yet delusions abound in this family, and the first to shed them will be the one to confront the secret of Vito’s murder. (I’m happy to report that my whodunit hunches proved wrong).

Solitaria rushes toward its ending at a fast clip, but it does so with depth.  A metaphor of railway tracks and travel runs through this book; through it, we understand the peripatetic family whose father worked for the railroad, the scattering of siblings across continents, and David’s struggle to situate himself in the world. The story hints at the many dimensions of identity and belonging, from the personal and familial to the social and cultural.

In reviewing Solitaria, I should admit my bias; I’m of Italian descent, and I find that family passions writ large in the Mediterranean style — tales of honour and personal sacrifice, love and vengeance, retaliation and even redemption — are irresistible. In this context, I’m reminded of the novel’s power to show us that, whatever the particulars of our cultural background, we are not strangers to the human condition and we are not alone in the world. That said, you don’t have to be Italian to enjoy this reflective page-turner. It’s a wonderful, engrossing read.

Solitaria by Genni Gunn was published in Winnipeg by Signature Editions in 2010.

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Re-reading Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse

Summer’s the time for slow and meditative re-reading of old favourites, and at the top of my list is Virginia Woolf’s visionary 1927 novel, To The Lighthouse. I’ve just finished reading it again, meandering through sentences in which the reader drifts from one lucid thought to another, Woolf’s beautiful replication of the conscious mind at work.  The novel illuminates the passage of time in the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, their eight children, friends and visitors at a summer house on the Scottish coast. Endless waves break on the shore; everyday life continues with its small, quotidian pleasures and miseries; change touches everyone, and with it, grief, wonder and puzzlement over the mystery of being alive.

What’s wondrous and unique about this book is its sense of interiority, of deep and reflective consciousness. For these characters, time doesn’t advance in the usual way; it hovers, moves in circles, looping back and then ahead. It’s not the straight-ahead time of an energetic plot but subjective time as we experience it fragmented in the act of thought and memory.

The book’s first section explores a summer where hope and possibility are alive in the Ramsay children: young James who longs to visit the lighthouse (but is disappointed by his father’s crushing refusal) and Minta, who will soon be engaged; then Lily Briscoe the artist as she hopes to create a thing of beauty.  Hope culminates in Mrs. Ramsay’s sublime moment of happiness in the beautiful dinner scene which ends this period of time.

Yet in the second section, the house has been deserted; the First World War intervenes, the interior voice fades and we glimpse desolation imposed from without. “So with the lamps all put out, the moon sunk and a thin rain drumming on the roof, a downpouring of immense darkness began. Nothing, it seemed, could survive the flood, the profusion of darkness …”  Mrs. Ramsay and two of her children are reported dead.

Remnants of the family return, along with Lily the artist in the novel’s final section, structured as a kind of dialogue between two different but related efforts: the lighthouse-journey of James Ramsay (now a youth) with his father and sister, and Lily on the shore as she struggles to paint while reflecting on her own life and on the Ramsays’ losses and sorrows. Lily’s thoughts are eloquent; having lost her friend Mrs. Ramsay, her outraged grief is worthy of Job. “Was there no safety?” she cries out. “No learning by heart of the ways of the world? No guide, no shelter, but all was miracle and leaping from the pinnacle of a tower into the air?” In re-reading this book, its sense of mourning struck me; how Lily’s  cry of anguish voices the suffering of the human condition as it has always been and always will be.

Her words also echo the metaphor of the artist trying to bring form out of chaos, one that no doubt parallels Woolf’s own struggle to give shape to life through writing. “What is the meaning of life?” asks Lily. “The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark…”

In the end, this lovely and visionary book is beyond analysis. It is luminous, alive with revelations great and small. It is, in its own way, a vision.

 

This edition of To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf was published in New York by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2001.

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Flannery O’Connor’s Double-Header

Dear reader, what follows is a two-part review of two books, longer than my usual posts. The two sections are separated by asterisks, so you may want to save the second half for another reading.

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The American author Flannery O’Connor wrote haunting, disturbing and technically brilliant work during her short, but productive life. She died of lupus in 1964, aged 39, leaving behind several books of short stories and essays, and two novels: Wise Blood, published in 1952 and The Violent Bear It Away, which appeared ten years later. I’ve never read anything quite like this pair of dark yet often comic riffs on the great themes of salvation and redemption. (I should mention that I share with O’Connor both Roman Catholicism and an interest in theology, although by her orthodox standards, I’m probably a heretic).  Yet whatever one’s religious views (or lack of them), our perspective on O’Connor today is bound to be shaped by the violent religious fundamentalism that we’ve experienced in our time.  Read in that light, the novels speak even more brilliantly, and without a hint of didacticism. They are deep and multifaceted works that will no doubt disturb us in ways that their author never intended.

Wise Blood tells the story of Hazel Motes, a Tennessee man released from the army in 1945 who ends up in a nameless southern town where he enounters Asa Hawks, an allegedly blind street preacher and his strange daughter, Sabbath Lily Hawks. The encounter infuriates Hazel, who decides to found his own religion by preaching “The Church Without Christ” where “the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way.” In a pointed dig at a key American myth, Hazel buys a wreck of a “rat-colored” car, lives in it and sees it as his church. “Nobody with a good car needs to be justified,” he quips in one of the book’s many memorable lines. Yet his rage at the phony preachers of sin and salvation is the flip-side of his own attempts to shake these obsessions in himself. He’s a believer who believes in nothing, and when he acts on this non-belief, the results are catastrophic, going far beyond the worst practices of religion. Yet the beauty of the writing itself asks us to examine what spiritual depth might mean, and if Hazel’s frightening asceticism is madness or grace.

It’s often observed that Flannery O’Connor’s characters are grotesque and unlikeable.  I would argue that we live in an airbrushed, deodorized society, that what appears to be universal ugliness is, in fact, a profound statement about the chaos of the human condition. She portrays a world of lost souls, none of whom she ridicules, all of whom she brings to life with humour and compassion. Wise Blood is not for the faint of heart, but it’s blessedly free of political correctness and alive with truth.

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While both novels are compelling and readable, The Violent Bear it Away is the more developed and fully realized in its plotting and characterisation. In both novels, O’Connor makes skillful use of a multiple point of view — not chapters narrated by different characters, but a continuous flow of voices from paragraph to paragraph, moving us in and out of the heads of various characters. Rather than fragmenting either novel, this technique serves to let the voices to converge around larger themes.

In The Violent Bear it Away, we meet young Francis Marion Tarwater, orphaned and raised by his now-dead great-uncle, a self-styled prophet out to groom his nephew for the same calling. Upon the uncle’s death, young Tarwater escapes to the home of his cousin Rayber, a secular man and a teacher who also evaded his uncle’s clutches and who is now convinced that reason, psychology and good education are all that’s needed to overcome the pernicious effects of the mad, prophetic uncle. Yet Rayber the teacher has a mentally disabled son, Bishop, and the lad repels young Tarwater, who’s tormented by the voice he despises — his late uncle telling him that he must baptize the child.

Readers aware of the evils of child abuse and religious fanaticism will reject the idea that the young man should follow a false prophet’s call. Yet Flannery O’Connor had little use for what the secular teacher Rayber represented in his bland belief that reason could conquer evil; she shows him as deaf to a deeper level of truth, symbolized by his real deafness, albeit from a gunshot wound at the hands of the crazy old prophet. Many critics argue that O’Connor as a devout Catholic might have seen the extreme sufferings of young Tarwater as a moment of grace inspiring him to a true prophetic call. In my view, a twenty-first century reader — Catholic or not — could not in conscience talk about God at work in the abuse and trauma that this young man endured. Yet it’s a testament to the beauty and wholeness of O’Connor’s writing that while we understand the horrors that have scarred young Tarwater, we also sense a profound mystery at the heart of the human condition.

Flannery O’Connor was a truth-teller who treated her readers as adults, who left us to ponder troubling questions, all of them laced with a dose of wicked humour. These two stunning and readable novels are more than worth your attention.

Wise Blood and The Violent Bear it Away are both published by Farrar Strauss and Giroux.

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Egypt’s story: The Yacoubian Building

When I first opened The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany, I have to admit that I was daunted by its roll-call of characters with unfamiliar names, done in the style of a nineteenth-century Russian novel. Instinct told me to put a bookmark on this page. Instinct was right. Since this novel is narrated from a multiple point of view, this roll-call turned out to be a very useful way of keeping track of its twelve main characters and their roles in the plot. It added to my enjoyment of this wonderful saga of modern Egypt.

The author, Alaa Al Aswany, is a journalist who lives in Cairo and who’s made his living as a dentist. The Yacoubian Building was a bestseller in the Arab world and something of a scandal because of its racy content. The Yacoubian Building is also a real location in Cairo where the author once had a dental office, and in its fictional version, the building includes a spectrum of people, most of them either complicit in or frustrated by Egypt’s culture of corruption. Check out these lucky neighbours: an ageing playboy, son of a former Prime Minister; then a devout and unhappy Muslim, his social status too low for the police work he’s smart enough to do; his struggling girlfriend who works in a dress shop and gets stuck with daily feel-ups from her boss as part of her meal ticket; a rags-to-riches businessman aiming for politics, and his ill-treated second wife; an impoverished roof-dwelling tailor who longs for a shop in the building; the denizens of a gay bar in the basement, including an aristocratic newspaper editor and the cop he can’t take his hands off. Not exactly the chaste Middle East of the nightly news with its black-clad women and earnest men. Yet the Yacoubian Building contains this fractious crew like a pot of boiling water with a tight lid. Each character holds our interest as the author builds suspense by switching points of view back and forth. We also keep reading because this is one steamy novel, although I couldn’t help wondering if sexual expression that would be normal in the West just appears to be a lot more sensual and explosive in the more inhibited Middle Eastern context. All in all, the building’s a marvelous storytelling device, a metaphor for the whole of Egyptian society, full of characters we love and loathe, a microcosm of a country on the brink. It hints at the coming revolution that finally brought Egypt to a rolling boil — and better yet, in the unravelling of their lives, the characters show us why the revolution happened. There’s nothing like fiction for helping us understand the human heart in a culture so very different from our own. Plus it’s a wonderful read.

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany is translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies and published in 2004 by Harper Collins.

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Farzana Doctor’s Six Metres of Pavement

There’s a certain type of novel that makes you wonder how hard it might have been for the author to say good-bye to her characters once she’s finished writing. In some books, characters stand up and without too many authorial nudges, form an alternate family in which both the writer and her readers find comfort. This is the case with Farzana Doctor’s new novel, Six Metres of Pavement, which tells a story of grief and loss from two points of view. There’s the remorseful voice of Ismail Boxwala, a Toronto city employee who twenty years earlier, made the worst mistake of his life.  On a hot summer day, he left his baby daughter Zubi in a parked car, and his forgetfulness cost him the child’s life, his marriage and his reputation in Toronto’s South Asian community.  The second strong voice is Celia’s, recently widowed and grieving, left almost destitute and living across the street from Ismail with her daughter and son-in-law.

After Ismail’s tragedy, years pass and he plods along at his job, nudged and chided by his well-off brother Nabil, getting drunk at the local pub and sleeping around. Into his distressing life comes friendship and  brief affair with fellow pub-crawler Daphne which ends when they dry out and she comes to realise that she’s gay. At Daphne’s prompting, Ismail ends up in a writing workshop where he meets Fatima, a gay-rights activist whose mortified parents kick her out of the house. When Ismail tries to reason with them on her behalf, the spectre of his past misdeed comes to haunt him. Gradually, Ismail begins to realise that had his daughter lived, she would have been young Fatima’s age, and he sets out to gives her a temporary home while his relationship with widowed Celia begins to show promise.

There’s a lot of action in this book, the pages turn, and it’s to Farzana Doctor’s credit that it’s all believable. These are characters we can root for, who we hope will find happiness as they live on in our minds beyond the novel’s final pages. Yet it has to be said that some strong writing sometimes gets undermined by a tendency to point out the obvious. When Ismail’s ex-wife Rehana brings home a pretty bowl, he mutters, “We have so many bowls, why buy another?” and we get it right away.  A man who overlooks small gifts might also get careless about small children. We don’t need to read that he muttered his dismissal “in his characteristically killjoy way.” At other times language is applied like a label, rather than as a way of shaping a character’s individuality. “Sleep deprivation had made her irritable,” says Ismail of his ex-wife, a phrase that could have been said of anyone.

Yet all in all, Six Metres of Pavement is worth your attention. It’s heartfelt work about characters who come to treat their worst scars with due respect and who learn to abide in chosen families who love them. It speaks with a compassionate voice to a truth that surrounds us.

Six Metres of Pavement by Farzana Doctor is published in Toronto by Dundurn Press.

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David Grossman’s To The End Of The Land

Usually I avoid using this space to feature authors who don’t need the publicity. Yet David Grossman’s latest novel is so haunting and deeply felt, so rich in insight about a troubled part of the world that it’s a must-read. It’s a long work, and at close to six hundred pages, it builds up powerful resonance between the lives of ordinary people, sporadic violence and the strength and fragility of the natural world. Its intricate weave of storytelling is well worth your attention.

The novel’s central character, Ora, is a complex creation — passionate, conflicted, and driven to protect the life of her son, Ofer. About to be released from his army service in Israel, Ofer re-enlists for a major offensive. Distraught, Ora decides to set out on a long hike through the Galilee region, leaving no word behind of her whereabouts, so that no one can bring her dire news about the fate of her son. It’s magical thinking, but she’s convinced that by leaving home for a long-distance hike, she will somehow protect Ofer.

Ora’s just separated from her husband, Ilan, and so she cajoles her former lover Avram to come on the hike with her. Ora, Avram and Ilan were old friends from their army days, but Avram, once a brilliant and creative artist, was shattered by his wartime experience, having been captured and tortured as a prisoner of war in Egypt.  Yet as they continue on their hike, Ora keeps her son Ofer alive by telling his story to Avram. The powerful rhythm of her family tale takes on its own life and Avram — at first reluctant to listen — begins to rally and to claim the story for his own. Yet the engine that drives this novel’s intricate machinery is the walk itself — step by step, its wonderful physicality pushing words forward, connecting Ora’s tales to the strength of her body and  the land. The entire novel seems to grow up out of the earth. Ora’s passion for her country and her ambivalence about politics are sometimes spoken, sometimes not. Yet her sensuality, her alertness to nature and her commitment to the life of her son pierce through the texture of this novel and bring it to life.

Grossman is deft in his use of time-shifts and changes in point of view; his technical skills never get in the way of the story, never break the steady rhythm of the tale. For anyone who’s been to Israel, he evokes the surreal and disorienting aspects of the place; the novel’s juxtaposition of ordinary life with an undercurrent of anxiety is a feverish, unsettling reminder of what the country’s like. In fact the title To The End Of The Land is a play on Ora’s recurrent fear that Israel may cease to exist. Yet Ora is like Scheherazade, the Persian queen who saved her own life by enchanting her king with stories. Her passionate storytelling speaks to the power of life in ways she’d never imagined, and in so doing, it speaks to all of us.

To The End Of The Land by David Grossman is translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen. It’s published in the U.S. by Random House and in Canada by McClelland & Stewart.

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