Review: The Disappeared

The Disappeared was one of the inaugural works published under Penguin Canada’s new imprint, Hamish Hamilton Canada. As such, you would expect it to be a choice intended to to be somewhat high profile, with the potential for award nominations. A title to set the bar high for quality of titles under the new imprint. The Disappeared certainly was attention-getting – as of the publication date (2009) it had been eight years since the publication of Dagmar’s Daughter, Echlin’s second novel, and her first novel, Elephant Winter, was nominated for the 1997 Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award. The Disappeared went on to be short-listed for the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Unfortunately, I found The Disappeared to be, at best, a mediocre novel that in no way lives up to the potential of the subject matter (nor, for that matter, the quality that a Giller Award nomination implies.)

The book starts in the 1970s when 16-year old Anne Greves meets and falls passionately in love with 21-year old Serey, a Cambodian student in exile during the dictatorship of Pol Pot. Serey returns to Cambodia shortly thereafter when the borders are re-opened, and Anne does not hear from him again until she thinks she sees him in news footage of a demonstration. She then travels to Cambodia to find him and re-establish their relationship.

The single biggest problem with this book had everything to do with its length. At 235 pages Echlin tries to cram in both the story of Cambodia and a love story. Consequently, both are done a disservice by the brevity of the book. Ultimately, I felt that this was a story that could have perhaps been placed anywhere in which events are insurmountable or conspire to keep lovers apart. The story of Cambodia deserves better than to simply be used as a backdrop for two lovers – particularly two lovers such as Serey and Anne, where the love story itself is somewhat unfathomable.

The other difficulties I had with the novel are more ones of style, and could perhaps be considered personal preference. Generally speaking, I prefer clean writing. That isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy detailed or descriptive writing, but I do not enjoy writing that is all words and no substance. Reading The Disappeared had a strange quality, somewhat like looking at those stereographic pictures that were popular during the 1990s. Occasionally, if you are content to let the words – indeed, entire passages – just wash over you, you can perhaps glean a faint image of the intent of her writing. But, like the stereographic picture, if you try to focus on the image, to “unblur your eyes” you find a mess of words that cannot be assembled into a picture.

The light in May’s eyes was a pinprick through black paper. He assessed and calculated. … The light of his eyes twisted into mine. When I told him what I was doing, the pinprick opened and closed over a fleeting compassion.

The Disappeared, page 3

Incidentally, another one of my big irritations is when an author lights upon some metaphor or turn of phrase and then proceeds to use it repeatedly throughout the book. The idea of a “pinprick of light” in one’s eyes is one that Echlin abuses to no end throughout the book.

However, there are moments of beautiful writing where Echlin refrains from the overly studied, overt attempts at “evocative” writing, and crafts a sentence that is graceful in its simplicity. Her best writing comes later in the novel in a few short chapters where she uses a clipped, staccato rhythm to briefly relay someone’s history or personal story under Pol Pot. She proves here that in two pages and a handful of sentences she can make the reader feel the fear and horror of the events she describes. It is what makes her reliance on overly stylized, deliberately obscure writing that much more frustrating.

Sokha was only trying to survive, you said. Your eyes were dark and dry.

They opened up the man’s chest and the older man plunged his hands in, said, One man’s liver is another’s food.

The Disappeared, page 128

Perhaps my greatest frustration with this book, though, came from the research. Whenever a book is set within a historical framework, the author has decisions to make regarding the depth of detail and the balance between actual documented events and fictionalized events. Generally speaking, The Disappeared has a fairly light hand when it comes to historically documented events, in favor of the relationship aspect of the book. I am not sure if Echlin received a grant to visit Cambodia, or the depth of her research, but even when an author chooses to refrain from excessive historical detail I do not expect to find the few historical references to be available on the first page of wikipedia. A quote about the infamous prison and torture facility, Tuol Sleng:

Each picture refuses anonymity. Boy number 17. He has no shirt and they have safety-pinned his number into his skin. A small woman with the number 17-5-78 pinned on her black shirt stares into the camera and at the bottom of the photo a child’s small hand clings to her right sleeve.

The Disappeared, page 109

Visit the wikipedia page. Half-way down the page on right hand side is the photo of victim 17-5-78, and below it is a mosaic of other victims with boy number 17 on the second row. This is particularly egregious considering that on page 224 Echlin has Anne Greves mention watching a film of all 5,000 victims of Tuol Sleng. Then why choose two photos off the first page of wikipedia?

Then there was this:

But she nodded to the bamboo walls and answered in a soft voice, Ears everywhere. Eyes as many as the eyes of a pineapple.

The Disappeared, page 93

Now, perhaps this is a famous saying, although my own Google search did not reflect it as such. Where I did come across this quote, although in not quite the same wording, was in the New York Times obituary of Dith Pran, the famous photojournalist who escaped from Cambodia and whose story the film The Killing Fields was based on. It turns out that this was one of his most famous quotes regarding his theory photojournalism, in which he stated “You have to be a pineapple. You have to have a hundred eyes.”

It may have been coincidence in both of these cases, but I found it particularly jarring. I came away from the book feeling as though perhaps it had been researched exclusively via Google.

I hate when my hopes for a book are so high – it makes the disappointment that much more acute. Unfortunately, I was tremendously disappointed by this book.

Rating: C

Details
The Disappeared by Kim Echlin
Hamish Hamilton Canada (an imprint of Penguin Canada), 2009
Hardcover, 239 pages
Review from library copy

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Library love

Most of my life, up to and including the days of university, I took most of the books I read out of the library because I just couldn’t afford to do otherwise. Then, as life became busier I found I was returning more and more of those books late and spending a small fortune on late fees. The cost of those fines, combined with my desire to have those books on my bookshelf, led me to think perhaps I should just own the book. Solves both problems, right?

A small sampling

The problem is that I became an incurable book buyer. (Also, I have worked at two publishing houses – one as an intern, and one as part of my career.) Because of this, I now have many bookshelves that are (over)stuffed with books. If I add up what I’ve spent on books – well, it gets a wee bit frightening. Something about putting a child through college. Between the money spent on books, and the lack of shelf space (and the possibility of needing to reinforce the floor with steel beams to support the extra weight), I realized I needed to make a change.

So last year I committed to re-engaging with the library. I started slowly, using the library in my home town. Then I discovered that the library in my home town really wasn’t very useful, such as only carrying the third book in a series. After a quick review of the policies, I found to my delight that I was still entitled to a Toronto Public Library membership. I renewed my membership, and I’ve been happily taking out books since.

Right now I have quite the haul. Some of the titles I currently have out are:

  • The Abstinence Teacher – Tom Perrotta
  • The Story of a Widow – Musharraf Ali Farooqi
  • Nikolski – Nicolas Dickner
  • Lauchlin of the Bad Heart – D. R. MacDonald
  • Secrets to Happiness – Sarah Dunn
  • Good to a Fault – Marina Endicott
  • The Origin of Species – Nino Ricci
  • The Great Karoo – Fred Stenson
  • The Outlander – Gil Adamson
  • Cutting for Stone – Abraham Verghese
  • Traveling with Pomegranates – Sue Monk Kidd, Ann Kidd Taylor
  • The Sister – Poppy Adams

(Clearly, I’m on a Can-lit kick.)

One of the things I’ve been enjoying most about the library is the lack of guilt I now feel if I choose not to finish a book. I started The Sister by Poppy Adams, a sort-of gothic novel of two sisters, and found I wasn’t enjoying it one bit. Thirty pages later and back in the bag it goes. No need to finish the book out of a sense of obligation to the money I’ve spent on it. No shelf space sacrificed to a less-than-deserving book. No guilt at all.

It’s also solving the dilemma I have frequently faced with books that I want to read but know up front that I’ll likely never read again, such as Secrets to Happiness by Sarah Dunn. Now I happily borrow those books, I revel in the fluff, and I don’t give a moment’s worry to precious shelf space lost.

Then there is the simple variety of books I can take out of the library. Where I might feel guilt about buying three books in a single day, with the library I can take out five, even ten books in a single day without batting an eye. For the insatiable book lover, who needs books as much as she needs air, and wants to surround herself in books, this is a very good thing indeed.

However, where I run into difficulties is with those books that I read and love – for example, Galore was a library book. Do I go and buy a copy for home? How do I now justify spending the money on a book I’ve already read? What do others do? Oh, the dilemma!

I haven’t entirely cured my book-buying (although, I haven’t purchased a book since December. A record in recent years!) but I’m definitely a recovering addict. I still return books late to the library, but even there I have become a little more diligent. And the fines are a small price indeed, for the company of those many books.

Review: Galore

Welcome to the new review blog! At some point I may get around to posting a “welcome/first post” post, but without further delay I present my first review, of Galore by Michael Crummey.

What a fantastic book to start this new endeavor with. It is, quite simply, a terrific book, and one I’d suggest to anyone without hesitation. It is a difficult story to pin down – it is a historical novel crossed with a family saga, it is minute in location and epic in drama, and it is the best sort of old-fashioned yarn and fairy tale. It combines the magical and fanciful together with the hard realities of life in early Newfoundland. It is a meandering journey of a book without a destination, that is a delight to lose yourself in.

Galore begins at some undefined date in early-nineteenth century Newfoundland. The dates are relatively unimportant, with the first appearance of an actual date not occurring until page 251 of the book. It beings with the birth of a man from the belly of a whale, and follows the story of the family that rescues him, the Devines, and their enemies, the Sellers, in the small settlement of Paradise Deep on the shores of Newfoundland. From there, the story meanders through approximately 100 years in the lives of the two primary families and the cast of others that make up the struggling settlement, through the highs and lows of cod fishing and the seal hunts. There are births, deaths, marriages, feuds and religion. There is the magical – the ghost of a dead husband, babies baptized and cured by and apple trees. There is the fantastical – a haul of squid, linked in an unending chain passed boat to boat. And there are the harsh realities of a life dependent on the ebbs and flows of the ocean – the deaths at sea and starvation during rough seasons. Finally, there is the slow, gradual change of the fishing community as it eases into the twentieth century and World War I.  Most importantly, this is a story about stories – the story of a family, of a community and of a livelihood – and how those stories change shape and tone over time, and how those stories impact later generations.

Crummey was nominated for the 2009 Governor General’s Award for Galore, and it was a nomination that was well-deserved. The book grabs you from the first page, and despite a large cast of characters, manages the shifts in time and character easily and deftly. (There is a small family tree at the beginning of the book to help keep the many characters and relationships straight). Most importantly, he skillfully captures the cadence and rhythm of the Newfoundland dialect, making it feel authentic without overwhelming the reader. The dialogue flows easily, despite the lack of quotation marks (a small, personal bugaboo of mine, but which Crummey succesfully naviagates here with the us of the em-dash).

Obediah: James Woundy now, he was a lazy stawkins.
Azariah: Not quite right in the head, but sweet as molasses.
Obediah: Sweet as molasses and just as slow
Azariah: He had the one daughter. And James Woundy had all he could do not to choke on his food so there’s no telling how he managed it.

Newfoundland is a place steeped with mythology and the magical, and it imbues this book without it overwhelming it. Crummey walks the fine line of magical realism, while tempering it with the realities of life on the shore during the nineteenth century. Characters are injured, maimed or die as a result of the harshness of the land and their occupation, yet the book rarely feels morbid. In some respects, Galore feels a bit like a history lesson wrapped up in a compulsively readable story. (Indeed, one of the later characters, William Coaker, was a real person, and his history of unionizing the fishing industry is a part of Canadian history.)

It is rare that I find a book with few missteps, but Galore was one of those books. It is a fantastical adventure of a book and a world so complete that I could almost believe I was in Paradise Deep. I am now eagerly looking forward to Michael Crummey’s next novel, and will be adding his previous titles, Flesh and Blood (a book of short stories) and River Thieves (his first novel) to my reading list.

Rating: A+

Details
Galore by Michael Crummey
Doubleday Canada, 2009
Hardcover, 336 pages
Reviewed from library copy