Review: Sunflowers: A Novel of Vincent Van Gogh

I saw this book ages ago, and the cover grabbed me immediately. However, like so many books, every time I went to pick it up some other book ended up taking priority. Fortunately for me, I found a brand new copy of it on my library shelf not long ago.

Sunflowers, by first-time author Sheramy Bundrick, is the story of Vincent Van Gogh’s time in Arles, France. It begins when Rachel, a local brothel prostitute, escapes to a nearby park one afternoon and falls asleep in the garden. She awakens to find Van Gogh sketching her and shortly after, Van Gogh visits the brothel and strikes up a relationship Rachel. Their relationship is an intense one, and both of them find some of the peace and happiness they are searching for until terrible events threaten their happiness.

I don’t feel I can say too much about these events, but if you have a basic knowledge of Van Gogh (or quickly peruse Van Gogh’s Wikipedia page), you will know that his time in Arles, and his story, do not end well. You will also know that the character of Rachel is more or less fictional. Even knowing the outcome of the book and that Rachel is not necessarily real does not make this book any less of an enjoyable read.

Bundrick, who is an art historian and professor, has a wonderful grasp of Van Gogh’s paintings, and her imagining of the events surrounding the painting of each picture is like reading a beautiful story about each one, even if it may not necessarily be true. She covers many of his paintings, including some of his more famous paintings such as Sunflowers, Starry Night over the Rhône (my personal favorite) and Night Café in the Place Lamartine.

I had imagined his paintings to be sweet and calm and gentle, like he was with me. Not sinister and brooding like this. Bright colors shouted from the canvas – red walls, green ceiling, yellow floor – yet the mood in his café scene was anything but bright. The clock in th background read ten minutes after midnight, and most customers had gone home. Empty chairs and mostly empty glasses said they’d been there, but only dregs of absinthe and the dregs of society remained. Faceless figured hunched over tables; a pimp chatted up a whore. The billiard table sat ready, but no one was playing. Monsieur Ginoux stood there instead, staring out from the painting, and the gaslamps overhead watched too like unblinking eyes. The gay pink bouquet on the sideboard struck the only note of innocence, the only note of hope.

Sunflowers, page 29

Night Café in the Place Lamartine

The story is not without its problems. The entire book is told from Rachel’s first-person perspective. While this allows Bundrick to avoid certain muddy areas (for example this allows her to avoid entirely the difficulty of ascribing intent to certain key events) it does make for some rough writing at times. Later in the book Van Gogh leaves Arles for an extended time and Bundrick has to resort to a series of letters exchanged between Rachel and Van Gogh to fill us in on what happens to him. While seeing Van Gogh through Rachel’s eyes and his interactions with her is interesting, there are far too many times in the book where I found myself wanting to know less about Rachel and her life in the brothel and more about Van Gogh. This is actually a compliment to Bundrick’s, as her depiction of Van Gogh is so compassionate that I wanted to spend more time with him, “watching” him paint and seeing the beauty of the world through his eyes.

Starry Night Over the Rhône

Sunflowers was an interesting historical fiction read, and much better than so much of the historical fiction out there (and certainly it is nice to read some solid historical fiction that is not set in Tudor-era England). Bundrick is so good at describing the setting and people and social structure of late-nineteenth century Arles, describing it so richly that you could almost paint a picture from her words. (As an aside, Bundrick also includes a detailed Author’s Note describing changes and events that she moved around. Personally, I like and appreciate when the author acknowledges that they have fiddled with some of the historical details and where they have done so. She also includes a detailed list of the paintings she mentions and information about some of the key locations. All of this further led to my understanding of the time and place.) Most importantly, Bundrick’s description of Van Gogh lingered long after I ended the book – I felt terribly sad for this talented yet troubled man, and wished to know more about both his life and his paintings. Despite some small issues with the structure of the book, the fact that it stayed with me meant that I found the book to be an overall success.

Rating: B+

Sunflowers by Sheramy Bundrick
Avon, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2009
Paperback, 401 pages
Reviewed from library copy

Review: The Boy in the Moon

When my husband and I set out to have a baby, we never really considered the possibility that the baby, our baby, would be born anything less than healthy. Oh sure, we discussed it briefly, but then the discussion always turned to other matters. I suspect that for most people, this is how we view disability: it is something that happens to other people, and we only ever confront it if we absolutely need to.

The Boy in the Moon is author Ian Brown’s personal story of what happens when you and your family are suddenly confronted by the birth of a child who is not “normal”. The book started out as an extensive article in the paper Globe and Mail, and was expanded vastly into this full-length account, which went on to win the 2010 Charles Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction. Brown’s son Walker was born with a rare genetic syndrome that is so common that only a handful of people around the world are born with it. Walker, who is approximately 12 years old as of the writing of this book, is severely  mentally delayed and is unable to speak or communicate through language, still wears diapers, has a variety of medical afflictions and bangs his head obsessively with his fists. Brown describes in depth his life with Walker, and the meaning he tries to find in his Walker’s life.

What is the value of a life like his – a life lived in the twilight, and often in pain What is the cost of his life to those around him?

The Boy in the Moon, page 3

Perhaps what is most striking about this book is how Brown writes so honestly and truthfully about his son – both the moments of pure joy and the heartbreaking challenges of living with a severely mentally handicapped child with its attendant strain. He speaks bluntly of the day-to-day difficulties of raising a child with such unique needs and the demands it places on the family: the sleepless nights, the financial costs, the constant worry, but he does so without it ever striking the reader as a list of gripes or an attempt for sympathy. At the same time he is clear to note that he is not a “disability masochist” who finds pride in the physical, mental and emotional costs of raising a child like Walker. Brown is clear that this is his life, good and bad, and he is neither martyr or saint. It is refreshing point of view, and I think many of us would end up in the same place but with less freedom to say so. Society expects a great deal of the parents of disabled children, that they subsume themselves in the care of their children and to also like it. Brown’s book is a direct argument against this way of thinking. By journeying with Brown and his family into the depths of life with a severely disabled child we see why this isn’t possible, or, dare I say it, fair. As Brown himself points out, 15-20 years ago a child like Walker would not have likely survived. Medicine has made it possible for children like Walker to live, but society needs to catch up with its response and responsibilities to the families of these children.

Later in the book, Brown travels across the continent meeting families of other children like Walker. He meets parents who are frustrated or resigned, and parents who describe their disabled child as the best thing that ever happened to them. He then travels to Europe to visit L’Arche, a community for adults as mentally disabled as Walker, to try to discover what type of life Walker might have, what will he do. None of these really bring him closer to his son, and although these parts are interesting, I would say that this section is where the book lagged for me. The strength of Brown’s writing lies in his descriptions of his interactions with Walker and his own musings on the meaning of Walker’s life and Walker’s influence on the people around him, not the people he meets or the places he travels to.

The Boy in the Moon is a beautiful and honest examination of what disability means, to one family and to society as a whole. It doesn’t offer clear answers, and there is no storybook ending and is all the more illuminating for its lack of finality. It should be required reading for anyone looking to bring a child into this world.

Rating: A+

The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Search for his Disabled Son by Ian Brown
Random House Canada, 2009
Hardcover, 295 pages
Reviewed from library copy

Review: The Withdrawal Method

The Withdrawal Method was one of those books that I had seen all over the place. A good word about it here, a positive review there and it was on the Scotiabank Giller Prize Longlist in 2008. Besides, while the title was somewhat off-putting, the cover grabbed my attention. So when I saw it sitting on the shelf in the library, I took the opportunity to check it out.

Now I admit, I don’t generally turn to short stories as my first choice in reading material, so perhaps my knowledge of the structure of the short story is lacking. But I do know what I like, and what I find works, and this collection just didn’t work for me.

The stories are not in any way linked. Indeed, they vary wildly in length, setting and tone. Generally, they involve unlikeable characters making questionable choices. I found the first two stories, The Slough and Big City Girls so repulsive that I nearly quit reading. In the first story, The Slough, the main character, Pasha (a device that I personally despise – naming a character after yourself. It’s a wee bit meta when really there’s no need) dreams of his girlfriend shedding her skin, as if she were a snake. In reality, she is in the hospital dying of skin cancer, and their relationship, prior to her diagnosis, was all but over. Needless to say, his behaviour is reprehensible. In the second story, Big City Girls, Ginny and Alex are school-aged siblings who have a snow day off of school and are stuck in their rural house, unsupervised as their mother watches television in her room. Ginny has invited over three friends from school, and before long the girls have engaged Ginny’s younger brother Alex in a imaginary sex game that quickly goes very wrong. It’s a terribly uncomfortable story to read, and I came away wondering precisely what the point of it was, apart from reminding us, the reader, that children take in more than we remember sometimes, and wield that knowledge dangerously at times.

After that inauspicious beginning, I very nearly left the book unfinished, but quickly came to the two best stories in the book. In the story Pushing Oceans In and Pulling Oceans Out we see the inside dialogue of an unnamed nine-year old girl who is coping with the death of her mother, a grieving father and a developmentally-delayed brother, and is forced to grow up far too quickly. In the story Long Short Short Long we meet Bogdan, a young immigrant boy who has been bullied by the class princess Trish. After Bogdan mistakenly thinks that his music teacher, Miss, is sending him Morse Code messages, Bogdan finally stands up for himself, with stunning consequences. Both of these stories rested heavily on the interior dialogue of the main character(s), and I found that in both of them (particularly Pushing Oceans In and Pulling Oceans Out) Malla believably and convincingly writes a child narrator, not always an easy task.

Unfortunately, many of these stories, while brief enough, seemed to meander pointlessly. At the end of several stories I came away wondering precisely what the point was. And while I believe that not ever story must have a point that is explicitly stated, I feel that I should be able to come away from any book or story that I read with a basic understanding of the author’s intention (or, that I could discern the intention on a re-read). I didn’t get that impression at the end of this book. I suppose it could be said that the prevailing theme of these stories are individuals who have withdrawn – from their relationship, from society, from family. But if that were so, should there not be some redeeming quality in the characters actions or behaviour, or is the point that those who withdraw are doomed? Because of the lack of this redemptive quality, I found the majority of this book terribly depressing, and came to resent picking it up. I think that is why I found the two stories, Pushing Oceans In and Pulling Oceans Out and Long Short Short Long to be the two best stories, as there is a sense of closure and even hope in those two stories that is missing from the majority of the other stories. My grade is based on the strength of these two stories.

Rating: C-

The Withdrawal Method by Pasha Malla
House of Anansi Press, 2008
Paperback, 321 pages
Review from library copy