Review: Beatrice & Virgil

Most of those reading this are likely already aware of the enormous firestorm that Beatrice & Virgil has raised. For those that are unaware, Beatrice & Virgil has been controversial in almost every respect from the size of its advance (a reported $3 million) to its roman à clef nature (more on that later) to its purported topic (the Holocaust and its fictional representation) to the reviews themselves (the very good, the very bad and one vicious enough to not even warrant a link.) So how to review a book that has already has so much said about it?

First, a brief summary of the origins of the book. In 2001 Yann Martel wrote The Life of Pi, a book in which some of the characters were animals, that went on to win the Booker Prize and became an enormous international best-seller. According to report, five years later he approached his publishers about his follow-up book. It was to be a flip book with one side a non-fiction essay and the other side some sort of fictional story, both to be related to the Holocaust. Ultimately, the publishers vetoed the idea and thus we have the novel Beatrice & Virgil instead.

Beatrice & Virgil begins with Henry, an author who wrote a famous novel about animals that went onto become a prize-winning international best-seller. Five years later he meets with his international publishers, a historian and a bookseller to discussed his next planned book: a flip book where one side would be an essay and the other side a fictional representation, both to be about the Holocaust. In one of the best scenes in the book his publishers deconstruct the idea with the practicalities and logistics of publishing such a book:

“Where do you see the book being displayed?” asked the bookseller, as he chewed on his food with an open mouth. “In the fiction section or the nonfiction?”

“Ideally both,” Henry replied.

“Not going to happen. Too confusing. Do you know how much stock a bookstore handles? And if we have to worry about turning the book every which way so the right cover is facing out, we’ll never see the end of it. And where are you going to put the bar code? It always goes on the back cover. Where do you put a bar code on a book with two front covers?”

“I don’t know,” said Henry. “On the spine.”

“Too narrow.”

“On the inside flap.”

“Cashiers can’t be opening the book up, looking for it everywhere. And what if the book is plastic-wrapped?”

“On a little wraparound band.”

“They tear and fall off. And then you don’t have a bar code at all – a nightmare.”

“I don’t know then. I wrote my book on the Holocaust without worrying about where the fucking bar code would go.”

Beatrice & Virgil, page 14

Needless to say, this comes as a great blow to Henry, who abandons writing and moves with his wife to an unnamed, presumably European, city. While in that city he receives an envelope from a reader of his previous book with an excerpt from the short story “The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator”, by Gustave Flaubert, with all of the passages containing the murder of animals meticulously highlighted, and a short excerpt from a play where two characters, Beatrice and Virgil, discuss a pear. Realizing that the author of the letter is residing in his city, Henry pays the man a visit. The man he meets is crusty octogenarian taxidermist also named Henry. Henry-the-author works with Henry-the-taxidermist on his play, which Henry-the-author realizes is an allegory for the Holocaust, as told by Beatrice, a donkey, and Virgil, a howler monkey, and is the very story he himself was trying to tell.

Early on in the book, Henry is asked te question “but what’s your book about?” and the same could be asked of Beatrice & Virgil. If you look at it the book from a plot perspective, it certainly isn’t incredibly strong. Is the important story that of Henry-the-writer and the Henry-the-taxidermist, or is the important story that of the play contained within, A 20th Century Shirt, with Beatrice and Virgil? Despite it’s overly climactic ending, this certainly isn’t a plot-driven novel by any standard. Nor can it be said that there a great deal of character development. Where this book appears to be neither plot-driven nor character-driven means that it isn’t the best book I’ve ever read, it certainly isn’t the worst. I definitely wouldn’t nominate it for worst book of the decade, despite others’ cry for it to take that mantle. There are some beautiful sections in this book that defy expectations, namely a seven page description of a pear, that are truly fantastic and worth reading. The final section – Games for Gustav – is chilling and thought-provoking set of thirteen statements that kept me up late thinking and pondering. I think perhaps this is part of what rankled most of the strong critics – it feels like it is a book about nothing that received a $3 million advance. (An advance which I think upset people more for its sheer size than anything else. What does it really matter how much a publisher gives him? They certainly wouldn’t have given him that much if they didn’t think his book would sell, as – contrary to popular opinion publisher’s actually do build profit and loss sheets and base their numbers on sales estimates. Heck, Nora Roberts is certainly pulling in bigger advances, but no one is complaining about her and her books certainly won’t be shortlisted for the Booker any time soon.) And perhaps there is a certain amount of bitterness that people feel like Martel got away with something. It certainly is cheeky to thumb his nose at the publishers who turned down his original book by then incorporating that story here in this finished novel, but wouldn’t we all like to get away with something like if we were critiqued?

Here’s what I think Martel got right in addition to the beautiful descriptions and passages: It was most definitely an interesting portrayal of what gets published and what doesn’t and why, and a small peek at the literary world behind the books. The first 20 pages are a master-class in literary rejection and would have made a fantastic short story. And perhaps most importantly, even if I found the medium itself was flawed, it made me think, at length, about the portrayal of the Holocaust in fiction. Henry (Martel?) asks why we can’t find a different way to talk about and represent the Holocaust. Why it was always represented through “historical realism” and no “poetic license” is taken with the events of the Holocaust (page 10)?

Some time ago my friend, kgirl, wrote this post on her blog about witnessing the meeting between three Holocaust survivors. [Really, go read it. It is beautiful and amazing and I thought about it for weeks after reading it.] And here’s the thing – that story, those words, uttered by survivors, shared with those of us who can only begin to understand the horror of what happened, are more important now than any attempt to change the tone of portrayal. To answer Henry’s (Martel’s?) question: as long as we can still hear those stories, hear the voices of those that experienced it and lived to tell their story, in their own voices, there can’t be room for anything except realism. To co-opt that event for artistic purposes – allegorical tales or fantasies or other artistic “expressions” – while there are still people who can tell the truth, in all its horrific realism, is almost an insult. (And here I digress, for he does mention the terrific book Maus by Art Speigelman, which I argue, despite its using cats and mice and pigs to represent various groups of the Holocaust, is still a historical realism portrayal of the Holocaust coming as it does from the story of Speigelman’s own father’s experience during the period.) The book somewhat proves this point: when reading the sections of play with Beatrice and Virgil, despite knowing that it was an allegory for the Holocaust, and despite their graphic representations of evil, it felt in no way connected, for me, to the events of Holocaust. There comes a point later when Beatrice and Virgil attempt to talk about the phrases and signs that they will use to discuss these events when it is all over – ultimately a list of random words like a howl, a food dish, a tattoo, games for Gustav – but even this felt forced, many of these obviously drawn from imagery of the Holocaust. Ultimately, I came away feeling that Martel proved that it isn’t possible to talk about the Holocaust in a non-realism manner without minimizing the events themselves, or at least not yet. I think this, perhaps, is what Martel can be criticized for his – his arrogance in believing that the Holocaust – that almost-incomprehensible event – can be represented by artists in a non-realistic fashion. I fully believe that for those of us that have not, nor had family that have, lived through those events (like Martel, who is himself not Jewish) the closest we can ever come is a simple attempt at realism, based on the known facts. Any attempt otherwise just can not resonate the same way, much as the sections with Beatrice and Virgil failed to resonate with me. It just doesn’t carry the same force of feeling, and the Holocaust is an event that should reach far down in you and grab the most primitive of your emotions – fear, anger, horror. Perhaps someone who has lived through it might be able to find a different means of talking about those events and have it carry the same depth of feeling, but only because of the experience that supports it. Despite all of that, while I may disagree with his point of view, it made me think long and hard about the issue, and there is certainly value in that.

All that said, is the book good? I think there will be as many answers to that as there are readers. It certainly is a book to spur debate and a passionate response, and that’s never a bad thing. From a story perspective, the book is flawed, with its long sections of description of something seemingly trivial to its lack of character development to its final (ridiculous) climactic ending. This is a book that bumps along, and reflects its beginnings in its prior form. At times it feels like Martel is so anxious for us to get the philosophical point he is trying to make that the story – the heart of a novel – suffers as a result, and that is truly a shame. Where critics have become so wrapped up in dissecting and critiquing the writing and the story and the value of the $3 million advance, what could have been a good discussion about the Holocaust and its artistic portrayal has fallen to the wayside. So while I didn’t love the story itself, I definitely rated it higher for making me think long and hard about the purpose of fiction and art and its representation of events so horrific they can never be fully understood by those of us who didn’t experience them. For that, I give him higher marks than the story, and its telling, alone warranted.

Rating: B-

Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel
Knopf Canada, 2010
Advance Readers Copy (paperback), 211 pages
Review copy provided by Random House Canada

Those of you who have read the book, or those that have an opinion on the artistic portrayal of the Holocaust, feel free to sound off below. This certainly a book to inspire controversy and discussion, and I’m curious as to your opinions.

Review: Cool Water

Cool Water tells the story of the fictional town of Juliet, Saskatchewan, a small farming town of approximately 1,000 people near the Little Snake sand hills. Set over the course of a single day, it interweaves the stories of several of the town’s inhabitants – Vicki, a harried mother of six struggling with, and failing at, being the good farm wife as her family faces financial disaster, Norvel, a middle-aged bank manager overwhelmed by the responsibilities of his job and the impending marriage of his pregnant teenage daughter, and Marian and Williard, the past-middle-aged couple facing their feelings for one another after more than a decade of living in the same house, among others.

This is a book that definitely cannot be judged based on its cover (which, lets face it, is less than stellar. Let’s hope it is something they work on for the paperback edition.) It is a book that defies expectation, really, as there is no one single protagonist and no clearly defined problem to overcome/evil character to defeat/pitched climax. It is a book that is startling for what it is: a good and gentle book about average, everyday people, and how a single day can affect those lives. It doesn’t rely on excessive drama or over-the-top revelations to sell itself. Cool Water is a book that sneaks up on you, starting slowly and without great fanfare. Somewhere towards the middle of the book you find yourself caring, truly caring, about the fate of the characters. I found myself desperately hoping that Vicki, the mother of six, would get her housework done for a change instead of heading into town on a misbegotten errand trip, and I sighed in exasperation when she gets in the car anyway, knowing that this cannot bode well. I found myself cheering when Marian, middle-aged and living a quiet and restrained existence with Williard, the brother of her deceased husband, finally makes her first restrained move towards admitting her feelings for him. Simply put, you’ll like these characters and want to see them safely to their homes at the end of a long day.

What I found most interesting about the book, and part of the reason I feel it succeeds so well, is that Warren has a tremendous sensitivity and respect for her characters. She never falls back on the clichés so common to books set in rural locations and she seems to have a unique sensitivity to the challenges and change facing those who live their lives outside of large cities. The people are not hicks, they aren’t dumb, they aren’t trapped. They are people who have chosen this life, difficult though it may be at times. In telling her story she illustrates beautifully how, for the people who live off the land, sometimes there are times of bounty and sometimes there are lean times. It would be easy to make mockery of her characters, to give them the same small town treatment as, say, the TV show Corner Gas, where each character is a character. Even the character of Lila, the banker Norval’s wife, who initially comes across as “the nag” is redeemed, as we see the depth of character when faced with unexpected tragedy. And that is the greatest gift of Warren’s writing, she has a powerful sense of humanity in her writing, and she draws each character as a complete person with hidden depths (without needing to resort to deep, untold secrets or some other device).

Not that she doesn’t understand the gravity of their situation and the extreme actions Blaine has been forced to take. He’d first sold off his herd of Charolais-Hereford cross cattle, and then the bank had insisted on the dispersal of his machinery, and then the sale of all his land except the home quarter. But Vicki’s position is that they should be thankful they still have their house and they can rent out the pasture for a bit of income, every dollar helps. The bank did allow Blaine to keep an old stock trailer and one saddle horse – although not the good mare who would go all day for you, and Blaine claims the horse he kept requires an instruction manual to operate – so at least he can still drive up to Allan Tallman’s place on a Sunday for a little team roping.

Cool Water, page 84

Cool Water is a simply told book – there isn’t a great deal of dramatic description or drawn-out dialogue (it also made it somewhat difficult to find a good quote to pull for a review). I think that it is this simplicity in writing that is part of reason that the book creeps up on you so quietly. There is no gimmick here, and there’s no fancy writing to hide behind. Warren also refrains from the tendency to have a major life-altering event or revelation for each of the characters – yes, for some of the characters this day will bring about great change, but for others the events of the day will cause smaller shifts and the day will just fall back into a landscape of days that make up a life. I think this ability to leave here characters with some resolution – but not too much resolution – is why this book stayed with me long after I had closed the cover.

There are other reviews that compare this book to Annie Proulx or Carol Shields. Oddly enough, I have no desire to compare this book to anything that I’ve read recently – and I think that’s a good thing. It is an unpretentious, understated book about the basic goodness of people. I feel like a better person for having read it, and how often can you say that of a book? I highly recommend it, and can’t wait for Diane Warren’s next book.

You can read Dianne Warren’s terrific guest post here.

If you want a taste of the book, you can read the first chapter here.

Rating: A

Cool Water by Diane Warren
HarperCollinsCanada, 2010
Hardcover, 328 pages
Review copy provided by HarperCollinsCanada

Guest post: Diane Warren, author of Cool Water

About a month ago I was fortunate enough to receive an email asking if I was interested in participating in an author tour for the new (and, I might add, terrific) book Cool Water by Diane Warren. I quickly read the synopsis of the book and eagerly replied yes. Not only was I excited about reading the book as it sounded quite interesting, but this was the first time I had been approached by a publisher to participate in an author blog tour.

Cool Water is the story of Juliet, Saskatchewan – a small rural town of approximately 1,000 people. In the space of a single day it tells the overlapping and intertwined stories of several people who live in or near the town, giving the reader an intimate portrait of a farming town and is people stumbling towards change and the future.

In preparing for this guest post, I had noticed that Diane lives in Saskatchewan, and I had found her description of modern farming and the decline and difficulties of modern rural life to be compassionate and realistic (so much that is written either looks down on the people who live their lives from crop to crop, or is filled with clichés or incorrect information). I suggested that perhaps Diane could discuss how farming has changed from when she was young, and what she saw for the future of rural life in Saskatchewan

And here is Diane’s fantastic response. First, I want to thank HarperCollinsCanada and Diane Warren for providing a review copy of the book and for having me participate in this book tour. It’s been a wonderful experience. Tomorrow I’ll be posting my review of Cool Water.


Change in Rural Saskatchewan

I’ve been asked about farming in Saskatchewan, how it has a changed, and what I see as the future of rural life here. Since I am not an expert on agriculture, and the whole business seems to be so complicated these days no one knows what the future holds, I will talk about the metaphor for change in Cool Water.

I did not grow up on the farm but I am of the first generation in my family not to do so.  My maternal grandparents were homesteaders and their farm is still in the family, 100 years later.  As a child, I spent a lot of time there, in fact, every chance I could get.   I was crazy about my grandparents.  They were heroes to me for their sense of adventure in coming west, and for what they had done to turn a small, piece of prairie into a family farm.

A few years ago, one of my uncles sold a half section that had belonged to my grandfather.  My uncle and his wife were ready to downsize and none of their children wanted to farm this piece of land, so selling it was the best thing to do, the only thing to do.  Still, I felt sadness that the “King Place”, as it was known, was leaving the family. The sale was symbolic of impending bigger changes in our family and in the farming landscape.

When I was working on Cool Water, I was very aware of the deep attachments people have to family land here, and that became a part of the story.  I did a lot of thinking about how an ancestor’s dream affects the descendent who inherits it. The last decades have not been kind to the family farm and many young people have grown up knowing that the work and responsibilities of farming do not pay financial rewards to match.  When young people don’t want to take over the farm, there’s a crisis related to a family’s attachment to a piece of land, and the recognition that a way of life in the family is coming to an end.

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ozymandias kept coming back to me, partly because my story is set in an area of Saskatchewan that is extremely arid and does, in fact, host sand dunes and flats, but also because the poem is about the mistaken belief that an empire will last forever.  Not that family farms are empires, but the message holds true, as does the image of a monument – or a dream – covered by sand.  If you visit the Great Sand Hills in Saskatchewan, you can see how the sand is held in place tenuously by the roots of plants, and how the landscape constantly shifts and changes shape.

It’s interesting that Canada is now talking about Saskatchewan as a “have” province.  Although people of my generation grew up believing that our province was the “world’s breadbasket”, the prosperity being talked about has nothing to do with farming or ranching.  It’s about natural resources such as minerals, gas and oil, some of the same resources that made our neighbour, Alberta, a have province long before us.  The changes we might see in the near future, and the effects they might have on what we’ve come to know as a traditional way of life in rural Saskatchewan, are hard to imagine.

What I wanted to do in Cool Water was write about a contemporary farming community in a time of transition: a story in which the ancestors’ ghostly dreams hover, both a comfort and a burden.  And although Juliet is a farming community in a particular prairie landscape, I hope the story is about the inevitability of change and the resilience of people in its face.


About Diane Warren

Dianne Warren is the author of three books of short fiction and three plays. Her play Serpent in the Night Sky was shortlisted for a Governor General’s Award for Drama in 1992. Her most recent collection, A Reckless Moon, was a Globe and Mail Best Book of 2002, and in 2004 she won the Marian Engel Award for a woman writer in mid-career.

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 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

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

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

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+

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

Review: The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor

The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor was one of those books that I picked up over and over again on my many trips to the bookstore before finally taking it home. It seems any time I have a situation like this, I end up wondering just why it took me so long to get around to buying and reading the book, as it is invariably excellent. This was no exception.

Sally Armstrong is the great-great-great granddaughter of Charlotte Taylor, of the title. She states that she long wanted to write the story of Charlotte Taylor, the first female settler on the Miramichi Bay, and this book originally started out as non-fiction. However, after being frustrated by several gaps in the historical documentation, Armstrong chose to write the story as a fictional account, peppered with the known details of Taylor’s life. The effect is a very good fictional account of early Canadian history.

There are several known facts of Charlotte Taylor’s life – she left her high-society family in 1775, running away with a household servant. She spent her life on the Miramichi, where she would have three husbands and bear ten children, all of whom lived well into adulthood. She was a vehement activist on her own and her family’s behalf, fighting for her land rights and the deeds to the plots that her family cleared and lived upon – going so far as to travel to Fredericton in the company of a Native man to secure those deeds. Lastly, she lived well into her eighties, passing away in 1841 at which time she had a Native service as part of her burial.

Building upon the basis of these facts, Armstrong fleshes out her story, telling of Taylor’s travel across the ocean to the West Indies, to her time spent in a Mi’kmaq camp on the Baie de Chaleurs where she developed a lifelong friendship with the Indians and Acadians that lived there, before her marriage to a former captain. She describes in detail the arduous and dangerous task of clearing the land and building a life on the Miramichi during a time of tremendous unrest between the original settles, the arriving Loyalists from the American War, the privateers, and the Indians for whom the land belonged to first. Woven through all this is the story of Charlotte Taylor’s relationship with Wioche, the Native man who she meets when she first arrives in the Baie de Chaleurs, maintaining a relationship with him over the course of her life. While part of the story is fictional according to Armstrong, it is well-written and believable, and offers a glimmer of light and hope in a story that is often bleak in its outlook.

Taylor does not have an easy life, and some of the best writing is in Armstrong’s descriptions of the difficulties in every day life. There is a beauty in the simplicity and occasional starkness in Armstrong’s writing, as though her writing is mimicking the terrain itself. I found some comparison in her writing to that of Elizabeth Hay in Late Nights on Air, in the same simple descriptions of a difficult land and the people who make their lives there against great odds.

I did feel that the book was weakest in Taylor’s descriptions of the many historical events during this period (the clashes between the Loyalists and old settles, the process of parceling and deeding the land, the division of Nova Scotia into two provinces). Occasionally in Armstrong’s attempt to insert the known facts, The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor starts to veer into history text territory, but without the fleshing out of the details to ensure that the reader is certain of the context. Towards the end of the novel I particularly found that there was a lot of detail hastily inserted that could have been better explained, and that events were careening towards the rather hasty ending without the deftness shown in the first 3/4 of the book. Overall though, I felt that more often than not, the book came down on the right side of the delicate balance between historical detail and the fictional narrative.

I adore historical fiction but have been disappointed that most historical fiction is set in Europe. I think this is a fine addition to Canadian historical fiction, a genre I would be delighted to see more of.

Rating: A

Review: The Toss of a Lemon

I recently finished Padma Vaswanathan’s terrific first novel The Toss of a Lemon, which I received some time ago from Random House. I would have to say that this has been one of the best books I’ve read recently.

This is the story of Sivakami, a Brahmin woman who comes to her husband’s house as a child bride in turn-of-the-century India. As foretold in their horoscopes, her husband passes away only a few years after their marriage, plunging her into widowhood at the age of eighteen. As is custom during that time and for a woman of her caste, she shaves her hair, clothes herself in a white sari, refuses all touch from sunup to sundown and removes herself from public life (for a widow is considered a bad omen). While she is considered a most devout widow, she breaks from tradition in one crucial way – she moves back to her husband’s house instead of remaining within her brothers’ household, maintaining the lands and wealth through a lower-caste assistant hand-chosen by her husband prior to his death. She does this for her son, to give him the secular education that he would not have had otherwise. This decision gives her bright but troubled son the direction he needs, but will ultimately set him on a path in complete opposition to that of his mother.

The book covers a broad period of Indian history (roughly 1890-1950s). The period was one of tremendous unrest, where the caste system in India began to break down. Historically Brahmins were considered the highest caste – the morally superior intellectuals. Leading up to independance and partition, their influence and wealth began to fade as the caste system began to break down (although, arguably, it is still in existence today).

One of the most difficult things about writing (or reading) anything historical is the tendency to look at customs or traditions through today’s North American standards. Far too often in historical fiction, characters speak or act in manners that would be wholly inappropriate for the time and place. Even more unfortunate, there is often a not-so-subtle rebuke in the author’s writing style – as though they will have the character act in a period-appropriate manner, yet still make it abundantly clear that they, as the author, do not agree with it. Perhaps the greatest strength of this book lies in Viswanathan’s ability to be non-judgmental about customs that were wholly typical of that time, such as child-brides, arranged marriages and the caste system. We see some of the characters moving away from these practices, but as a reader I never had the impression that Viswanathan agrees with either point of view or that she was siding with one character over another, rather that she was merely illustrating the social changes that occurred during that time period. The neutrality of her writing allowed me to more fully immerse myself in the story, to reflect on the practices and draw my own conclusions instead of constantly being reminded that many of the practices are considered wholly-inappropriate by today’s Western standards.

The story itself moves along at a good pace. At 600+ pages, this is not a short book, and yet I never felt that the story wasn’t moving. Despite the jacket copy, which lead me to believe the story is told only through the eyes of Sivakami, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the book changes focus several times to other characters, as the story requires. Through each of these women’s eyes we see the subtle way that social change is altering the structure of their families and their caste traditions. Because the focus of the novel is on the story of the family first, and history second, this is not as heavy a novel as some historically based stories. The historical events are never so overt as to become confusing. That said, those readers with no historical background on the events in India around independence or partition or understanding of the caste system could find the book confusing, but I felt that Viswanathan subtly relayed any information that was an absolute necessity for understanding the story, particularly with regards to caste customs.

I only found two aspects of the novel disappointing. First, there were times in the book where I wished we had spent more time with a certain character to better understand their motives or reasoning, particularly in the case of Vairum, Sivakami’s son. Perhaps the book was already too long, or more likely it was deliberate. Like in any family, we are left to wonder at another’s words or actions, seeing them as an enigma. That said, we are often given subtle hints or clues as to the cause of a character’s behaviour. The best example of this would be Sivakami’s son-in-law, who we can only infer from his behaviour and from our modern understanding that he likely has some disorder such as ADD or mania.

My other issue was the rather abrupt ending to the book. While I understand that as the story of a family, that there may not be a specific end to the story per se, I wish that the last chapter and epilogue had been handled a little differently. I found the last page of the last chapter particularly choppy, as though Viswanathan and her editor had difficulty in nailing down a final sequence of events that felt climactic enough to be an ending while still reflecting that this was a family with a story that would continue long after the final page.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book. Despite my disappointment with the ending the book stands on its many other strengths. Particularly, the writing is excellent and highly evocative of the time and place. Reading it I could almost believe I was there, something I find occurs all too rarely in historical fiction. I am looking forward to Viswanathan’s next novel, and hope that her sophomore effort builds upon the foundation she’s laid here.

Grade: B+

Reviews: The End of East and The Outcast

(Not so) recently I had the opportunity to attend an author reception for Sadie Jones, a first time author, with a fellow blogger. While I was there, I mentioned to another attendee that I had planned on reviewing the guest of honour’s book, The Outcast, together with the book The End of East, written by first-time novelist Jen Sookfong Lee, which I had also recently read. I commented that I found the two novels similar in many ways, apart from the fact that they were both first books from new female authors, but that I felt that The Outcast, to be the far superior first effort. She seemed surprised that I found them similar novels and commented that that they were quite different, but in typical fashion for me I immediately found myself flustered, lost my train of thought and floundered as I tried desperately to gather my thoughts and not sound like a complete idiot. Of course, mere minutes later I could coherently organize my arguments for my position, but the moment had passed, and I never did find the opportunity to defend my position.

Lee’s novel is, loosely, the story of an Chinese immigrant family living inVancouver’s Chinatown. At a mere 243 pages, this is not a dense family epic, but rather several snapshots of the three generations of the Wong family as seen through the eyes of the not-so-dutiful daughter, Sammy Chan, who has returned home from her life in Montreal to take care of her aging mother. The story begins with the immigration of Sammy’s grandfather, Seid Quan, to Vancouver’s Chinatown, and his immense loneliness. It then follows the family as Seid Quan’s son, Pon Man, eventually joins his father in Canada and marries, and the lives of his wife and children.

I had mixed feelings about this book. As I read the book I couldn’t help but feel that Lee had taken a primer course on “powerful first novels” and “bright new voices” and had sought to put all of the elements of that type of novel into her book. Which is my verbose way of saying that the writing felt very forced at times, as though in Lee’s attempt, perhaps, to write “beautiful and compelling descriptions” she loses sign of what she was describing in the first place.

The way the drizzle stayed with her, soaked into her hair, her clothes, her sheets. It pushed itself onto her skin, huddled with her when she cried, remained cool even as she cooked at a blazing stove. Unshakeable. Like family.

The End of East, page viii

There were some parts of this book that were compelling, and the sense of loneliness and isolation shines through. I felt Lee really hit her stride when she describes Sammy’s mother’s (undiagnosed) postpartum depression. This passage was the portion of the book that struck me as the rawest, truest writing in the entire book:

It’s like a splinter, this feeling that she hates the baby so much that she would rather reach into its face and pull out its brains than take care of it for one more day. This hatred started days ago, and she thought she could hide it, control it by ignoring it and letting it fade on its own. But then it grew, attracting all the other evil feelings she has ever had about this house, this family, this country, even her own husband.

The End of East, page 141

That said, the tone of this novel is uneven at best, and the individual stories, snapshots if you will, are not connected well at all. Apart from some of the rather self-indulgent descriptions, I really felt that the single biggest failure of this novel though lies in the motivations (or lack thereof) of the daughter, Sammy. Her portions of the story are the weakest, with very little connection or explanation for her actions – actions I found inexplicable. As she is the primary narrator through which the story is told, this is a rather glaring weakness.

At first glance, Jones’ novel could not appear to be more different. It is the story of Lewis Aldridge, a young boy living in post-World War II England, and the devastating consequences for his entire family after a summer accident. It is a story of secrets and cruelty and hypocrisy and, ultimately love.

The story begins as a nineteen-year-old Lewis has just been released from jail, after spending a few years for an as-yet undisclosed crime. From there, the novel moves back in time to Lewis’ childhood, his father’s return from the war, and ultimately the accident that would take his mother’s life. We see Lewis’ life unravel as his father marries the young, flighty, and incredibly selfish Alicia.  and start the cascading chain of events that leads to the riveting climax.

Entwined with Lewis’ story is the story of the Aldridge’s neighbours (and Lewis’ father’s boss), the Carmichaels. Both families have secrets, and emphasis is placed on image and appearances and social niceties at all costs. None of the characters are likable, with the possible exception of the Carmichael’s daughter, Kit, on whom the novel ultimately hinges, but all are compulsively readable, as the novel rips through a cascading chain of events that leads to the riveting climax. (And that is not in any way reviewer-speak. It truly is a climax that lives up to the hype.)

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but the book truly moves at a breakneck pace. Prior to writing this novel, Jones was a screenwriter, and her background is evident as the novel reads very much like a movie. In fact, there was a video trailer that was made for this book (it can be viewed here: While I generally don’t like trailers for books, I watched this trailer after reading the book and found it bang on to the descriptions in the novel. It was as though the novel was written at the outset with an eye to the possibility of a movie adaptation.

While I loved the flow of this book, I also found the writing to be well-executed and far more evocative than that of Lee’s novel. For example, this passage, following a Christmas time chat between Lewis’ father Gilbert, and Dicky Carmichael, his boss and neighbour, is a perfect example of the depth of understanding that Jones shows for the discrepency between exterior appearances and actions and private thoughts of her characters.

He teased out the conversation some more and wouldn’t go into detail about money, and Gilbert didn’t like him or the way he spoke or the way he stood there, but he took it, and he told himself how pleased he was, and gradually became pleased as the meeting drew to a close. It was a good deal and he was happy about it. He didn’t want to have to look at Dicky’s face any more and he wanted to take Lizzie home where she belonged and love her there. She was too good for any of them. She had her own way of looking at things. She was his and she was clever and lovely and he didn’t know what she saw in him, but he was grateful.

The Outcast, page 36

As I said, I found that there were similarities between the two books. Both are first novels from younger female novelists. Both books are stories of lonely, damaged people trying to find their way in the world. Both feature characters that are not inherently likable, and their sometimes unexplicable actions. However, where Jones excels at moving the story along, in drawing together multiple characters’ points-of-view and forming connections between jumps in time and narrator, Lee’s novel is substantially weaker in this respect leading to a disconnected, vignette feel to the nvoel. Where you get to the end of Jones’ novel and feel that you have read a story, Lee’s novel just, well, ends. All told, Jones’ novel is the better debut, and I have high hopes for her sophomore effort. Perhaps Lee will fare better in later novels, when her tone evens out, and there is less pressure to put forth a “daring and audacious first effort.”


The End of East, C+
The Outcast, A-