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

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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: http://www.rhgdigital2.co.uk/minisites/bookvideoawards/outcast.asp). 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.”

Grades:

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