Tag Archives: A Fine Balance

Five Canadian Novels I’ve Read

I follow a couple of Canadian bloggers whose recommendations often hit the spot for me – Naomi at Consumed by Ink, in particular. Frustratingly, many of the books she reviews aren’t Cover imagepublished here in the UK. I know I can get them via Amazon but I’ve sworn off them until they treat their staff like human beings. I do have hopes of visiting Canada one of these days and it’s clear I’ll need at least one extra suitcase for the trip home. In the meantime, here are five favourite Canadian novels I’ve managed to get my hands on, two with links to full reviews.

Elizabeth Hay’s Late Nights on Air is set in the summer of 1975. Harry has returned from his Toronto television job with his tail between his legs and falls for the seductive voice of Dido who occupies the late-night slot. Dido is the object of a great deal of quiet desire at Yellowknife’s radio station staffed by a collection of misfits and blow-ins. Nothing much happens in the novel aside from a summer canoe trip with four of the characters but it draws you in with its wistful tone and gorgeous descriptions of the Canadian wilderness. Hay acquaints her readers intimately with her cast of mildly eccentric characters so that by the end of her novel you’ve come to care about them deeply. It’s an absolute gem, recognised as such by the Giller judges who awarded it their prize in 2007.

The Republic of Love is my favourite of the late lamented Carol Shield’s novels. It’s a thoroughly satisfying love story in which Fay – a folklorist with a particular interest in mermaids and impossibly high romantic expectations based on her ideas about her parents’ relationship – and Tom – a talk-show host with what can only be charitably described as a chequered romantic past – try to find a way to be together. The schlock potential here is high but Shields is far too sharp an observer to fall in to that trap with the result that the book is both wry and touching. Not a prize winner, but an absolute delight.Cover image

Margaret Atwood is arguably the best known of Canada’s contemporary novelists. The Heart Goes Last may not be the obvious choice from her prodigious list of novels but it’s the one that brought me back to her work after a long break. In the nearish future a homeless couple signs up to a project in which they alternate a month in prison with a month in a comfortable house then one of them becomes obsessed by their counterparts and embroiled in a plan that will blow the lid off the scheme’s increasingly sinister goings on. Atwood is the consummate storyteller, slinging well-aimed barbs as she reels her readers into this tale of suburban utopia gone horribly wrong. What took me by surprise was how funny it is – almost to the point of being a caper – but lest you think this is dystopia-lite, Atwood’s novel has some very serious points to make.

Kim Echlin’s Under the Visible Life is about two very different women bound together by their love of music in a friendship that endures through love lost and won; marriage, arranged and otherwise; and raising children in the most difficult circumstances. Mahsa is the child of an Afghan woman and an American man who wins a scholarship to study music in Montreal. Katherine, the child of a white mother and a Chinese father, carves out a place for herself, playing piano in a jazz band, pursuing music, love and family with a passionate determination. When these two meet, an indissoluble bond is formed. Music is the breath of life to Katherine and Mahsa, running through their story like a constant yet ever-changing refrain. There’s so much to admire about this novel, not least Echlin’s beautifully polished writing.

Cover imageWith great wit and humanity, Rohinton Mistry’ A Fine Balance explores the effects of the state of emergency on the lives of ordinary people in 1970s India through a cast of vividly drawn characters. Determinedly clinging to her independence, recently widowed Dina sets up as a seamstress, recruiting two tailors, Ishvar and his nephew Om, and taking in Maneck, a student, as a lodger. What begins out of economic necessity eventually becomes an arrangement between friends, each with a demon to defeat: Dina must conquer her fear of losing her rent-controlled flat to help Ishvar and Om who in turn must cope with the fallout from stepping outside the caste system. Even the privileged Maneck is troubled by his father’s apparent rejection. When Ishvar and Om are caught up in the government’s cruelly administered policies their unlikely family is first threatened, then torn apart.

Any books by Canadian authors you’d like to recommend?

Blasts from the Past: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (1995)

This is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

I know I bang on a lot about book jackets but I can’t talk about A Fine Balance without commenting on its wonderful cover which has been the same for as long as I can remember, certainly since I was recommending it as a bookseller. I’ve no idea if it’s faked or not but it’s superb. The book’s contents are pretty stunning too.

Determined to keep her independence after the sudden death of her husband, Dina sets up as a seamstress. As her eyes begin to fail she recruits two tailors, Ishvar and his nephew Om, supplementing her meagre income by taking in a student as a paying guest. What begins as an economic necessity becomes an arrangement between friends, each wrestling with their own demons. When Ishvar and Om are caught up in the government’s cruelly administered policies their unlikely family is first threatened, then torn apart. Through a cast of vividly drawn characters and with great wit and humanity, A Fine Balance explores the effects of the State of Emergency on the lives of ordinary people in 1970s India.

Hard to write about this book and not describe it as Dickensian, a comparison which many critics drew when it was published. Tolstoy also sprang to reviewers’ minds but Mistry claimed not to be drawn to either of these preferring Cheever, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Updike.

As far as I know Mistry has only published three novels – Family Matters came out in 2002 and there’s been nothing since. Sixteen years is a long time between books and I’m beginning to think that it may be time to give up hope.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Paperbacks to Look Out For in February 2016: Part 2

Cover imageThe first batch of February paperbacks kicked off with one of my books of 2015 as does the second: Sara Taylor’s The Shore which I was delighted to see on both the Baileys Prize longlist and the newly resurrected Sunday Times/Peters Fraser and Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist last year. The novel is made up of a set of interconnecting stories that span a century and a half in the lives of the inhabitants of three small islands off the coast of Virginia. The Shore is the name given to the islands, all within a stone’s throw of each other, and Taylor’s novel focuses on the two families who dominate them – one impoverished the other prosperous – both intertwined through marriage. You need to keep your wits about you – characters pop up then disappear only to reappear again – but Taylor’s careful to tie in every loose end meticulously. I miss that gorgeous hardback jacket, though.

Oneworld is a small publisher who had a very good year last year. They’re the publishers of Marlon James’ Man Booker Prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings. They also publish my second choice, Julia Pierpont’s Among the Ten Thousand Things which sounds entirely different from James’ novel. An anonymously sent box of printed explicit emails, meant for artist Jack Shanley’s wife, is opened by their children, precipitating a crisis. In an attempt to repair their marriage, Jack and Deb decide to move away from New York, thrusting fifteen-year-old Simon and eleven-year-old Kay into different worlds. The synopsis reminds me a little of Jane Hamilton’s Disobedience published back in the days when email was still a bit of a novelty rather than the time-consuming annoyance it’s come to be for so many.Cover image

The next title was also shortlisted for the Man Booker, and appeared alongside Sara Taylor’s The Shore on the Sunday Times/Peters Fraser and Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist. Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is the story of thirteen young Indian men sharing a house in Sheffield, each with their own story and all in search of a better life. The publishers bravely compare Sahota’s novel with Rohinton Mistry’s superb A Fine Balance which makes the sceptic in me raise her eybrows but Kamila Shamsie rates it highly, apparently. Nothing would please me more than to be able to include a new novel by Mistry in one of these previews. It’s been such a long time that I wonder if he’ll ever publish one again.

The Power of the DogThis last title is here almost as an act of faith. Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog is published by the same imprint that brought us the wonderful Stoner and they claim that it’s in the same league thereby setting the bar extraordinarily high. Phil and George are brothers, owners of a large Montana ranch. They’re the antithesis of each other but have shared the same room for forty years since they were boys. When George marries a widow, overturning this lifelong arrangement, Phil sets out to destroy her. We’re promised a ‘devastating twist at the end’. Annie Proulx rates it enough to have written an afterword so I’m thrusting my cynicism aside.

That’s it for February paperbacks. If you’d like to know more, a click on the title will take you to my review for The Shore and to Waterstones for the last three. If you’d like to catch up with the rest of February’s new novels the first batch of paperbacks are here and the hardbacks are here and here.