Tag Archives: Canadian Fiction

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: Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels (1996)

Cover imageThis 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.

Fugitive Pieces is one of those excellent books that sold satisfyingly well when I was a bookseller. I can’t remember why – there was no Richard and Judy at that point and it’s a properly literary novel – but it was a pleasure to see it flying out of the door. Its appeal for me was partly its premise but I’ve always had a particularly soft spot for novels by poets which Anne Michaels is. Written in richly beautiful language and studded with striking images, it’s a profound meditation upon the nature of loss, love and the healing power of words.

Athos Roussos discovers a mud-covered boy while excavating an archaeological site in Poland, and takes the child home to the Greek island of Zakynthos. Seven-year-old Jakob Beer has escaped the Nazis, forced to listen to the cries of his parents as they were murdered while he lay hidden in a closet. Athos nourishes Jakob with knowledge and words, applying balm to the wounds inflicted by such devastating loss. After the war they move to Toronto but when his beloved mentor dies and his brief marriage fails, Jakob returns to Greece to work as a translator and write poetry. When he meets Michaela, the possibility of happiness finally becomes a reality only to be snuffed out by a traffic accident. After Jakob’s death Ben, the child of concentration camp survivors, sets out in search of Jakob’s journals.

Michaels has written only one other novel as far as I know, The Winter Vault, published thirteen years after this one. It’s a fine piece of fiction but no match for the brilliance of Fugitive Pieces, at least for me. I wonder if she’ll write another.

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

French Exit by Patrick deWitt: Squewering the rich

Cover imageI’ve been a keen fan of Patrick deWitt’s fiction since reading his darkly comic ripping yarn, The Sisters Brothers. His last novel, Undermajordomo Minor, was entirely different having more than a touch of the Gothic fairy tale about it. French Exit takes yet another turn with its caustic caricature of the wealthy upper classes, taking its readers from New York City to Paris in the company of Frances Price, her son Malcolm and Small Frank, their ancient cat.

Frances has been avoiding her financial advisor. She knows what’s coming. After years of jaw dropping extravagance her husband’s money has finally run out. She sells the contents of her swanky apartment, then the apartment itself, stashing 185,000 euros in cash along with her sedated cat in her handbag and crosses the Atlantic with Malcolm in tow. On board ship, Malcolm briefly takes up with a medium, later banged up in the brig for telling a passenger she’s about to die which said passenger promptly does. Once settled into her best friend’s apartment, Frances sets about ridding herself of her cash but not before Small Frank runs away. Soon they’ve acquired a full house of lodgers including a lonely widow, a private investigator and Madeleine the medium, tracked down to contact Small Frank. Frances is still spending money like water, handing it out to strangers when there’s nothing left to buy, and she’s desperate to find Small Frank. He is, after all, the vessel that houses her dead husband’s spirit.

DeWitt’s satire is almost cartoon-like in its outlandish comedy, lampooning the rich with a cast of vividly memorable characters: Frances the sharp-tongued widow, long thought to have taken off to Vail on a skiing trip after discovering her husband’s corpse; Small Frank lumbered with Franklin’s truculent, whining voice as he roams Paris, flea-ridden and hungry; and Malcolm whose only purpose in life is to keep his mother company. There’s a degree of humanity amongst all this excoriation: Malcolm’s emotional constipation after a childhood of being ignored by both parents contrasts with his mother’s attempt to burn the house down to get attention when she was a child. Not my favourite deWitt novel – The Sisters Brothers still holds pride of place for that – but still a welcome treat.

Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill: Now you see her, now you don’t

Cover imageI first read about Bellevue Square on Naomi’s Consumed by Ink blog where I often find Canadian novels I’d be eager to get my hands on were they to be published in the UK. It went on to win the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize giving it a sporting chance of making an appearance here. Naomi’s review was intriguing, not least because she said she couldn’t say much about the plot and now I know why. It begins with a regular customer telling a bookseller that she must have a twin then proceeds to leads its readers through a maze of discombobulating twists and turns.

When Mr Ronan seizes Jean’s hair, convinced she’s wearing a wig after he’s seen her fifteen minutes ago dressed in an entirely different outfit, she’s both annoyed and intrigued. He’s just come from Bellevue Square, a park visited by patients from the local mental hospital, its fringes populated by artisan cafes and the like. Jean is taken for her doppelgänger by Katarina who knows Ingrid well, telling Jean that she’s often to be found in the Square. Jean decides to stake out the park, spending hours chatting to its denizens – some of whom seem to know Ingrid – neglecting her bookshop and her family but sometimes skyping her sister who has a brain tumour. Then she spots her double, pushing an empty buggy. When Jean finally spills the beans to her husband, he decides it’s time to get help. There’s very much more to this clever, tightly constructed novel than that but I’m wary of ruining it for readers.

You’ll need to keep your wits about you as you read Jean’s narrative. Clues and hints as to what might be happening are quietly slipped in. She’s the quintessentially unreliable narrator – things are rarely quite what they seem in her accounts of events but somehow she makes them add up. There’s a reveal about half-way through which may not come as a surprise to attentive readers but the puzzle doesn’t stop there. All of this is leavened with a good deal of humour:

I like pretending to be someone else. Although you probably think I’m overdoing it says Ingrid to Jean when they first meet.

There’s so much more that I could say about this utterly engrossing book but I’m keen for readers to explore it for themselves. I gather from the acknowledgements that Bellevue Square is to be followed by two other novels forming a triptych called Modern Ghosts. Fingers firmly crossed that they will be published in the UK too.

If you like the sound of Redhill’s novel, you might like to have your appetite further whetted by Marcie’s review at Buried in Print or Kim’s at Reading Matters.

Brother by David Chariandy: ‘Complicated grief’

Cover imageDavid Chariandy’s Brother is the second novel I’ve reviewed this year that I first spotted on Naomi’s Consumed by Ink, hoping that it would buck the British publishing trend of ignoring Canadian gems. The first was Katherena Vermette’s The Break, which lived up to the Margaret Atwood plaudit adorning its cover. Fingers crossed there’ll be more given the excellence of both the Vermette and Chariandy’s eloquent exploration of grief and loss set against a backdrop of urban immigrant poverty.

Michael has cared for his mother since the death of his older brother Francis, shutting himself off from the friends he and Francis once shared. When Aisha contacts him, telling him about her father’s death, he issues an uncharacteristic invitation triggering memories of the years leading up to Francis’ death. Born and raised in Canada, the brothers visited their mother’s Trinidadian home just once. Their Indian father had left when they were barely out of nappies. Determined to lift her two sons out of poverty and sensitive to the judgement of others, Ruth constantly drummed into them strict codes of behaviour and the need to do well at school. Just one year older than Michael, Francis was the cool one growing into a thoughtful man, protective of those he loved yet sassy and adventurous enough to attract the authorities’ attention. A shooting at the development where they lived marked a turning point for him, and for Michael. Francis began to spend more time with his friends, listening to music and falling in love with Jelly, a brilliant DJ in the making. When Aisha comes home, ten years after Francis’ death, it’s Jelly she invites back to the apartment Michael shares with his mother. Her clear-eyed perception offers Michael a way out of the cage of grief he’s locked himself into.

Brother packs a quietly powerful punch for such a short book. Chariandy explores themes of grief, racism and social deprivation, weaving. Michael’s memories of Francis through Aisha’s visit. The introductory page sets the tone for evocative often understated prose which ranges from the colourful – I will beat you so hard your children will bear scars. Your children’s children will feel! – to poetic observation: It was difficult not to feel something for him sitting there, catching snatches of sleep, other times growing old in the squinting smoke while the orders were shouted at him. Chariandy’s characterisation is both astute and compassionate: it’s impossible not to care deeply about what happens to these two young men, both bright and ambitious but thwarted by their circumstances. Brother was longlisted for last year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize, an award well worth looking out for. Competition must have been very stiff indeed for this beautifully crafted piece of fiction not to have made it onto the shortlist.

That’s it from me for a week or so. After a rather tough winter, H and I are off to Spain tomorrow evening in the hope of catching some sun, a bit of culture and reading one or two books.

The Break by Katherena Vermette: Surviving the odds

Cover imageI’m a frequent visitor to Naomi’s Consumed by Ink. She often whets my appetite for Canadian novels that seem right up my street but for some reason rarely find their way to the UK. I was particularly taken by her review of Katherena Vermette’s debut last year and delighted to find it was to be published here. It’s about an indigenous family, already contending with a history of violence and loss, faced with an appalling sexual assault on one of their daughters.

Woken by her teething baby, Stella looks out of her window one moonlit night and sees an act of violence she thinks is a rape. She rings the police but when she looks again there’s no sign of the assailants or their victim. When the police finally arrive – the younger one keen, the older one dismissive of this crime committed on the strip of land which divides the up and coming white neighbourhood from the indigenous – the only evidence is a pool of blood. Next morning, thirteen-year-old Emily is rushed to hospital by her mother’s partner after collapsing. Later that day, her best friend Ziggy is brought in, beaten about the face. Emily has been the victim of a horrible crime on the way home from a gang party she and Ziggy had stumbled into, finding themselves out of their depth. As the police try to piece together what has happened to these two friends, a picture of a community emerges in which most men are either absent, feckless or violent, and damaged women either survive or go under.

The Break was never going to be an easy read but such is Vermette’s skill that she succeeds in drawing her readers into this story in which domestic and sexual violence is more common than not. The novel’s perspective shifts from character to character, effectively unfolding the events leading up to the attack and its investigation while creating a multi-layered portrait of the tight-knit community to which Emily belongs. Vermette is careful with her characterisation, no black and white caricatures here including the perpetrator. She meticulously reveals the low buzz of racism, the particular difficulties faced by people of mixed race and the pull of one culture over another but her strength lies in her portrayal of women and the bonds between them despite the harshness of their lives. All this may sound unremittingly dark but Vermette’s story is riveting, her characters convincing and there is hope in the form of young men who find ways to avoid the lure of drink and drugs, looking out for their younger siblings. A tough read, then, but a rewarding one thoroughly deserving of the Margaret Atwood endorsement adorning its jacket.

The Postman’s Fiancée by Denis Thériault (translated by John Cullen): Bilodo redux

Cover imageI reviewed The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman here three years ago. It often pops up in my top posts which pleases me no end. It’s a little gem: funny, endearing and sufficiently wacky to steer itself well clear of the twee. I ended the review by mentioning that there was a second volume in the works which has been some time in coming but fans of Denis Thériault’s letter-opening postman, caught in the grips of poetic passion for Ségolène far away in Guadeloupe, are unlikely to mind the wait once they get stuck into its sequel.

Tania is a waitress so skilled that her swift, smiling service appears balletic. She delights in anticipating her customers’ desires, none more so that Bilodo, the postman who appears at lunchtime, regular as clockwork, for whom she’s conceived a passion. So shy is Tania that her only expression of love is a daily double portion of Bilodo’s favourite lemon tart. She notices Bilodo practising calligraphy and begins to foster an interest, moving on to haiku about which they chat. A misunderstanding leads to horrified embarrassment when Tania reads a love poem she thinks is for her. Attempts to bury her love fail dismally. She summons her courage, tracks down Bilodo and is astonished to find him dressed as Gaston, a fellow café customer killed by a truck exactly a year ago to the day. After an awkward exchange, she flees only to return and find Bilodo splayed across the road, apparently lifeless. Against all odds, Tania saves Bilodo’s life, faithfully visiting him in hospital and finangling her way into his apartment. When Bilodo regains consciousness, he has no memory of the last five years. Tania scents an opportunity and an elaborate attempt at hoodwinking begins.

Readers of The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman will probably recognise parts of that synopsis. Thériault switches perspective in his sequel, unfolding it from Tania’s point of view rather than Bilodo’s but retaining many of the hallmarks of the first instalment – a gentle humour which becomes downright exuberant towards the end, eccentric yet endearing characters and sufficient darkness to avoid any hint of schmaltz. These two novels were published over a decade apart in the original French but so seamlessly are they knitted together it’s as if they were written alongside each other. Bilodo’s second outing is a delight – you could read it without visiting his first but I can’t imagine why you’d want to.

Stranger by David Bergen: Crossing the North/South divide

Cover imageI was attracted to David Bergen’s Stranger for two reasons: firstly, its premise and secondly by the author’s previous winning of the Scotiabank Giller Prize which I’ve found to be a very reliable indicator, much more so than the Man Booker. Bergen’s novel explores themes of entitlement and deprivation through a young Guatemalan woman left pregnant by her American lover who returns to the States after a devastating accident.

İso works as a ‘keeper’ at a fertility clinic, tending rich but desperate women who come to take the waters credited with helping the founder’s wife conceive. She listens to their confidences, their hopes and fears, often forming an intimate bond with them which dissolves once they leave. She’s in love with Eric, one of the clinic’s wealthy but apparently liberal doctors, who cuts a glamorous figure astride his motorbike. When Eric’s wife arrives for treatment, the carefully cultivated ambiguity of his marital status falls into question. Their affair resumes after Susan leaves, coming to an abrupt end when Eric returns to the States after an accident leaving İso alone with her pregnancy. Shortly after İso gives birth, her daughter is abducted and taken to the States. What ensues is the story of İso’s determined journey to retrieve her stolen child, a quest fraught with danger and difficulty.

In less capable hands İso’s story might have become a little trite, perhaps over sentimentalised, but Bergen deftly avoids that. It’s a novel with a sharp political sensibility, an exploration of Northern entitlement and Southern deprivation delivered simply, never with a heavy hand. İso’s character is sharply drawn and believable. Bergen unfolds her story in clear, direct language, heightening the tension and constant danger of her journey with short, unadorned sentences. The kindness of strangers balances the malevolence she faces both north and south of the US border but her wariness is rarely put to rest. Stranger is an easy, absorbing read – I finished it in an afternoon – but it has some serious points to make about entitlement, wealth and poverty, and makes them well. It put me in mind of Maile Meloy’s Do Not Become Alarmed which explored similar North/South territory but of the two, Bergen’s is much the better book.

The Hidden Keys by André Alexis: A hugely enjoyable, sophisticated caper

This is the first book I’ve read by André Alexis. His last novel  was narrated in the voices of its titular dogs which brought back memories of Paul Auster’s Timbuktu, and not happy ones. That said Fifteen Dogs went on to win the Scotiabank Giller prize in 2015 so what do I know? This latest novel is entirely different: a funny, clever and intricately plotted piece of storytelling full of puzzles within puzzles involving an honourable thief, a rich beyond imagining junkie and a treasure hunt.

Tancred Palmieri is a complex character brought up by a single mother whose deathbed wish was that he change his thieving ways. He’s known Willow Azarian for a little while. She’s a junkie, drawn to telling Tancred her story, impressing upon him that she’s an heiress and eventually presenting him with an intriguing challenge. Her stupendously rich father has left each of his five children a memento, something which is of particular significance to them. Willow’s is a beautiful facsimile of a Japanese screen, one panel left blank but for an inscription. She’s convinced that her father has set a puzzle which can only be solved by examining all the artefacts together. Tancred is to steal each one, quietly returning the item once Willow has scrutinised them all. He will, of course, be recompensed. Reluctantly, Tancred agrees and has hardly begun his exacting task when Willow dies. Having given his word, Tancred has no choice but to continue only to find that his best friend is the detective investigating the burglaries and his bête noir, Willow’s dealer, has got wind of what he’s up to together with the reward it might bring. As each piece of this elaborate puzzle painstakingly slots into place, another mystery opens up until finally Tancred is left face to face with himself.

This is a hugely enjoyable novel, a good old-fashioned caper which twists and turns in a baroque fashion as its many conundrums are unfolded. It’s very funny at times – Castle Rose whose designer took his inspiration from M. C. Escher is a particular delight. Alexis excels at elaborate yet flawless plotting, smoothly switching perspective from character to character. The book’s premise reminded me of Scarlett Thomas’ The Seed Collectors and its style of Robin Sloan’s Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, both favourites of mine. If there’s any disappointment at the resolution its matched by Tancred’s own and offset by the development of his character. Altogether a delight – packed full with colourful detail and characters, each with a story to tell or be told, and funny with it. I think I should try Fifteen Dogs after all.

Blasts from the Past: Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay (2007)

Cover imageThis 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 in as many hands as I could.

Way back in my bookselling days I remember being given a proof of Elizabeth Hay’s Garbo Laughs. It was pleasant enough but didn’t make a huge impression on me. Years later, now working on a magazine, I was sent a copy of Late Nights on Air and became completely enthralled by it. It’s about a group of people operating a radio station in a Canadian backwater which may sound a little dull but Hay’s writing and characterisation are such that it’s utterly entrancing.

In the summer of 1975, Harry has returned with his tail between his legs from his television job in Toronto and falls for the seductive voice of Dido who has 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. It’s a book suffused with a quiet loneliness and longing. Hay intimately acquaints her readers with her cast of mildly eccentric characters so that by the end of her novel you’ve come to care deeply about what happens to them. It’s an absolute gem, recognised as such by the Giller judges who awarded it their prize in 2007.

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