Tag Archives: Canadian Fiction

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?

The Fortunate Brother by Donna Morrissey: Loose lips sink ships

Cover imageDonna Morrissey’s new novel comes with a hearty endorsement from one of my favourite authors, Ron Rash, who’s dubbed it ‘one of the very best novels I have read in years’. It had caught my eye even before I’d seen the press release but after reading that how could I resist? Attentive readers may have noticed that this is the second Rash endorsement I’ve fallen for recently. He was pretty keen on The Barrowfields too. Set in Newfoundland, The Fortunate Brother is the story of a murder which sets the small fishing village in which it takes place abuzz with speculation.

Kyle Now is not at all sure what he’ll do with his future. He has a university place but is unwilling to turn his back on his family, still reeling from the loss of his brother in an accident on the oil rigs. His father spends much of his time in a drunken stupor, his sister has taken off backpacking in Africa and his mother is undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Kyle is shouldering this heavy burden when Clar Gillard’s body is washed up, thought to be drowned then found to be stabbed. This is a community where nothing goes unnoticed or undiscussed. Soon the village is rife with gossip about possible culprits, fingers pointing every which way from Clar’s wife, who he frequently abused, to Kyle’s father, known to detest Clar, to Kyle, himself, beaten by Clar the night of his killing. Over the next few days, Kyle finds himself questioned by the police, stumbling over evidence and trying to keep his father’s head above water as they both face his mother’s operation. Kyle has his suspicions about the identity of the murderer but unlike the rest of the village he knows when to keep his mouth shut.

Tensions run high almost to the end of Morrissey’s taut atmospheric novel. Secrets are plentiful and well-guarded. I guessed the perpetrator correctly early on but that didn’t stop me from changing my mind right up until their identity was revealed.  The Now family’s desperate grief is palpable in Morrissey’s depictions of a father unable to talk about his son’s death and a mother patiently working her way through her pain alone. Caught in the middle, Kyle’s angry struggle to protect both parents is both poignant and compellingly convincing. The portrayal of one half of a community unable to keep its mouth shut while the other seems incapable of keeping anything but shtum might seem too convenient in another setting but here in a remote village where ‘everyone was your brother or aunt or cousin or neighbour and they knew your dead like they knew their own’ it seems entirely plausible. Morrissey’s writing is admirable clipped yet vividly evocative of its setting: the landscape and weather are punishing, spoken of as if each were a person with a fickle power over the inhabitants. If The Fortunate Brother is anything to go by, Morrissey and Rash are a fine match: if you like one, I’d be surprised if you didn’t like the other.

His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay: One big happy family

Cover imageElizabeth Hay’s Late Nights on Air ranks alongside Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved as one of the finest contemporary novels I’ve read. Notable for its beautiful descriptions of the natural world, Hay’s novel shows a similar perception in its portrayal of relationships as Hustvedt’s. It’s one of those novels I pressed into the hands of friends and family after I read it. Unsurprisingly, then, I was eagerly anticipating His Whole Life, which turned out to be an equally nuanced coming-of-age novel set against the backdrop of the 1995 referendum on the separation of Quebec from Canada and its aftermath.

Jim is ten years old when the novel opens as he, his Canadian mother and his American father make their way from New York City to Canada where his uncle and aunt have a lakeside house. For Jim it’s an welcoming place: he’s reunited with Duke, the ancient dog he adores and escapes the opprobrium that follows him around the school playground. For Nan, his sharp-tongued mother, it’s an annual homecoming making years of living in a marriage which is all but coming apart bearable. For George, it feels like a prison, uncomfortable and unsettling. When her brother and sister-in-law are killed in a car crash nine months later, Nan decides to go back to the lake telling George that she will stay until Duke dies having one lost dog on her conscience already, and takes Jim with her. Shortly after they’ve settled in a piratical figure arrives, reminding Jim of his beloved Treasure Island. Lulu is Nan’s dearest childhood friend, unseen for years and now in the midst of the latest in a seemingly endless series of spats with her brother who runs the family farm. An idyllic summer begins for Jim in which he has the company of not one but two dogs and the devoted attention of two women who endlessly chew the fat about everything, from Lulu’s disinheritance to the question of Québécois independence. Hay’s novel follows Jim and his mother over seven difficult years as the bond between them deepens.

‘What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?’ asks ten-year-old Jim from the back seat of the family car. This is the question that will recur throughout Hay’s richly complex and intimate portrait of an extended family, each time revealing more about its characters. It’s a novel deeply conscious of the past and the far-reaching consequences of our actions, nostalgic almost elegiac in tone with the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation at its heart. Hay has a beautifully honed turn of phrase: ‘Nan has once told Jim how restful it was to be immersed in a past that was over’; Nan thinks of her young son ‘What a moody stripling he was, Christopher Robin as Job’; Lulu and her brother are ‘always fighting leftover fights’. Jim is a memorable character, too mature for his years as the children of troubled marriages so often are, used to overhearing too many adult conversations. If I have a criticism it is that the splits within the family were a little too neatly mirrored by the political divide between the two sides of the referendum question but Canadian readers may beg to differ. Altogether a thoroughly absorbing and thought-provoking novel, beautifully expressed. I have hopes that it will snag the Baileys Prize judges’ attention.

Under the Visible Life by Kim Echlin: Friends forever

Under the Visible LifeKim over at Reading Matters has decided to devote her reading life to OzLit this year and I’m looking forward to discovering some Aussie writers hitherto unknown to me. We in the UK tend only to read the headline acts such as Peter Carey and Tim Winton, I suspect. The same could be said of Canadian fiction but a visit to Naomi’s Consumed by Ink will introduce you to a whole bunch of vibrant writers, although if you’re like me and have long sworn off Amazon you may have trouble in tracking some of their books down. Not so with Kim Echlin I’m pleased to say. Under the Visible Life is the first novel of hers I’ve read but if this engrossing tale of female friendship set against a backdrop of tumultuous social change and cultural difference is anything to go by I’ll be hoovering up her entire backlist shortly.

In 1950 Mahsa’s Afghan mother ran away with her American father, finding sanctuary with an uncle in Karachi. Mahsa’s is an idyllic childhood, music running through it like lifeblood as her parents dance and sing caught up in their love for each other and their daughter. When the uncle dies Mahsa’s parents are left without protection from the half-brothers intent on avenging their sister’s honour and the inevitable happens. Mahsa becomes the ward of a much stricter uncle, one who has no truck with the idea of independent women. When she wins a scholarship to study in Montreal, she reluctantly leaves her young lover for the freedom she knows she’ll never have in Karachi. There she finds liberation, fulfilment and adventure, eventually meeting Katherine with whom she shares a musical affinity. Katherine is the child of a white mother, jailed in 1940 when her baby daughter was a mere three months old for ‘incorrigible’ behaviour. Deserted by her Chinese father, life is tough for Katherine and her mother but, like Mahsa, music offers an escape. She 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 which endures through love lost and won; marriage, arranged and otherwise; and raising children in the most difficult circumstances. Music is the breath of life to Katherine and Mahsa, running through their story like a constant yet ever-changing refrain.

Echlin takes her time, unfolding Katherine and Mahsa’s stories using alternating narratives to round out these very different characters through their distinctive voices: Katherine’s sharp, passionate and frenetic; Masha’s gentle, quietly determined, almost poetic at times. Race and identity inevitably flow through a novel in which each narrator is of mixed race but perhaps the strongest theme is the friendship to which they form a backdrop. This is an intensely romantic novel at times – there are four love stories running through it but the most powerful is the platonic fifth. It’s a complicated, nuanced portrait of a friendship between two strong women, able to withstand all that’s thrown at them from forced marriage to a philandering junkie husband, always finding their way to each other through music even when one fails to understand the other’s behaviour. There’s so much to admire about this novel, not least Echlin’s beautifully polished writing: marriage could be ‘playing solos at the same time and ending up together’ observes Katherine while ‘teenage boys are warriors without armour’ and her mother’s last days ’haunt me like a dark, unfading bruise’. So many striking phrases to quote but my favourite is Katherine’s pronouncement to Mahsa, still locked into her forced marriage: ‘The most radical thing a woman can do is live.’ Amen to that!

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood: Fun with dystopia

Cover imageIt’s been quite some time since I’ve read a new Margaret Atwood – a little too much dystopia in her later novels for me – but the synopsis of The Heart Goes Last appealed: homeless couple in the nearish future signs on for a project where they alternate a month in prison with a month in a comfortable house then one of them becomes obsessed by their counterparts. 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 it has some very serious points to make.

Stan and Charmaine are living in their car. He’s lost his job in the Empathy section of a robotics company, she’s lost hers at the Ruby Slippers care home she loved so much. They’re part of the fallout from the financial meltdown. The streets are lawless, roamed by menacing gangs turned out from overcrowded prisons and not averse to a spot of rape. When Charmaine watches a promotional video offering an escape in the shape of a social experiment she jumps at it, persuading Stan to check out the induction programme by dangling the prospect of motel sex in front of him. She’s had enough of sex on the back seat, avoiding it whenever she can. The induction is slick and convincing. All they have to do is spend alternate months in prison while someone else lives in their house, then switch – and all for the greater good. Run by Positron, the town will be called Consilience: ‘Cons + Resilience. Do time now, buy time for our future!’ is its snappy, seemingly socially conscious slogan. Once they’ve signed there’s no going back as Stan’s streetwise brother points out but Stan sees the prospect of regular sex and stifles his worries about just who’s benefiting from this ‘experiment’. All goes well to begin with but when Stan spots a passionate note supposedly from Jasmine, their female Alternate, he becomes obsessed, going to great lengths to track her down only to find that the truth is entirely different from anything he could have imagined. Soon he’s embroiled in a scheme which will blow the lid off the increasingly sinister goings on at Positron/Consilience.

Atwood is the consummate storyteller, slinging out well-aimed barbs as she reels her readers in to this tale of suburban utopia gone horribly wrong. All manner of things are in her satirical sights – the privatisation of prisons, sex obsession, robotics, big business, an ageing population – to name but a few. Both Charmaine and Stan’s characters are expertly drawn. Their internal monologues are often very funny: Charmaine’s wholesomeness, verging on the twee, takes a surprising turn; Stan’s lurid fantasies about the sensuous Jasmine come back to bite him. There’s a good deal of sly wit – the beautiful Veronica’s sexual fixation on a knitted blue bear is particularly funny as are the inane self-help videos streamed into Consilience homes. But despite all that it has a deadly serious message: we humans are all too easily lulled into a soporific acceptance leaving us wide open for exploitation. And its ending is a triumph – no copouts from Ms Atwood here.

If you like the sound of The Heart Goes Last you might like to read Naomi’s account of Erica Wagner’s interview with Atwood at the Manchester Literature festival over at The Writes of Women.