Monday, September 26, 2016

All the Things We Leave Behind

All the Things We Leave Behind / Riel Nason
Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, c2016.
240 p.

It's the summer of 1977, and seventeen-year-old Violet has been left in charge of The Purple Barn, her family's antique shop in tiny Hawkshaw, New Brunswick. Her parents are "on vacation" -- actually, they are on the trail of her older brother Bliss, who disappeared a few days after his high school graduation.

Violet has to navigate running the antique store, keeping an older employee within the limits of her role, negotiating for the purchase of a local and much coveted estate, hanging out with her boyfriend Dean, sharing a cottage with her best friend Jill, and managing her memories of Bliss and her guilt at letting him disappear without a word. 

She figures out a lot about herself and her close relationship with her beloved brother in the few weeks that she is left to manage on her own. But she's never really on her own; part of the story is centred in the relationships that she has, those that help her continue on despite her guilt and uncertainty about her part in Bliss' leaving. Her friends and some of the people she knows through their store, including the staff and a local hermit who makes twig furniture for them to sell, are all part of her wider support system, whether she recognized that at first or not.

The antique shop serves as both a marvellous, realistic setting (Nason was once an antiques dealer herself) and a perfect metaphor. Violet notes that many customers simply love buying antiques because they desire something that has a history, that holds the past in tangible form. For herself, though:

Having a reminder, a souvenir, to help you remember is great, but I think the best memories are through a special door in your mind that you can open without a key.

Through the process of opening this mental door and accessing the memories, Violet gives us the history of her family's past, in a warm, thoughtful way, full of sensory and emotional detail. She is a strong character, able to carry the weight of this entire narrative. Their family is drawn clearly, and each of them is shown as a believable and complex individual. Bliss' struggles with a darkness that sweeps over him are explained, and connected to the image of the boneyard, the repulsive burying pit deep in the forest in which the Department of Transportation dumps roadkill -- the boneyard which Bliss and Violet stumble across when they are 9 & 10, an experience which never leaves them.

There are multiple threads woven through this story, from Bliss to Violet to others in the community, including the Vaughns who disappeared a decade ago after a family tragedy, and whose estate Violet is now hoping to buy. There is also a strong thread linking Violet's story to that of the drowned town of Haventon, flooded out by a dam project a decade previously -- the story of which is the focus of Nason's first book, The Town That Drowned. 

There is a lot more in this book, but you'll have to read it to get the full immersive experience. It is redolent of the 70s, so if you like the idea of summer, the 70s, a coming of age story, family dynamics and lots and lots of quilts and antiques, pick this one up. It's full of vibrant images, both horrible and beautiful, that stick with a reader. 


Further Reading:

This kind of reminds me of Vicky Grant's Small Bones, another Canadian novel (set in 1964 however) which features a strong young woman living at a resort-like place (this one in Ontario), dealing with her boyfriend and family secrets over the length of a summer. It is less haunting than Nason's but also an enjoyable read.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Clay Girl by Heather Tucker

Clay Girl / Heather Tucker
Toronto: ECW Press, c2016.
352 p.

First things first: this cover is gorgeous. So simple and stark and perfect.

Second things: I wanted the book to be gorgeous as well. Sadly, it's not quite what I'd hoped.

Ari Appleton is the youngest of a family of girls, all with "J" names until they get to her, inexplicably named Harriet. She carries her imaginary best friend, a seahorse named Jasper, in her pocket everywhere she goes.

And she needs a sensible seahorse to tell her what's what after her childhood. Something terrible has happened to her sisters, and their father has died. But their sad and incompetent mother is no use, and so the girls are farmed out to relatives.

Harriet, age 8, is sent alone by train all the way out to Halifax to live with her Aunt Mary, considered an outcast for her decision to live with her potter girlfriend Nia. Harriet finds love in this new home, and a new name as they call her Ari, lion-heart.

But of course all does not go well; she is called back to Toronto to live with her mother, who has found herself a new husband, a gentle man whom Ari considers a father. Sadly, that also ends badly, and Ari's mother moves on to a nasty, brutish, and cartoonish villain, a corrupt policeman who is physically violent to his own sons, to Ari, and to her mother. Ari holds out for her 16th birthday when she will be free to leave and live on her own, aiming to return to her aunts on the East Coast. But -- you know that won't go well either; at the point of her own freedom and her chance to live with her aunts and her true love on the ocean shore, she martyrs herself to others, giving up her freedom now for a shot in the future.

This is all happening in the 60s, which I was reminded of now and again when a detail was thrown in to prove it. The feel of the setting and the way the characters interacted and spoke did not feel like it was set anywhere in the past, so I didn't think that aspect was necessary -- if it was so easy to forget that it was supposed to be the 60s, then why bother trying to remind a reader?

And the clear division between "goodies" and "baddies" in this story was a bit harsh. The good ones, Ari's supporters, are all liberal and artsy and kind and intelligent; they all treat her with respect and talk to her in high-minded language even when she's a precocious child (who is rather annoying actually - I was glad when the baby talk stopped). The conversations she holds with her aunts, her teacher/mentor, her one true love... they are all very stagey and not very real-life-like. Every word considered and well placed. No boring small talk there.

I wanted to like this book a lot - and I did read it all in one go, so it was certainly interesting enough to hold me. But there was all the bad news piling on, though, and so this really felt to me like an after-school special, if they made those as a miniseries. Redemption comes through giving oneself over to others, to stoically persevering through terrible behaviour. I'm afraid I couldn't agree.

I can see that many people would love this character and her trials and tribulations, but I found it just a little too idealistic for me, shading over into sentimentality more than I personally prefer. I like the Canadian setting, and the idyllic East Coast summers compared to Ari's nasty city life reminded me a little of LM Montgomery's Jane of Lantern Hill, though the content is vastly different. Jane's grandmother isn't a patch on Ari's awful stepfather.

I thought this was a good enough read to finish it, though it was also problematic in many ways. The plot threw the characters around, rather than the characters determining the story. It was simultaneously bleak and depressing, and hopeful in an Oprah-ish way.


Further Reading:

Church of the Dog by Kaya McLaren  for its style and the reliance on mannered language and high-minded though eccentric characters -- and for the presence of a character who needs to be 'saved' by our important main character.

Dean Koontz' Odd Thomas books despite the difference in genre because of :
Ari's sense of purpose; her uncanny way of being the centre of all the action; her sense of being the person, the only and essential one, who needs (or is able) to fix things despite any danger to herself -- this reminds me of Odd Thomas himself, that and his narrative voice is similar to some of the dialogue in this book.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Conjoined by Jen Sookfong Lee

The Conjoined by Jen Sookfong Lee
Toronto: ECW Press, c2016
272 p.

When you imagine having to clean out your parent's house after their death, there are a lot of things you might anticipate - but 2 bodies in the bottom of a freezer in the basement probably isn't one of them.

Jessica certainly didn't expect to find a foot under the frozen goods she was discarding after her do-gooding social worker mother, Donna, died of cancer. But that is what she and her father uncovered. The bodies belong to two troubled teenage sisters that they had fostered many years ago, Casey and Jamie Cheng. And now the memories come rushing back.

Sookfong Lee described the macabre discovery well; she showed the horror and the disbelief that one might feel in real life, which is often missing in crime novels. This is not a crime novel, per se, despite the dead bodies and police involvement. And so there is much more about the relationships, the secrets, the small moments in the lives of all these characters as they interact in the past. And about bigger issues of race, culture, and the foster system.

As the police proceed with their investigations, Jess does also - she searches out records of her mother's foster children, particularly these two sisters. She struggles to understand why and how this might have happened. And she falls into a temporary kind of relationship with the investigative officer, discarding her wimpy social worker boyfriend.

Jess' reaction to all this is interspersed with the story of the sisters, how they came to be placed with Jess' family in the first place, and how their disappearance was not made into a serious concern. Their family life is part of a larger societal story of Chinese families in Vancouver, both the strict immigrant parent with high standards and an unforgiving work ethic, and the urge of the younger generation to escape. Added to this we have ever-present, casual racism and the limitations that this places on the future of these two young girls. We get to know both of them, and their parents, and the trouble that ensues when the older daughter, only just into her teens, starts a clandestine relationship with a family friend. As the publisher's blurb concludes,

...this riveting novel unflinchingly examines the myth of social heroism and traces the often-hidden fractures that divide our diverse cities.

This story revolved around women; it is a story of mothers and daughters in all of their raw relationships. Jess has a difficult time understanding Donna, who is turn has an icy rapport with her own emotionally distant mother. Casey & Jamie have the same lack of emotional support from their own real mother (who is busy working two jobs to keep her children and husband afloat) and as it eventually turns out, from their foster mother as well.

As I've said, I did enjoy this read. It was fast moving and emotionally fraught, with a lot of great descriptive writing. I had a few reservations: why would Donna, who died a lingering death from cancer, not dispose of the bodies which had by then been in her freezer for many years, rather than leaving them for her husband and daughter to find and deal with? I could understand perhaps if she'd died suddenly, but she had lots to time to think about it. And why did the disappearance of two young foster children not seem to cause a blip in anyone's consciousness?

I also found that the conclusion of the story left many loose ends. We never really discover clearly why or how Donna was involved - how did this happen? What will the consequences be for the remainder of her family? The ending was abrupt -- I was reading this as an e-galley and briefly wondered if I had missed the last chapter in my version. I would have liked to have had a bit more from the perspective of the sisters, especially nearer to the final events, and bit of closure! Even though this isn't a "crime novel" I think there still needed to be some explanation of what exactly the crime was, and how it happened.

This book definitely gave the sense of two worlds colliding, and how the disruption to both families caused something terrible in the end. It was a mix of literary and crime tropes, though definitely falling more into the literary side, and involved some strong though dysfunctional women. It's well-written, with a fresh eye on a story I haven't really heard before. If it had only been a little longer, with a some solid denouement, I would have appreciated it more.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Couple Next Door

The Couple Next Door / Shari Lapena
Toronto: Doubleday, c2016
320 p.

This novel probably doesn't need any introduction to my readers as this point; it is on the top ten bestsellers lists in the UK, Canada, and the US. It's Lapena's first thriller, but third novel. (Her previous two novels, Things Go Flying and Happiness Economics, were both comic literary novels, both of which I really enjoyed, btw)

In this domestic suspense novel, we have a couple, Anne and Marco Conti, who leave their infant daughter Cora alone in the house while they go next door for dinner -- against Anne's instincts, but since they take the baby monitor with them, and check on her every half hour, they think it will be okay. 

It isn't. 

When Marco goes to check on her at 12:30, Cora is gone. 

As the investigation begins, they are all suspect. Secrets from Anne's past re-emerge; Marco's financial status is laid bare. Anne's family, who have never much liked Marco, take the chance to drive this home now that their granddaughter is missing. Lots of hateful and devious interchanges occur between them all, with their trust in the other eroding. Inspector Rasbach, experienced at these kind of things, knows they are hiding something. 

As the story spins ever faster, we learn so many things about all the characters that we can't be sure any of our suspicions or impressions are right, or even close. While eventually I did guess what must have happened, the final conclusion shocked and surprised me. But it was perfectly supported by what had come before. 

While this kind of read isn't my usual fare, it's obvious by its overwhelming reception that thriller readers are eating it up. I certainly read it in a rush, wanting to know what was going on. I did find the writing style quite choppy and fragmented, reflecting the content, I suppose. I always gravitate toward character and writing in my favourite books, and this one was definitely plot based -- different from her earlier work, but already very successful as a thriller.

So, if you like this genre, this is definitely a must-read. Best-seller lists everywhere agree ;)


Further Reading

This novel fits in with the current craze for domestic suspense & spouses who don't really know what the other is up to. Any of these other top books in this genre would match the feel of this novel: The Widow by Fiona Barton, Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, or The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Running On Fumes

Running on Fumes / Christian Guay-Poliquin; translated from the French by Jacob Homel.
Vancouver: TalonBooks, c2016.
187 p.

The electricity goes off one day, giving our narrator an early release from his job as a mechanic in a nameless but obvious Fort MacMurray setting. But, it doesn't come back on. After a build up of some panic and unrest, our nameless mechanic jumps in his car, feeling driven to reconnect with his estranged father, back in Quebec.

And thus begins his journey of 4,736 kilometres, the return of the prodigal son, anxious to get to his father before the unexplained power failure and/or his father's dementia prevent him from gaining some closure in their relationship.

His anxiety about his father, and the growing panic on the roads -- lack of gas, looting, people forming tribal groups & suspicious of outsiders, just to name a few -- force him to keep driving, with as little sleep as he can manage. Eventually picking up a female hitchhiker, and then another passenger, his route is delayed and rerouted more than he'd planned. This road trip felt like one of those awful nightmares when you're running and running and not getting anywhere.

The metaphor of a labyrinth, with its minotaur at the centre waiting for him, is brought up a few times, suggesting that the engine of the car echoes the sound of the hooves of the minotaur tracking down the hero. Unfortunately, I didn't think that the metaphor was all that strong; it felt forced, and not fully applicable. 

And there were other things that kept me from enjoying this book as much as I wanted to: the action was limited to the main character's experience, and most of that was driving a car. It unfortunately dragged at times much like a lengthy road trip can in reality. His passengers were odd, and I had my suspicions about them from the first; the explanation for them once he reached Quebec was unsatisfactory. And the conclusion of the story -- argh! It was unnecessary melodrama that robbed the story of any meaning, for me; it took away the goal and the purpose of the entire premise which drove the book. And it felt too faux ironic, too much of a writer's hand moving the pieces than an organic conclusion.

Another issue I have is with the translation itself; Homel explains in a translator's afterword that he changed the novel from present-tense, as-it-happens narration (which he says is a common French style) into a past tense English version - which he also says is a more traditional way of telling these kinds of stories in English. But I don't want a revised English edition, I want the French text told in the way the author intended. And I don't agree with the idea that the original French style is unusual; I've read many contemporary novels in English which use the same style. Personally, I like a more direct translation. I suppose it's another reason to brush up my French so that I can read literary novels in the original...a long-term goal, perhaps.

It sounds like I hated this book -- I didn't. I'd give it 3 of 5 stars; there were interesting ideas in it, and some good descriptive passages - it covers a lot of ground, quite literally. But these elements that I've mentioned really did lessen my enjoyment of it, and so my overall impression was just, well, meh.


Further Reading:

While Homel mentions many manly road novels in his translator's note, I feel he missed out on one of the best apocalyptic travel novels of the recent past, Station Eleven. Unlike this novel, the characters in Station Eleven are not loners; they band together and work communally to survive. And so they do.

Marcel Theroux' Far North also gives me the same sense as this novel. It has a narrator alone in an apocalyptic future, making a living from the scraps of human existence, facing an undetermined breakdown of society. And then he goes on the road to find others. I found it more complex and satisfying than Running on Fumes, with a less claustrophobic narrative.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie

After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie / Jean Rhys
New York: Penguin, 1977, c1930.
138 p.

Unlike many other readers, I was not a huge fan of Jean Rhys' most famous work, Wide Sargasso Sea. So I thought I'd give her another try with this novel.

I found it much more satisfactory, even while it's a very sad and hopeless story. As Rebecca West said of it when it was new:

"It is a terrible book about the final floundering to destruction of a friendless and worthless but pitiful woman. It is terrible, but it is superb."

I can recognize the superb structure and writing, and the strong characterization, but it really is a terrible premise. Misery abounds, as our main character Julia sinks lower and lower, after leaving her last lover. Because she is aging (she is now, gasp, over 30), because she is tired and needy, she no longer has the support of her various lovers. Poverty and loneliness is getting her down. She intends to have it out with Mr. Mackenzie, but all that accomplishes is her remaining allowance from him cut off in one last large payment.
She heads to England, to see her mother and disapproving sister; that simply highlights how tawdry and tired her life has become. She hits up a few of her previous lovers from before Mr. Mackenzie, and gets a few pounds, and the brush-off. And a bit of sanctimonious sermonizing - as Julia sighs after one encounter: 

It's so easy to make a person who hasn't got anything seem wrong. 

This novel is full of despair, angst, uncertainty, and no redeeming or uplifting light at the end. In fact, Julia just keeps on drinking to blunt the pain of being alone and unwanted. Rhys paints a pitiless picture of a woman left to her own devices, cast aside once she's no longer considered desirable or useful. And Julia herself has no personal resources, it seems, neither emotional nor financial. 

It's a story of pathos and the plight of this specific woman in her insalubrious era. While I don't think Jean Rhys will ever be a writer I turn to again and again, I did admire what she was able to do with this character.She was able to evoke compassion for what many might consider an unlikeable character, and lay bare the society that allowed her to suffer.


Further Reading:

Krane's Cafe by Cora Sandel (trans. Elizabeth Rokkan) also shows the inner turmoil of a woman ground down by societal expectations and poverty (this time in Norway) who is finally saying what she has been bottling up, thanks to some strong drink.

The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig tells a visceral story of the agony of poverty and limited options, through a young woman who is thwarted at every turn, and finds her own way out of those societal norms.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Teva Harrison's In-Between Days

In-Between Days / Teva Harrison
Toronto: Anansi, c2015.
168 p.

This book is like nothing I've read before. It's a memoir by Teva Harrison, diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer at age 37. It's in graphic novel format. And she tells her story in a raw, honest way that also reaffirms the glory of life. It's hard to capture the exact tone she uses but it is powerful, moving, and yes, heart-breaking.

She uses her distinctive black&white style to express the emotional aspect of her diagnosis, and the way it came up against the normal expectations of life: her assumptions that she'd be living into old age alongside her husband, the possibility of children, all of that. All the taken for granted kind of thoughts for the future. And she shows how even with the fear and illness that comes with treatment, life is still precious. 

She also doesn't hide any of the realities of treatment -- how she can look fine but not feel it, how her friends have to learn not to expect her at events even if she's said she'll attend, the lonely hours facing her physical limitations, and the sorrow of her family. But she does it in a way that welcomes the reader in, that allows us to more deeply understand what those we love who are undergoing such a passage might be feeling, might be needing from us. 

She also includes memories and stories from life pre-diagnosis - stories that are charming, hilarious, and simply compelling. It's a reminder that cancer is not her entire identity.

She has an unsentimental voice and a beautiful, generous eye, and together these gifts create an unforgettable book. While I wholeheartedly wish she had never had reason to write such a book, she has looked at her life unflinchingly and created a stunning book that should be shared widely. 

(you can also read her thoughtful words at her blog)