Fierce Kingdom: So… Being a Mom Makes You a Better Human? What?

Gin Phillip’s “literary” thriller (the claim to ‘literary-ness’ is a dubious one. I’ll accept if the only criteria for being ‘literary’ is to describe child’s breath as ‘warm’ and ‘milky’ 15 000 times in the span of a 300 page novel) Fierce Kingdom follows Joan and Lincoln (mother and son) as they try to escape shooters in the zoo. This plot takes several things for granted that are worthy of pause:

1. Joan needs to have an exhaustive understanding of zoo layout. No flimsy paper maps for her. So in a stroke of good fortune we find she and Lincoln visit the zoo almost daily and so she knows all the ins and outs of zoo topography. Phew. Makes sense. Because what else is a woman to do with a four year old except not-work so she can take the kid to the zoo every. day.

2. Joan needs to not have a cellphone. Yes. Those pesky devices that keep us tethered to the world and make hostage plots so… lacking in suspense. So Joan *throw it away*. Because that’s exactly what you would do when held hostage and hiding. You would throw your phone away. Literally throw it away. Well thank goodness. I wouldn’t have wanted to be able to communicate with the outside world either.

3. Joan needs to have absolute moral clarity on the purpose of her life: Keep Lincoln Safe. And she needs to encounter a classic ethical dilemna (baby crying while Bad Men With Guns approach) in order to test and be sure about her Purpose. And to stand firm. And then she needs to abnegate that Purpose within 20 pages without any rationale, reflection or consideration. Because this book is full of ethical quandries that are not to be taken lightly. Noted.

4. This last one is perhaps the most disturbing for how little it ruffled this reader: we need to accept and expect that mass shootings occur with enough frequency as to not be particularly noteworthy. To instead be a plot premise from which other questions and issues might be considered.

So with those stipulations noted there are other… troubling aspects of the book.

The reader needs to care about Joan and Lincoln in order to make any of the suspenseful elements of the book work. We need to be worried about whether and how and when they will escape. Except this reader found Joan to be… irritating. The sort of put-together perfect-mom that you see in tampon commercials: making her own yogurt while sorting laundry and doing yoga stretches while she teachers her baby Mandarin and plays lullabies on her harp. Like she just happens to think every. little. thing. Lincoln does is precious and perfect and evidence of his sensitivity and genius. And not once during the three hours they are held hostage at gunpoint does she think ‘Gosh I wish I had someone here to help me,’ or ‘Why won’t this kid stop whinging about being hungry?’ She is, in other words, not entirely believable as a character. I only know some mums, but the mums I know are excellent people and often-to-most-of-the-time excellent mums. And part of what makes them excellent is that they are also their own person. They have ideas, and needs, and wants, and thoughts that are often about their kids, but often about other things, too. And it might just be me (hey, it really might just be me) but I’m more interested in reading about a mom character who is a character and also a mom, than a character who is only known or considered by way of being a mom. It’s just really, really hard to care about an archetype without a personality, history or future attached to it. And maybe the most troubling part, but Joan seems to think – and the reader seems to be expected to reflexively think, too – that being a mom is the highest calling and the most sacred duty. Which isn’t for me to say it is, or it isn’t. Just that the novel presents this as an Unassailable Truth. Like OF COURSE being a mom makes you a better and more worthy human and full of Purpose. Other non-parent-people are nice and good, too, and probably shouldn’t be shot by mass shooters, but… is it so bad? I mean… what are they really living for anyway? So… troubling.

And then there’s the quality of the writing which is at once polished and predictable. It reads smoothly, which is nice because it allows the reader to focus on plot! Some exceptions: the descriptions of the setting are muddy and confusing, I had a hard time picturing where they were or how they were navigating particular enclosures or forests. It feels like maybe Phillips was writing this to be optioned for a movie and so could ‘see’ her scene playing out this way and just trusted the reader would go see the adaptation? The other exception is in descriptions of Lincoln. This poor kid has no character development (except he likes to tell stories about super heroes. Oh wait. That didn’t conjur a complex character for you? Wait, I’ll add that he likes to be snuggled.) and endless descriptions of warm breath. Yawn. Oh and the tired and repeat analogy to ‘animal instincts’. I get it. I get it. You’re a mother protecting her cub and you’re in a zoo. Please. Spell it out for me.

So many complaints! But you’ll still read this one. I know you will. Because it’s the sort of book that can’t be resisted. The Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train (that these women are called ‘girls’ in the title ought to be warning enough) except now… she has a baby to protect. So once you’re finished let me know if I’m just grumpy.

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The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne: You Should Not Read this Book Alone in January. And a #metoo digression.

As if to test whether I am in fact cured of my reader’s block, I read Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. Published in 1955 the novel accords with its time in offering a methodical character study touching on themes of religion/morality, gender and class. It is to Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train what organic, fair trade, shade-grown, bird-friendly, coffee  is to maximum fizz cherry coke: infinitely more substantial, if tasting a little too healthy for satisfaction (and with all the same self-righteous satisfaction for reading it).

But really, if you accept its pace and its narrow focus, you’ll find yourself utterly absorbed and utterly devastated. The novel follows Judith Hearne as she attempts – once again – to meet a man (any man!) who might love her and rescue her from her desperate financial and social straits*. She is entirely pitiable, and (perhaps inevitably) primed to make you either appreciate the social connection in your own life, or to descend into a pit of wallowing sadness about your own isolation and loneliness. Probably not a book to read in January when temperatures are -40 so you can’t go outside and your only companion doesn’t do language and so you find yourself muttering about the existence of God and the dignity of single women. I mean. That could be any one. I’m just saying. That is to say, Moore does a tremendous job of encouraging the reader to empathize with Hearne, even while she is represented as boring, irritating and desperate: quite the feat.

*The reader should, of course, take issue with the representation of women as entirely dependent on men for sense of self and fulfillment. And not to excuse this representation because certainly there are many novels published in Canada in the 1950s that offer alternate visions/realities of femininity, (Gabrielle Roy, for instance) but this reader was willing to read the novel of and by its time and didn’t take too much umbrage with the way Judith casts about for meaning in the form of a man. Where I did find myself concerned is in scenes of sexual violence that present and uncomplicated representation of male violence as instinctual or impulsive, while simultaneously blaming the female character and/or altogether ignoring the consequences for her life of the experience of such violence. We might reasonably ask questions about what we can expect from Moore, writing when he is, and writing female characters. While we might make some allowances for the social mores of his time, I did find these scenes disturbing and the treatment of the women (that is to say, their literary representation, not their literal experience in the novel) put to service the characterization of the male predator, a frustrating and disturbing double “use” of the female character. Perhaps I am overly sensitive (yes, let’s blame me for my ‘sensitivity’) awash as we are in the #metoo moment, but I suspect most readers would find some level of irritation at the surface treatment of sexual violence here and the way it is rendered both quotidian and inevitable.

Okay. All that said, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the book (enjoyed seems like the wrong word for a reading experience that is so successful in making you feel so… sad). So if you find yourself looking for something to make you feel suitably smug about your reading habits… go ahead. Read it on the bus with its cover in full display, for you are someone who reads Literary Things. (also Literary Vice).

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Last Snow, First Light: I read a book! I read a book!

It has been… weeks. And weeks. Months, maybe. But I did it. I cracked my reader’s block, which is a real thing, I’ve come to understand. Thanks to the many of you who wrote with suggestions and sympathy for my vexed state. Ideas on how to break reader’s block included: read non-fiction, read a graphic novel, re-read an old favourite, read something short, read articles. While I appreciated all the advice, I ended up just… taking it slow. I read a few pages at a time and stopped putting pressure on myself to be reading. And worrying about why I wasn’t (had I broken my empathy?).

The book I eventually finished, Wayne Johnston’s Last Snow, First Light isn’t one you’d think would break reader’s block. It’s what you might call a slow burn. A mix of character study, realist drama and story-of-place there is – over the 400 odd pages – something of a mystery to be unraveled: what happened to Ned Vatcher’s parents, who disappear during a snow storm never to be seen again. But it’s mostly about the characters: the increasing weirdness of Ned as he gets richer and lonelier, the journey of Fielding (who some readers will recall from The Colony of Unrequited Dreams and The Navigator of New York – though tbh I’d forgotten almost all of both books. Barely a glimmer of The Colony except that Smallwood stamps around Newfoundland) to reconcile with her past by way of truth-telling and sharing, the re-defining of family from genetic bond to affiliative relations.

It’s a book that invites going slowly, and so suited my reader’s block recovery. With careful and scene-setting writing, the reader is on a leisurely pace to unravel the mystery, certainly not of the page-turning, heart-palpitating variety (and this reader could be contented whether or not it is ever solved (though Ned can’t be).

Well suited to a winter curl-up and a book club (I guess you could talk about the role of religion, the exploration of ‘family,’ and how much it is possible to drink without dying), I’m happy to recommend this one for a good read, if not a zippy one.

 

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Why Can’t I Read Anything?

I’ve started and put aside half a dozen books in the last month. I’ve made it two hundred pages into a couple of them before realizing I don’t care at. all. what happens to any of the characters. GileadThe Alice NetworkFresh Complaint, 4321, We Were Eight Years in Power… I’ve tried different genres. I’ve tried bestsellers and literary fiction. Either I’m having remarkably bad luck or my reading brain is broken.

So… please advise. What do you do when you can’t seem to read anything? When you don’t want to read anything? What should I be reading that will make me want to read again? What is wrong with me? Help!

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