The Innocents: The Unexpected Gripping Plot in 19th Century Rural Newfoundland

Michael Crummey is one of my favourite authors. I read River Thieves in graduate school when I had lots of Thoughts and Ideas (I suppose I still do, but they are buried deep beneath Responsibilities) and loved it. Since then I’ve loved Galore and Sweetland and you would do well to read them all. Actually they all make pretty good Halloween/winter curl-up reading, Sweetland in particular (as a ghost story).

Anway. The Innocents follows Evered and Ada on this totally barren and isolated outcrop of Newfoundland in the I’m not-sure-when-but-at-least-a-few-hundred-years-ago as they struggle – like really struggle – to stay alive after their parents and sister die. They struggle in the physical ways of starvation and storms and bears (those Can Lit majors looking for another bear novel on which to write a thesis need look no further). They struggle more in the psychological loneliness of being without any other companionship than one another. Not knowing how to read, and with limited access to stories, in the few instances when others cross their paths, one of their most heart breaking revelations is how much is unknown and lost to them because they don’t have stories to share.

The land is a character of its own with incredible richness in its description (though not in a bogged down detailed way) and the tension between its claustrophobia and endless – if dangerous – expanse is yet another way in which horror is visited upon the two children.

They do encounter horror both from the natural and human worlds. Human horrors in the form of colonialism, the barbarity of humanity when pushed to its extremes (think cannibalism), the cruelty of capitalism in the early fisheries and the stricture of religions. Actually, in contrast, the natural horrors feel less vicious and purposeful, more accidental in their cruelty, though still: flooding rain, short crop seasons, storms.

But the real heart and horror of the book is who and how Evered and Ada come to mean to one another. Alone for so long and dependent on one another for physical and psychological survival, their relationship encounters strain and then pushes into spaces of incest with a delicacy and sensitivity you might not believe til you read it.

It doesn’t sound like it would make for a compelling story: two orphans survive by fishing cod and have a complicated relationship. But boy-oh-boy is it gripping. Well worth the wait since Crummey’s last novel and one I strongly urge you to seek out!

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Giller prize, Prize Winner

Fleishman is in Trouble: Super. Funny. Smart. And other adjectives.

Since Emily Bazelon first suggested reading Fleishman is in Trouble on the Slate Political Gabfest (one of my favourite podcasts ever), I have been excited to read it. I both like Emily and the general premise: divorce unfolds and man learns about emotional labour. Explaining emotional labour is emotional labour, so I’ll just let you read about it if you’re not super familiar. Continue reading

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The Septembers of Shiraz: Revolution

Dalia Sofer’s The Septembers of Shiraz follows the Amin family as they navigate their lives post Iranian revolution. Isaac, the father, is arrested and imprisoned, accused of being a spy. His innocence is clear to everyone involved and equally irrelevant. More interesting than the scenes of torture, solitude, desperation and panic (and these are interesting) is the moment when he negotiates for his life with his captor. In this moment we learn that his captor, too, has been wrongly imprisoned and tortured, that he, too, has feared for his life. That the lines of ‘good’ and ‘wicked’ are arbitrary, shifting and dependent on self-survival. Whatever you can do for yourself and your family you will do, the novel suggests, and history, heritage, ‘common humanity’ are elusive ideals held only by those safe and privileged enough to exercise them.

What allows Isaac and his family escape from Iran is wealth. I initially wrote ‘What saves Isaac and his family is wealth’ but they aren’t saved by that at all. ‘Saved’ with all its connotations of safety, purpose, comfort are not what they find at the novel’s conclusion. And saved from what? The novel does well to expose the ways those taking power are doing so out of long felt experiences of powerlessness, that these are not fixed states, but arbitrary divisions easily reversed. The son, studying in America, is not ‘saved’ by wealth, nor the daughter, lonely, isolated and incredibly afraid. Farnaz, the wife-mother, too, believes wealth a bulwark against any danger, discovers that while money can buy an exit it does not buy love or home.

It’s a profoundly sad novel in its consideration of the privilege so many occupy, and the abuses of this privileged power so routinely and callously delivered. Perhaps hopeful for the exploration of what genuinely offers meaning and value in life (family, poetry, community, love). Perhaps.

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The Underground Railroad: Twice More

It took me two times to read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. On my first effort I made it about a hundred pages in and decided it wasn’t for me. I was distracted when reading, I guess, or missed what was certainly in front of me: a tremendously good novel of (historical) fiction.

Set in the 19th century we follow Cora on her escapes from a slave plantation in Georgia. If you know anything about this book you know that it features a literal underground railroad: think boxcars and steam engines moving along metal tracks. And Cora does take that physical railroad with many stops along the way. The function of the railroad as a mode of transportation is one also to transport us to different scenes of racial inequality, white supremacy, brutality and horror – demonstrating the ways racism manifests in physical chains and in refusals of opportunity. That is the novel unravels what is ‘structural’ about racism, even while making structured the metaphorical railroad of history.

The novel explores these scenes and the complicated ways white characters live, exercise and wield their privilege with nuance. The efforts of sympathetic abolitionists are complicated by their own fears for their lives or standing in the community; the abhorrent beliefs of slave catchers are revealed as explanatory by the circulating ideas and belief structures of their time. Individuals are culpable, though their actions are positioned in relation to, or explained through, the wider structures that surround them in ways that offer if not empathy or absolution, than a profound recognition of the ways in which the readers’ present beliefs and actions must similarly be filtered through imperfect and unjust structures that are both bigger than and constituted by individuals.

Cora herself is great because she comes in to the narrative as a woman relying on no one, willing and able to exert power in the limited ways she has available to her, and sensitive to the dependencies and needs of those around her without being defined by them.

So yes, if you haven’t read this one yet (you probably have!), go! make haste! And if the first 100 pages don’t grip you… keep on.

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Filed under American literature, Fiction, Historical Fiction, New York Times Notable, Prize Winner