I started, and gave substantial effort (enough that I feel okay reviewing them), to two Can lit novels in the last couple of weeks. Both are books that I ought to have really liked but didn’t. I’ll take the blame. It’s summer. There are patios. And BBQs. (And work, family and responsibilities. Whatever.)
First up was Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square. I waited ages for it to arrive from the library because it’s a Heather’s Pick and so everyone wants to read it (note! If you bought a copy and similarly found you didn’t like it you can return it and demand a refund because Heather didn’t deliver. But of course you buy from your independent book shop or borrow from the library because you are saintly). And it was… not good? At least, the first 150 pages were not enough to make me want to finish it. Our protagonist is an unreliable narrator grappling with a break from reality. Convinced her doppleganger is haunting her neighbourhood, she sets up at Bellevue Square, a park near Kensington Market in Toronto, to stalk the doppleganger. Murder and chaos ensue as the reader tunnels around trying to sort out – along with our protagonist – what is real and what is not. And then some questions about how we – collective we, readers – conceptualize mental illness, mental health and our sane-ist expectations. Sounds like it would be pretty good, and I don’t know, the scenes of Toronto are kind of captivating, but I found the writing amateur, the connection with the protagonist tenuous and the forward moving conflict… absent. I guess we’re meant to keep reading to find out if our protagonist gets her shit together and gets sorted with her husband and kids? Anyway.
From there I decided to pick something I felt sure I’d like. I went with Ed O’Loughlin’s Minds of Winter, which had it been published circa 2006 I would have certainly included in my thesis on Canadian historical fiction that imagines the exploration of and nation building project of Canada (*yay/yawn*) (like it almost fits TOO perfectly in my thesis – it includes some of the same explorers! and same failed arctic expeditions! true true there are only so many failed arctic expeditions. but still! Like at one point I opened up my word doc version of my thesis to check that I wasn’t misremembering that one of my thesis novels narrated the. same. nautical. disaster.) Anyway. All this to say that Erin circa 2006 would have been very into this book. Erin circa 2018… not so much. Actually, my thesis buddy, P., would have probably included this one, too, as the premise is a missing chronometer from the last Franklin expedition shows up and over the course of the 500 odd page book its journey from the stranded Erebus and Terror to the present are recounted. (And to give myself credit I made it to page 300 before quitting). It makes its way through a bunch of other polar expeditions, allowing the reader to jump around in time to all these ‘critical’ historical moments. Scenes of the present are interspersed as our two present day protagonists grapple with how their personal histories are interwoven with one another and with these historical figures. It is all very capital Canadian. Very capital H historical fiction. And it just… didn’t resonate. I found the present day scenes disconnected and the characters underdeveloped. More problematic for me though was the disconnection among the historical scenes. Each lengthy historical ‘section’ (think 50 odd pages) accounts for a leg of the journey of the chronometer, but the slices of time are just long enough to become connected to the characters only to have them summarily dismissed as the section ends. I suppose there’s some connection there to our present day understanding of slices of the historical record. Whatever. I found the jumping about in time disorienting (probably purposefully so, but still) and the disconnection from the characters enough of a deal breaker to just quit.
Happy news is that I’m almost done reading my first poetry collection in the history of the blog (I’ve been taking my time with it) and I’m reading a fantastic Julian Barnes, so happy reviews to come.