Category Archives: Canadian Literature

Brother: You don’t win prizes for bad writing. (Most of the time)

David Chariandry’s Brother follows two brothers – Michael and Francis – and their experiences growing up in Toronto as young, black men. The story weaves two time lines: the present in which Michael and his mother grieve the death of Francis, and the years and then weeks leading up to his death. The effect of the woven time is to have the reader at once certain of the outcome and effect, and unsure about the cause. That’s not true. The cause of Francis’s death is as much about context and systematic racism (through education, housing, transit and policing) as it is about the single act that kills him. The reader feels certain – well before knowing what exactly killed him – that if Francis was born white he wouldn’t have died.

It’s an exquisitely written novel. Quotidian scenes speak for whole years; individual examples gesture to shared experiences. With precise language and sharp detail, the writing evokes setting and atmosphere without straying into distracting description or belabored scene-setting.

While it is a novel principally interested in masculinity, in its characterization of their mother the story proves capacious in its exploration of the intersection of gender and class and race.

I’ve made it sound like a bleak read. And in some ways it is, and that’s a good reason to read it, too. But through the distress and grief and anger there are also scenes and moments of connection, community and great care. And other alliterative ‘c’ words. Not that a story needs to balance sadness with hope. Just that this novel does. And I hope you read it.

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

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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Yiddish for Pirates: Not for me. Or for my book club people. (Or for anyone?)

I recently had a middle of the night worry that an author of a book I didn’t like might stumble across one of my I-didn’t-like-it reviews. Don’t worry. I fell quickly back to sleep. But the thought lingered. I like writing a good scathing review as much as the next blogger, but was I being fair to the novelist? Was I just having fun being a little too mean? Continue reading

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Funny, Giller prize, Governor Generals, Prize Winner, Worst Books