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!
What. A. Delight. Not in recent memory has a novel so tickled my enjoyment synapses (I’m not interested in knowing if such synapses actually exist. Spare me.). From page one, Patrick de Witt’s French Exit offers up the sardonic, the cheeky, the down right funny, and hits the reader with a full force of fun and playful, while also (probably) (definitely) exploring themes of …
Wait. What is this book actually about? If not about the fun and funny? It follows the fallen fortunes of Frances and Malcolm, tumbled from great wealth and esteem to a sort of poverty (I say sort of because they still manage to be in a fancy French apartment while faced with penury). Frances is a character in all the sense of the word, a sort of force of unflappable brilliance, and in watching her reconcile her vision of herself and her life with her newly arrived circumstances, I suppose we are meant to think through questions or morality and what makes for a good life. Maybe, too, whether it is the connections and relationships we foster that make any of it worthwhile. The founding of her friendship with Joan is one of the more delightful moments in an already incredibly charming book.
I’ll admit that where the book falls down is in its point, but on that I’m not particularly bothered. Like, I don’t mind that it skirts around big questions and instead lets Morality be morality, and Mortality, be mortality. Which is a way of saying there are ‘themes’ and ‘questions’ but the point of the book seems more to let the reader just. enjoy. reading. Through the whimsy and playfulness and fun of what Frances and Malcolm do, we’re allowed to appreciate with them the absurd and fanciful without always being bogged down with weighty questions. Ah. Perhaps there’s the rub. That as Frances and Malcolm too, have spent a lifetime avoiding anything Serious or Committed, we are given the luxury – not necessarily the wealth required for this particular luxury – of not thinking about very much, until we must think about it all.
Terrific writing – really: surprising, specific, not-showy-but-still-smart – and such. fun. Don’t come bickering with me later that it wasn’t about very much. I don’t care if you’ve forgotten how to just read because it feels good.
Washington Black… Washington Black… If I were redoing my comprehensive exams in Canadian literature I’d put Washington Black on the list. And not just because it has extensive scenes of Snow and Ice (our titular protagonist finds himself – unprepared and unexpectedly – in the Arctic with his master-turned-friend-turned-masterscantbefriends), but because it is a great read and comprehensive exams in Canadian literature need 99% fewer books about black flies and 99% more of this combination of compelling exploration of Canadian civility coupled with excellent writing.
Right, so what’s it about. We open with our first-person protagonist, Washington, as an eleven-year old slave on a sugar plantation in Barbados. In the opening chapters his life takes a turn when he’s ‘given’ to Tish, the eccentric naturalist brother, of the plantation slave master. What follows is a chronicle of his life from that moment until an uncomfortable resolution/departure from Tish many years later.
The initial encounter with Tish is one of the first moments where luck enters the plot (later scenes of a hot air balloon landing on a ship during thunderstorm or bumping in to the right botanist at the right time) in a way that isn’t frustrating so much as it reinforces that for all of us, the idea of our life owing to ‘hard work’ has much less to do with merit than it does to first-foremost-and-always the inherent privilege of our race, gender and class of birth, and then-with-similar-consequence-and-similar-lack-of-control, the random fortune of being in the right place at the right time with the right people. It’s a powerfully delivered message meant to disrupt any earnest beliefs we might have about genius or personal industry.
Luck is complicated further in that Washington really is some kind of genius artist. And does make decisions for himself that have positive – and negative – consequences. So it’s not like throw-up-your-hands-nothing-matters, more a way of reminding the reader that where historic slavery ends, the continued belief that white people are better than people of colour or indigenous folks continues, and in the subtle ways of thinking that what I have is somehow (exclusively. or mostly) because I earned it, rather than a web of privilege and luck with a peppering of personal effort.
It’s also a book attentive to smell, which is great.
ANYWAY. It won like a million prizes, and so if my endorsement isn’t sufficient, maybe the Booker committee or the NYT will be. And not knowing Esi Edugyan or her work habits, I’d say this book stands in opposition to all I’ve just said – as every page shows hard work and genius.
It’s such a good title, for such a good book. Ready to declare Miriam Toews in my top five fav authors ever (those wondering the rest: Toni Morrison, Margaret Laurence, Dave Eggers (I know, I know), Alice Munro and… Miriam Toews) (list subject to change) (do not hold me to these late hour, several drinks decisions). Continue reading