Douglas Stuart’s 2020 Booker Prize Winner, Shuggie Bain, is the sort of fat novel you crawl inside. It’s not particularly plot-y, but it is an entirely realized world of a falling apart family and a boy realizing himself. It opens with fifteen year old Shuggie on his own in a dire rooming house, before flashing back to his years as a young child growing up with his alcoholic mum, Agnes, and his serially cheating dad, Shug. Plus his half-siblings who are busy protecting themselves and his grandparents who blame themselves for Agnes’ behaviour, but aren’t equipped to recognize what needs to be done to protect Shuggie. We leap around in time following Shuggie – and Agnes – as the gay son navigates a world with parents who do little, but are somehow still sympathetic.
With that, the novel unfolds around Shuggie and what we can reasonably hope for his life given what surrounds him. And maybe that’s what makes it such a claustrophobic novel. The sort where you where you know from the opening pages that nothing good will happen. Thatcher’s Glasgow sort of nothing good will happen.
But the writing. It’s such beautiful writing.
So maybe if you’re ready – 2020 was probably not the right time to read it – you could give it a read.
Olga Tokarcquk’s Flights won the Booker and the National Book Award and so I figured it had to be good. And it is? No, it is. But it’s strange. In form, mostly. It’s written as a series of fragmented chapters – some no more than a paragraph, others stretching for 20 or 30 pages – all circling one another thematically, but not necessarily, or usually, by plot or character. It’s an exercise in immersion and floating, I’d say, to let go of the usual anchors of the novel and to suspend yourself in something like a mass collection of postcards that you’ve been tasked with assembling into a cogent archive. Continue reading
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.
Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is great. It’s a contemporary retelling of Antigone, which for those of you not up on your Greek mythology is told in the Sophocles play by the same name and is about a bunch of battles and Antigone – sister, daughter, all round righteous lady – defying the king’s order by insisting the her brother’s dead body be buried. A bunch of spoilers follow, so if you’re going to read it (and you should) you might want to stop reading here. Continue reading