What? Two reviews in two days? It’s because Souvankham Thammavongsa’s How to Pronounce Knife is impossible to put down. (And because I am between series on tv) The short story collection has common threads in Lao immigrant experiences of labour and family, but also of something like dignity and something like connection. I say something like because I’ve been lately trying to explain more and more abstractions to the kid and realizing how a word like dignity connotes so much more than ‘respect’ and ‘connection’ so much more than ‘linked’ so you’ll have to trust me that this collection makes an argument for the dignity of labour and the vitality of touch.
It is a collection free in its imagination and particular in detail. Reciting a list of the range of plot points and settings is the stuff of book jackets and you can take my word that the stories are wide ranging. Instead I’ll share the moments I liked best were of children experiencing the gutting mixture of mortification and gratitude that comes with parents making sacrifices and doing their best and yet – to the child – never quite doing or being what they hoped. And of characters who tolerate the impossible – e.g. living with your wife’s adulterer – because action would be admitting this impossible thing was happening and might necessitate a response.
The writing is exceptional; the stories swift and absorbing. Thanks to the non-book-book-club for the conversation and for K. for putting the book in my hands.
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!
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