Folks. Do not read The Witch Elm. Tana French is great and writes wonderful mystery novels that are giant and delightful, but this is not one of them. Though most review sites disagree with me, so I’m probably wrong or just irritable.
Toby, our protagonist, is super obnoxious. He’s entirely self-absorbed, petulant and unaware of how spoiled his is by everyone around him. He uses his girlfriend, Melissa, in ways that the novel doesn’t seem to be aware of, making her self-sacrifice some kind of example of how women are meant to be when their partners are down trodden. Melissa is cast against Toby’s cousin, Susanna, who is some Gorgon-like revenge-monster, making the alternative vision of femininity one of calculated destruction. Even while Susanna is a maternal figure, ending up with her husband because she couldn’t figure out another option, and mostly seeming bored by her children (a common trope when trying to be edgy and counter the helicopter parent).
I suppose the book is supposed to be about understanding who we are and what we are capable of when pressed by circumstance or when the culture around us doesn’t take our concerns and experiences seriously. There’s probably something meritorious in the exploration of that theme, but honest to god, the book PLODS through these questions, ever so slowly reeling out the circumstances of the murder, the connections among characters and their pasts, supposedly building suspense and adding character complexity, but really just irritating me as I didn’t see the point to long digressions about how much wine there was to be had. Which isn’t to say I want all books to be pot boilers. Honestly, I appreciated that Toby’s uncle was a genealogist, a cute way of getting the reader to think about how our inheritance, too, shapes who we think we are and what we think we should be like as people. There were other clever approaches to the thematic question, but they all kept getting blocked for me by how utterly boring the whole thing was. This question of are we born lucky. Do we control our fate. How are we constrained by gender and sexuality. What do we owe friendship and experience. How does memory contribute to our sense of self and identity. Such great questions. Just so… dull in execution.
If made up statistics are to be believed, most Canadians will read one novel this year. For the love of all that is terrific in reading… let this be your one novel. Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers is extraordinary. Okay. I’m not actually sure this would be the one novel I’d make you read. Ack! That’s a question for another post. But it’s really, really, really good. Continue reading
So remember when kale was like a Big Deal and it was in your cereal and your smoothies and your muffins and you were like ‘stop talking about kale! I don’t like it!’ (Or if you’re my mum, you were like ‘Kale?! I don’t even eat lettuce!’)? That’s how I felt about Pachinko. I was like, stop recommending this book to me, world. I get that it’s ‘good’ and ‘great’ and ‘life changing’ but it just looks dull and maybe over-hyped and probably there’s no way it can be anything other than a little chewy.
This is where the analogy falls apart. Because kale really is over-hyped and (as M. would observe) doesn’t need to be in anything because it’s really not that good. Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, on the other hand, is worth every single page of its 400+ brilliance (when did page count start to matter? In a meeting recently debating how many pages young people are willing/able to read (and our book club has the same talk) and I wanted to have a stomp and yell, because a novel should be exactly as long as it needs to be, and if it’s too long it’s too long because it didn’t need to be that long. I probably felt differently reading Infinite Jest but I DIGRESS).
Right, so Pachinko has the feel of a book that you’re going to read because it’s ‘important’ and ‘recommended’ (aka: full of brain vitamins) but then… it’s just… great. Like as a story you want to read and not put down. While also – and incidentally! that part is important! – being good for your literary life because it’s so well crafted. And in my case good for my political/historical life because I didn’t know *anything* about the history of Koreans in Japan, which… is what the book is about.
Reluctant to tell you the broad strokes of the plot because you’re likely to be like…
Kale. Boring. And it’s not! Anyway, it’s about a few generations of this Korean family living in/being Japanese, but not being Japanese because of bananas rules about Koreans-in-Japan and citizenship. Opening just before WWII we follow threads of gender, class, citizenship and nationality, along with all sorts of ideas of identity/belonging/passing and family. All layered around romance. Oh and religion! It really does have it all (haven’t you heard? Kale also makes your farts smell good).
So yeah. Be a better person and read Pachinko. And I promise this won’t be like interval training or CBD or coconut water [insert other ridiculous fad]. This one be the real deal.
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.