The Best Kind of People is the sort of book you take on holiday and read quickly and find yourself enjoying (despite of or because of) its content and then you finish it and move on to playing volleyball and eating BBQ and you forget about it. Even though the subject matter is such that it should probably linger: rich, white man is a high-school teacher and community leader; he is accused of several counts of sexual assault; the reader follows the impact of the legal proceedings on his family: his teenage daughter who goes to the same school where he taught and where the young women who were assaulted attend, his wife – a nurse and community leader, his grown son – now living in New York who came into his gay identity in the same homophobic small town.
One of the things to admire about the novel is that it tells this story without narrating the perspective of George Woodbury – the father and abuser. Nor does it narrate the abuse itself. Focusing instead on the ripples of the crime on the family of the criminal, the novel offers a vision of guilty by association, or monster by proxy. It considers the way individuals are framed in relation to crime and the criminal: what should have been known, who should have known it and when. It raises all sorts of interesting questions about trust and belief and forgiveness. And in its shifting narrative point of view, asks the reader to take on different perspectives of those around George in order to imagine a sort of empathy for those in the orbit of crime who are neither victims nor perpetrators.
I’m not sure then why I find it forgettable. I enjoyed reading it (as much as you can enjoy being asked to enter a world of emotional distress and disruption and empathize and discover): the pacing was neat (with a structure of examining the week after in detail, and then the week before the trial – giving a sort of telescoping of time while still allowing for character development and change) and the moral questions and actions for the characters complex. I suppose I didn’t find any of the three key characters: daughter, son and wife, all that compelling. Their reactions made logical sense, their decisions and their choices in the aftermath were scripted such that they felt like the ‘right’ set of responses one might be expected to experience. Yet they lacked a certain something that made me want to really feel alongside them and so was left in a sort of observational capacity when the book was clearly calling me to empathy.
All that said I do think it would make for a compelling summer read or a great book club discussion. Again – not for anything stylistic so much as the questions it raises and then fully explores.
This past week the Canadian press – and Canadian communities – have been asking a lot of questions about crime and punishment. With the very public revelation of Jian Ghomeshi’s criminal behaviour, the public conversation includes calls for criminal prosecution all the while enacting a sort of collective trial, sentencing and punishment in the press and social media. While listening and reading stories of his violent and repugnant behaviour, I was reading Linden MacIntyre’s new book, Punishment.
Punishment is not about sexual and physical violence. Nor is it about the CBC or the media (though MacIntyre long worked for the CBC). Instead it’s a book about a former prison officer, Tony Breau, who gets involved – is made to be involved – in a small town murder investigation. It’s also about the consequences of telling the truth: the violence, threats and shame that attach to those who speak out (you can see, then, why it might be a book that resonated with what I was reading and hearing in the cultural conversation around violence against women). So it’s a novel that takes on the ‘big’ crime of murder, but it’s also a novel that explores the slippery boundary between what is considered criminal, and the ‘crimes’ outside the criminal code: betrayal in friendship, adultery and the wilful withholding of truth from others.
Punishment offers readers as nuanced and complicated exploration of guilt, punishment, retribution and reconciliation. Early on in the novel it explodes the idea that all those in prison are criminals and that all those on the ‘outside’ are innocent; the novel does not belabour this point, it simply makes the observation that many crimes go unrecognized and unpunished and that many criminals are in prison for complicated reasons. Much of the novel is concerned with how and if Tony can reconcile his past with his present, his moral position with an unjust society, his care for others with the certainty that the truth can be painful. (In a quintessentially Canadian literature way) this struggle is worked out in the small and isolated community, where the big bad criminals come from the United States and the city, where outsiders are suspect and when guilt is both the prelude an apology and an unavoidable state of being.
What the novel does incredibly well (and with a sort of bravery, I think) is to ask readers to consider – just consider – separating the crime from the criminal; the behaviour from the person. It can be hard to empathize. It can be hard to consider empathy. When we are betrayed by lovers or friends, when a singular crime is perpetrated against us or when we are wronged by systemic and entrenched systems, the impulse is not to empathy. The push is to retribution, to punishment. As if in the punishment itself we might understand the crime or feel differently about the criminal. I am not making a novel argument in suggesting that there might be a difference between retributive and restorative justice. Rather, I’m making an argument that this novel shows – with great care and nuance – how these forms of justice differ and what is at stake for us as individuals and as communities in taking one approach or the other.