Tag Archives: first novel

A Land More Kind Than Home: Acknowleding Faith

a land more kind

I’m an atheist. Telling you this will reduce your trust in me, but it should also help you understand my reaction to Wiley Cash’s (excellent) first novel A Land More Kind Than Home. I loved the book. Found it moving, brilliantly paced and narrated, complex in its themes and written with an even, understated beauty. I loved the book, too, because the book directly engages with the consequences of belief and ideas of fate and free choice.

As an atheist I really ought to consider the actions and predispositions that come attached to belief in God more than I do. Atheism is a belief structure (if only a negative belief structure) that warrants a thoughtful engagement with justice, choice and morality just as living within a religious framework does. But I don’t think about these questions within the context of faith (or its absence) very often, and when I do, it’s usually because I’ve been prompted by a book (yet further evidence of the importance of reading). And so I loved A Land More Kind Than Home for both its complex presentation of these questions and for prompting me to reframe the questions within the context of my own life: what do I hold as dogmatic? when/how do I follow/resist authority? Under what circumstances will I take a principled stand?

Enough circling: what’s the book actually about? Set in the American South, the novel follows the Hall family before and after the oldest son, Christopher/Stump is killed during a revival meeting at the local (Baptist?) Church. More complex than following just the family, the interwoven narrative voices of the town sheriff and a local spinster (crone?!) bring forward the ways in which faith and fate impact those within and outside the Church itself. In some ways a mystery, the novel slowly unfolds what properly took place in the Church and who might be held to account for the crimes (a mild complaint, but this “mystery” element wasn’t necessary from my point of view and added little complexity so much as frustration with just wanting to know what had happened). It then does (really remarkable) work in expanding the scope of time and place around this central plot line by weaving in histories of the families and town in ways that add depth to both the characters, but more importantly to the central conflict/crime. As the novel unfolds and these lives and their histories are explored, the death of Christopher/Stump comes to resonate with whole new sets of questions (how are crimes of fathers inherited? is it possible to change our nature?) in a way that lets the reader circle back to the instigating plot moment with new intensity and feeling.

Finally it is a novel about what we do and do not say or speak. Christopher/Stump is a mute – attention metaphor hunters! – and his brother, Jess, attaches responsibility for Stump’s death because of what he – Jess – didn’t say when he could have. There are other moments where silence/speaking surfaces as significant, but for me it crystallized questions around bystanders and bystanders of faith: what do we allow under the auspices of religion that would not be borne under other circumstances? what do we say and not say under the banner of faith or freedom of expression? Certainly questions in 2014 Canada, with different levels of government trying to legislate what kinds of religious accommodations will be “tolerated” within the framework of multicultural Canada and different community groups and individuals muddling through what can and cannot be “said” with reference to belief structures and practices. And certainly questions worth asking and exploring for ourselves – through reading this book! – to know, regardless of – or rather precisely because of – the belief systems we hold to be most true.

So yes, definitely a book worth reading. A book worth talking about with others, but certainly a book worth talking to yourself about.

(Aside: Also! This book has some of the best “acknowledgements” of any I’ve recently read. I’m a sucker for book acknowledgements – I love a taste and tease of the “real life” behind the author. Wiley Cash writes sincere and sweet – but not saccharine! – acknowledgements and I just loved the apparent genuineness of his appreciation).


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Filed under American literature, Book Club, Fiction, Mystery, Prize Winner

Annabel: Bridging Difference



The question in Kathleen Winter’s debut novel, Annabel, is not what is the novel about, but who. I don’t mean that because the protagonist Wayne is born intersexed and so the novel explores his dual identity as both Wayne and Annabel: both-and. No, I mean the question who is this novel about because while the text is ostensibly occupied with exploring Wayne/Annabel’s sense of identity, it is even more preoccupied with how his father Treadway, her mothers (both biological and metaphorical) Jacinta and Thomasina, and his friend, Wally navigate their identities in relation to one another.

In other words, the novel asks readers to think about how they, too, are formed and reformed in relation to others and how our ideas about who and how other people should be shapes our behaviour and sense of self. That is to say, how I understand myself will always be an understanding (pre)deteremined by who you are and how you (re)present yourself. The novel makes sure readers understand that this complicated way of being – in relation to others and in negotiation with the self – comes with material and psychological challenges and consequences. To be, to understand yourself, as flux and shaped by others and your surroundings, is painful and messy; it is also, in this book at least, the only honest way to live, the only way to live at all.

Beyond relations-between-people, the novel explores how self is shaped by place, history, occupation, heritage. By broadening the scope of focus from Wayne/Annabel’s discovery-of-self to encompass (in a much richer way) the negotiated identities of Jacinta, Wally, Thomasina and Treadway, the novel shows how it is not simply those with overtly or demonstrably complex identities who must work at identity, but rather is is all of us who must negotiate and navigate who we are, how we are received and shaped by the world, and how we want to be both seen and identified.

The novel achieves this broadened understanding  through shifting narrative point of view, but also through the deliberate choices and plot sequences of each of these characters that allow the reader to wonder who the novel is really about (and I suspect it’s meant to be about each of us as readers).

While I was clearly taken with the characters and thematic questions, the writing is a demonstration – for anyone taking their first creative writing class – of the proverbial “show, don’t tell” (don’t tell me someone is angry, show it to me by describing the way they make tea). Usually you want authors to do this sort of showing – you want character to be unfolded in action and scene, not in overt description. That said, this novel tipped just a little too far (for me anyway) in the “showing” in that it read – on occasion – like the first year creative writing exercise. A bit too showy. Which isn’t to say the writing is lacking – no, there are some poignant, beautiful descriptions. The showing of character through action really does make for rich scenes. All this to say it’s good writing, but good writing trying very hard to be great writing (without letting you think that it’s trying to be great writing) (perhaps this is commentary on Can Lit? Or first novels?).

The “bridge” metaphor that weaves through the text asks readers to think about the ways we each cross (mix, overlap, traverse and confuse) and join ourselves to ourselves, to one another and to our place/space. The novel operates as its bridge metaphor demands: it offers a bridge to think about and question our sense of self, our relationship to history and place, and our commitments to understanding and shaping one another.

Annabel was up for Canada Reads this year, and lost out to Joseph Boyden’s The OrendaI don’t know how I feel about national reading campaigns generally – I think there are probably some books that most people should read (what are these books? question for another post) and that the criteria for this proclamation of “you should read this!” should include whether the book tells us something about how to be… better to one another, how to contribute to our communities and how to understand ourselves and others. Annabel does these things very, very well. So while I don’t carry the same force as Jian Ghomeshi (alas) I do urge you to read Annabel and to think about who the novel is about (and to recognize, perhaps, that it’s also about you).


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Filed under Bestseller, Book Club, Canadian Literature, Fiction, Prize Winner

Us Conductors: Beautiful writing, extraordinary narration

You will want to read Sean Michaels’ *Us Conductors* as soon as you can (in April of 2014) both because it is a brilliant novel and because everyone will be talking about it and you’re going to want to be hip and have already read the latest ‘hot’ book. Continue reading


Filed under Canadian Literature, Erin's Favourite Books, Fiction, Giller prize, Historical Fiction, Prize Winner

Vernon God Little: What we avoid



There’s no question DBC Pierre’s first novel, Vernon God Little, is an excellent piece of fiction. The book takes a school shooting in Texas (is it Texas? Somewhere near Mexico, anyway) and explores the community reaction to the event – spectacle, denial, scapegoating – through the darkly comedic story of Vernon, falsely accused and prosecuted for the crime. The first person narrator of Vernon is masterfully represented in his fixation on shit and young women, as well as use of diction, phrasing, pace and image that moves past conjuring a character to allow the reader to fully accept and inhabit him (if not identify with – a problem to come to). The narration also does well to explore his complicated feelings around the massacre, the (failure) of adults to take responsibility or engage with grief, his expectations of justice and the justice system and his attempts to reform himself and his relationship with others.

Despite the brilliant narration and the timely thematic questions (what is the role of the press in perpetuating/perpetrating crimes? how does collective culture sublimate grief? how do we understand and make sense of the senseless? what are the effects of poverty on access to justice?) I read this book knowing it was great, but feeling at a remove. If literature is great because (and if) it can allow (or require) the reader to adopt different perspectives, to explore experiences unavailable in lived experience AND because it is masterfully constructed in literary technique, Vernon God Little shines in the latter and wavers in the former.

I should say this book sat on my shelf at work for eleven months before I finally read it. And not because I lacked time or opportunity. I tried reading it twice before. It wasn’t until I’d forgotten my book at home and it was a choice between no novel (a gasp of impossibility) or Vernon God Little that I gave it sufficient time (the 60 minutes of my lunch break) to get invested enough to read the whole thing. It wasn’t a novel that grabbed me. Is it that the first person narrator repulsed me a little? Maybe. (and maybe he’s meant to) It’s not that the experiences in the book are too far removed for me to care about – all kinds of my favourite books are those that I love precisely for their ability to take a seemingly distant experience and make it relevant and poignant for me and to let me see my world and relationship to it differently – it seems more the case that Pierre didn’t do enough to make these foreign experiences connected to this reader. There wasn’t opportunity for empathy, or even sympathy, no chance for identification or care.

So I read the book with a respect for the writing, an understanding that it was an important topic and explored with great literary skill. And yet I found myself unmoved and unchanged in its reading. Uninterested in what becomes of Vernon. Is that a problem of this reader or of the book? You read it and tell me what you think.

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Filed under American literature, Book I'll Forget I Read, British literature, Fiction, Prize Winner