Tag Archives: Giller prize

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night: Metaphorical Cats

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Some people really like Heather O’Neill (e.g. apparently all of Canadian media and award committees). I am not one of those readers. Lullabies for Little Criminals predates the blog, but I remember thinking it was a bit overwrought. Enter The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, O’Neill’s second novel and a repeat effort to make me feel something profound by way of Serious last sentences for every chapter. These sentences have a kind of formula: Feeling/Abstract Noun + unusual metaphor + adjective + reference to a cat. I think these sentences feel pretty good about themselves. Continue reading

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Filed under Book Club, Canadian Literature, Fiction, Giller prize, Prize Winner

The Woman Upstairs: Anger, Jealousy and Turning Forty

Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs opens with the forty three year old Nora Eldridge describing her rage. Anger at a lifetime of aiming to please others and of diminishing her desires, but more importantly anger that the promises made to her by life – becoming an artist, having a child, attaching to a significant partner – are not realized. As much as she is angry that these promises aren’t realized, she’s angry that she wants them in the first place. Anger that she is relegated to the position of ‘woman upstairs’ (a frequent refrain in the novel) who subsumes her desires and is thought by the outside world to have no desires in the first place.

From this opening of anger the novel wheels back five years to Nora’s first person description of her encounter with the Shahid family – Reza, Sirena and Skandar. Encounter seems too light a word for the intense relationships that unfold between Nora and each member of the family, and Nora and the family as a unit. Pulled together by art Sirena and Nora push one another artistically and in Sirena Nora sees the example of the life she wants and feels entitled to lead. Nora’s love for the family is as much a love for its individual members as it is for the promise of this life that she should be leading, but is continually and perpetually left out.

Jealousy is portrayed with such deft complexity in this novel as it is never named – or only ever fleetingly – as such. For Nora it’s not that she overtly desires and covets (though she does) the particular pieces of the Shahid life, it’s that she has actively rejected the opportunity to have such a life herself – actively chosen not to take it for hope of something more, or better, of deeper, or because she thinks she should.

It is in some ways a slow novel, and at times I found myself losing patience with Nora. I anticipated the climactic revelation of the rage (the explanation for which the opening chapter promises), but it wasn’t until the final chapter that I realized with what urgency I wanted the reasons for her anger to be made clear. It was a gripping final scene and is well worth the slower development of character.

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Filed under American literature, Bestseller, Fiction, Prize Winner

All My Puny Sorrows: What Do We Mean When We Say “A National Conversation” (About Assisted Suicide and Mental Illness)?

Screen-Shot-2012-10-15-at-13.38.53You’ve heard it before. The refrain that “it’s time to have a national conversation about _______.” The call from pundits, activists and politicians to engage the nation in a discussion about race, or poverty, or legalizing marijuana, or smoking, or texting-while-driving. Or assisted suicide. What is less often said is what we mean when we say “a national conversation.”

Imagine it. Imagine the nation (once you’ve sorted out what you mean by that) engaged in a conversation. How would it happen? Where would it happen? Who would be invited to bring their voice and their perspective? How would it shift beyond you presenting your point of view, me presenting mine a little bit louder, you returning with yours, louder still? How, in an era of social media feeds filled with identical opinions to our own, would we ever escape our own existing political and social persuasions? With the decline (disappearance?) of shared, public social spaces that invite the free interaction of people of different social, political and economic backgrounds, how do we have a national conversation beyond the echo chamber of ourselves?

Oh I know you’ve already sorted it out. You’ve realized this is a book blog and I’m an earnest (if irritatingly one-tuned) champion for the power of novels to make our individual and collective lives better. Yep. I think one of the few ways we have a national conversation about a particular subject is to read about it in a shared literature. And then talk about it with friends, at book clubs, in libraries and with strangers.

Picture me: I’ve just finished Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows. It’s a book about sisters, art, love, mental illness and assisted suicide. Our protagonist, Yolandi, summarizes the central problem of the novel:”She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.” In effect her sister, Elf, wants to die, and Yolandi wants to stop her from dying (or to make her want to live) (and these two things are different). Until Yolandi isn’t sure if she wants to stop her, or to make her. Maybe she wants to honour Elf’s deep, desperate, sincere and considered desire to end her life.

So I’ve just finished the book and I’m feeling very much like this is a book I need to talk about. And I’m in a bakery in little town and the woman behind the counter notices I’m carrying a book. She asks me about it, and I tell her “meh, it’s just okay, but I just finished an incredible book, All My Puny Sorrows, about [see the summary above]”. And we spend ten minutes (not that long really, but long enough – try it) talking about the central problem of the novel. She presents her view – one shaped by a Christian faith, her own experience with anxiety and a concern about abuse. I present mine – deep confusion, worry that ‘allowing’ assisted suicide for mental illness entrenches ideas of mental illness as an irrecoverable state, a committed belief in the importance of respecting individual’s choices (and, indeed, contributing to contexts where individuals might make their own choices). We talk and we listen and neither of us leave the conversation any more sure about anything.

I admit this experience is rare. Short of teaching novels (ah! another way we have a national conversation: the classroom!), I don’t often go around talking to other people about the books I’m reading (okay, you’re right, this blog definitely counts as me talking to other people about the books I’m reading). But I can’t put it any other way: All My Puny Sorrows demands discussion.

It is not an easy book. Other reviews have pointed out moments of humour, but I admit I missed these – or perhaps I just didn’t recognize them as moments of levity – caught up as I was in the… impossible (perplexing seems too small a word) experience of Elf, Yolandi and their family. I suppose the closest approximate to its humour would be the viral comedy set by Tig Notaro that layers tragedy upon tragedy until the sheer weight of the suffering can only be hilarious because otherwise would be to succumb.

Of course I’m reducing the book by saying it’s about assisted suicide and mental illness. It’s about a whole lot more. Questions of familial loyalty (what would you be willing to give for your family member?), the relationship between art/genius and suffering (that old trope), the ‘treatment’ (both in the clinical sense and the representational) of mental illness. The affiliative (friends, brothers-in-law and lovers) and filiative (sisters, mothers, father) relationships that not only shape our identity, but gather up the pieces of it in both hands and sort of cluster-squeeze us back together when we crumble apart.

One of the other questions that threads the novel is to what extent we inherit our suffering. The novel does not dispute the inheritance of mental illness, but it asks a different kind of question about inheritance of suffering. Instead of associating suffering in a one-to-one relationship with mental illness, the novel asks whether the psychological and physical pain of mental illness might be one kind of suffering that is passed on through genes, while another sort of suffering – that of loneliness, or alienation, or loss – might be another kind of suffering we – inadvertently – give to our children. The suffering in this novel is, then, both related to mental illness and much larger than mental illness. It is much larger than Elf, and lived by the other characters. It acknowledges and creates space for Yolandi’s suffering, her mother’s, Elf’s husband, and ours as readers.

It becomes a question then of when we – you and me as individuals – find our suffering (whatever its cause) to be so great that we do not want to live with it any longer. The novel asks us to stop and fully consider: What do we owe one another in these moments – these enduring moments that become a lifetime?

Miriam Toews has brought a compelling voice to the national conversation about assisted suicide. As we head into a federal election, we’re presented with another occasion to engage in national conversations. We can use elections as an opportunity to ask ourselves and our neighbours about what we want for and from our national government, and what we are willing to do and give to make this happen. You could do worse than to read All My Puny Sorrows and then talk to someone else about it. We might just end up having a national conversation.

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The Impostor Bride: Well-Intentioned

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I think Nancy Richler wanted to write a *good* book. *The Impostor Bride* dances around being good, but lacks rhythm and grace and so slouches awkwardly around the dance-floor, making it awkward for everyone reading, but the effort at goodness is altogether too sincere to turn away.  

The plot offers originality – a war-bride shows up in Canada, is scorned by her betrothed because he sees “something” amiss in her, she marries his brother, gives birth, abandons the child and runs away. We learn over the course of the novel the practical reasons for her abandonment (the titular “impostor”), and are meant, I think, to also contemplate the psychic and affective reasons she might also leave. The book makes a sincere attempt to point the finger at the (oft suggested “unspeakable”) atrocities of the Holocaust as being “too much” for the young bride, but without entering these events – or even shadows of them – into the plot *and* without offering Lily’s narrative point of view (even a third person limited would have gone a long way) these “unspeakable” reasons are left to the reader’s speculation and are not, as Richler might have hoped, compelling enough to justify the abandonment of a child. Indeed, our first person protagonist – the abandoned daughter – rightly points out that many of her peers have parents of this generation of “unspeakable” events who did not leave (even if they do exhibit erratic behaviour), so why did *her* mother leave?

For this reason the plot events that supposedly explain the abandonment do not hold water. Nor does the eventual explanation of how members of her family knew, and didn’t tell her. Nor, too, the hastily and inexpertly constructed reunion scene (not a spoiler, I think, because the progression of the plot is such that it can *only* resolve in a reunion). A note on the reunion (as it particularly irked me as it’s the climax and the apparent justification for so much weaving in and out of time – we’re meant to get *here*): not only were the scenes rushed, especially when contrasted with the earlier scenes that explore in great length everything from depressed smoking to school yard bickering, but the explanation offered by Lily which is in effect the explanation of “I have no explanation,” would be fine, indeed, it would be complicated and profound, if we had Ruth *do* something with the explanation, think something about it, reflect on it, reject it, respond, react. Instead we witness the reunion, hear the paltry account of why she left, find no explanation of the mysterious rocks, hear nothing of Ruth’s reaction or thoughts. 

A plot climax without an attendant climax in character development or theme. And a frustrating plot climax at that because it doesn’t bring a satisfactory explanation (maybe because there isn’t one? not that there isn’t in the world, but because Richler hadn’t imagined what that could be?).

And so I wanted to like *The Impostor Bride* – it had all the elements of Can Lit that I adore: historical fiction, strong female protagonists, World War Two, family drama. And yet, it’s not a book I’d ever take on a second date: far too awkward for the effort.

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