Tag Archives: Globe and Mail

If I Fall, If I Die: Be(ing) Afraid

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There are many things to fear. We are taught and reminded and encouraged to fear what we don’t know, who we don’t know and to never ask questions about the things about which we are told to be afraid. The things we should be afraid of – car accidents and sitting at desks – are trumped (or are Trump) by hyperbolic headlines of xenophobia and a capitalist impulse to make us buy our way out of anxiety. Michael Christie’s excellent, If I Fall, if I die (which until now I remembered as ‘If I Fall, I die’ – a telling slip of my memory) asks us to reconsider how we come to be afraid and the bravery of encountering those fears (and what motivates us to do so: loyalty, love, stubbornness).

Our story follows Will (a clever naming as so much of the character is about choice, what he will do and what he wills himself to do) and his mother, who experiences agoraphobia, along with many other and cascading fears, to a degree that she raises Will within her childhood home in Thunder Bay. The plot takes off when, in the first chapter, Will finds himself Outside and begins realizing the way his mother has constructed their world as one filled with fear bears little relationship to the reality of what is, or should be, threatening.

The novel’s exploration of the way fear is made (rather than natural or inherent) is fascinating. In one scene Will is attacked by a wolf (for real) and because his sense of what should be frightening has been so skewed he doesn’t seem to realize that a wolf. attack. is the sort of thing one really ought to get a raised heart rate about. The novel takes on questions of the social construction of fear in little ways (why are we expected to fear teenagers on skateboards?) to big fear (the circulating anxieties about race, poverty and mental illness that have material and ideological consequences for those we make objects of fear and those who fear them). It is a sophisticated at yet propulsive exploration of the emotion/state of fear.

It is also decidedly Canadian literature in its setting and theme (*cough* Survival!). Thunder Bay and the politics  (of fear) around indigenous land claims and resource extraction are at once particular to the setting, but made wider points of consideration in the exploration of how such fear is created and perpetrated by state officials (the police and schools, in particular) and economic/social policies. The first few chapters had the feel of a somewhat over-workshopped first novel with abundant similes and hamfisted diction, but either Christie eased up, or I got used to the style and stopped be distracted by the writing (I might even go so far as to say I found some sentences well observed. Might).

All this to say you’d do well to pick this one up. I suspect Chapters will put it on Heather’s list, or someone will put it on your Books to Read This Summer because it’s hard to not enjoy the story (the characters are loveable and peculiar in ways that make them objects of fascination: how unusual! agoraphobia!). I’d urge you to look past what could be construed as a plot gimmick, to see that the book is about a whole lot more.

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Prize Winner

Far to Go: Literary blindspots

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I joined a book club for the friends, but the real value of the club has been the introduction of new authors and titles that I’d not have found myself (Okay, bit of a stretch, the friendship (and wine) has been pretty valuable, too….). Don’t despair if you’re not the book club kind of person, you can get the same direction to new kinds of reads from your librarian, your independent bookseller, or *cough* your favourite book review blogger.

That said you probably don’t need me to introduce you to Alison Pick. Because (unlike me) you probably know about her: Far to Go was nominated for the Man Booker, she’s won a bazillion important prizes, been on all of the lists of best books, identified as “the” up-and-coming Canadian author. Oh and she’s an alumnus of the University of Guelph. So… I had a little literary blindspot. Tiny.  So thanks book club friends for getting me sorted. Now that I’ve found her writing I’ll not be forgetting it (or stopping at this novel). All this to say Far to Go is excellent and you should read it, too. If you’ve not met Pick’s writing yet either, let this be the moment of unexpected pleasure. If you’re already familiar then I have to know: Why didn’t you tell me sooner? (An aside – why aren’t all of you sending me recommendations all the time? I could stand to have more variety pointed my way… Anyway.)

So the book. Set in Czechoslovakia in 1939 it follows the story of Marta, a governess for a rich, secular Jewish Bauer family as the Nazis seize control of the country. Woven throughout are short passages of the narrative of a contemporary researcher in Canada who researches the lives of the Kindertransport: Jewish children ferried out of occupied countries at the outbreak of war.

These short contemporary flashes make explicit the constructedness of the imagined life of the past, the sort of hiccuping self-awareness of historical fiction’s reminder to readers that we know history through fragments, and we create a pieced together narrative from these fragments, filling in gaps with fictions so that we can have the assurance of plot. Serving more than the usual ritual of historiographic metafiction, the attention to the holes of history work here as a thematic expression of the loss of life and attendant story that the Holocaust represents: the absence in the present that can only ever be filled by imagination.

The bulk of the narrative is given over to Marta and her commitment to the Bauer family (a parallel to the way the contemporary narrator is similarly invested in the families she chronicles in her research), with questions of how Marta defines her worth independent of this family. Marta’s actions and motivations are rich, complex and entirely fascinating. The Bauer parents – Pavel and Annelise – are somewhat less fully developed, but are nevertheless compelling. Marta’s young charge, Pepik, is a brilliantly captured five year old. The novel rarely leaves the household – either literally or figuratively – yet it doesn’t feel claustrophobic; rather it reveals the way the grand historical moment is experienced in the small, domestic.  Taken together the family and their impossible choices that they must nevertheless make what could feel sweeping feel heartbreakingly particular.

The writing is extraordinary. I often complain about writing that is trying to be literary and so comes across as overly workshopped (I’m still trying to figure out how to best describe this writing – all I have right now is ‘knowing it when I see it.’) Far to Go is a beautiful example of not this effort-ful beauty. It is just. beautiful.

 

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

The Believers: Close, but not quite good

I picked Come, Thou Tortoise and Zoe Heller’s The Believers based on the Globe and Mail‘s recommendations for 2010. Come to think of it I also read The Believer‘s based on that list. Frankly, I’m coming to distrust their so-called “best” list. All three books have proved to be immediately engaging and with a definite “hook” that must make them marketable, but all of them fall flat, and none more than Heller’s The Believers.

Family dramas can be terrific, particularly if you’re into character (and we all know I’m into character). The Corrections, Songs in Ordinary Times, A Prayer for Owen Meany, I mean really, there are some great family dramas. But The Believers wants so. much. to be one of the “great” family dramas that it ends up over-selling all of the quirkiness of its characters, all of their dramas and their triumphs. The mother, Audrey, is a total pill to everyone around her and to the reader. The fat, no-self-esteem daughter, Karla, is a wet dishrag of no spine. The feminist, activist, now-religious daughter, Rosa, is without direction and intention. The drug-using, mother-using, lowlife, Lenny, is a drug-using, mother-using, lowlife. And in the final twenty pages Audrey repents and (surprise) turns out to be a bang-up lady, just misunderstood and victim to her husband’s career and desires; Karla stands up for herself, leaves her husband and runs away with  man who loves her because she is fat; Rosa follows her religious path with conviction; and Lenny is still a lowlife.

My difficulty is that while the novel gives a sense that these changes are taking place (though with a much limited sense of motivation – one sense is not enough to justify life changes), each character changes in isolation from one another. For a family drama there is a remarkable lack of change in the family dynamics, in the family member’s relationships with one another.

So. Close – slick writing, engaging plot. But not quite good – characters act in isolation and with limited motivation.

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Filed under Book I'll Forget I Read, Canadian Literature, Fiction