Tag Archives: labour

Kindred: The Time Travelling Slave Narrative You Hoped Wouldn’t Be So… 2016.


You read a book like Octavia Butler’s Kindred and you get to thinking some bleak thoughts. Published in the 1970s, the ‘fantasy’ novel follows Dana through a time travelling slave narrative. Opening in the 1970s the reader is immediately hooked as Dana travels back in time to the pre-civil war South and finds herself – a black woman – among slavery. The mechanics of time travel in the novel are explained by virtue of the ‘kindred’ connection between Dana and her 1800something ancestor, Rufus: Dana is called back to the past each time Rufus is in danger of dying so that she can save his life; Dana is called back to the present each time her own life is in danger. Continue reading



Filed under American literature, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Uncategorized

The Last Town on Earth: A Lengthy Post Worth Reading Because Trump Isn’t Mentioned


Thomas Mullen’s The Last Town on Earth opens 1918 in Washington state as the Spanish flu outbreak begins. Historical fiction, the novel imagines the lives of the citizens in the fictious Commonwealth after the town votes to ‘reverse’ quarantine: as no one in the town is yet sick, they vote to forbid entry or exit from the town and post guards to ensure the quarantine is followed. It closely follows the Worthy family, the patriarch of whom, Charles, is the mill owner and unelected leader of the town; the (adopted) son, Philip, is our protagonist. Continue reading

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

City of Light: ‘Allegory’ doesn’t mean what you think it does. Or what I think it does.


The thing about an allegory (like a metaphor) is that the comparison is made between two unexpected things (pigs and communist leaders; shadows on the wall and ideas). So when reading Lauren Belfer’s excellent City of Lights I struggled to figure out whether the novel was allegory or something else. A literary term that escapes me, but exists, I’m sure.

So tell me what this literary term is that I’ve missed out on. I’m looking for a term that describes when the fictional plot events/setting/character parallels a contemporary and real plot event/setting/character. Not parallels in an unexpected way, but parallels in a way you recognize the contemporary thing. You’d like an example? Sure.

So a bit to set this example up. The novel is a few things: historical fiction, murder mystery, romance, tragedy of manners. The plot goes something like this – it’s 1901, Buffalo is playing host to the pan-american exposition. Industrialists and engineers are developing hydroelectric power at Niagara Falls with all sorts of complications: union organizing and labour conditions; nature-preservationists and eco-terrorism (that the development of the Falls was protested on environmental grounds was an absolute revelation to me); public versus private ownership of resources. Our protagonist, Louise Barrett is headmistress of an exclusive all-girls school and passionate about the way education can transform individual women and reform society as a whole. She’s also afforded unusual social liberties because of her ‘spinster’ status; a status she’s had to assume for good reason (which I won’t spoil here) to do with gender-based violence and independence for women. A man gets murdered. The hydroelectric project gets complicated. The cast of characters and their secrets and lies thickens.

Right, so in this example Louise is talking to a reporter (masquerading as a photographer – because performativity and identity is also a big thing here), Franklin (who is also a potential love interest). Franklin explains his cynicism as to why he doesn’t think the industrialists care about the ordinary people when the choice is between the people and the extraction of a resource:

I served time in the Philippines, remember? I saw our fine and honorable American soldiers using the too-aptly named ‘water cure’ to exact confessions from prisoners; of course the prisoners weren’t ‘white’ so it didn’t matter. (135) He goes on… Electricity should be a public service, not a commodity sold to the highest bidder. The electricity created at Niagara belongs to the people. Not to the industrialists, not to the nature preservationists […] but to the people” (136). 

It parallels waterboarding, right? Electricity – throughout – parallels oil extraction with immediate gains prioritized over long term environmental damage. But it’s not an allegory because it is – in the fictional past – a recognizable reflection and deepening of our understanding of the present. Am I just describing a term called ‘the beauty and wonder of historical fiction’?

Anyway. I really loved this one. The murder mystery, while a driving plot point, wasn’t the focus of the text so much as Louise’s journey to understand her past and present. The historical details about Niagara and hydro development are genuinely fascinating. The socio-political-economic context that underpins the plot is as rich a character in its own right as any. Including the one moment Louise doubts her self-reliance and thinks how lovely it would be to rely on a man, she is a model of feminist independence. So yeah, please read the book and tell me what the term is that I’m looking for. Or maybe you don’t have to read the book because it’s so obvious. It’s probably alliteration. Kidding. (Am I?)

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

Americanah: Love and Dog Ears

american heart

“How was it possible to miss something you no longer wanted?” (Adichie, 7-8) asks our protagonist, Ifemelu, of herself in the opening pages of the (brilliant) Americanah by Chimanada Ngozi Adichie (also author of the brilliant Half of a Yellow Sun). In asking the question Ifemelu sets up the parallel plot threads that cycle through the story: love lost-found-lost-found-lost and immigration arrival-settle-resettle-departure-arrival-settle-resettle. More specifically she’s asking the question about a recent breakup – a question that – for this reader at least – resonates. In any case, throughout the story we witness Ifemelu grapple with determining what she wants, where she wants to be, what she wants to be doing, who she wants to be – and the ways she can, and cannot, make these decisions (and the ways these decisions are restricted by overt forces/characters or by the less direct, but no less powerful, figures (because they do often have personified characters) of race, class and gender.   Continue reading


Filed under Book Club, Erin's Favourite Books, Prize Winner