I’m headed to a dinner party tonight where I will, almost certainly, have to talk about Barbara Gowdy’s Mister Sandman. S., who lent me the book, will be there, and so I’ll return it and have to say whether I liked it or not, what I thought of the writing. What do you do when a book recommended is one you just don’t like? I feel like I ought to apologize for not taking the same pleasure she did, or reexamine my own taste for its deficiencies, or pretend to have liked it more than I did.
Alas. I thought Mister Sandman was just okay. In short: It’s a book about the disparity between ‘true’ selves and what we reveal to those we love. The secrets we keep from our partners and children; the secrets we keep from ourselves. The reverberations of these secrets are detected by the changeling child of the family, Joan, who, because she is ‘brain damaged’ and assumed to be mute, absorbs (and records) the secrets she hears, only to echo them back in (magical) and transformative ways. No question the novel is inventive in form and in some language. There’s a playfulness and humour that underlines the ‘heavy’ themes of betrayal, self-awareness, sexual awakening and identity.
And yet I didn’t care much about what happened to any of the characters or if they were ‘found out’ for who they really are/want to be. This lack of care wasn’t because I didn’t appreciate their specificity, rather I found that the opacity they present to the world (and in many instances, to themselves) made it a challenge – if not an impossibility – to connect or empathize with any of them myself. Moreover the characters – while undergoing significant ‘change’ in plot and experience – do little to evolve in their temperament or approach to one another. It’s as though the significant changes happen at them and around them, rather that to them in a way that might transform, complicate or enrich them (and so the reader’s understanding of who they are and their connection to us).
The particular book aside, as I read more books recommended, or review copies, I’m beginning to think this blog – or my thoughts – ought to move past the ‘did I like it’ / ‘didn’t I like it’ binary (thus sparing me the discomfort of having to publicly declare whether I liked a book recommended, when I could, instead, just talk about images of grass and angels). It’s tiresome to write (and so I suspect tiresome to read) the reasons why I liked or didn’t like a book (maybe). What to do instead? Close reading of passages? Exploration of themes? Discuss.
I picked up Michael Crummey’s Galore because a friend of mine suggested it was “the best book he ever read.” Bold claims from a well-read man. I admit being reluctant to read it because I’m using Crummey in my dissertation, and the idea of reading – for pleasure – an author that I’ve spent endless hours thinking about worried me.
(Aside: Longstanding debate between me and M. about whether or not someone can “read for fun” or whether any sort of reading is inherently “critical.” I err on the side of “reading for pleasure” and “reading for work,” and find that when I’m reading for pleasure I do not annotate; I do not fixate on symbols/images in the same preoccupied way I might while working; I do not consciously consider the novel as a national work… But, of course, I write this blog, and I *think* about what I read as I’m reading it: that is the work of a reader, right? I’m not sure why reading critically cannot also be pleasurable, for me, at least, reading and thinking are pleasurable activities. It just becomes “work” when I then have to write about it, compare it, map the themes and ra ra ra – gag).
I shouldn’t have worried. Galore is beautiful. The poetry of description, the balance of third person limited with third person omniscient sweeps the reader between the intimate thoughts of characters – spanning generations – and the intricacies of the community and the relationships in that community. I suppose it was purposeful that the reader is denied the third person limited perspective of Jonah (the man who opens the novel being born from the belly of a whale), but all the same, my only complaint is that we don’t get the chance to hear his thoughts. Of course, it’s appropriate that we don’t (Jonah is mute), just frustrating because of how much I *wanted* to read his view: a testament, I think, to the strength of his character.
Ambitious in its time-line, Galore maintains a surprising (and pleasurable) balance between the intimate lives of the families on the shore (set in Newfoundland) and the “bigger” concerns of a settlement coming into the 20th century (medicine, education, union organization). Highly recommend.
Larissa Lai’s second novel, Salt Fish Girl, combines history and fantasy in an involving speculative fiction. Without revealing too much about the plot, the perspectives of the two protagonists, the 2040s Miranda and 1800s Nu Wa, are interwoven in an exploration of sexual desire, genetic modification, immigration and family responsibility.
The strength of the novel comes from its richly imagined future scenes. So much so that the speculative future reads as a much more compelling and realized time than the historical one (when one might expect depth in detail through research). The future protagonist, Miranda, also controls a stronger narrative voice and sense of character motivation and development.
The chapters set in the past are not disappointing, but rely too heavily on magic realism, without sufficient grounding in either time or place (something the future chapters do quite well). Further, these sections lack – with the exception of the meeting of Salt Fish Girl – concrete plot experiences, and so ‘float’ in a wishy-washy space of over-stated symbolism.
The symbolism is my chief complaint. Lai needs to trust her reader to interpret and analyze the text. As it is, the combination of an abundance of heavy handed symbolic references and (purposefully?) ambiguous mythic references leave the reader at one and the same time frustrated with the emphatic symbolism and confused by the seemingly inexplicable plot events.
That said, the time changes and the Miranda plot are engaging and as a consequence the book reads quickly and for the most part, enjoyably – if you can get past the symbol saturation and occasionally disorienting plot elements.