2017 Giller Prize, Author, Book review, Canada, Doubleday Canada, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Michael Redhill, Publisher, Setting

‘Bellevue Square’ by Michael Redhill

Bellevue Square

Fiction – hardcover; Doubleday Canada; 262 pages; 2017.

When I found out that Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square was billed as a thriller, I wondered how it had slipped onto this year’s Giller Prize shortlist, which is primarily for literary fiction. But when I picked up this book — ordered on import from Canada (there doesn’t even seem to be a UK publication date) — I discovered that it’s so-called billing wasn’t entirely correct.

Bellevue Square is one of those novels that starts off as one thing before it morphs into another. The opening chapters have all the hallmarks of a mystery thriller, but mid-way through it takes a dramatic turn and becomes a wonderful examination of mental illness, consciousness, identity and the blurring of lines between truth, reality and imagination.

In search of a doppelgänger

When the book opens we meet first person narrator Jean Mason, who is married with two children and runs a bookstore in downtown Toronto. One day one of her regular customers, Mr Ronan, questions her ability to change clothing and hairstyles in a matter of minutes. Jean, confused, wants to know what he’s talking about.

“You were in the market. Fifteen minutes ago. I saw you.”
“No. That wasn’t me. I wasn’t in any market.”
“Huh,” he said. He had a disagreeable expression on his face, a look halfway between fear and anger. He smiled with his teeth. “You were wearing grey slacks and a black top with little gold lines on it. I said hello. You said hello. Your hair was up to here!” He chopped at the base of his skull. “So, you have a twin, then.”
“I have a sister, but she’s older than me and we look nothing alike. […] And I’ve been here all morning.”

Jean’s continued denials make Mr Ronan angry and he becomes violent towards her. Later, he’s found dead in his apartment having hanged himself.

This sets a disturbing and somewhat puzzling chain of events into motion. More people claim to have seen Jean’s doppelgänger around Kensington Market. She learns from those people that her lookalike is named Ingrid Fox and that she is a crime writer.

Jean becomes obsessed with meeting Ingrid and spends an enormous amount of time hanging out in Bellevue Square, where Ingrid has often been spotted, to see if she can run into her. She befriends lots of the square’s regulars, a cohort of misfits and homeless people, to help her track down her quarry — with alarming results.

Impossible to pigeon-hole

Bellevue Square isn’t your run-of-the-mill thriller. In fact, it’s impossible to pigeon-hole, because it’s also part literary fiction, part medical fiction, part horror and there may even be elements of science fiction in it, too. That’s not to say its message or its contents are garbled — far from it.

It’s a totally compelling read, one that makes you question the narrator’s sanity (and perhaps even your own) as the storyline becomes increasingly more twisty and bent in on itself the further you get into the book. It’s fast-paced too, which can occasionally leave you feeling slightly disoriented, as if you’ve got lost in the market and can’t find an exit out.

The prose has an effortless but very immediate feel to it and Redhill brings many scenes alive with sentences that dazzle and delight, so that “electric lights make colour bouquets of fireworks in the wet road” or “the half-dozen machines connected to her chatter and sigh like ladies at a book club”.

This totally isn’t the type of book I expected when I picked it up. It turned out to be such a surprising read, so immersive and unsettling, that it has lingered in my mind more than two weeks after finishing it. Redhill has crafted a zinger of a novel, one that is well structured and well plotted, the kind of book you need to read again if only to try to understand how he’s done it. The good news is that it is the first in a trilogy. I can’t wait to read the next instalment.

This is my 2nd book for the 2017 Shadow Giller Prize.

Author, Book review, Canada, Craig Davidson, Doubleday Canada, Fiction, literary fiction, Setting, USA

‘Cataract City’ by Craig Davidson

Cataract-City

Fiction – hardcover; Doubleday Canada; 416 pages; 2013.

Craig Davidson’s Cataract City — shortlisted for the 2013 Giller Prize — may possibly be the most male book I’ve ever read — and certainly the most male book I read this year. Think of a male sporting pursuit — go-karting, wrestling, bare knuckle fist fighting, greyhound racing and dog fighting — and it will be mentioned here.

The story is set in the working class neighbourhood of Niagra Falls, the Cataract City of the title, where Owen Stuckey and Duncan Diggs grew up together but slowly drifted apart — Owen is now a police officer, Duncan has just got out of jail following an eight-year stint — and follows their lives from childhood through to the present day. The central hub of the novel is Dunk’s involvement in a cross-border cigarette smuggling operation that goes drastically wrong — but can his best friend save him?

There’s no doubt that Davidson is a great storyteller, but this is a relentlessly bleak and often violent book. And the ending, which mirrors the beginning — the two characters spend an inordinately long time lost in the wilderness — became so preposterous, I was tempted to throw the book across the room.

That said, I do think this novel throws up plenty of questions — to what extent does our background influence our lives?; can we ever escape our working class roots?; how important is male friendship and what bonds men together? — which elevates it from being a lot more than just a boys’ own adventure tale, though it certainly has all the right ingredients to make a terrific film — a tension between good and evil, a crime or two, and plenty of action.

Author, Book review, Dav Vyleta, Doubleday Canada, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Crooked Maid’ by Dan Vyleta

Crooked-maid

Fiction – hardcover; Doubleday Canada; 427 pages; 2013.

Dan Vyleta’s The Crooked Maid has been short-listed for this year’s Giller Prize. It is one of those novels that has the feel of a timeless classic; it reads as though it could have been written at any point in the past 60 years.

Ambitious in scope, it recreates Vienna in 1948, peoples it with a sizable collection of well-drawn characters, connects them all in a myriad of brilliant and unexpected ways, then throws in a murder mystery, a missing person case, a courtroom trial, several love affairs and a scandal or two. I loved its breadth and its scope, and found myself swept up by a dark drama that covers everything from love and loyalty to betrayal and corruption.

A vast cast of characters

The book opens with a train journey. Anna Beer is returning to war-torn Vienna from Paris for the first time in nine years. She’s hoping to rendezvous with her estranged husband, a psychiatrist, who has spent most of the war as an inmate in a Russian concentration camp. The couple’s marriage crumbled after Anna caught her husband with another man, but she is now prepared to forgive him, so that they can start their lives afresh.

Travelling in the same carriage is Robert Seidel, an 18-year-old boy, who has just finished his schooling in Switzerland. He has been summoned home to Vienna, where his step-father, a wealthy industrialist (rumoured to have collaborated with the Nazis), now lies in a hospital bed on the brink of death. He supposedly “fell” out of an upper storey window, but Robert’s older step-brother, Wolfgang, has been charged with his murder.

It is around these two characters — Anna and Robert — that the story largely revolves, but there are many other characters who enter the frey and add to the multi-layered, interwoven narrative that Vyleta has so expertly crafted.

The “evil” hunchback

Chief among these is Eva, the “crooked maid” of the title, who works for the Seidel family and has a distinctive hunchback resulting from an injury caused to her as a child. She was raised in an orphanage and has spent most of her life looking after herself. As a consequence she is rather feisty and outspoken. She also likes to play up to her wicked reputation — “You’re evil,” Robert tells her at one point. “I’m a hunchback. What did you expect?” she retorts.

And then there is Karel Neumann, a large Czech man, who claims to have been a POW with Anna’s husband, Anton Beer. Anton, however, can’t vouch for him, because he never returns to Vienna — instead Anna must go to the police to report him missing.

There are more characters, all bumping and rubbing up against one another, but to the author’s credit, the reader never loses track of who is who despite the seemingly never-ending cast. Oh, and how could I forget — the city of Vienna — grey, oppressive, war-torn — is a character, too:

The northern part of the inner city had not been subject to direct attack and had only been hit by strays. Most of the rubble had been cleared. There were buildings, upper storeys, that were missing. Her eyes stared up at gaps into which her mind would paint a row of windows; a stuccoed gable perched atop a brass-shod door. Here and there torn walls had been patched: dull, artless plaster clinging like a canker to ornate facades. Men and women walked the streets, hungry, threadbare, dressed in shabby clothes; blind to the pockmarked beauty of a capital whose empire had been mislaid.

Complicated plot

While I couldn’t possibly outline the rather complicated plot in just a paragraph or two, let’s just say it embraces everything from patricide to suicide, vagrancy to prostitution, and piles incident upon incident so that there’s never a dull moment and you’re never sure what’s going to happen next.

In his Afterword, Vyleta says the book’s structure — and its reliance on coincidence — owes much to Charles Dickens, particularly “of his ability to connect characters high and low through crime, family scandal, and the brittle threads of chance”. Which is pretty much the perfect description of what The Crooked Maid achieves so beautifully. I rather suspect the entire narrative was expertly planned in advance — much like a grand chess master plots his moves — because for such an ambitious, wide-ranging story, Vyleta ties up all the loose ends in a pleasing, satisfying way. Nothing feels forced or rushed.

And while it’s not an easy read — it’s too dense, too claustrophobic, too dry and oppressive for that — it’s an absorbing one, because it throws you into a completely all-encompassing world and lets you walk its streets, climb its staircases, breath its air and forget about your own life for a bit. It’s an impressive achievement.

Author, Book review, CS Richardson, Doubleday Canada, Fiction, France, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Emperor of Paris’ by CS Richardson

Emperor_of_Paris

Fiction – hardcover; Doubleday Canada; 279 pages; 2012.

I love Paris, I love cooking and I love reading. No surprise, then, that a novel about a Parisian-based book-collecting baker would have some appeal. But CS Richardson’s The Emperor of Paris, which has been longlisted for this year’s Giller Prize, was a bit like a cake that fails to rise: flat and disappointing. And forgive me for spinning out the baking analogy even further, but the ingredients in this novel just didn’t work — for this reader at least — despite being packed with flavour.

Fable-like tale

Spanning a 50-year period between the turn of the 19th century and the Second World War, and covering everything from war to fine art, book-selling and story-telling, the tale largely revolves around the impossibly thin and illiterate baker Emile Notre-Dame; his rotund and religious Italian wife, Immacolata; and their son, Octavio.

In prose that it is wistful and fable-like, Richardson tells the family’s history running the popular BOULA GERIE NOTRE-DAME (“the N having long since vanished”) in a narrow flatiron building  (known as the “cake-slice”) in the 8th arrondissement of Paris.

In the untitled prologue, we discover that the bakery has burned down and that, somewhat unusually, it contained a vast collection of books —  there are “shards of red leathers and frayed blue cloths, the curled and blackened edges of marble papers” floating in the air. We are left with that picture in our mind’s eye, but must read almost an entire novel — interspersed with “callbacks” as reminders of the fire — to find out how the bakery came to be transformed into one man’s personal library.

Visual quality

There’s no doubt that Richardson, who is also an award-winning book designer, has a vivid imagination. He paints beautiful and evocative pictures, a bit like scenes from a film, on almost every page. This is a  good example:

Near the Métro the young woman pauses for a moment to watch as a man, perhaps her own age, appears from nowhere and greets a lady friend. He hesitates, then leans in to kiss her cheeks. She seems unsure in a pair of new shoes; she nervously fingers her hair. The man’s face gleams with sweat. Tugging at the short legs of his trousers, he offers her a bouquet of drooping flowers. She smiles as she accepts them. The young woman looks away and walks on.

But, for me, this type of writing wears thin, probably because it is comprised purely of functional descriptions — all tell and not much show. It also makes it near on impossible to identify with any of the characters, who seem as interesting as cardboard cutouts (no matter how beautifully described they might be), because you just can’t get inside their heads.  (On more than one occasion I was reminded of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, which is written in a similar style — chances are, if you liked that book, you’ll like Richardson’s as well.)

And the narrative thread — which is essentially a series of vignettes based on love between people and love of food, literature, art and storytelling — lacked sustained momentum.

Maybe because I came to this book on the back of three brilliant five-star novels — two of which are yet to be reviewed — this one really didn’t work for me. However, if you enjoy faux-naïf tales then it’s likely that The Emperor of Paris will appeal.

Finally, people who appreciate books as objects in themselves will love this hardcover edition: underneath the matt embossed dustjacket lies gorgeous endpapers and handsome red-leather binding. The book pages also have deckled edges, something you rarely see in hardcover books produced in the UK.

Author, Book review, China, Doubleday Canada, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Ting-Xing Ye

‘My Name is Number 4’ by Ting-Xing Ye

My-Name-Is-Number-Four

Non-fiction – Kindle Edition; Doubleday Canada; 240 pages; 2010.

Ting-Xing Ye is a Chinese-Canadian author, who grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution. My Name is Number 4, first published in 1997, is her heart-rending account of what it was like living in that country during that time.

In China, number 4 is regarded as an unlucky number (similar to the way we in the West regard 13), and for Ting-Xing Ye it could not be more true. Born in Shanghai in 1952, she was the fourth child (out of 5) and by the time she was in her early teens both her parents had died. She and her siblings — two elder brothers, and an older and younger sister — were then raised by her Great Aunt.

Unfortunately, because her father was a factory owner, all the children were branded as “capitalists” when the Red Guards took over. This meant much humiliation at school, where she was subject to verbal and physical abuse.

But what terrified me most was a new government policy, supposedly designed to relieve the pressure of overpopulation in the cities. One child from each family must move to the countryside and remain there for the rest of his or her life.

Ting-Xing does the honourable thing and volunteers to move to the country, even though her elder sister was technically the sibling who should have gone. Ting-Xing was given two choices: a rubber plantation on Hainan Island in the South China Sea, or to a prison farm, far north of Shanghai in Jiangsu Province. After her brother did some investigating and discovered that the rubber plantation was plagued by a “devastating outbreak of hepatitis”, she chose the prison farm.

For the next six years, Ting-Xing lived and worked on the farm, which “had been set up in the early 1950s to put away political prisoners” but now housed other criminals, all male, whom had been charged with living “dissolute lifestyles”. This presented Ting-Xing and her female companions with another threat — sexual predation — while trying to cope with a new life of hard work, humiliation and separation from friends and family.

Ting-Xing’s account never wallows in self-pity, but she makes it clear that her deprivations were harsh and that she was, at times, subject to what we today know better as “sleep-deprivation torture used by many countries in espionage and war”.

She makes few friends and spends what little free time she has teaching herself English, which pays off in the end, when, aged 22, she passed the entrance exam to Beijing University.

Sadly, the Kindle edition of this book seems to be missing the section I was most interested in: Xing-Ting’s life post-prison. I wanted to learn of her life as a translator, her feudal-style marriage and later of her defection to Canada, where she married a Canadian and lives to this day. It was only upon reading the fine print, on the second-to-last page, that I realised this is an abridged edition designed for young adult readers — which may partly explain the over-emphasis on menstruation throughout the book (teenage girls love that sort of thing) and the patronising glossary at the back explaining about the PLA, Chairman Mao and the Gang of Four.

Despite this, My Name is Number 4 is a good read in the sense that you really get a feel for what it must have been like to live a life of fear, deprivation and exile all in the name of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Xing-Ting Ye has an important story to tell, and she tells it well. It’s just a pity that this edition wasn’t the one I expected, but that’s more the fault of the marketing than the author. I reckon teenage girls would love it.