2016 Giller Prize, Author, Book review, Fiction, House of Anansi Press, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA, Zoe Whittall

‘The Best Kind of People’ by Zoe Whittall

The Best Kind of People

Fiction – Kindle edition; House of Anansi Press; 424 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Imagine if someone close to you was accused of a sexual crime. Would you stick by them? Throw them to the wolves? Bury your head in the sand? Be perplexed and question just how well you really know them?

This is the premise behind Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People, a fast-paced and timely novel about rape culture that has been shortlisted for the 2016 Giller Prize.

Accused of a crime

The story kicks off with the arrest of George Woodbury, a popular science teacher who has been accused of sexual misconduct with three female students under his charge on a school ski trip. The allegations are particularly shocking because Woodbury is something of a local hero and has won Teacher of the Year year after year.

When he is detained by police, his family —  his 17-year-old over-achieving daughter; his adult son, who is a lawyer; and his beloved wife, a dedicated and much-loved emergency room nurse — are immediately thrown into disarray. The novel focuses on the outfall on these three characters (their stories are told in alternate chapters), which makes for a gripping and thought-provoking read.

Interestingly, we never hear George’s side of the story, nor do we hear from his accusers. This means the reader is cast in exactly the same position as George’s family, never quite sure of his guilt or innocence, and never finding out the specific details of the allegations.

The outfall

As the story unfolds it’s interesting to see the effect on George’s loved ones as doubts about his innocence begin to creep in. From the outset his wife, Joan, is steadfast in her belief, telling her not-always-supportive sister: “You don’t stop loving someone in an instant because somebody accuses them of something despicable. Nothing is that black and white.” But later, when she entertains the idea that maybe, just maybe, he might have done something wrong, she tries to find excuses for such abhorrent behaviour:

If George was guilty, and she was far from convinced, then he could be sick. She took a sip of black coffee and contemplated this. She understood sick. Everyone is generally pleased to reduce a complicated situation to the notion of evil. Or a typical sleazeball man. He’s just evil. Evil is a word that’s lost its meaning recently, like bully. Overused, and weakened. She dissolved an antacid tablet in a glass of water. If it’s a sickness, it would not be his fault. There could be an undiagnosed tumour in his orbitofrontal lobe, causing him to have no control over his impulses.

Later still, she asks herself whether it’s “possible to be an intelligent human being — perceptive, intuitive — and also be married to someone who fools you so intensely, who is entirely a fraud, and you have no idea?”

His daughter Sadie is less sure from the start. She knows the girls involved — she goes to school with them — and isn’t sure why they’d make something like this up. She’s afraid that if he’s guilty, she is guilty by association. Whatever the case, the damage is irreparable.

If only she could have the privilege of believing him entirely. What kind of person, what kind of ungrateful daughter, doesn’t believe her own father? She had never doubted him before. She never thought he was anything but moral and civilized. She wasn’t even sure what those words meant. But if someone puts the possibility of something terrible in your head — and people around you believe it — you can’t go back to thinking it completely inconceivable. The possibility is there whether or not you choose to believe it, and you can’t go back to not knowing that the possibility exists.

His son Andrew is slightly more sympathetic to the situation, not least because as a gay teenager he has firsthand experience at being cast as a social pariah. He’s also very much aware that his first sexual relationship — with a man much older than himself and in a position of power — could so easily have been misunderstood by other people had they been aware of it. But even so, he also goes through moments of doubt, never quite sure of his father’s guilt or innocence, preferring instead to be practical about things and using his legal know-how to help George’s case.

A story ripe for discussion and debate

Despite The Best Kind of People being an issues-based novel — it embraces everything from teenage romance to feminism, gay rights to white privilege — this story is nothing short of a page turner. It’s a compelling read for so many reasons — will George be convicted? Will he go to prison? Will the family stay together, or fall apart? Will the local community ever accept the Woodbury family ever again or cast them out into the wilderness forever?

Admittedly, I thought some of the view points and characters presented here were well-worn tropes — the wronged wife, the loyal son, the busy-body interfering sister-in-law — and that some of the writing fell into cliché. But then Whittall would  include a sentence that would make me sit up and take notice. Here’s just two examples:

By his second glass he felt the balm of his arrogance returning, like a sly old lover slipping him a hotel key card.

And:

Improbable as it seemed, they settled into a new routine during this holding pattern — like when you’ve put gauze on a wound, and you’re waiting it out, hoping no infections seep in.

By the end of the book I realised it was nothing short of a stunning character study, for Whittall takes three seemingly normal and ordinary people — albeit white, privileged and living distinctly upper middle class lives  — and shows what happens to them when their worlds are turned upside down through no fault of their own.

What I liked most, however, was that it generates more questions than answers — book groups are going to have an absolute field day with it! — yet one thing is abundantly clear. Regardless of George’s guilt or innocence, the human toll — on his family, himself and his community — is irreparable. Once an accusation like this is out in the open, you can never make it disappear. That, I think, is the real message behind this exceedingly good novel.

For another take on The Best Kind of People, which has yet to be published in the UK, please see Naomi’s review at Consumed by Ink.

This is my 4th book for the #ShadowGiller2016

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, House of Anansi Press, Lynn Coady, Publisher, Setting, short stories

‘Hellgoing’ by Lynn Coady

Hellgoing

Fiction – ePub edition; House of Anansi; 240 pages; 2013.

Lynn Coady is no stranger to the Giller Prize. Her novel The Antagonist was shortlisted in 2011 and I read it back then as part of my Shadow Giller Prize duties. While I don’t remember a great deal about that story, I still remember the main character’s voice, which was urgent, angry, often snarky and very frank. Those same traits are found in the voices of many of the characters in her latest book, Hellgoing — a collection of short stories — which has been shortlisted for this year’s prize.

Right off the bat, I have to admit my prejudice against short story collections — that is, I don’t like them very much. Or at least I think I don’t like them very much, because it usually turns out that I quite enjoy them when I take the time to read them. I suspect my so-called prejudice is a mental hurdle more than anything else.

So the prospect of reading Coady’s collection didn’t exactly fill me with delight. However, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. And I especially liked that each of the nine stories in Hellgoing was just the right size to last me a 20-minute tube journey, so they were the perfect way to bookend my working day: a story in the morning on the way to work and one in the evening on the way home.

Food for thought

While I can’t say that any of the stories here are outstanding, two stood out for me — or at least have remained in my memory a week or so after having finished the book.

Take This and Eat It is about a nun, working in a hospital, who is asked to intervene on behalf of a teenage patient starving herself to death on religious grounds.

The voice of Sister Anita, who narrates the story in the first person, is not what one would expect: she’s a bit fed up, annoyed with other people and not the most gracious. Of course, we’re hearing her interior monologue, which is in stark contrast to her outward persona, which is demure and kindly.

But she has a particularly wicked sense of humour. This exchange with Catherine, the starving 14-year-old, is a good example:

“I’m devout,” insists Catherine. “I’m just being devout.”

“But you’re hurting yourself, dear, just look at the size of you.”


“Well, I don’t care, I want to be the empty vessel. I want to be filled
with God. I want him to fill me.” She gets this look on her face. She
rubs her concave stomach.


“Stop it,” I say. “Smarten up. Where did you hear this nonsense?”

“It’s in the Bible,” says Catherine.

“Well, don’t read the Bible,” I tell her. “That’s what Protestants do and look at them.”

Sister Anita is none too happy about having to help this poor misguided girl — she’d rather “sit with old ladies and pat their hands” — and she’s particularly rankled that the social worker Hilary has asked her to help because she sees this as Hilary’s job. But when Catherine asks to take communion, she hits upon an idea — they could “sneak some peanut butter or something” on the communion wafer and thereby get the girl to actually eat something…

Class act

The second story I really liked was Mr Hope, about one girl’s memory of a substitute teacher she first had in Grade One, who then taught her at various stages over the next few years right up until Grade Nine. This isn’t the sort of story you might expect. It’s not someone recalling a teacher with fondness. Throughout this story, Shelly constantly wrestles with the same dilemma she had as a five-year-old: “Is this a nice man? Or is it a mean man?”

He was the only man who ever taught us […]. He’d grunt a pronouncement,
glare blue fury until he could be sure it had sunk in, then move on to
the next tenet of the lesson.

By Grade Three I had arrived at the cautious determination to love him
as I did all the other grown-ups in my life. Mr. Hope, I’d decided, was
also mine. If only for the sake of consistency.

As time moves on, Shelly changes, but so, too, does her view of Mr Hope, which moves from tentative friendship to all-out war. The story culminates with Mr Hope telling Shelly a few home truths, which reveal more about him — and her — than she might have possibly imagined…

Entertaining but subtle

While I could probably say nice things about the remaining stories in Hellgoing I wasn’t particularly wowed by it as a potentially prize-winning collection. Indeed, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the two stories I’ve chosen to highlight here are the two which had memorable “twists” to them. Many of the others simply faded away and lacked impact.

I’d be very surprised to see this book win the Giller Prize, but that’s not to say this isn’t a collection worth dipping into. Readers seeking stories about unfufilled, often angry, usually female characters wrestling with personal and familial relationships will find plenty to like here.

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, House of Anansi Press, Lisa Moore, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Caught’ by Lisa Moore

Caught

Fiction – ePub edition; House of Anansi; 326 pages; 2013.

If Lisa Moore’s latest novel Caught was a film it would be described as a “road movie”.

Indeed, as I read it I couldn’t help thinking that it had all the right ingredients for a Hollywood blockbuster — a young prisoner on the run, a down-at-heel cop on his tail, a pretty girl (or two or three) and an ambitious pot-smuggling plan involving sail boats, hurricanes and all manner of dodgy drug runners — but as a novel I struggled to properly engage with it. Throughout its entire 326 pages, I felt as if I was an observer and not a participant.

On the run

The book has a dramatic opening. It is  June 14, 1975 — the eve of David Slaney’s 25th birthday.

He has just escaped prison and is heading to Guysborough, Nova Scotia, where a fellow prisoner has arranged a room for him. He hitches a ride with a trucker bringing a shipment of Lay’s potato chips to Newfoundland, and, keeping his head down, he slowly makes his way to Montreal and then Vancouver.

But his ultimate plan is to head to Colombia to finish the task that landed him in prison in the first place — smuggling two tons of marijuana into Canada.

His success is wholly reliant on meeting up with Brian Hearn, his childhood friend and partner-in-crime, who jumped bail last time round and has reinvented himself as a PhD student.

And it will also depend on evading capture, which is where a third character, Patterson, comes into the story. A jaded staff sergeant in the Toronto Drug Section, he has been passed over for promotion too many times but has been promised an advancement if he can nab Slaney.

This is not a crime novel

This might make Caught sound like a crime novel, but as someone who reads a fair deal of that genre I can assure you that this is nothing of the sort. The publisher describes it as “relentlessly suspenseful”, which suggests another sort of genre novel entirely. But again, this is not a suspense novel either. Or indeed, I did not feel caught up in the story or experience any anxiety on Slaney’s behalf.

More than anything else, this is a character-driven story, because as events unfold we learn about Slaney’s fears and dreams and every day worries, his upbringing and the love he feels for a woman  who has now gone and married someone else. He’s not a mean character, nor is he particularly ruthless. At times he seems incredibly young and naive, a bit lost and directionless, and overwhelmingly dislocated after four years in jail.

Moore does a good job of shattering the stereotypes of what we might expect a drug runner to be, and while I felt empathy, and sometimes pity, for Slaney, for the most part I felt nothing but ambivalence towards him:  I really did not care if he succeeded or failed in his mission.

Similarly, Patterson, who is less fleshed out as a character, failed to garner my full attention. And similarly, I didn’t care if he caught Slaney or not.

Lots of detail

This is not to say that Caught is a bad novel — it just didn’t engage me in the way I might have expected for a narrative that promised so much in terms of adventure and moral ambiguity. I wonder if it might have felt more immediate and suspenseful if the story had been told in the first person instead of the third?

Yet a first person narrator might have missed some of the extraordinary detail that Moore is so brilliant at capturing. She has a “cinematic eye” and creates vivid images — perhaps another reason why I thought this book would work well as a movie — and I lost count of the number of passages I underlined because I was so captivated by them. Here’s an example:

Out on the cobblestones, a hen was testing the pool of light under the street lamp, touching it once and then again with its claw, jerking the inert lump of its blazingly white body forward by the neck, taking teensy steps. The hen froze in the centre of the light, full of trembling.

While I don’t think Caught is worthy of winning the Giller Prize for which it has been shortlisted, I suspect there are other readers out there who will love its mix of character development and adventure-driven plot — but it simply did not work for me.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Canada, Fiction, historical fiction, House of Anansi Press, literary fiction, Louis Hamelin, Publisher, Setting

‘October 1970’ by Louis Hamelin

October-1970

Fiction – ePub edition; House of Anansi Press; 632 pages; 2013. Translated from the French by Wayne Grady.

Of all the books on this year’s Giller Prize longlist, Louis Hamelin’s October 1970 immediately piqued my interest. That was mainly for two reasons: (1) I’m attracted to real life historical events, especially if they involve politics and crime, that are turned into fiction; and (2) I knew absolutely nothing about this period of Canadian history and thought it sounded fascinating.

But reading this book proved to be somewhat of a challenge and my dislike for it may say more about me (and my lack of knowledge about Canadian political history) than the author. In other words, don’t let my review put you off — especially if you are Canadian and have a better understanding of what actually happened during the October Crisis.

The October Crisis

For those of you who aren’t aware of events that form the hub of this novel, this short article in The Canadian Encyclopedia gives a quick rundown.

Essentially, the terrorist group Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) kidnapped the British trade commissioner,  James Cross (renamed John Travers in this book), from his home in Montreal on 5 October 1970. They also kidnapped — and later killed — a government minister, Pierre Laporte. During the crisis mobile forces of the Canadian Army intervened in Quebec and the federal government instigated the War Measures Act, which allowed the arrest and detainment of individuals without charge. By all accounts it was a controversial, chaotic — and frightening — time.

In early December 1970, members of the cell holding Cross were given safe passage to Cuba in exchange for his release. About a month later, members of the cell that kidnapped and murdered Laporte were caught, convicted and sent to prison.


Complicated narrative

The author takes those real life events and imagines what might have happened from the perspectives of the terrorists who carried out the kidnappings. He tells the story, not in a straightforward linear fashion, but as a series of episodic “flashbacks”, none of which are revealed in chronological order. He then frames this complicated narrative as a kind of detective story in which a freelance journalist, Sam Nihilo, investigates some of the conspiracy theories surrounding the events of that time.

As you would imagine this makes for a rather “interesting” and somewhat convoluted storyline. While the narrative essentially focuses on the events between October 5 and 17, it jumps backwards and forwards in time, and not all of it centres on October 1970; some of it goes back decades earlier to help explain the FLQ’s motivations. Furthermore, some elements are told in the first person from Sam’s point of view, while others are told in the third person. And the list of characters — secret agents, police officers, politicians, lawyers, actresses, kidnappers, hostages, fast-food delivery men and so on — is so dizzying my edition came with a three-page dramatis personæ and even then I couldn’t keep up.

What this means is that I had to hold a lot of information in my head for the narrative to make any kind of sense. But this was a rather Herculean task, and while I enjoy challenging reads, October 1970 was just a little too confusing for my liking.

Ambitious book

That said, I enjoyed following certain character’s stories and found the ties between the police and the Mob fascinating, and the level of corruption in all facets of society astonishing.

And Hamelin knows how to write easy-to-read prose, has a penchant for crafting seemingly perfect lines — “He oozed grease like a pan of bacon”; “When Mr. Chevalier suggested he run for class president, he was elected as smoothly as a letter passing through the post office”; and “They laughed at the first somewhat ambiguous lines, sucking a joke from them like juice from a lemon” — and knows how to lighten the moment with unexpected bursts of humour. He is also excellent at capturing certain moods so that you can feel the fear (or the excitement) resonate off the page.

In short, there’s no doubt that October 1970 is a big, bold and ambitious book, one that may well appeal to history buffs or those who lived through events of that era. But as a work of fiction it falls far short of what I expected, because no matter how complicated the plot or how long the cast of characters, if the narrative lacks drive or any kind of page-turning quality, what’s the point of turning it into fiction at all?

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, House of Anansi Press, literary fiction, Lynn Coady, Publisher, Setting

‘The Antagonist’ by Lynn Coady

The-antagonist

Fiction – hardcover; House of Anansi Press; 352 pages; 2011.

A misunderstood giant who confronts his past is the subject of Lynn Coady’s 2011 Giller Prize shortlisted novel The Antagonist.

The giant is Gordon “Rank” Rankin, adopted at birth by Sylvie and Gordon Senior, a well-meaning but mismatched couple — “The dad was a prick, the mom was a goddess” — who raise him in small town Canada.

A larger-than-normal child, Rank looks like a fully grown man by the age of 14. With this comes all kinds of complications — people treat him like an adult even though he’s just a teenage boy — and he struggles to get on with his father, a short, angry man, whom he realises he “could’ve taken” at just age six “if I’d wanted”.

Their relationship, which is largely the focus of this novel, becomes more strained when Sylvie is killed in a car accident, leaving Gordon Snr to raise 16-year-old Rank alone.

But Coady gives this tale of a difficult father-son relationship a new twist. She has Rank looking back on his troubled past from the perspective of a soon-to-be-40-year-old man who has supposedly changed his ways, although it’s clear he is filled with resentment and has a special talent for holding grudges. It’s written epistolary style, in a series of emails to a college classmate, over a three-month period in 2009.

The classmate in question has written a novel which bears striking similarities to Rank’s life — and Rank’s not happy about it. The emails are essentially one long diatribe, railing against the way his story has been stolen from him, pointing out inaccuracies and clarifying events. The bulk of the one-way correspondence is written in the first person, but towards the end — as the story builds to a dramatic and violent climax — it is written in the third person, almost as if Rank has hit his stride and is rewriting his classmate’s novel for him.

The great strength of The Antagonist is Rank’s voice — it’s angry, honest and frank — but it is never predictable. There are little “reveals” dotted throughout the narrative which makes the reader question their own judgement of Rank’s character. Is he really the crazy, antagonistic, guy from college whom everyone liked because he “livened things up”? Or is there a deeper, more emotional and misunderstood man underneath? Does he relish being a thug? Or does he not understand his own brute strength?

This is a fast-paced read, with rich and authentic descriptions of both small town and college life — and there’s a rich seam of humour running throughout. It’s set largely in the 1980s, of the generation to which I belong, so I quite enjoyed the music references. And if nothing else it so eloquently shows that you should never judge a person on appearance alone…

The Antagonist has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. For another take on this novel please see KevinfromCanada’s review.