2017 Giller Prize, Antarctica, Australia, Author, Book review, Canada, Ed O'Loughlin, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, riverrun, Setting, UK

‘Minds of Winter’ by Ed O’Loughlin

Minds of Winter

Fiction – hardcover; riverrun; 446 pages; 2016.

There’s no doubting the ambition of Ed O’Loughlin’s Minds of Winter. This “wide-screen” historical novel is themed around the exploration of both polar ice-caps and it also throws in a modern-day storyline for good measure.

The amount of research within its 446 pages is mind-boggling, to say the least. O’Loughlin has crammed in every conceivable fact about expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctica over more than two centuries of exploration, and he has melded together both real and fictional accounts to create a brilliantly imagined novel, which has been shortlisted for the 2017 Giller Prize.

The book is peopled with non-fictional characters, including Captain Sir John and Lady Franklin (of the famed “lost” expedition to chart the North-West Passage in 1845), the 19th century Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, and “Scott of the Antarctic” Robert Scott, amongst others. Some of the chapters are also narrated by “Eskimo Joe”, an Inuit guide and explorer who assisted many American Arctic explorers in the 1860s and 70s.

A multi-layered story spanning continents and time periods

O’Loughlin interleaves these various historical accounts, which switch between eras and hemispheres, to build up a multi-layered story showcasing the obsession of these explorers at a time when life and death often hinged upon navigation by the stars or through the use of new-fangled inventions such as the chronometer. He shows their desire for fame (or notoriety), their little madnesses, the rivalry, and the underhand tactics they sometimes employed — all in a bid to do something no-one else had ever done before.

Holding all these often disparate narrative threads together is a modern-day storyline focussed on the true mystery of the “Arnold 294” chronometer. This marine timepiece designed for celestial navigation and the measurement of longitude was thought lost forever with Sir John Franklin’s fatal expedition in the Canadian Arctic, but it reappeared 150 years later in Britain disguised as a Victorian carriage clock. (You can read about that in this article published in The Guardian in 2009.)

And then there is Nelson and Fay, who accidentally meet at the airport in Inuvik, a remote town in the Northwest Territories of Canada, and discover that there is a long-lost connection between them.

A great idea, but poorly executed

I had a couple of problems with this novel. I think the parts are better than the whole. The narrative jumps around a lot, there’s lots of (impenetrable) information and it’s hard to keep track of the characters (a dramatic personae might have helped). It’s not a book to read in fits and starts; you really need to devote large chunks of time to it otherwise it’s almost impossible to follow what’s going on.

It’s ambition is much to be admired, but when such a massive doorstep of a novel lacks a cohesive narrative thread it can be hard to generate momentum. I kept expecting all the threads to be neatly drawn together at the end, to deliver some kind of powerful shock, but I was disappointed. There will be some readers who love the challenge of the story, but for me, it felt too much like hard work.

My fellow Shadow Giller judge Naomi, who blogs at Consumed by Ink, thought more highly of it, describing it as “a marvellous journey” that “takes us to many out-of-the-way places on this earth”. You can read her review here.

This is my 5th and final book for the 2017 Shadow Giller Prize. We will announce our winner on KevinfromcCanada’s blog later today.

2017 Giller Prize, Author, Book review, Canada, Eden Robinson, Fiction, Knopf, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting

‘Son of a Trickster’ by Eden Robinson

Son of a Trickster

Fiction – hardcover; Knopf Canada; 336 pages; 2017.

Don’t you love it when you pick up a book and it takes you completely by surprise?

I was a little reluctant to read Eden Robinson’s Son of a Trickster — shortlisted for the 2017 Giller Prize — probably because the author’s bio on the inside flap of the dust jacket was cringe inducing (“Son of a Trickster was written under the influence of pan-friend tofu and nutritional yeast, which may explain things but probably doesn’t”) and expected the text inside to follow suit.

But this coming-of-age tale about Jared, an indigenous boy growing up with a drug-addicted mother, utterly charmed me. The subject matter might be bleak, but there’s so much compassion — and heart — in this book that it’s hard not to fall a little bit in love with it.

Life on the margins

We learn very early on that Jared’s upbringing hasn’t been conventional. His father has run off to be with another woman, his maternal grandmother hates him because she thinks he’s a trickster (“he’s wearing a human face, but he’s not human”) and his mother is combative, potty-mouthed and messed up on drugs.

By the time Jared is 16 he is living in the decrepit basement of his mother’s house, so that she can rent his room out to cover her bills. Sometimes she and her new boyfriend, Richie, disappear for days at a time “on business” (read: “acquiring drugs”), leaving him to his own devices. He has one constant companion — a beloved dog — but when she dies he finds it difficult to come to terms with the loss.

It doesn’t help that his life is a constant battle to keep everyone happy: his fiercely outspoken mother; his father who lives a long bus ride away; his demanding step-sister and her new baby; his “friends” at school; the customers who buy his cannabis-infused cookies, which he bakes then sells to pay his dad’s rent; and his elderly neighbours, the Jaks, who pay him to do yard work.

Compassion for others

Yet Jared, who is caught between so many competing demands, is full of empathy for other people and cares deeply about them. When Mrs Jaks is diagnosed with cancer, he helps her out by looking after her husband, who has dementia, when she goes off for treatment. He befriends their troubled granddaughter, who self harms, and spends time with a young boy whose obsession with science fiction has turned him into an outcast. And he lets his peers crash in his room when they’re drunk or in need of a place to hide from their parents.

Sometimes he’s taken advantage of — “He wished people could make undying declarations of love and loyalty to him when they weren’t half-cut or stoned out of their gourds” — but he knows how to stand his ground. When his step-sister Destiny tricks him into looking after her young baby without asking, he refuses to visit her again because he doesn’t “want to be played”; when his school friend Dylan vomits on his bedroom floor and goes home without cleaning it up, he never lets him stay over again.

The one truly positive thing in his life is his paternal grandmother, Nana Sophia, whom he keeps in contact with via text message and Facebook. She offers him advice and support from afar, and issues an open invitation for him to come and live with her in Prince Rupert.

But as the novel progresses towards its conclusion things don’t pan out the way Jared (or the reader) might expect. He begins hallucinating and the story takes a dramatic twist that shows the fragility of his young mind bent out of shape by too many drugs and too much booze and a lack of connection with his own indigenous culture.

Whip-smart humour

I really loved the whole feel and structure and mood of this book. The writing is sassy and sharp and infused with a whip-smart humour. The dialogue — and the often crude language — is spot on. But it’s the portrait of a teenage boy doing the best he can despite the circumstances which makes Son of a Trickster such a stunner of a read.

My fellow Shadow Giller judge Naomi, who blogs at Consumed by Ink, loved this book too. You can see her review here.

This is my 4th book for the 2017 Shadow Giller Prize.

2017 Giller Prize, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, London, Publisher, Rachel Cusk, Setting, Vintage

‘Transit’ by Rachel Cusk

Transit — UK edition

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage; 272 pages; 2016.

Let me get one thing out of the way: when Rachel Cusk’s Transit was named on the 2017 Giller Prize shortlist my heart sank. That’s because I’d read her previous novel, Outline, when it was shortlisted for the same prize in 2015, and I didn’t much like it. Knowing that this was a follow-up, I expected I probably wouldn’t like this much either. I was right.

A new life in London

Transit picks up where Outline leaves off — though, unusually, you don’t need to have read the first novel to understand the second.

The narrator, Faye, is a writer with two young sons. Newly divorced, she returns to London to start her life afresh. She purchases an ex-council flat in need of serious renovation and finds that her neighbours aren’t particularly pleasant, but doesn’t let this bother her.

There’s no real plot. The narrative revolves around a series of interludes or interactions that the narrator makes with other people — a varied cast including an ex-boyfriend, a builder, one of her students, an unmarried friend and her hairdresser — as she goes about her day-to-day life as a creative writing tutor. This lends Transit more the feel of a collection of short stories, rather than a novel.

Transit — Canadian cover
Cover of the Canadian edition

Unusual structure

This unusual structure does achieve one thing: it slowly builds up a picture of Faye, a passive character who doesn’t shy away from casting judgement on other people. She’s often full of cod philosophy and is (wearily) opinionated, but she’s not particularly endearing.

For instance, during the course of the novel, her children are staying with their father while the builders work on her apartment, but every time they call her she seems cross that they’ve interrupted her day. Even when they call in tears, she doesn’t seem to offer much by way of maternal consolation.

The fragmentary nature of the story is not helped by the aloof tone of voice that is adopted throughout. While the writing is eloquent and insightful, dotted with wisdom and a pseudo intellectualism, the dialogue often feels contrived and not particularly authentic. Nothing ever seems to properly gel.

Despite this, I did enjoy specific chapters (the one set in the hairdressing salon was strangely engaging), but overall I found Transit to be a chore to read and I came away from the entire book feeling mostly ambivalent about it. I think it is fair to say that Rachel Cusk is simply not a writer for me, but you may find otherwise.

This is my 3rd book for the 2017 Shadow Giller Prize.

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.

2017 Giller Prize, Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, Invisible Publishing, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Michelle Winters, Publisher, Setting

‘I am a Truck’ by Michelle Winters

I am a truck

Fiction – Kindle edition; Invisible Publishing; 160 pages; 2017.

If the American filmmakers the Cohen brothers penned a novel it would be something like Michelle Winters’ I am a Truck.

This book, shortlisted for the 2017 Giller Prize, is a quirky and unconventional tale about a married couple, living in rural Acadia, whose 20-year marriage falls apart in unusual circumstances.

Throw in the wife’s forbidden obsession with rock and roll, a bat in a cage, a lonely Chevy salesman in need of a male friend, a former cheerleader who wants to study computer programming, and a military man who likes to sing out loud, and you’ll come to understand that this novel really is a peculiar and offbeat one.

Portrait of a marriage

I am a Truck revolves around the marriage between Agathe and Réjean Lapointe, who are about to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary. The couple are devoted to one another and have cut themselves off from society at large, choosing to live in a small secluded cottage, where they shun the English language in favour of French. Their motto is “ll n’y a que nous”, which means “it’s just us”.

However, a week before their big celebration, Réjean gets in his Silverado pick-up to go on a fishing trip with work colleagues and is never seen again.

The Silverado was reported sitting next to the highway with the driver-side door open just eight hours after Agathe had kissed Réjean on the front step of their cottage and sent him off fishing in the rain with a Thermos full of coffee, four sandwiches au bologne, and a dozen date squares.

No one knows where Réjean has gone and the police don’t seem that keen to find him. There’s no sign that anything untoward has happened to him, and Agathe suspects she’s simply been abandoned. Initially distraught, she realises she now has to fend for herself, so she gets herself a job and starts her life afresh.

A mystery novel that morphs into something else

The story is structured around the past and the present in interleaved chapters entitled “Then” and “Now”. This not only allows us to understand the Lapointe’s marriage before and after Réjean goes missing, it gives us insights into what makes both characters tick and introduces us to the deliciously different secondary characters — larger-than-life Debbie, who introduces Agathe to rock and roll and wild nights out, and Michael, the Chevy salesman, who has a man crush on 7ft-tall Réjean.

It begins as a mystery-cum-detective tale, but by the mid-way point, the reader discovers Réjean’s fate and it turns into a intriguing tale of what it is to become your own person — yet this does not lessen the book’s page-turning quality. It’s the zany nature of the story that makes it so compelling. It’s written in straightforward, almost pedestrian (and occasionally) laboured, prose, but it’s such a charming and bizarre tale you can’t help but want to know what happens next.

If I was to pick fault with it, I would single out the use of French throughout (all of Agathe’s dialogue, for instance, is written in French) without a translation being offered. Having to interpret what Agathe was saying according to the English side of the conversation hindered the flow of the story for me, but I’m sure anyone with basic level French will probably find it easy to understand.

Will I am a Truck win the Giller Prize? I doubt it. It’s not really a “literary” novel in the sense that it’s not doing anything particularly groundbreaking and it’s not written in the beautiful, poetic prose one might expect from a prize-winning novel. But it’s highly original, laced with wit and love, and it might just be the strangest, yet most feel-good, story I’ve read all year.

This is my 1st book for the 2017 Shadow Giller Prize.

2017 Giller Prize

The 2017 Giller Prize shortlist — and return of the Shadow Giller

I’ve been a bit slack in announcing that I’m taking part in the Shadow Giller jury again (for more information, please see this post on KevinfromCanada’s blog), which means you will see reviews of all five shortlisted titles appear here over the coming month or so.

The shortlisted titles are:

Do keep coming back to this post as I will update the hyperlinks above as and when I review each title.

The winner of the $100,000 prize will be announced on 20 November. The Shadow Giller will name our winner a couple of days beforehand.

In the meantime, if you are on Twitter do follow us @ShadowGiller. Please use the hashtag #ShadowGiller

2017 Giller Prize, Book review, Canada, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Scribner, Setting, Zoey Leigh Peterson

‘Next Year, For Sure’ by Zoey Leigh Peterson

Next year for sure

Fiction – hardcover; Scribner Book Company; 240 pages; 2017.

I neglected to mention that I am participating in the Shadow Giller Prize once again, which means reading all the shortlisted titles and then choosing a winner before the real one is named on November 20.

When the longlist was announced a few weeks ago I went on a hunt to see what books were available in the UK that I might be able to get a head start on. Admittedly Zoey Leigh Peterson’s Next Year, For Sure wouldn’t have been my first choice of Giller Prize book to read, but the hardcover was just £3.89 on Amazon so it seemed churlish not to buy it.

The book tells the story of a young couple who pursue the idea of having an open relationship — with unforetold consequences.

Nine-year itch?

Kathryn and Chris have been together nine years. They’re in love and do everything together. Sometimes it’s hard to know where one person begins and the other ends, their lives, their interests, their personalities are so intertwined.

But then Chris confesses he’s been thinking a lot about Emily, a woman he sees at the laundromat.

I think I have a crush on Emily, he tells Kathryn in the shower. This is where they confide crushes.
A heart crush or a boner crush? Kathryn says.
He doesn’t know how to choose. It’s not particularly sexual, his crush. He hasn’t thought about Emily that way. And Chris would never say boner. But it’s not just his heart, either. It’s his molecules.

So he tells Kathryn about his molecules. How the first time he met Emily, it felt like his DNA had been resequenced. How he felt an instant kinship and a tenderness that was somehow painful. How, whenever he talks to her, he comes away feeling hollowed out and nauseous like after swimming too long in a chlorinated pool.

Kathryn’s reaction isn’t what you might expect: she suggests that Chris should pursue his interest in this woman and ask her out on a date. Suddenly there’s a third person in the marriage and it causes the inevitable tensions and strains one might expect — and quite a few that you might not.

Entertaining and effortless

From the start I thought the premise of Next Year, For Sure sounded dubious, the sort of book I wouldn’t like, but I was pleasantly surprised by how entertaining and enjoyable it turned out to be. I ate it up in just a handful of sittings and even though I didn’t much like the characters — too needy, too self-centred, too feckless — Peterson does such a brilliant job of putting us in their heads, explaining their motivations, their concerns, their fears, that it was hard not to become totally immersed in their story.

She doesn’t tell us everything about Kathryn and Chris straightaway, but over the course of the novel we begin to find out things about them that challenge our preconceptions. Both characters need lots of love (and attention) but their motivations are different: Kathryn has been in an abusive relationship and her passivity is, at times, crippling; Chris simply has a roving eye and finds it difficult to settle down.

Needless to say the characterisation is superb: Peterson show us Kathryn and Chris’ flaws but refrains from casting judgement on them. They are messy, vulnerable people caught up in the ebb and flow of an intimate relationship, struggling to come to terms with the stability (and monotony) of a long-term partnership.

My only quibble — and it’s a minor one — is that perhaps Emily could have been fleshed out a bit more. She’s almost ephemeral in this story, so much so it’s hard to tell what Chris finds so appealing about her, but perhaps that was the author’s intention.

And while not a great deal happens in the story, which is set over the space of a year, from September to September, there’s enough little dramas in it to maintain interest. And to be honest, what reader couldn’t help but be intrigued by a couple breaking all the social and moral codes so ingrained in our way of life?

Next Year, For Sure is a rather charming tale about taking risks and chasing dreams, but it’s also a warning about wanting things we cannot have and of not appreciating what’s right in front of us.

I read this book as part of the 2017 Shadow Giller Prize. It is currently only available in hardcover.