Author, Book review, Canada, David Adams Richards, Fiction, literary fiction, McClelland & Stewart, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21

‘Nights Below Station Street’ by David Adams Richards

Fiction – paperback; McClelland & Stewart; 225 pages; 2009.

Every now and then I stumble upon a book that offers up a complete cast of characters, immerses me in their lives and makes me feel as if I know them all personally, their flaws and foibles, and then, when I come to the end, I’m left bereft at having to say goodbye. This is how I felt when I read David Adams Richards’ 1988 novel Nights Below Station Street.

The story is set in rural Canada (the blurb tells me it’s New Brunswick) in the early 1970s.

There’s no real plot; instead, we meet a handful of locals and follow their ordinary working-class lives in a small mining and timber mill community over the course of a year or so.

In effortless, stripped-back prose, Adams Richards depicts complex familial and neighbourly relationships, the day-to-day struggles of the poor, and the very personal battles faced by those with addiction (or illness) and the subsequent outfall on their families.

A family under stress

The novel largely revolves around the Walsh family, which is headed by Joe, a labourer, who injured his back at work several years earlier and now struggles to hold down a full-time job. He’s battling alcoholism and has secretly joined AA in a bid to give up the booze. But his good intentions are constantly under threat by peer pressure and a lack of family support.

Joe’s will power and resolve is also tested by his always angry and bitter teenage stepdaughter, Adele, who rails against him, claiming Joe is a no-hoper because he isn’t the breadwinner of the household. That role falls to his wife, Rita, who provides childcare in her own home in order to bring in money.

When the desperately social Rita joins a local curling club and tries to drag Joe with her, it causes all kinds of consternation because she wants to be an active participant in the community, while Joe, an introvert with a stutter, would prefer to hide under a rock.

The story features a host of other colourful, well-drawn characters, including Ralphie, Adele’s kind-hearted boyfriend; Cindi, a student at Adele’s school who has epilepsy; Myhrra, the divorced next-door neighbour struggling to raise her 12-year-old son, Bryan, who’s acting out and becoming obnoxious; and Vye, a local man, who wants to marry her.

All are linked together because they live in the same small community where everyone knows everyone else’s business — whether they like it or not.

Lost in a blizzard

While not much seems to happen over the course of the novel, everything comes to a head at the end when a snowy blizzard puts lives at risk — but the conclusion is an uplifting one.

Nights Below Station Street won the Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction at the 1988 Governor General’s Awards. It is the first volume in David Adams Richards’ Miramichi trilogy, which includes Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace (1990) and For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down (1993).

It’s a compelling account of small-town life and the ups and downs we all face as the world turns, and is a powerful portrait of a deep-seated human need to belong — and to be loved.

Fans of the late Kent Haruf will find much to admire there because the work is deeply reminiscent of Haruf’s eloquent heartfelt tales about a Colorado farming community.

This is my 13th book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it at a charity book sale earlier this month for $4 and am kind of cheating by including it in my TBR.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), 2018 Giller Prize, Alex Miller, Allen & Unwin, Author, Book review, Books in translation, dystopian, Eric Dupont, Fiction, Five fast reviews, literary fiction, Mercè Rodoreda, New Island, Nuala O'Connor, Penguin, Publisher, QC Fiction, Quercus

Five Fast Reviews: Eric Dupont, Thea Lim, Alex Miller, Nuala O’Connor and Mercè Rodoreda

It’s been a crazy few weeks around here… and this blog has been much neglected (my last review was posted some three weeks ago). So, in a bid to get up to speed before December comes to an end, here’s five books, arranged in alphabetical order according to the author’s surname, that I read during the year that I never quite got around to reviewing.

‘Songs for the Cold of Heart’ by Eric Dupont 

Fiction – paperback; QC Fiction; 603 pages; 2018. Translated from the French by Peter McCambridge

Songs for the cold of heartSongs for the Cold of Heart was shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize, but it lost out to Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black. We chose it as our Shadow Giller winner — a totally unanimous decision.

Quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before, this doorstop of a novel is epic in scope and unrivalled in ambition, one that makes for a truly immersive reading experience.

Full of vivid, well-drawn characters and wonderfully evoked settings, it’s a tale that spans several generations of the one Quebec-French family, with each new chapter able to stand alone as a short story. But the force of all those chapters working together creates a richly layered narrative in which motifs —  and even jokes — keep repeating themselves from one generation to the next, revealing unexpected connections and insights into a family whose reputation has been built on a combination of legend, invention and self-mythologising.  It brims with sex and humour, love and tragedy, empathy and arrogance, and is littered with tall tales, a smidgen of magic realism and much innuendo.

Expertly translated by Peter McCambridge (it must have taken an age to work on), this is a proper literary tour de force. Sadly, it is priced at an eye-watering £29 here in the UK, which is a shame, because it truly deserves a much wider English language audience.

‘An Ocean of Minutes’ by Thea Lim 

Fiction – hardcover; Quercus; 360 pages; 2018. 

An ocean of minutesYet another title that was shortlisted for the 2018 Giller Prize, Thea Lim’s An Ocean of Minutes proved to be a great surprise. I was dreading this slice of dystopian fiction in which a 20-something woman time travels from 1981 to 1998 to escape a pandemic and be reunited with her one true love, but it’s hugely atmospheric and has a strangely haunting, elegiac tone. It totally swept me away, taking me through all the emotions from anger to heartbreak — and back again.

Reading between the lines, there are hints of social commentary — about modern slavery, the class system and immigration — and the ways in which we can become trapped by circumstances beyond our control, with no way to better ourselves or escape economic insecurity because of the systems that conspire against us. But this is also a story about courage, faith, taking risks and believing in the power of love and family.

‘The Passage of Love’ by Alex Miller 

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 584 pages; 2018. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The Passage of LoveIt’s no secret that Alex Miller is one of my favourite authors, and this novel, which is the thinly veiled story of his own life, is probably my favourite book of the year. Another truly immersive read, I devoured almost all 550-plus pages in the space of a weekend, but then eked it out for another fortnight because I simply did not want the tale to end.

It’s filled with angst, love and cruelty, as well as the struggle to be true to oneself, to find your place in the world and to find the courage to lead a creative life rather than a safe one. It’s a fascinating portrait of a complicated marriage, too, showing how we can never truly know the person with whom we are most intimate. And it’s a quintessentially Australian tale, not only in its achingly beautiful descriptions of landscapes and country towns, but of the gross injustices carried out against the First Peoples, whom Miller himself has lived and worked with and written about in previous novels.

Reading this book also helped me to appreciate the common themes in Miller’s extraordinary backlist; the pennies began to drop about his obsession with Germany and Holocaust survivors, the London Blitz, Aboriginal genocide, the writer’s life and his amazing psychological insights into love and intimacy.

‘Joyride to Jupiter’ by Nuala O’Connor 

Fiction – paperback; New Island; 157 pages; 2017. 

Joyride to jupiterI read Joyride to Jupiter as part of the #20booksofsummer challenge, but never got around to writing about it on this blog. I have previously read O’Connor’s novels, published under the name Nuala Ní Chonchúir, and found them both deeply moving and evocative.

This collection of short stories is more of the same, all written in eloquent, pared-back language and filled with well drawn, often troubled and flawed, characters struggling to make sense of the world. Some stories are only a few pages long, but even so, the reader is immediately immersed into the lives (and loves) of intriguing people, whether that be a young girl witnessing her father’s infidelity or a devoted husband dealing with his wife’s dementia. There are recurring themes — mainly sexual, it has to be said — but all the stories, which are set in various places around the world, are universal. It’s a quick read, but I can’t say it’s a particularly memorable one.

‘Death in Spring’ by Mercè Rodoreda

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 150 pages; 2018. Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent

Death in springPart of Penguin’s  European Writers series, this novella packs a real punch despite the fact it has no real plot. Set in a remote village in Catalan where the citizens are sticklers for following tradition, it tells the story of a young boy’s coming of age and how he must forge his own path in a society that is both oppressive and cruel.

Said to be an allegory of life under Franco’s dictatorship, it’s a deeply disturbing read full of nightmarish scenes and vivid, no-holds-barred language. But it’s also very beautiful, with lush, lyrical descriptions of nature and the ever-changing seasons (indicating that life goes on regardless of whatever cruel acts humans do to each other). But, even so, Death in Spring leaves the reader unsettled, perhaps because it’s such a visceral, often challenging, experience.

2018 Giller Prize, Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, New York, Paris, Patrick deWitt, Publisher, Setting

‘French Exit’ by Patrick deWitt

French exit
UK edition

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 256 pages; 2018.

Delightfully kooky is a good way to describe Patrick deWitt’s latest novel, French Exit, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize.

I have previously read deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, which was shortlisted for the Giller in 2011, and Undermajordomo Minor, which was longlisted in 2015. It’s fair to say that he has a penchant for the unusual and the peculiar when it comes to characters and settings, and this new one is no exception.

It’s essentially a comedy of errors — think a North American Jeeves and Wooster, except Wooster is a rich morally challenged matriarch fallen on bad times and Jeeves is her loyal but hopeless son.

Canadian edition

The laugh-out-loud plot goes something like this: Frances Price, a wealthy 65-year-old widow from Manhattan’s Upper East Side, has run out of money and is liquidating her estate by selling everything she possibly can to raise some cash to live on. She moves into the Four Seasons Hotel, taking her two constant companions — her 32-year-old son Malcolm and her cat, Small Frank, whom she believes houses the spirit of her late husband — with her.

To avoid scandal they decamp to Paris, France, where the trio plan to start afresh, but from the moment they set foot on the cruise ship that takes them there a series of minor disasters befall them.

Once in their new Parisian home they attract a weird menagerie of acquaintances and hangers on, including a persistent house guest they cannot shake off, but they fail to make any true friends and end up falling out amongst themselves. Small Frank even runs away.

Playful storyline

Loosely based around a series of set pieces, the book has a playful energy to it. And while nothing much really happens, it has a page turning quality because the reader wants to find out what outrageous thing Frances will do — or say — next and whether the trio will ever recover their financial standing.

It’s quite a voyeurestic read. Frances is a brilliant creation: a badly behaved woman who is an expert at droll putdowns, an eccentric sociopath who takes no responsibility for her poor decision making and feels hard done by without reason. I loved spending time in her company.

While I don’t think French Exit will win the Giller, it’s a fun, madcap read, quite unlike anything I’ve experienced before. While it’s a wonderful farce, it’s not without emotional depth — there’s a lot going on here about mothers and sons, fame for all the wrong reasons and maintaining dignity against the odds.

This is my 3rd book for 2018 Shadow Giller Prize. For another take on this novel, please see Marcie’s review at Buried in Print.

2018 Giller Prize, Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, Harvill Secker, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting, Sheila Heti

‘Motherhood’ by Sheila Heti

Motherhood UK cover

Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 284 pages; 2018.

Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, which has been shortlisted for the 2018 Giller Prize, won’t be for everyone. I’d argue that it has a quite specific audience. It seems to be the kind of book that is aimed primarily at women of child-bearing age who haven’t quite made up their minds as to whether they want to have children or not.

It’s fictional, but because it’s written in the first person and doesn’t really have a plot (indeed, it doesn’t really have any characters aside from the narrator and her boyfriend), it feels like non-fiction. As I read through it I had to keep reminding myself it wasn’t reportage; it was an extended piece of creative writing exploring a simple idea: how do you know when it’s the right time to reproduce, and what do you do if you decide that’s not for you?

Motherhood — the Canadian edition
Canadian edition

Written in direct first-person text, almost as if the author is trying to talk herself into — or perhaps out of — making a decision, it’s occasionally humorous and often illuminating, but mostly — and I hate to say this — it’s downright self-indulgent. (Navel-gazing is another term that springs to mind.)

As you’d expect for a book with a philosophical bent, it explores lots of interesting ideas about what it is to be a mother (doing what you, as a woman, were supposedly put on earth to do, for example) as well as what it is to be woman of child-bearing age who chooses not to bear children (helping the planet by not adding to the world’s population, is just one theory posited).

There’s some thought-provoking analysis on what it is to lead a creative life — in this case, as a writer — and whether having children lessens that ability or enriches it. Does raising children take away the energy and stimulus that is required for the imagination to function properly?

But the book’s structure is odd. It over-relies on the device of flipping coins to answer certain questions (inspired by the ancient Chinese “art” of I Ching), which is novel to begin with but soon wears thin.

Should I have a child with Miles?
no
Should I have a child at all?
yes
So then I should leave Miles?
no
Should I have an affair with another man while I’m with Miles, and raise the child as Miles’s own, deceiving him about the provenance of that child?
yes

There’s also a lot of over-reliance on dreams (this is a pet hate of mine in novels) and what I would call “hocus-pocus” (whether in the form of religion, fortune-telling or destiny), but these do serve an important function: to help the narrator determine whether making the decision to have a child is something over which she can take control, or whether it’s up to the gods to decide.

It’s certainly an interesting premise for a novel, but it’s weighed down by too much middle-class angst for my liking.

As a woman who chose not to have children, I’m afraid there was nothing new in this book for me. I suspect if I had read Motherhood 10 or 15 years ago it would have resonated and perhaps shown me that there is no right answer: your life isn’t better or poorer for having children, it’s just different if you choose not to become a mother.

This is my 2nd book for 2018 Shadow Giller Prize.

2018 Giller Prize, Author, Book review, Esi Edugyan, Fiction, historical fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Serpent's Tail

‘Washington Black’ by Esi Edugyan

Washington Black

Fiction – hardcover; Serpent’s Tail; 432 pages; 2018.

If you like your historical fiction with a good dose of adventure and a smidgen of romance then you really must put Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black on your list.

Shortlisted for both this year’s Man Booker Prize and the Giller Prize, this fast-paced story follows the life and times of George Washington Black, a young slave rescued from a Barbados sugar plantation by an unexpected source: the plantation owner’s younger brother.

“Titch” Wilde, who is a secret abolitionist and a mad inventor, needs someone of a certain weight to fly in his “cloud cutter” — one of the world’s first hot-air balloons — which he is building. Step forward 11-year-old “Wash”, who is taken from the care of Big Kit, the woman he doesn’t realise is his mother, and promptly elevated to Titch’s personal servant and confidante, changing the course of his young life forever.

Under Titch’s care, Wash not only discovers he has an extraordinary talent for drawing, he embarks on a wild journey that traverses oceans and continents in a bid to escape the slave catcher who wants him returned to Barbados.

A dizzying page-turner that takes in scientific polar exploration, the windswept beaches of Nova Scotia, the aristocratic manor houses of 19th century London, the canals of Amsterdam and the deserts of Morocco, this is a true adventure story that brims with menace and tension and love.

But it’s not a perfect novel. There are paradigm shifts, which seem to come out of nowhere and are disorienting for the reader. Some of these shifts feel too far-fetched to be believable and this serves to ruin the perceived authenticity of Wash’s tale. And then, when Titch disappears from the narrative at about the half-way point, suddenly the heart of the story — the mysterious and intriguing relationship between him and Wash — is gone: it’s like taking a cake out of the oven too early so that it collapses.

That said, Washington Black is a brilliant example of terrific storytelling. The characters are vivid and well drawn, the dialogue is authentic, the setting and period details pitch perfect. It’s an original and audacious plot-driven novel. And much like Edugyan’s previous novel, Half Blood Blues, it is a truly entertaining read. I enjoyed it immensely — but I had to suspend belief to do so.

This is my 1st book for 2018 Shadow Giller Prize.