Author, BIPOC 2021, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Michael Ondaatje, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Vintage Digital

‘Warlight’ by Michael Ondaatje

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 285 pages; 2018.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje is one of those novels that is almost impossible to review because trying to describe what it is about is as difficult as catching cumulous clouds in a butterfly net.

Boiled down to its most basic premise, it’s a story about a son trying to figure out the secrets of his late mother’s life. But it’s also about the shadowy world of espionage and London’s criminal underworld during the 1940s and 1950s.

It’s divided into two parts. The first, set in London immediately after the Second World War, looks at what happens to 14-year-old Nathaniel, the narrator, and his older sister, Rachel, when they are left in the care of a guardian while their parents head to Singapore for a year. The second, set a dozen years later, details Nathaniel’s investigation into his mother’s hidden past following her untimely death: who exactly was she, and what kind of work did she do during the war?

Mystery and intrigue

In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.

So begins the story, which is a mix of boys’ own adventure, mystery, intrigue and coming of age, for in the first part of Warlight Nathaniel is given pretty much free rein to do as he likes. When he’s not at school, he’s doing part-time jobs in restaurants and hotels (largely as a kitchen hand), mixing with people much older than himself, and exploring sex with a working-class girl who’s a little older than himself. He also accompanies an older man (a longtime friend of his mother’s) on furtive sailings up and down the Thames on a mussel barge, smuggling greyhounds into the country.

But this exciting new world, dangerous and life-affirming by turn, comes to a head in a dramatic way, and so when the second part opens we meet an older, more reflective Nathaniel, eager to piece together his mother’s story. Now working in London for the security agencies, he has access to high-level secret information. And what he discovers, ephemeral and mysterious as it appears to the reader, allows him to make sense of his upbringing and the people with whom his mother associated.

Not about plot

This is not a plot-driven novel. I’m not even sure it’s a character-driven one — although it does have a vast cast of characters involved in the field of espionage who are all wonderfully drawn. It could be defined as a mystery novel, even though it’s not about a murder and it’s not the least bit suspenseful. (See how I am struggling to describe what this book is about!)

It’s the prose, elegant and restrained, and the voice of the first-person narrator, coolly detached but not without feeling, that gives Warlight its flavour and makes it so highly readable.

The story is moody and elegiac and highly evocative of another time and place, making this possibly the most London-centric novel I’ve ever read, with its vivid descriptions of the streets and buildings and canals and waterways.

That first magical summer of my life we smuggled more than forty-five dogs a week at the height of the racing season, collecting the gun-shy creatures from a dock near Limehouse onto the mussel boat, and riding the river in darkness into the heart of London towards Lower Thames Street.

There’s a vein of melancholy that runs throughout, which is hard to shake off whenever you lift your eyes from the page, and days after having finished this one I can feel the mood of it lingering in my mind.

The story is a powerful one. It’s reflective of the role some ordinary Londoners played in the Second World War and how their actions haunted them and their families long after it was over.

Warlight was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2018.

This is my 11th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour this year. 

Afghanistan, Author, Book review, Ele Pawelski, Fiction, general, Publisher, Quattro Books, Setting

‘The Finest Supermarket in Kabul’ by Ele Pawelski

Fiction – paperback; Quattro Books; 124 pages; 2017.

Given the appalling events that have played out in Afghanistan recently following the United States military withdrawal, this novella was a timely read.

The Finest Supermarket in Kabul, by Ele Pawelski, is set in Afghanistan in 2011, some ten years after the Taliban was ousted by the US invasion. It is based on a real event in which a supermarket, popular with foreigners, was targeted by a suicide bomber, resulting in the deaths of at least eight people.

The book opens with that deadly bomb attack, before telling the stories of three distinct characters caught up in the blast:

  • Merza, a young idealistic Afghan man who has been elected to Parliament and is now receiving death threats;
  • Alec, an American journalist, who has been embedded with a US platoon in Kandahar but is now in Kabul hoping to write some yet-to-be-commissioned pieces about life in the Afghan capital; and
  • Elyssa, a Canadian human rights lawyer, who is helping to train female magistrates but is being sexually harassed by a male justice.

The story, which is told in simple, stripped-back prose, spans a single day, giving us just a brief glimpse into the lives of these well-drawn, if slightly clichéd, characters.

Too much explanation

While the novella moves along at a clip, it doesn’t skimp on detail, but it does feel like there’s a lot of information shoe-horned in to fill the reader in on background detail that most of us are probably pretty familiar with anyway. (For example, that Hamid Karzai was leader, that women’s lives were less restrictive now the Taliban had been banished, that English-speaking Afghans working with foreigners were regarded as “infidels” and putting their own lives at risk.)

In short, everything is explained; the reader doesn’t have to figure a single thing out. Here’s just a random example:

Nearing the city centre, the traffic is busy as I’d anticipated. A decade ago, just after the Americans came, foreigners started to arrive in bulk, so now congestion is the norm. The embassies and offices built for them to work in, and the government offices and courtrooms refurbished for their protégés, are all located in the centre. To protect these so-called important buildings, long concrete barriers, watchtowers and checkpoints have been placed along this main road and its side roads, effectively boxing in the city centre. Policemen are stationed at the checkpoints to check IDs and ask questions. Ring of Steel is the official name of this security setup. Soon, we’ll probably be barred from driving to the centre altogether.

I struggled with the authenticity of the voices, too, particularly Merza’s, which just felt like a Muslim stereotype, and Alec’s, which was full of journalistic clichés. And the dialogue often felt clunky and too formal.

Jakob thrusts his thumb and forefinger into his eyes, pressing hard. “Even though there’s a lot of us here, the expat community is actually rather small. Even smaller when you are in the same profession.”
[…]
“Hard to believe the Finest was targeted,” Jakob says, wiping his brow. “This will affect expats pretty badly. We all shop here because it’s one of the prime places to get stuff from home. Any of us could have been inside.”

Given that The Finest Supermarket in Kabul was written by an expat (the author, who is Canadian, has previously lived in Afghanistan), I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the story is told through an expat lens.

And while I know you should never review a book on what you think the book should have been about, I can’t help feeling this was a wasted opportunity to find out more about the Afghan people and life in Kabul outside of the expat bubble.

On the plus side, I did like the way the author draws the three characters together in unexpected ways, but on the whole, this story was far too simplistic for me. Reviewers on GoodReads see things a bit differently: The Finest Supermarket in Kabul has plenty of four- and five-star ratings. Well, it’d be boring if we all liked the same things, right?

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.

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.