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.