Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, Hamish Hamilton, Publisher, Setting, short stories, Zsuzsi Gartner

‘Better Living Through Plastic Explosives’ by Zsuzsi Gartner


Fiction – hardcover; Hamish Hamilton; 216 pages; 2011.

In September and October I had great pleasure in reading a bounty of Canadian fiction — which had been shortlisted for the 2011 Giller Prize — as part of the Shadow Giller Prize. In a rush to select our “winner” I never got around to reviewing Zsuzsi Gartner’s oh-so intriguing Better Living Through Plastic Explosives. And so now, two months down the line, I am making up for lost time.

Bold, edgy satire

Unlike my fellow jurors, I very much enjoyed this intriguing collection of short stories. I liked the boldness of Gartner’s ideas, the edginess of her subject matter and the satirical voice in which she writes much of her prose.

Each of the 10 charmingly named stories  — Summer of the Flesh Eater; Once, We Were Swedes; Floating Like a Goat; Investment Results May Vary; The Adopted Chinese Daughters’ Rebellion; What Are We Doing Here?; Someone Is Killing the Great Motivational Speakers of Amerika; Mister Kakami; We Come in Peace; and Better Living Through Plastic Explosives — offers a subversive take on modern life in North America.

And while they are firmly rooted in reality — our obsession with material goods and brand name items, our desire to be better (richer?) than our neighbours, our quest to drink more and more coffee from chain stores, our fear of terrorism, our narcissism (shall I go on?) — Gartner isn’t afraid to spice things up with a little off-the-wall kookiness thrown in for good measure. For instance, in the penultimate story, We Come in Peace, five aliens inhabit the bodies of an assorted collection of teenagers living in a suburban cul-de-sac in North Vancouver. Their mission? To discover the zenith of each human sense. (“Barman’s best guess was four years; Elyson thought a week or so should do it.”)

In Once, We Were Swedes, my favourite collection in the book (I’ve read this particular piece three times now), a high-flying foreign correspondent becomes a tutor teaching “journalism 101” to teenage oiks — and hates it. This is a realistic enough story about the world dumbing down until Gartner adds her signature “twist”: the 36-year-old teacher finds herself ageing rapidly (she is diagnosed with early menopause) while her husband not only refuses to grow up, he grows younger.

An unusual prose style

Admittedly, this sort of thing won’t appeal to everyone. Nor will Gartner’s occasional tendency to write in an overly verbose, convoluted manner. It took me awhile to get into the swing of her style. When I read the first story, Summer of the Flesh Eater — about the unusual lengths some people will go to sort out the neighbours from hell — I was a bit flummoxed. It wasn’t the subject matter that threw me, but the way she constructed her sentences. I’m not sure whether I simply got used to her style, because by story two it no longer bothered me, or whether it’s just the first story that is written in such an odd way.

But there’s a lovely vein of black comedy running throughout. And her social commentary and her satire is right on the money.

For me, the way in which she takes the surreal aspects of real life and heightens them further appeals deeply. She reminds me very much of Chuck Palahniuk, who is one of my favourite authors. If you like his work, it’s pretty much assured you’ll like Zsuzsi Gartner’s, too.

For two more takes on this novel, courtesy of my fellow Shadow Giller jurors, please see KevinfromCanada’s review and The Mookse and the Gripes’ review.

Author, Book review, Esi Edugyan, Fiction, France, Germany, holocaust, literary fiction, Publisher, Serpent's Tail, Setting

‘Half Blood Blues’ by Esi Edugyan


Fiction – Kindle edition; Serpent’s Tail; 256 pages; 2011.

A book about jazz musicians living in Berlin during the Second World War isn’t something that would normally pique my interest. But this book has been nominated for every award going this year — the Booker Prize, the Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize — so I figured there must be something special about it. I was right.

The first thing that strikes you about this novel is the voice of its narrator, Sidney Griffiths, a black bass player from Baltimore who spent his formative years in Berlin during the 1930s and 40s. To give you a feel for how he talks, here’s how he describes the jazz band to which he once belonged:

Once upon a time we was the stuff. Played the greatest clubs of Europe, our five recordings as famous as anything. We had fans across the continent, played Austria and Switzerland and Sweden and Hungary and even Poland. Only reason we ain’t never gigged in France was cause Ernst, a proud son of a bitch, he held a war-based grudge. Lost it soon enough, when old Germany started falling apart. But before that our band was downright gold, all six of us: Hieronymus Falk on trumpet; Ernst ‘the Mouth’ von Haselberg on clarinet; Big Fritz Bayer on alto sax; Paul Butterstein on piano; and, finally, us, the rhythm boys – Chip Jones on drums and yours truly thumbing the upright. We was a kind of family, as messed-up and dysfunctional as any you could want.

When the story opens Sid is an old man. It’s 1992 and his fellow band member, Chip, is accompanying him to the German premiere of a film about Hieronymus Falk. Hiero, the youngest member of their band, was largely regarded as a musical protégé, but he died in Mauthausen Concentration Camp. The documentary explores events leading up to his arrest by the Nazis. It also accuses Sid of a great betrayal, something which takes him somewhat by surprise.

But all is not as it seems. Like the legend of Elvis, there are rumours that Hiero is still alive.

‘What really happened to Hieronymus Falk’ become something of a journalist sport. All sorts of nonsense started up.

When Chip reveals that he’s received recent correspondence from Hiero, he and Sid go on a heart-wrenching adventure to find him. During their trip — by bus through a rather grim pre-European Union Poland — Sid slowly comes to accept that his past has finally caught up with him but is struggling to know how to deal with it.

The narrative swings back and forth across time — from Berlin and Paris during the war, and Berlin and Poland 50 years later — but events are always seen from Sid’s point of view. It’s a fascinating account of one man’s experiences — his love affairs, his musical rivalries and fierce jealousies (especially of Hiero), his guilt and much-too-late atonement for one cruel act that he can never take back.

These temporal shifts allow us to see the ways in which Sid has grown and changed as a character. The young Sid is plagued by self-doubt and envy; the older Sid is comfortable in his skin until his conscience and regret get the better of him.

While the book is littered with jazz references, I tended not to view this as a “jazz novel” — I’m not knowledgeable enough to cast comment on its authenticity or otherwise — but I did enjoy the way Edugyan brings the music to life through her prose.

Hiero thrown out note after shimmering note, like sunshine sliding all over the surface of a lake, and [Louis] Armstrong was the water, all depth and thought, not one wasted note. Hiero, he just reaching out, seeking the shore; Armstrong stood there calling across to him. Their horns sound so naked, so blunt, you felt almost guilty listening to it, like you eavesdropping. After some minutes Chip stopped singing, left just the two golden ropes of sound to intertwine.

But for me, the heart of this novel is the way in which Edugyan shines a spotlight on a subject not much explored in modern fiction — that of black people living in Aryan Germany. Here’s how one character explains it:

‘Life for black people under the Third Reich,’ he said through his nose, ‘was extremely contradictory. This is because there were so many different types of black people, and their treatment depended on what group they belonged to. For instance, you had the children of the African diplomats who’d come to the country during its colonial period. You had African–American performers, the opera singer Marian Anderson and jazzmen like Charles Jones and Sidney Griffiths, who, like their counterparts in Paris – Josephine Baker, Arthur Briggs, Bill Coleman and the like – all came to Europe to get away from the overwhelming racism prevalent in the southern United States in that era. The Jim Crow laws, in effect from the late 1800s right into the 1950s, barred blacks from active participation in society. In the twenties Europe was still a place black entertainers could come to earn a good living. Especially in Germany, whose borders were kept open to foreigners due to the Versailles Treaty. Also, the loss of the First World War had brought about a whole new artistic movement. The market for jazz had grown tremendously, and there was a decent following.’

While Half Blood Blues is not a perfect novel, I can’t help but respect Edugyan’s accomplishment. She’s attempted a risky endeavour by giving herself some high aims. Not only does she write the entire book in a Creolized voice, she focuses on jazz musicians against the backdrop of the Third Reich. She then fleshes out a very strong cast of characters, throws in a page-turning plot — Is Hiero alive or not? Did Sid really betray him? — and uses a complex structure to tell her story.

Half Blood Blues has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize — and I’d like to think she might just win it. For other takes on this novel please see KevinfromCanada’s review and The Mookse and the Gripes’ review.

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

‘The Antagonist’ by Lynn Coady


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author, Book review, David Bezmozgis, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘The Free World’ by David Bezmozgis


Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 368 pages; 2011.

Imagine being stuck in a figurative “no man’s land”. You can’t return to the country you just left and you have no idea which new country will let you in. That is the dilemma experienced by the wide cast of characters in David Bezmozgis‘ debut novel, The Free World.

Set in the late 1970s, the book tells the story of a family of Russian Jews fleeing the Soviet Union. Samuil, the patriarch, isn’t convinced of the need to emigrate — “In the war you ran from the enemy. Now who are you running from?” — and he is even less convinced when his war medals are seized at the border as “property of the state”.

But to his wife, Emma, and their sons, Alec and Karl and their wives Polina and Rosa, it is a chance to start afresh in a yet-to-be-chosen destination. The choices are relatively limited: they can go to Israel, direct from Vienna — where the book opens — with no need for additional paperwork, or they can go to Rome, another transit point, and sort out documentation for the USA, Canada or Australia.

Alec isn’t sure which destination is best. He just knows he doesn’t want to go to Israel — and with good reason:

They had gathered at the office that morning to present themselves before a caseworker. The Joint would not furnish them with their stipend if they didn’t file papers for a destination. Rosa continued to agitate for Israel, even though two days before, Begin had officially rejected Sadat’s latest peace proposal. While in Beirut, the Syrians were shelling the Christians, and Israel was massing troops on its northern border. Alec, having successfully avoided the worst of Soviet military service, wasn’t aching to go from Ben Gurion Airport to boot camp. Getting killed or maimed in Lebanon, or Egypt, or wherever the bullets were flying, seemed to defeat the whole point of leaving the Soviet Union.

In the event, they go to Rome, but the decision about their onward destination is rushed. When they are forced to fill out their forms after waiting weeks for an appointment, Samuil is as grumpy as ever — “This is how you decide your family’s future, ten minutes in a stairwell?” — but even Rosa has her doubts.

—Just like that you’re prepared to go and say Canada? What do we know about it? Rosa continued. —What do we know about anyplace? Karl said. You watched the Olympics. You liked what you saw of Montreal. And in 1972 they also showed something of Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vancouver. —You’re talking about the hockey games? Rosa asked incredulously. —Da, da Canada; nyet, nyet Soviet, Alec said. —If you have nothing intelligent to add, Rosa said. —It’s more European than America, and more American than Europe. —What does that mean? Rosa asked. —It means, Alec said, that a person can eat and dress like a human being, watch hockey, and accomplish all this without victimizing Negroes and Latin American peasants. —Basically, Karl said. Their dollar is also strong. —It doesn’t concern you that we will have to stay for months in Italy? Rosa asked. —That’s a reason against Canada? —It’s something to take into account.

But this isn’t a story about what happens when they arrive at their destination. It is a story about what happens while they remain in limbo, their lives effectively on hold, as they wait for the bureaucratic red tape to untangle.

It is here, in Rome, that we are introduced to each character — Alec, the philanderer; Samuil, the grump with a painful family history; Polina, deeply troubled by having left her sister behind; Karl, the entrepreneur; Emma, keen to reconnect with her forgotten Jewish religion — and learn their complicated back stories. It’s almost as if under the strain of the immigration process, cast adrift in an alien environment, that each character must address the past before moving into the future.

I particularly enjoyed Samuil’s back story — in which we discover that his own father and grandfather were “trapped and murdered in their Ukrainian shtetl” — and Polina’s letters to the sister she left behind, which are equally moving and eloquent.

Bezmozgis’s strength is not on plot — there is little of that, perhaps mirroring the stasis of the family’s situation — but on character. Similarly, his detailed vignettes, some of which are deeply moving and others that draw on a rich seam of humour, are perfectly rendered.

He is also very astute at capturing that lovely sense of awe as his new immigrants move from the constricted lives of Soviet Russia to the wonders of the free world. This is summed up nicely when they go to the cinema to see a film adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof:

—It’s a wonderful production, a middle-aged woman behind them offered. Believe me. This is my eighth time watching. I’d watch it another eight times. In Russia, God forbid they should ever have a Jewish character in a film. But in America they made a whole movie about us.

The Free World has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. For other takes on this novel please see KevinfromCanada’s review and The Mookse and the Gripes’ review.

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, Genni Gunn, Italy, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Signature Editions

‘Solitaria’ by Genni Gunn


Fiction – Kindle edition; Signature Editions, 256 pages; 2010.

Genni Gunn’s Solitaria opens in dramatic style: workers restoring a dilapidated Italian villa discover a body on the site. It turns out to be a male murder victim and his name is Vito Santoro. He has been dead for some 50 years.

But this is not a crime novel — it’s a family history. And the decaying villa is a metaphor for the Santoro family:

And family, too, can become the rubble around you, the millstones and boulders, the pebbles and stones – a virtual quarry impeding your every step.

Thanks to the help of the television show Chi l’Ha Visto?, which reports on unsolved crimes, the victim’s family — an assorted collection of brothers and sisters who live in Italy, Australia and Canada — is tracked down. Each of them thought Vito, the eldest sibling, had emigrated to Argentina — and Piera, the eldest sister, has correspondence from him to prove it.

But Vito is a dangerous character, the one whom everyone has a tale to tell, and even in death he looms large over the family.

As often happens in families, once a child’s character is set, he is forever viewed through that filter. So Vito became our black sheep, the scapegoat loaded down with our frustrations and our fears. After always hearing himself accused, Vito began to do the things of which he was accused. He was the one who would skip classes, climb into the windows of an abandoned house, who would settle schoolyard arguments with his fists and win, the one who stole almonds and figs and walnuts from the fields and was viciously beaten for it by Papà, even though all us children had eaten the stolen fruits. He became dangerous and we both loved and shunned him.

The story is split into two narratives, which are interleaved. The first is told in the third person and focuses mainly on Vito’s nephew, David, a professor and translator, who lives in Canada. David travels to Italy with his mother Clarissa, a world famous soprano, to attend the funeral — but he’s been invited along mainly to try and coax Vito’s sister Piera — with whom he has a close relationship — out of the room in which she has locked herself away.

The second is told in the first person from Piera’s perspective. (The title of the novel actually refers to Piera, who has become reclusive — what the Italians call solitaria.) She is the closest in age to Vito and out of all the siblings she knows him best. But did she know he had been murdered?

She tells her side of the story — what it was like growing up in Fascist Italy, how Vito was always clashing with their father, the ways in which she had to grow up faster than her younger siblings to help her poorly mother raise them — in a series of confidential conversations with David. These were, by far, my favourite aspects of the novel, probably because of their immediacy and Piera’s engaging voice.

But, of course, we cannot tell how much of what Piera shares is true or exagerrated. Certainly her experiences and deeply held beliefs — that she sacrificed her own happiness for the security of her siblings, is a case in point — are in stark contrast to the ways in which the rest of the family see her. It’s fair to say that her immediate family, but especially her daughter-in-law Teresa (Vito’s wife), who lives in the apartment below hers, rather detests her and thinks she is prone to melodrama.

In many ways, that charge could also be laid at the second half of this novel, which strays occasionally into soap opera/kitchen sink drama territory. The too-neat denouement is particularly dramatic — and predictable.

But the strength of the novel lies mainly in its examination of a complicated family history and how it is never quite possible to shake off those ties that forever bind us to our siblings and our parents.

I also quite liked the recurrent theme of what it is to leave your homeland — in this case Italy — for foreign shores even though the old country still beckons. David was raised in Canada by an Italian mother, took Italian lessons as a child and visited Italy often, but he feels Canadian (he occasionally has to correct relations who call him “American”). His mother, by contrast, feels that…

…Italy is home, though she hasn’t touched ground in this place herself for years. In Canada, her version of Italy is one of colours and shapes, one that lacks the stories of human interaction, the past being something she does not discuss.

Compare this to David’s outlook. When he stumbles upon some Roman ruins, he cannot believe something so old can be left in its natural habitat.

“It seems so…deserted,” David says, thinking that in Canada, a small piece of a Roman bridge would be preserved in a museum, garner oohs and aaaahs and admission fees for viewing. Here, the past exists with the present. No glass between them.

On the whole, Solitaria is an engaging tale about thwarted desires, of what happens when you live your live according to the way others want you to, rather than following your own path. It has has been longlisted for the 2011 Giller Prize.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Michael Ondaatje, naval, Publisher, Vintage Digital

‘The Cat’s Table’ by Michael Ondaatje


Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 304 pages; 2011.

Going by the cover image of the UK edition of Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Tablethe Canadian version is slightly more understated — anyone would think this was a story set on a ship. In fact, if you read the first 100 or so pages of this novel you’d probably think this was a fair assumption to make.

But Ondaatje gives the book a twist mid-way through, which suggests this story is really about the transformative journey we all make from childhood to adulthood. The ship is merely a metaphor for a rite of passage.

In some ways, The Cat’s Table is a novel of two halves. The first is set on an ocean-liner — the Oronsay — bound for England from Ceylon (before it became Sri Lanka) in the early 1950s, and the second is the long-lasting effect that three-week journey had on an 11-year-old boy, who made the trip alone to be with the London-based mother he hadn’t seen for several years.

The story is narrated by Michael — nicknamed “Mynah” — who befriends two other young solo travellers, Ramadhin and Cassius, who sit with him on Table 76, the farthest from the highly desirable Captain’s Table.

“We seem to be at the cat’s table,” the woman called Miss Lasqueti said. “We’re in the least privileged place.”

As the ship ploughs its way across the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea, before heading into the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal, Michael revels in his new-found freedom:

I had no family responsibilities. I could go anywhere, do anything. And Ramadhin, Cassius and I had already established one rule. Each day we had to do at least one thing that was forbidden.

Part of the excitement for the boys is the knowledge that there’s a prisoner on board — and they go out of their way to witness his night-time walks in which he is chained and shackled. At the other end of the social spectrum, the boys experience the upper classes for the first time — those that are travelling first class or dining with the captain — and what they see fascinates and occasionally appalls them by turn. (Racism is a recurring theme.)

But for the most part, they befriend the adults on their table — among them “Mr Mazappa and his musical legends and Mr Fonseka with his songs from the Azores and Mr Daniels with his plants” — and get drawn into their worlds, sometimes with dramatic consequences. Michael even develops a close friendship with his older cousin, who is travelling onboard, and experiences a sexual awakening without quite comprehending it.

Much of the early section of the book is told in short chapters focusing on specific passengers — pen portraits, for want of a better description — that allows you to build up a picture of what it was like on board and how much of an adventure it must have seemed for a young lad.

But the beauty of Ondaajte’s deeply reflective narrative, that ebbs and flows much like the waters upon which his ship is cast, is the way in which the adult Michael, looking back on his life, manages to figure out how the journey changed him as a person, how it shaped his outlook, his values and his relationships.

The three weeks of the sea journey, as I originally remembered it, were placid. It is only now, years later, having been prompted by my children to describe the voyage, that it becomes an adventure, when seen through their eyes, even something significant in a life. A rite of passage. But the truth is, grandeur had not been added to my life but had been taken away.

This not a plot-driven novel, nor is it a character-led one. But its interleaved storyline, switching between the past and the present, is strangely compelling — even with Ondaatje’s cool, detached tone (reminscent, I must say, of Ishiguro’s in Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Night, which I read last month) you want to keep turning the pages.

Despite its strengths, I came away from the book not feeling any great love for it. Perhaps it might be one of those novels that needs time to ferment in the mind a little longer than the four days between reading the last page and writing this review.

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