5 books, Book lists

5 books on the 2012 Giller Prize shortlist

5-books-200pixNext Monday the winner of the 2012 Giller Prize will be announced. As most of you will know, I’ve spent the past month working my way through the shortlist and reviewing each book as I go as part of the Shadow Giller chaired by KevinfromCanada.

In the next day or so we will name the book we think should win in advance of the real winner — do keep your eye on Kevin’s blog for our announcement.

In the meantime, here’s a rundown of the books in alphabetical order according to author’s surname. I’ve included a short extract from my review. Hyperlinks take you to my complete review.

419419′ by Will Ferguson

For me, the best kind of literature is the kind that makes you look at something afresh or takes you to a location (or time in history) that you would never normally visit. Will Ferguson’s 419 is that kind of literature. In short, it is about a Canadian man who gets stung by a Nigerian email scam, but it is also about the cultural and financial disparity between Africa and the West. It is a heady mix of adventure story, crime fiction and global thriller — albeit with a distinctive 21st century twist.

Inside_UK_editionInside’ by Alix Ohlin

Inside is about four characters — Grace, Mitch, Tug and Annie — whose stories are told in interleaved and interconnected narrative threads. Grace, a therapist, is the lynch pin of the novel, because she is divorced from Mitch (who is also a therapist), and Tug is the man she accidentally saves from suicide (I’ll return to this in a bit), while Annie is one of her troubled teenage patients, who ends up running away to begin life as an actor, first on the stage in New York, then later in a television series filmed in Los Angeles.

Ru_UK_edition‘Ru’ by Kim Thúy

Ru is an elegantly written tale about a woman who emigrates to Canada from Vietnam as a boat person. The narrator, Nguyên An Tinh, was born during the Tet Offensive, in the early days of the Year of the Monkey. The book reads very much like a fictionalised memoir, but it doesn’t follow the normal conventions,  particularly in terms of structure and narrative. In some ways it feels like a long poem, broken into extended stanzas (short chapters), in which the narrator recalls certain incidences from her life, and the lives of her parents, cousins and other relations, in non-chronological order.

The Imposter Bride’ by Nancy Richler

Nancy Richler’s The Imposter Bride is set in post-war Montreal and tells the story of a Jewish refugee and the daughter she abandoned a few months after her birth. The narrative, which spans more than 50 years, is told in alternate third-person and first-person chapters. The third-person element tells Lily’s side of the story but covers the short period between her arrival in Canada and her disappearance. The first-person element is from her daughter Ruth’s perspective, told as an elderly woman looking back on her life, so that we see her grow from a young girl to a married woman with three children of her own. During this time, the only connection she has with her mother is a series of rocks sent to her anonymously during her childhood, the first of which arrives on her sixth birthday and is accompanied by a note stating: “South shore of Gem Lake, Manitboa, 08:45, Apil 12th, 1953, clear, 31 degrees F, light wind.”

Whirl_awayWhirl Away’ by Russell Wangersky

Each story in Whirl Away is an ideal bite-sized read, perfect if you want something to devour in your lunch hour or during a short journey by public transport. But Wangersky adopts a similar tone and prose style in each story, so there’s only the subject matter to differentiate them. When he writes in the first person, all the characters sound the same. He is much better in the third person. And he’s a master at catching the reader’s attention, either by throwing a curve ball in the form of something completely unexpected — usually towards the end of the story — or by making his characters, many of whom are curiously self-deluded, behave in such a way that they continue to live on in your head long after you’ve reached the conclusion…

Would you like to hazard a guess as to which book will win the real prize and which will win the shadow prize?

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, HarperCollins Canada, historical fiction, literary fiction, Nancy Richler, Publisher, Setting

‘The Imposter Bride’ by Nancy Richler


Fiction – hardcover; Harper Collins Canada; 352 pages; 2012.

Nancy Richler’s The Imposter Bride is set in post-war Montreal and tells the story of a Jewish refugee and the daughter she abandoned a few months after her birth.

A Polish refugee

Lily Azerov is Polish and has no living relatives. She hopes to start a new life in Canada, where she is due to marry a man with whom she has been corresponding for some time. But when Sol Kramer sees her step off the train, he rejects her as “damaged goods”.

All, however, is not lost. Sol’s younger brother, Nathan, marries her instead, and the couple set up home with Nathan’s widowed mother, Bella.

But Lily, presumably grief-stricken by the loss of so many family members in the Second World War, cannot really function properly and holes herself up in her room, too miserable and depressed to talk to anyone. When she gives birth to the couple’s first child, a daughter called Ruth, things do not get any easier, and one day, under the pretense of going out to buy a quart of milk, she never returns.

This sets up the premise for a multi-layered, finely crafted novel about the ways in which these two women’s lives are forever bound to one another, and how one decision — to walk out on someone you love — can have a lifetime’s worth of repercussions.

A stolen identity

But there’s much more to this tale than initially meets the eye. Lily is not really Lily. She has taken the identity of a woman, whose body she found in a Polish village in 1944. Her one mistake is not simply to take the woman’s identity card, her diary, some items of clothing and a rough, uncut diamond, but to make contact with the woman’s cousin, Sonya, in Palestine (presumably to gain some information about the family in order to make her new identity fit better).

The cousin’s suspicions are raised immediately, but she agrees not to expose “Lily” and helps arrange her marriage in Canada. Sonya writes to her relatives in Montreal — Ida Pearl, a jewellery shop owner, and her teenage daughter, Elka — and tells them: “The lucky bridegroom’s name is Kramer. Go to her wedding and weep.”

They do — and promptly become entwined in the lives of the Kramers. Indeed, Elka eventually marries Sol and becomes Lily’s sister-in-law. But this sets into  play an element of danger — now that Ida and Elka know that Lily is an imposter, will they expose her secret to the world?

Dual narrative

The narrative, which spans more than 50 years, is told in alternate third-person and first-person chapters.

The third-person element tells Lily’s side of the story but covers the short period between her arrival in Canada and her disappearance.

The first-person element is from her daughter Ruth’s perspective, told as an elderly woman looking back on her life, so that we see her grow from a young girl to a married woman with three children of her own. During this time, the only connection she has with her mother is a series of rocks sent to her anonymously during her childhood, the first of which arrives on her sixth birthday and is accompanied by a note stating: “South shore of Gem Lake, Manitboa, 08:45, Apil 12th, 1953, clear, 31 degrees F, light wind.”

A story about family

There are lots of strands to this novel, which explores in great depth the outfall of Lily’s disappearance on her new family, including her husband, mother-in-law, sister-in-law and even Ida Pearl, all of whom gather round Ruth and bring her up surrounded by love and support.

This is a story about a family — and its secrets  — but it is also about grief and loss and the long-lasting psychological impact of the Second World War on ordinary people.

I loved the detailed world that Richler creates here — her characters are wonderfully alive, flawed and judgemental, but also hard-working, determined and independent. Her prose style is clean and elegant, and she has a terrific ear for dialogue so it feels like you are eavesdropping on real-life conversations.

But what I liked most, apart from the polished perfection of the plot and the seamlessly intertwined narrative threads, is her ability to make you empathise with everyone without turning The Imposter Bride into a sentimental, saccharine tale. Towards the end Richler deftly juggles a high-wire act that could have gone either way, but she pulls it off with aplomb and I was left with the lump the size of a golf ball in my throat.

While the world’s bookshelves are already groaning under the weight of countless books about Jewish immigrants, this one isn’t your usual run-of-the-mill story. It brims with dark secrets and hidden pasts, but above all it is about survival, hope, love and acceptance, and I would be very happy to see this one take the 2012 Giller Prize when it is announced next week — that’s if Will Ferguson’s 419 doesn’t get there first.

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, Publisher, Russell Wangersky, Setting, short stories, Thomas Allen & Son

‘Whirl Away’ by Russell Wangersky


Fiction – paperback; Thomas Allen & Son; 224 pages; 2012.

At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, I always find it difficult to review a short story collection. Should I tackle each story in turn, or give my overall impression of the entire book? In the case of Russell Wangersky’s Giller shortlisted Whirl Away, I’m going to go for the latter option, but will single out the stories that I particularly enjoyed and that have stayed with me since finishing the collection more than a week ago.

A handful of standouts

There are 12 stories here, each of which is around 20 pages in length. While I enjoyed each one, there were a handful in particular that stood out, including: Family Law, about a down-to-earth divorce lawyer, who is having marriage problems of his own; and Look Away, about a lighthouse keeper who loathes his wife’s sloppy habits and one day cracks under the pressure.

But my two favourites, and the ones I’m still thinking about, are about a five-year-old boy (Echo) and a married man obsessed by car accidents (Sharp Corner). (To be honest, there are quite a few stories in this collection about road accidents and ambulances, perhaps a product of Wangersky’s newspaper background?)

In Echo, a perfect jewel of a story, Kevin Rowe is a five-year-old boy playing on the front deck of the white single-storey, vinyl-clad house he shares with his parents. As he plays in the sun, he talks to himself, making odd statements, such as, “There you go again. How many times do I have to listen to this stuff?” And: “Save it for someone who cares. Save it for someone who cares.” He is clearly imitating his father, a truck driver, who works long shifts.

Then there was the sharp sound of glass breaking inside the house, and from the front windows, loud voices that got louder every time the wind from the back of the house puffed the curtains out against the window screens. Now and then, Kevin could hear snatches of words, sometimes his mother, her voice low and hard and biting off every word, his father’s a steady grumble that sometimes erupted into single words like “job” and “paid”. Once, a sound like someone smacking their hand flat down on the smooth surface of the countertop. Then, crying that sounded far away to Kevin, like he was hearing it through a cardboard tube from a roll of paper towels. The sounds kept rolling from the house, like waves slapping in on the shore.

Kevin ends up falling asleep in the sun, and when he wakes up he is greeted by the sight of a police car parked on the road, “the lights on its roof flashing and throwing the shadows of the fence palings across him and all around the front of the house”. He sees a policeman, hand on top of the gun in his holster, enter the house. A little later an ambulance arrives and Kevin is taken away.

The magic of the story is that you don’t know the specifics of what happened — although you can guess it was a domestic and someone, most likely Kevin’s mum (rather than his father), has been seriously hurt. You wonder what will happen to Kevin? But then there’s another part of you that wonders whether the whole encounter might have been just a dream in Kevin’s head?

A story about a curious obsession

In Sharp Corner, we meet John and Mary Eckers, whose house is on a tight bend that fast-travelling vehicles often fail to take. The result? Fatal car accidents in their front garden.

Instead of trying to solve the problem, John gets more and more obsessed, in a ghoulish kind of way, and finds the whole experience exhilarating to the point that it makes him feel truly alive. He maintains his excitement about “people regularly dying at the end of your driveway” by turning these terrible accidents into intriguing dinner party conversation.

He was always amazed by the way strangers would circle around him as the stories got more detailed. It brought a sudden importance to the room, an obvious and almost respectful hush. John learned as he went along that it was better if he didn’t tell the whole story in one go, but instead kept things back, parcelling details out piece by piece, always making the careful effort to keep his face earnest, sincere, almost shaken.

What John fails to recognise is that his obsessional behaviour repels and disgusts Mary. And that’s what makes this story an exceptional one: on the surface Sharp Corner is about a man seeking attention in a cruel and unusual way, but underneath it’s a portrait of a marriage and the ways in which couples constantly misinterpret one another.

Strengths and weaknesses

Each story in Whirl Away is an ideal bite-sized read, perfect if you want something to devour in your lunch hour or during a short journey by public transport. But because I was reading this to a deadline, I read it cover to cover in three different sittings. That meant I often didn’t have time to mull over each separate story, and in the end, things began to blur into one another.

It doesn’t help that Wangersky adopts a similar tone and prose style in each story, so there’s only the subject matter to differentiate them. When he writes in the first person, all the characters sound the same.

But he is much better in the third person. And he’s a master at catching the reader’s attention, either by throwing a curve ball in the form of something completely unexpected — usually towards the end of the
story — or by making his characters, many of whom are curiously self-deluded, behave in such a way that they continue to live on in your head long after you’ve reached the conclusion...

Africa, Author, Book review, Canada, crime/thriller, Fiction, literary fiction, Nigeria, Publisher, Setting, Viking, Will Ferguson

‘419’ by Will Ferguson


Fiction – hardcover; Viking Books; 399 pages; 2012.

For me, the best kind of literature is the kind that makes you look at something afresh or takes you to a location (or time in history) that you would never normally visit. Will Ferguson’s 419 is that kind of literature.

In short, it is about a Canadian man who gets stung by a Nigerian email scam, but it is also about the cultural and financial disparity between Africa and the West. It is a heady mix of adventure story, crime fiction and global thriller — albeit with a distinctive 21st century twist.

Caught in a web of deception

This rather ambitious novel has multiple storylines and a wide cast of characters. The central thread revolves around the death of Henry Curtis, a retired school teacher now working as a part-time watchman, who dies in an unusual traffic accident: his car, travelling at very high speeds, runs off the road one night and tumbles into a snowy ravine underneath a bridge. Initially, it is thought he may have hit a patch of black ice, but later, when it is revealed that his car made two attempts to leave the road, his death is chalked up as suicide.

When the home he shares with his wife — also a retired school teacher — is repossessed by the bank, it appears that Mr Curtis had numerous, and hefty, financial debts. He had, rather naively, been taken in my an email scam (known in Nigeria as “419” after the criminal code which makes this kind of activity illegal), the type most of us would ignore or delete if they made their way through our SPAM filter.

SUBJECT: Urgent Matter to the Attention of Mr. Henry Curtis. Please do not turn away!
RECEIVED: September 12, 11:42PM

Complements of the season! With warm heart I offer you wishes of good health from Africa. I am contacting you today regarding an urgent business proposal, and though this letter may reach you as a surprise, I implore you to take the time to go through it carefully as the decision you make will go a long ways toward determining the future and continued existence of a young woman’s happiness.
Sir, I am writing today on behalf of Miss Sandra, daughter of Dr. Atta, late Director & Chairman of the Contract Award Committee for the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. As you may know, Dr. Atta died tragically in a helicopter crash in the Niger Delta under circumstances most suspicious. Miss Sandra’s uncle vowed to care for her, but he too has fallen afoul of government-backed criminals…

His two adult children — Warren and Laura — take his death and the impending loss of the family home in different ways. Warren, a married man with children, is prone to loud outbursts, all air and fury, while Laura, a single woman who makes her living as a copy editor, decides to beat the scammers at their own game.

Multiple storylines

In a second storyline, we meet the scammer — Winston — who runs his one-man operation out of a cyber cafe in Lagos. Winston is cleverer than most — he’s figured out that it pays to choose your targets carefully and “once hooked, it became a matter of playing them, of reeling in the line, overcoming their initial resistance, giving them slack at certain times, pulling taut at others”. But Winston is playing a dangerous game, because the world of cyberscamming is deftly controlled by street-gang syndicates who don’t appreciate those who go it alone.

A third storyline introduces Nnamdi, an innocent boy from a fishing village in the Niger Delta, who becomes unwittingly tied up with a Nigerian “mafia” boss who runs many of these internet scams. But when we first meet Nnamdi, he is working on Bonny Island — the terminus of the Trans-Niger Pipeline at the mouth of the Delta — where he “took motors apart and put them back together. He oiled bearings, cleaned cogs, replaced timing belts”. His situation is in stark contrast to the rest of his peers, many of whom are blowing up pipelines and kidnapping Western employees to get the message across that the global oil corporations are not welcome in the Delta.

Later, he meets and rescues a pregnant woman, who is from the Sahel “from a clan rumoured to carry Arabian blood in their veins”. This storyline — perhaps the weakest of the multiple ones that Ferguson juggles in choppy, sometimes staccato fashion — serves to show us how innocent, well-meaning people, such as Nmadi, can get caught up in events bigger than themselves. And it also shows us how corruption permeates through almost every facet of Nigerian life.

Ambitious novel

From my description above, it’s pretty clear that 419 is a big, sprawling novel, filled with all kinds of social, political and economic messages about the state of the world today.

It’s by no means a perfect novel — sometimes it feels like facts, especially the ways in which these “419 scams” work are being shoe-horned in, and it can never seem to work out its mind whether it’s a literary novel, a travel adventure or a sociopolitical thriller. It also experiments with style — sometimes the chapters are only several paragraphs long, and the section about Nnamdi could almost be extracted as a stand alone novella — not always successfully.

But, on the whole, this is a gripping read, one that feels authentic and edgy. It takes a big picture view and marries a cracking good plot with finely crafted prose and believable characters. And I suspect it would make a brilliant film, not least because of Ferguson’s eye for detail and the visual quality of his writing.

Of the three Giller Prize shortlisted novels I have reviewed so far, I would be more than happy to see this one win it.

Alix Ohlin, Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, general, literary fiction, Publisher, Quercus, Setting, USA

‘Inside’ by Alix Ohlin


Fiction – Kindle edition; Quercus; 353 pages; 2012.

I’m going to put my hand up from the off and admit that as much as I enjoyed Alix Ohlin’s Inside I’m curious as to why it made the shortlist for this year’s Giller Prize. Yes, it’s an entertaining read. Yes, it’s peopled by well developed characters. And yes, it has an unusual narrative structure. But it’s not doing anything particularly special to warrant a literary prize and the message — that life can be lonely and difficult and perplexing — is a well worn, almost clichéd one.

I will also admit that if it were not for my participation in the Shadow Giller I may well have abandoned this book after the first chapter.

Interconnected stories

Inside is about four characters — Grace, Mitch, Tug and Annie — whose stories are told in interleaved and interconnected narrative threads. Grace, a therapist, is the lynch pin of the novel, because she is divorced from Mitch (who is also a therapist), and Tug is the man she accidentally saves from suicide (I’ll return to this in a bit), while Annie is one of her troubled teenage patients, who ends up running away to begin life as an actor, first on the stage in New York, then later in a television series filmed in Los Angeles.

Having given this briefest outline, your cliché alert — if it’s anything like mine — may well be into the amber zone. It probably won’t help if I tell you there’s a couple of deaths, a couple of abortions, at least two failed marriages, a lesbian love affair, self-harm and a threatened legal action. But one of the strengths of the novel is Ohlin’s storytelling ability. She gives all her characters strong (and convincing) back stories and then propels them into life’s ups and downs and twists and turns, so that you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen to them next.

And she’s not bogged down by flowery or showy prose. Indeed, I found this novel slipped down like hot chocolate, although I could never quite shake the feeling that I was reading nothing more than a tame soap opera.

Suicide man

When the book opens, it is 1996 and Grace is out cross-country skiing on Mount Royal, Montreal, when she falls over a man, who is “flung across the trail with his head half buried in the snow”. Initially, she thinks he may have had a heart attack or a stroke, but then she sees a rope around his neck and realises he has attempted suicide — and survived.

Cue an emergency trip to hospital, where the man — John Tugwell, better known as Tug —  is treated for cuts, bruises and a sprained ankle. Medical staff assume Grace is Tug’s wife, and Tug doesn’t disabuse them of the notion. Indeed, he actually tells them the suicide attempt was just a joke to see “what she’d say”.

Tugwell jerked a thumb in Grace’s direction. His voice was painfully rasped and he swallowed visibly after he spoke, but then he modulated it to a tone of playful wryness. ‘We were skiing together and I told her I was going to kill myself and went off in a different direction. I said I had the rope with me and was going to do it immediately. It took her nine minutes to decide to come after me. Nine minutes! Can you believe that? I timed her.’

Grace goes along with this ruse, takes Tug home and over the course of the novel — and her better judgement — develops a romantic relationship with him.

Montreal, New York and the Arctic Circle

The book then shoots forward to New York, 2002, where we meet troubled, isolated and hard-as-rock Annie, who, as a teenager used to cut herself. Now, a fledgling actor, she uses her good looks and sexuality to get what she wants. But lest we think she’s entirely shallow, she takes in a homeless young woman and lets her decamp on the sofa for what turns out to be about six months.

By chapter three, we are in Iqualuit (in the Arctic circle) and it is 2006. Here we meet nice guy Mitch, on the run from a relationship — with the “sexy and brilliantly smart” lawyer Martine and her autistic son, Mathieu — that isn’t working out as he would like.

He did this once before, when he separated from Grace, whom he decided he no longer loved, even though he loved “her values, her personality, her dreams”. In the remote community of Nunavut, he hopes to do something useful with his life by counselling troubled aboriginals.

Two novels in one?

As the novel progresses Mitch’s storyline intersects with Grace’s, when they meet up 10 years after their divorce and establish a tentative friendship. This is a brilliant device at allowing us to see the strengths and weaknesses of each character, to see how their shared history has come back to haunt them and how their failed marriage shaped their outlook and personality. It is somewhat ironic that both are therapists used to counselling others but unable to properly work through their own problems.

Annie’s story, however, almost reads like a separate novel entirely — and despite her tenuous connection to Grace I often wondered what she was doing in the book. That said, she’s a brilliant character and I enjoyed following her exploits from New York to Los Angeles and back again.

Probably the most frustrating character is Tug, because he’s so unknowable. I suspect that’s deliberate on Ohlin’s part, because it is his inability to express himself or to share emotions that draws Grace in — she’s determined to “crack” him. Of course, once she does, the result isn’t pretty — he’s been to Rwanda, hasn’t he, and what he saw has so traumatised him he can no longer function in the real world without closing down his emotional, caring side.

Presumably the book is called Inside because it is about what goes on inside each of these character’s heads, but it would have been more apt to call it Loneliness, or even Good Samaritan. Either way, if you like therapist novels, you may well enjoy this. And if you don’t mind contrived stories about humans floundering about, looking for something or someone to make them happy, add this one to your list.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Canada, Clerkenwell Press, Fiction, Kim Thúy, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vietnam

‘Ru’ by Kim Thúy


Fiction – Kindle edition; Clerkenwell Press; 160 pages; 2012. Translated from the French by Sheila Fischman.

When Kim Thúy’s Ru was published in its original French language it won the Governor General’s Award for French language fiction at the 2010 Governor General’s Awards. Now the English edition, translated by the Canadian translator Sheila Fischman, has been shortlisted for the 2012 Giller Prize.

A refugee’s tale

Ru is an elegantly written tale about a woman who emigrates to Canada from Vietnam as a boat person. The narrator, Nguyên An Tinh, was born during the Tet Offensive, in the early days of the Year of the Monkey, “when the long chain of firecrackers draped in front of houses exploded polyphonically along with the sound of machine guns”.

The book reads very much like a fictionalised memoir (Thúy was also born in 1968 and came to Canada with her family as a refugee), but it doesn’t follow the normal conventions,  particularly in terms of structure and narrative. In some ways it feels like a long poem, broken into extended stanzas (short chapters), in which the narrator recalls certain incidences from her life, and the lives of her parents, cousins and other relations, in non-chronological order. This means her narrative continually switches from the present — where she is a mother of an autistic son — to the past — the privileged life she led in Vietnam, the stint in a Malaysian Red Cross camp, a treacherous journey across the ocean —  then back again.

But by recording her personal history and her journey, both physical and metaphorical, in this way, we are able to see the shape of her life and how 30 years ago it was dramatically changed by circumstances beyond her control. At times it is distressing, as this passage about the narrator’s journey across the Gulf of Siam on a tiny refugee boat reveals:

The small bulb hanging from a wire attached to a rusty nail spread a feeble, unchanging light. Deep inside the boat there was no distinction between day and night. The constant illumination protected us from the vastness of the sea and the sky all around us. The people sitting on deck told us there was no boundary between the blue of the sky and the blue of the sea. No one knew if we were heading for the heavens or plunging into the water’s depths. Heaven and hell embraced in the belly of our boat. Heaven promised a turning point in our lives, a new future, a new history. Hell, though, displayed our fears: fears of pirates, fear of starvation, fear of poisoning by biscuits soaked in motor oil, fear of running out of water, fear of being unable to stand up, fear of having to urinate in the red pot that was passed from hand to hand, fear that the scabies on the baby’s head was contagious, fear of never again setting foot on solid ground, fear of never again seeing the faces of our parents, who were sitting in the darkness surrounded by two hundred people.

At other times, it is almost joyous —  for instance, there’s a palpable sense of relief when the family arrives in Canada, where people are kind and helpful, and where their sponsors, a family of volunteers, help them to furnish their home in Quebec — even if, with hindsight, our narrator realises that they were buying inferior goods and that their father was given a red cowl-necked sweater that he wore proudly every day not knowing it was a “woman’s sweater, nipped in at the waist”.

Lacks emotional connection

Much of the story revolves around the theme of “the other”, of trying to fit in to a new life and a new country. It doesn’t help that our narrator is painfully shy — on several occasions she describes herself as “deaf and mute” or as a “shadow” — and that she struggles at school, “where there was a glaring gap between my grades and the results of my IQ tests, which bordered on deficient”.

But it is also about keeping history alive, the kind of history “that will never be taught in any school” — this is not so much about the Vietnam War but about its disturbing and heartbreaking effects on the civilians who had to flee for their lives and start all over again (if they were lucky) on foreign soil.

That said, there’s something about Thúy’s overly descriptive prose style that makes it hard to make an emotional connection with the narrator. I finished this book feeling strangely unmoved by it and yet I’d just read about the worst kind of pain and grief that a fellow human being could experience. (I felt exactly the same way when I read Madeleine Thien’s Dogs at the Perimeter, another Canadian novel, this time about a Cambodian refugee, earlier this year.)

Yet that is not to dismiss Ru — it’s already a massive bestseller across the globe and was the BBC’s Book at Bedtime in June — so there’s undoubtedly a vast audience to whom it greatly appeals. Sadly, I guess I wasn’t one of them…

Author, Book review, Canada, Emblem, Fiction, Katrina Onstad, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Everybody has Everything’ by Katrina Onstad


Fiction – paperback; Emblem Editions; 312 pages; 2012.

Katrina Onstad’s Everybody has Everything — longlisted for this year’s Giller Prize — is billed as a story about parenthood, but I think it’s more accurate to describe it as a portrait of a marriage. It is also a compelling examination of how different people find fulfilment in different ways. More importantly, it is so filled with home truths — about relationships, friends, family and society — that if you don’t recognise yourself within these pages you will see someone else you know, perhaps a friend, a sibling or work colleague.

A portrait of married life

The story revolves around a married couple — Ana, a high-flying corporate lawyer in her late 30s, and James, 42, a documentary film-maker who has just been laid-off from his television job. From the outset, it can be assumed that it is Ana, the major breadwinner and ambitious career woman, who wears the trousers in the relationship, but as the narrative evolves we learn that nothing is quite what it seems and that both partners are deeply flawed and grappling with their own needs and desires. The title of the book may suggest that “everybody has everything”, but do they really?

For a start, Ana and James cannot have children. They find this out on the morning they are to attend the wedding of their friends Marcus and Sarah, who is eight months pregnant. They have only known Marcus and Sarah for a short time, but the friendship becomes a central part of their busy lives and the resultant child, a boy called Finn, effectively becomes the child they couldn’t have.

James had developed an unspoken narrative in which he and Finn had a special bond. He did not tell Ana how it made him feel, this warm bag of socks over his shoulder, the pleasure he got when Finn moved his penny-shaped mouth. […]  Sarah and Marcus waved as they walked away, pushing the stroller, calling thank-yous behind them as Ana and James stood on the porch, James’s arm protectively around his wife, wondering if anyone else had noticed that Ana had never once held the baby.

This difference in attitude towards Finn — James is warm, affectionate and doting; Ana cool, detached and indifferent — comes into sharp relief when a car accident leaves Marcus dead and Sarah in a coma: two-and-a-half-year-old Finn is left in their care. Having parenthood thrust upon them in this way is an unexpected — and for Ana in particular, unwanted — challenge. Much of the book highlights how they deal with this change in circumstances and priorities.

Finding fulfilment

The crucial element of the story is not so much whether everyone can be an effective parent, but how people find fulfilment in their lives. For Ana fulfilment comes through work and career; for James it is is being a father. It is this unconventional take, in which Onstad pits the ambivalence of motherhood against the warm glow of fatherhood, that I most admired about this book. And because she does it in such an intelligent, perceptive way, without ever casting judgement or aspersions on Ana, it feels all the more real — and hard-hitting.

In highlighting the ways in which both individuals approach their new-found parenthood, Onstad is able to show their strengths and weaknesses as a couple. And by the end of the novel you come to understand that no matter how far apart marriage partners may grow, the importance of a shared history can never be underestimated. (On more than one occasion I was reminded of Joshua Henkin’s 2008 novel, Matrimony, which is a wonderful portrait of marriage over the course of 15 years.)

Admittedly, there are a couple of narrative “twists” near the end which I felt weakened the story  (I won’t reveal my concerns, for fear of the spoiling the plot), but on the whole I loved this sharply observed novel and devoured it in a weekend. It is tender and compassionate without being cloying or sentimental, and intelligent and wise without being dry or preachy. And I would dearly love to see Everyone has Everything make the short-list for the Giller Prize, which is revealed on Monday.

Author, Book review, CS Richardson, Doubleday Canada, Fiction, France, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Emperor of Paris’ by CS Richardson


Fiction – hardcover; Doubleday Canada; 279 pages; 2012.

I love Paris, I love cooking and I love reading. No surprise, then, that a novel about a Parisian-based book-collecting baker would have some appeal. But CS Richardson’s The Emperor of Paris, which has been longlisted for this year’s Giller Prize, was a bit like a cake that fails to rise: flat and disappointing. And forgive me for spinning out the baking analogy even further, but the ingredients in this novel just didn’t work — for this reader at least — despite being packed with flavour.

Fable-like tale

Spanning a 50-year period between the turn of the 19th century and the Second World War, and covering everything from war to fine art, book-selling and story-telling, the tale largely revolves around the impossibly thin and illiterate baker Emile Notre-Dame; his rotund and religious Italian wife, Immacolata; and their son, Octavio.

In prose that it is wistful and fable-like, Richardson tells the family’s history running the popular BOULA GERIE NOTRE-DAME (“the N having long since vanished”) in a narrow flatiron building  (known as the “cake-slice”) in the 8th arrondissement of Paris.

In the untitled prologue, we discover that the bakery has burned down and that, somewhat unusually, it contained a vast collection of books —  there are “shards of red leathers and frayed blue cloths, the curled and blackened edges of marble papers” floating in the air. We are left with that picture in our mind’s eye, but must read almost an entire novel — interspersed with “callbacks” as reminders of the fire — to find out how the bakery came to be transformed into one man’s personal library.

Visual quality

There’s no doubt that Richardson, who is also an award-winning book designer, has a vivid imagination. He paints beautiful and evocative pictures, a bit like scenes from a film, on almost every page. This is a  good example:

Near the Métro the young woman pauses for a moment to watch as a man, perhaps her own age, appears from nowhere and greets a lady friend. He hesitates, then leans in to kiss her cheeks. She seems unsure in a pair of new shoes; she nervously fingers her hair. The man’s face gleams with sweat. Tugging at the short legs of his trousers, he offers her a bouquet of drooping flowers. She smiles as she accepts them. The young woman looks away and walks on.

But, for me, this type of writing wears thin, probably because it is comprised purely of functional descriptions — all tell and not much show. It also makes it near on impossible to identify with any of the characters, who seem as interesting as cardboard cutouts (no matter how beautifully described they might be), because you just can’t get inside their heads.  (On more than one occasion I was reminded of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, which is written in a similar style — chances are, if you liked that book, you’ll like Richardson’s as well.)

And the narrative thread — which is essentially a series of vignettes based on love between people and love of food, literature, art and storytelling — lacked sustained momentum.

Maybe because I came to this book on the back of three brilliant five-star novels — two of which are yet to be reviewed — this one really didn’t work for me. However, if you enjoy faux-naïf tales then it’s likely that The Emperor of Paris will appeal.

Finally, people who appreciate books as objects in themselves will love this hardcover edition: underneath the matt embossed dustjacket lies gorgeous endpapers and handsome red-leather binding. The book pages also have deckled edges, something you rarely see in hardcover books produced in the UK.

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, Harper Perennial Canada, Lauren B. Davis, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Our Daily Bread’ by Lauren B. Davis


Fiction – paperback; Harper Perennial Canada; 312 pages; 2012.

Lauren B. Davis is a Canadian writer who lives in the United States. Our Daily Bread, her fifth title, was inspired by events surrounding the Goler Clan in Novia Scotia, some of whom were convicted for sexual abuse and incest in the 1980s.

A fictional god-fearing town

The story is set in the fictional bible-thumping town of Gideon, which is dominated by god-fearing folk who attend the Church of Christ Returning.

Here, Dorothy Carlisle, a widow who runs an antique store, shuns efforts by well-meaning, if slightly righteous, neighbours to attend the church. And Tom Evans, a working-class man, keeps his head down, fearful that the locals will discover he is not married to Patty, the much younger woman he lives with, and their two children — Bobby, 15, and Ivy, 10.

Meanwhile, on the nearby mountain, the poverty-stricken Erskine clan eke out an existence by growing cash crops of marijuana and burgling homes and shops in the town. Recently they have turned to “cooking” crystal meth (methamphetamine) in a caravan.

An unlikely friendship

But Albert, 22, the oldest of the huge tribe of children that make up the clan, wants nothing to do with his elders — or “The Others” as they are known — because of the way in which he and his younger siblings are treated. (There are hints of incest, but the author refrains from going into detail.) He has built his own “one-door, two-window cabin” in the woods to escape their prying eyes and spends a lot of time reading novels or cruising around Gideon in his truck.

It is during one of Albert’s drives around town that he meets Tom’s son, Bobby. The pair develop a close if somewhat unlikely friendship, which is kept secret from both of their families. And it is this friendship which sets in motion a chain of events that culminates in an explosive finale.

An effortless, absorbing read

From the first page of Our Daily Bread I knew I was going to love this book. The clean rhythmic prose made it an effortless read, but it was the fully realised characters, the careful plotting and the slow-building tension that made it an absorbing one.

The novel is cleverly constructed: the narrative is told in the third person throughout, but from the perspective of each of the main characters, so that we get a glimpse of their often secretive worlds and the ways in which their dreams and desires do not match reality. Davis expertly intertwines their lives and has them intersect and rub against one another, as one would expect in a small town where everyone’s business is common knowledge.

The characterisation is particularly superb — Erskine skilfully gets inside the heads of everyone from a young girl to an elderly widow, from a teenage boy to a working-class man, and makes them all feel flesh-and-blood real, with flaws and emotions and personal troubles. Each person is an “outsider” — Ivy is being bullied at school, Bobby is uncommunicative and realises his parent’s marriage is in trouble, Patty does not love Tom and is having an affair, Tom is desperately in love with Patty but knows that whatever he does for her is never enough, Dorothy hates the town gossips and rejects their so-called Christian values, and Albert wants to escape the clan but knows they will kill him if he dares leave.

Complex psychological tale

This combination of characters provides a complex psychological narrative. Coupled with the real sense of place that resonates off the page — of both the mountain and the town — Our Daily Bread is one of those stories that completely draws you in to another world.

It’s dark, without being claustrophobic, and redemptive without being cloying. Davis writes about disturbing subjects in a sensitive manner; there’s nothing sordid or sensational here and in many ways the novel’s great power comes from the things she doesn’t say rather than the things she does.

But while it deals with dark subject matter it is not without lighter moments. I particularly enjoyed Dorothy’s wicked sense of humour revealed in her interior monologues in which she pokes fun at the town gossips and their pious ways.

“Hello Mabel.” Dorothy did not rise. Oh, Lord, she prayed, please don’t start her talking about the church. Dorothy was still not quite over the unsettling image of Mabel McQuaid calling out to the Lord and babbling in a rhythmic jibber-jabber she referred to as speaking-in-tongues. Mabel, in fact, had not been at all pleased yesterday when, after the service, Dorothy asked her why angels didn’t just speak in a language one could understand?

Ultimately, Our Daily Bread is a story about the danger of communities collectively burying their heads in the sand, of secrets, of ignorance, of inequality, of prejudice — and of the power of unlikely friendships.

It was long listed for the 2012 Giller Prize.