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.

2017 Giller Prize, Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, Invisible Publishing, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Michelle Winters, Publisher, Setting

‘I am a Truck’ by Michelle Winters

I am a truck

Fiction – Kindle edition; Invisible Publishing; 160 pages; 2017.

If the American filmmakers the Cohen brothers penned a novel it would be something like Michelle Winters’ I am a Truck.

This book, shortlisted for the 2017 Giller Prize, is a quirky and unconventional tale about a married couple, living in rural Acadia, whose 20-year marriage falls apart in unusual circumstances.

Throw in the wife’s forbidden obsession with rock and roll, a bat in a cage, a lonely Chevy salesman in need of a male friend, a former cheerleader who wants to study computer programming, and a military man who likes to sing out loud, and you’ll come to understand that this novel really is a peculiar and offbeat one.

Portrait of a marriage

I am a Truck revolves around the marriage between Agathe and Réjean Lapointe, who are about to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary. The couple are devoted to one another and have cut themselves off from society at large, choosing to live in a small secluded cottage, where they shun the English language in favour of French. Their motto is “ll n’y a que nous”, which means “it’s just us”.

However, a week before their big celebration, Réjean gets in his Silverado pick-up to go on a fishing trip with work colleagues and is never seen again.

The Silverado was reported sitting next to the highway with the driver-side door open just eight hours after Agathe had kissed Réjean on the front step of their cottage and sent him off fishing in the rain with a Thermos full of coffee, four sandwiches au bologne, and a dozen date squares.

No one knows where Réjean has gone and the police don’t seem that keen to find him. There’s no sign that anything untoward has happened to him, and Agathe suspects she’s simply been abandoned. Initially distraught, she realises she now has to fend for herself, so she gets herself a job and starts her life afresh.

A mystery novel that morphs into something else

The story is structured around the past and the present in interleaved chapters entitled “Then” and “Now”. This not only allows us to understand the Lapointe’s marriage before and after Réjean goes missing, it gives us insights into what makes both characters tick and introduces us to the deliciously different secondary characters — larger-than-life Debbie, who introduces Agathe to rock and roll and wild nights out, and Michael, the Chevy salesman, who has a man crush on 7ft-tall Réjean.

It begins as a mystery-cum-detective tale, but by the mid-way point, the reader discovers Réjean’s fate and it turns into a intriguing tale of what it is to become your own person — yet this does not lessen the book’s page-turning quality. It’s the zany nature of the story that makes it so compelling. It’s written in straightforward, almost pedestrian (and occasionally) laboured, prose, but it’s such a charming and bizarre tale you can’t help but want to know what happens next.

If I was to pick fault with it, I would single out the use of French throughout (all of Agathe’s dialogue, for instance, is written in French) without a translation being offered. Having to interpret what Agathe was saying according to the English side of the conversation hindered the flow of the story for me, but I’m sure anyone with basic level French will probably find it easy to understand.

Will I am a Truck win the Giller Prize? I doubt it. It’s not really a “literary” novel in the sense that it’s not doing anything particularly groundbreaking and it’s not written in the beautiful, poetic prose one might expect from a prize-winning novel. But it’s highly original, laced with wit and love, and it might just be the strangest, yet most feel-good, story I’ve read all year.

This is my 1st book for the 2017 Shadow Giller Prize.

2016 Giller Prize

The 2016 Shadow Giller winner

Shadow Giller Prize As most of you will know, I’ve spent the past eight weeks shadowing Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize literary award — along with Canadian journalist Alison Gzowski and Canadian blogger Naomi MacKinnon — as part of the Shadow Giller. That has meant reading and reviewing the six titles on the shortlist.

Yesterday we named our winner. To find out which book we thought was deserving of the prize, do visit KevinfromCanada’s blog, where we have been posting reviews fairly regularly during this process.

Tomorrow evening (Canadian time), the winner of the official Giller Prize will be announced. It will be interesting to see whether the official jury chooses the same book as the Shadow jury… stranger things have happened.

UPDATE — TUESDAY 8 NOVEMBER 2016:  Do Not Say We Have Nothing has been awarded this year’s Giller Prize. You can find out more via the official announcement on the Giller Prize website.