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.

2016 Giller Prize

The 2016 Giller Prize shortlist

Giller Prize shortlist logoEarlier today, the shortlist for the 2016 Giller Prize was announced in Canada.

The shortlisted titles are:

I plan on reviewing all the titles as part of my participation in the Shadow Giller jury. Do keep coming back to this post as I will update the hyperlinks above as and when I review each title.

The winner of the $100,000 prize will be announced on 7 November. The Shadow Giller will name our winner a couple of days beforehand.

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, Frances Itani, Harper Collins, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Tell’ by Frances Itani

Tell

Fiction – hardcover; Harper Collins; 321 pages; 2014.

The aftermath of the Great War on the residents of a small village in Canada is the subject of France’s Itani’s latest novel, Tell, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize.

I read it back-to-back with William Trevor’s Love and Summer, and couldn’t help but see the similarities between them. Both are gentle, comforting, slow-paced reads, about people quietly getting on with their lives in a small, close-knit community.  Indeed, in KevinfromCanada’s review of Tell, he suggests the book is a Canadian version of the Irish village novel in which  “a collection of ordinary people try to deal with life, even if they have been touched by extraordinary events like war”.

Perhaps the only major difference — aside from setting and era — is that Itani’s book has a slightly more complicated structure, because it interleaves two main narrative threads instead of focusing on  just a single story.

Small-town life

Tell spans just a couple of months — November 1919 to January 1920 — and is set in Deseronto, a small town in Ontario on the edge of a bay.

Here, we meet Kenan, a young shell-shocked soldier, who has returned from the war badly injured. He has a dead arm, has lost the sight in one eye and his face is terribly disfigured. He is too traumatised to leave the house, despite this wife, Tress, offering as much support and comfort as she can muster. The book follows their individual struggles to keep their marriage alive despite the fact that the war has changed both of them — physically and psychologically — forever.

The  second storyline focuses on Kenan’s aunt and uncle, who also live in the village. Am and Maggie have been married for a long time, but their relationship has “stalled” in the sense that they barely have a thing to say to one another. Am seeks solace in his work maintaining the village clock tower and keeping his nephew company, while Maggie spends time with her new friends — an outgoing woman called Zel, and an Eastern European refugee called Luc — both of whom she met through the village choir. It is her relationship with choir master Luc, in particular, which threatens to destroy the fragile state of her marriage.

Family connections

While these two storylines are distinct, they are not separate. Itani fleshes out the relationships and links between the two couples to create a sense of family and shared history, almost as if they represent a microcosm of the village itself.

Not much happens plot wise except to move towards the choir’s annual New Year’s Eve concert, although even that is not the real climax of the novel, which ends with a revelation about a secret long-held by Am and Maggie. But the novel works in terms of the well-drawn characters, for it is their quiet conversations, their actions, the roles they play in village life and their interactions with each other that gives the reader a reason to keep turning the pages.

Sometimes, however, I felt the music element of the novel — the choir’s rehearsals and the performance itself — were slightly overworked, although I did enjoy the way in which Maggie’s rediscovery of her love for music helped her reconnect with emotions she had buried long ago. Her chance encounter with opera singer Dame Nellie Melba in Toronto before the war is beautifully drawn, if not quite believable.

I also struggled with the revelations at the end. While heartbreaking, they bordered on a sentimentality that seemed at odds with the rest of the novel. But these are minor quibbles.

Tell is a lovely, quietly devastating book that focuses on small moments but never loses sight of the bigger picture: that we must all take responsibility for our actions; that life, despite its many challenges, heartaches and sorrows, is what we make of it; and that failing to deal with the past can sometimes come back to haunt us in unforeseen and tragic ways.

I read this book as part of the Shadow Giller Prize. It is currently only available in Canada but will be published in the UK on 6 January, 2015.

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, Heather O'Neill, literary fiction, Publisher, Quercus, Setting

‘The Girl Who Was Saturday Night’ by Heather O’Neill

The-girl-who-was-saturday-night

Fiction – hardcover; Quercus; 416 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It’s Giller Prize season and, once again, thanks to the kind invitation of KevinfromCanada, I’m taking part in the Shadow Giller Jury for the fourth time. (You can find out more about the jury at Kevin’s blog.)

The longlist was announced last week. It featured many authors who were unfamiliar to me, but I was aware of Heather O’Neill, whose second novel, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, was on the list. I had previously enjoyed her debut novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, which I read in 2008.

A Bohemian coming-of-age story

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is set in the bohemian quarter of Montreal during the 1995 Referendum. The story is told through the eyes of 19-year-old Nouschka Tremblay, whose life changes dramatically over the course of the novel: she begins night school, leaves home, marries a schizophrenic and falls pregnant. She also — rather unexpectedly — meets her long-lost mother for the first time since she was a little girl.

It is, essentially, a coming-of-age tale, but it’s not your usual run-of-the-mill one. For a start, Nouschka has an unbreakable bond with her twin brother, Nicolas, whom she loves and loathes in equal measure.  The pair still live at home with the elderly grandfather, Loulou, who raised them. They even share a bed (aged 19, remember), but have spectacular yelling matches and physical punch-ups, often in public view.

The thing is that Nicolas and I were afraid to be without each other. And whenever you are dependent on someone, then you naturally start to resent them. Everybody is born with an inkling, a desire to be free.

And that desire to be free is one of the key themes of this novel: Nouschka craves it, but is also terrified by it. Despite being raised in a relatively Bohemian household and working a full-time job (in a magazine shop since leaving school aged 16), she hasn’t really grown up and is very much repressed by her father’s fame.

Her father, Etienne Tremblay, was a famous Québécois folk singer in the early 1970s with a knack for writing witty songs (apparently their humour made up for his inability to keep a tune). He took Nouschka and Nicolas on stage and television chat shows with him all the time and made them “wave wildly at the audience and blow kisses and say adorable things that he’d written”. Now, 15 years later, the twins are still recognised on the street, which keeps them unwittingly trapped in roles they should have long grown out of.

When the pair eventually meet the mother who walked out on them, Nouschka suddenly realises that the kind of fame they’ve “enjoyed” has never filled the mother-shaped hole in their lives.

Nicolas and I immediately shot a knowing, wary glance at one another. She had loved us on television. The same way that everybody had loved us, which was the same thing as not loving us at all. We had had enough of that type of affection. What we needed was a love that was able to shine a light on who exactly we were, so that we could be people offstage. Then we would be able to be real. Then we would be able to grow up. Then we wouldn’t be joined at the hip. This woman only knew what everybody else knew about us. Of course she loved our persona. It was designed to be loved.

This may partly explain why Nouschka sleeps around — often with much older men — and marries the first person her age who asks her.

Colourful characters

Admittedly, I initially struggled to get into this story, perhaps because the characters, who are all exceptionally well drawn, felt almost too ludicrous and “unreal” to be true. But before long I got completely caught up in Nouschka’s funny little life — her dramas, her fears, her complicated relationships — and found myself warming to her, even though I didn’t always agree with the decisions she made.

Unfortunately, the narrative drags a little in places — it could easily lose 100 pages and I’m sure the story would be all the stronger for it. But I did love the backdrop of the Québécois search for a kind of freedom of their own (the irony of reading it while the Scottish Referendum was being held wasn’t lost on me), which gave the story an added depth.

The prose style, which is straightforward and “clean”, occasionally feels a little pedestrian, for want of a better word, but then O’Neill has a habit of dropping in a line or two that makes you sit up and take notice, such as:

He was running in and out of doors like a ball in a pinball machine, waking people up.

And:

White round petals were all over the ground as if the polka dots had fallen off a woman’s dress.

Needs time to settle

I actually think this is one of those books that needs time to “settle” after you’ve read it, because in thinking about this novel (which I finished five days ago) it’s already grown fonder in my mind.

It’s very much a book about parental responsibilities and our desire to be loved by our mothers and our fathers, even if they are not present in our lives. While it is important to forge our own path in life, it’s always helpful to have parents show us the way. (Or, as Nouschka so eloquently puts it, mothers are “like North Stars that guide you when you are completely lost”.)

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night might not be an obvious prize-winner, but I admired its kookiness, its themes, and its crazy little characters. It might be depressing in places — when Nicolas loses custody of his own child there’s a very real sense of history repeating itself, for instance — but it ends on a surprisingly upbeat note, which makes one feel that Nouschka’s struggles might have been worth it after all.

Author, Book review, Canada, Craig Davidson, Doubleday Canada, Fiction, literary fiction, Setting, USA

‘Cataract City’ by Craig Davidson

Cataract-City

Fiction – hardcover; Doubleday Canada; 416 pages; 2013.

Craig Davidson’s Cataract City — shortlisted for the 2013 Giller Prize — may possibly be the most male book I’ve ever read — and certainly the most male book I read this year. Think of a male sporting pursuit — go-karting, wrestling, bare knuckle fist fighting, greyhound racing and dog fighting — and it will be mentioned here.

The story is set in the working class neighbourhood of Niagra Falls, the Cataract City of the title, where Owen Stuckey and Duncan Diggs grew up together but slowly drifted apart — Owen is now a police officer, Duncan has just got out of jail following an eight-year stint — and follows their lives from childhood through to the present day. The central hub of the novel is Dunk’s involvement in a cross-border cigarette smuggling operation that goes drastically wrong — but can his best friend save him?

There’s no doubt that Davidson is a great storyteller, but this is a relentlessly bleak and often violent book. And the ending, which mirrors the beginning — the two characters spend an inordinately long time lost in the wilderness — became so preposterous, I was tempted to throw the book across the room.

That said, I do think this novel throws up plenty of questions — to what extent does our background influence our lives?; can we ever escape our working class roots?; how important is male friendship and what bonds men together? — which elevates it from being a lot more than just a boys’ own adventure tale, though it certainly has all the right ingredients to make a terrific film — a tension between good and evil, a crime or two, and plenty of action.

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, House of Anansi Press, Lynn Coady, Publisher, Setting, short stories

‘Hellgoing’ by Lynn Coady

Hellgoing

Fiction – ePub edition; House of Anansi; 240 pages; 2013.

Lynn Coady is no stranger to the Giller Prize. Her novel The Antagonist was shortlisted in 2011 and I read it back then as part of my Shadow Giller Prize duties. While I don’t remember a great deal about that story, I still remember the main character’s voice, which was urgent, angry, often snarky and very frank. Those same traits are found in the voices of many of the characters in her latest book, Hellgoing — a collection of short stories — which has been shortlisted for this year’s prize.

Right off the bat, I have to admit my prejudice against short story collections — that is, I don’t like them very much. Or at least I think I don’t like them very much, because it usually turns out that I quite enjoy them when I take the time to read them. I suspect my so-called prejudice is a mental hurdle more than anything else.

So the prospect of reading Coady’s collection didn’t exactly fill me with delight. However, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. And I especially liked that each of the nine stories in Hellgoing was just the right size to last me a 20-minute tube journey, so they were the perfect way to bookend my working day: a story in the morning on the way to work and one in the evening on the way home.

Food for thought

While I can’t say that any of the stories here are outstanding, two stood out for me — or at least have remained in my memory a week or so after having finished the book.

Take This and Eat It is about a nun, working in a hospital, who is asked to intervene on behalf of a teenage patient starving herself to death on religious grounds.

The voice of Sister Anita, who narrates the story in the first person, is not what one would expect: she’s a bit fed up, annoyed with other people and not the most gracious. Of course, we’re hearing her interior monologue, which is in stark contrast to her outward persona, which is demure and kindly.

But she has a particularly wicked sense of humour. This exchange with Catherine, the starving 14-year-old, is a good example:

“I’m devout,” insists Catherine. “I’m just being devout.”

“But you’re hurting yourself, dear, just look at the size of you.”


“Well, I don’t care, I want to be the empty vessel. I want to be filled
with God. I want him to fill me.” She gets this look on her face. She
rubs her concave stomach.


“Stop it,” I say. “Smarten up. Where did you hear this nonsense?”

“It’s in the Bible,” says Catherine.

“Well, don’t read the Bible,” I tell her. “That’s what Protestants do and look at them.”

Sister Anita is none too happy about having to help this poor misguided girl — she’d rather “sit with old ladies and pat their hands” — and she’s particularly rankled that the social worker Hilary has asked her to help because she sees this as Hilary’s job. But when Catherine asks to take communion, she hits upon an idea — they could “sneak some peanut butter or something” on the communion wafer and thereby get the girl to actually eat something…

Class act

The second story I really liked was Mr Hope, about one girl’s memory of a substitute teacher she first had in Grade One, who then taught her at various stages over the next few years right up until Grade Nine. This isn’t the sort of story you might expect. It’s not someone recalling a teacher with fondness. Throughout this story, Shelly constantly wrestles with the same dilemma she had as a five-year-old: “Is this a nice man? Or is it a mean man?”

He was the only man who ever taught us […]. He’d grunt a pronouncement,
glare blue fury until he could be sure it had sunk in, then move on to
the next tenet of the lesson.

By Grade Three I had arrived at the cautious determination to love him
as I did all the other grown-ups in my life. Mr. Hope, I’d decided, was
also mine. If only for the sake of consistency.

As time moves on, Shelly changes, but so, too, does her view of Mr Hope, which moves from tentative friendship to all-out war. The story culminates with Mr Hope telling Shelly a few home truths, which reveal more about him — and her — than she might have possibly imagined…

Entertaining but subtle

While I could probably say nice things about the remaining stories in Hellgoing I wasn’t particularly wowed by it as a potentially prize-winning collection. Indeed, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the two stories I’ve chosen to highlight here are the two which had memorable “twists” to them. Many of the others simply faded away and lacked impact.

I’d be very surprised to see this book win the Giller Prize, but that’s not to say this isn’t a collection worth dipping into. Readers seeking stories about unfufilled, often angry, usually female characters wrestling with personal and familial relationships will find plenty to like here.