Author, Book review, Canada, Claire Messud, Fiction, literary fiction, Setting, Virago

‘The Woman Upstairs’ by Claire Messud

Woman-upstairs

Fiction – Kindle edition; Virago; 320 pages; 2013.

While stories about angry men are a dime-a-dozen, it’s not often we get to read about angry women — and for that reason alone Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs stands out from the crowd. The protagonist, Nora Eldridge, is one of those people that has always done the right thing by everyone but now, 42, single and with no dependents, she’s beginning to wonder what good it did her. Instead of pursuing her dream to become a full-time artist, she’s settled for a life as an elementary school teacher — and this is now eating away at her.

But she is shaken out of her ennui by the arrival of a new student, eight-year-old Reza Shahid, whom she develops very fond feelings for, almost as if he was the son she never had. Before long she is enthral to his equally beguiling parents — Skandar, an academic from Lebanon, and Sirena, an installation artist from Italy — whom have moved from Paris to Massachusetts for a year. Together, Nora and Sirena agree to co-rent an artists’ studio so that they can work on their individual projects, and at last it seems as if Nora can finally pursue her real passion.

The story is narrated five years after the arrival of the Shahids and it’s clear that much of Nora’s latent anger results from them. But what is it about this family, with whom she was so infatuated, that has left her feeling so used and betrayed? The reason isn’t for me to share here — you’ll have to read the book to find out — but let’s just say I didn’t truly understand the fuss.

But that’s kind of how I felt about this story in general — it features great character development, and there’s plenty of momentum in the narrative to keep one turning the pages, but I just didn’t care about any of these people — not the angelic boy, not the patronising academic, not the cool and detached Italian artist and especially not the contrary, self-pitying narrator at its heart. It’s an entertaining enough read — and thought-provoking, too — and yet, despite expecting to strongly identify with Nora (I’m of a similar age), I found her immensely infuriating and whiny.

I think Messud’s greatest achievement is in provoking such a strong response in the reader, for it’s not very often that I dislike a character so strongly. The thing I’ve been mulling over ever since is this: is Nora a victim or just very good at making bad decisions?

The Woman Upstairs was longlisted for the 2013 Giller Prize.

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, Dav Vyleta, Doubleday Canada, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Crooked Maid’ by Dan Vyleta

Crooked-maid

Fiction – hardcover; Doubleday Canada; 427 pages; 2013.

Dan Vyleta’s The Crooked Maid has been short-listed for this year’s Giller Prize. It is one of those novels that has the feel of a timeless classic; it reads as though it could have been written at any point in the past 60 years.

Ambitious in scope, it recreates Vienna in 1948, peoples it with a sizable collection of well-drawn characters, connects them all in a myriad of brilliant and unexpected ways, then throws in a murder mystery, a missing person case, a courtroom trial, several love affairs and a scandal or two. I loved its breadth and its scope, and found myself swept up by a dark drama that covers everything from love and loyalty to betrayal and corruption.

A vast cast of characters

The book opens with a train journey. Anna Beer is returning to war-torn Vienna from Paris for the first time in nine years. She’s hoping to rendezvous with her estranged husband, a psychiatrist, who has spent most of the war as an inmate in a Russian concentration camp. The couple’s marriage crumbled after Anna caught her husband with another man, but she is now prepared to forgive him, so that they can start their lives afresh.

Travelling in the same carriage is Robert Seidel, an 18-year-old boy, who has just finished his schooling in Switzerland. He has been summoned home to Vienna, where his step-father, a wealthy industrialist (rumoured to have collaborated with the Nazis), now lies in a hospital bed on the brink of death. He supposedly “fell” out of an upper storey window, but Robert’s older step-brother, Wolfgang, has been charged with his murder.

It is around these two characters — Anna and Robert — that the story largely revolves, but there are many other characters who enter the frey and add to the multi-layered, interwoven narrative that Vyleta has so expertly crafted.

The “evil” hunchback

Chief among these is Eva, the “crooked maid” of the title, who works for the Seidel family and has a distinctive hunchback resulting from an injury caused to her as a child. She was raised in an orphanage and has spent most of her life looking after herself. As a consequence she is rather feisty and outspoken. She also likes to play up to her wicked reputation — “You’re evil,” Robert tells her at one point. “I’m a hunchback. What did you expect?” she retorts.

And then there is Karel Neumann, a large Czech man, who claims to have been a POW with Anna’s husband, Anton Beer. Anton, however, can’t vouch for him, because he never returns to Vienna — instead Anna must go to the police to report him missing.

There are more characters, all bumping and rubbing up against one another, but to the author’s credit, the reader never loses track of who is who despite the seemingly never-ending cast. Oh, and how could I forget — the city of Vienna — grey, oppressive, war-torn — is a character, too:

The northern part of the inner city had not been subject to direct attack and had only been hit by strays. Most of the rubble had been cleared. There were buildings, upper storeys, that were missing. Her eyes stared up at gaps into which her mind would paint a row of windows; a stuccoed gable perched atop a brass-shod door. Here and there torn walls had been patched: dull, artless plaster clinging like a canker to ornate facades. Men and women walked the streets, hungry, threadbare, dressed in shabby clothes; blind to the pockmarked beauty of a capital whose empire had been mislaid.

Complicated plot

While I couldn’t possibly outline the rather complicated plot in just a paragraph or two, let’s just say it embraces everything from patricide to suicide, vagrancy to prostitution, and piles incident upon incident so that there’s never a dull moment and you’re never sure what’s going to happen next.

In his Afterword, Vyleta says the book’s structure — and its reliance on coincidence — owes much to Charles Dickens, particularly “of his ability to connect characters high and low through crime, family scandal, and the brittle threads of chance”. Which is pretty much the perfect description of what The Crooked Maid achieves so beautifully. I rather suspect the entire narrative was expertly planned in advance — much like a grand chess master plots his moves — because for such an ambitious, wide-ranging story, Vyleta ties up all the loose ends in a pleasing, satisfying way. Nothing feels forced or rushed.

And while it’s not an easy read — it’s too dense, too claustrophobic, too dry and oppressive for that — it’s an absorbing one, because it throws you into a completely all-encompassing world and lets you walk its streets, climb its staircases, breath its air and forget about your own life for a bit. It’s an impressive achievement.

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.

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, historical fiction, Joseph Boyden, literary fiction, Oneworld, Publisher, Setting

‘The Orenda’ by Joseph Boyden

Orenda

Fiction – hardcover; Oneworld; 496 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Joseph Boyden is a Giller Prize-winning author — his second novel, Through Black Spruce, won the prize in 2008. His third novel, The Orenda, was long-listed for this year’s Giller, but did not make the cut when the shortlist was announced earlier this month. The Shadow Giller Prize Jury made the unusual decision of  “calling in” the title and we will be considering it alongside the five books on the official list vying for the prize. This means we may well decide that The Orenda is worthy of the Giller, even if the official jury overlooked it.

I have to admit that out of all the books I’ve read on the shortlist so far, this is by far my favourite. I loved it on many levels — indeed, I was completely enraptured by it — and almost three weeks after having finished it, the story still lingers in my mind.

But I must post a warning here: this book includes many gruesome and violent scenes. They are not gratuitous, but they are visceral, and some readers may decide this really isn’t for them. That, however, would be a great shame, because this is a terrific novel about the “birth” of Canada as a nation and the subsequent struggle between two starkly different belief systems: that of several First Nations tribes and that of the French Jesuits trying to convert them to Catholicism and a western way of life.

Canadian wilderness

Set in the 17th century, The Orenda plunges the reader into the vast wilderness of Eastern Canada and takes us on a sometimes terrifying, occasionally humorous, but always fascinating journey following members of the Huron nation as they go about their daily lives over the course of many seasons.

This natural world is brought vividly to life through Boyden’s beautiful prose — indeed, every time I opened the pages of this book it was like stepping into another world, so vastly different to my own, but so wonderfully rich and evocative that I would feel a sense of dislocation whenever I closed the book and went about my normal life.

The story revolves around three main characters: Bird, a Huron warrior mourning the loss of his wife and daughters killed by the Iroquois; Snow Falls, an Iroquois child, kidnapped by the Huron and brought up by Bird as his new daughter; and Christophe, a French Jesuit missionary, determined to convert the savages to Catholicism. Each character takes their turn to tell their story in alternate chapters — and each is written in the first person, present tense, which provides a sense of urgency and immediacy. A fourth character, Gosling, a medicine woman features heavily, but does not narrate her story.

There’s no real plot, but that doesn’t matter. The reader follows events as they happen in chronological order, so that you get a sense of the passing seasons — the harsh winters, the excitement of spring’s arrival, the long lazy summers, and the stockpiling of food and resources in the autumn — and the ways in which each character is changed by circumstances and experiences. Indeed, you see Snow Falls grow from an angry, avenge-seeking child into a kind-hearted young woman, and you witness Christophe’s struggle to make sense of a people he initially fails to understand but later comes to respect in his own strange way. You also come to appreciate how the Huron feel threatened by the French, who are beginning to encroach on their territory.

Cycle of violence

The story does much to highlight the way of life of the Huron — their customs, including the way they bury the dead, and their ongoing war with the Iroquois, which involves acts of stomach-churning cruelty — throat slitting and finger amputation, to name but two — as part of a value system very much focused on avengement. This seemingly endless cycle of violence is one of the book’s central themes — at what point will these “savages” decide to break the cycle of violence and act in a “civilised” manner? Is it when Snow Falls innocently points out that the Iroquois and the Huron speak the same language and grow the same food “yet we’re enemies, bent on destroying one another”? Is it when Bird takes a stand and says enough is enough? Or is it when Christophe and his fellow missionaries succeed in their mission to covert everyone to the same religion?

Perhaps the beauty of the book lies in Boyden’s ability to let the characters muddle their way through the moral ambiguities without ever casting his own judgement or glossing over the intricacy of their separate viewpoints. Indeed, the story’s emotional impact comes from the reader contrasting what we know now from what happened then. It is this kind of storytelling — asking the reader to consider where today’s problems between different cultures originated — that reminded me of Australian writer Kim Scott’s award-winning That Dead Man Dance, which explores how aboriginal Australians and the colonial settlers, once close, became so vastly opposed.

While The Orenda does not offer any solutions, the climax of this bumper-sized novel points to the futility of so much conflict, culminating as it does in a full-scale war between the Huron and Jesuits against the Haudenosaunee. This rages for days and does not end well — for anyone.

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, House of Anansi Press, Lisa Moore, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Caught’ by Lisa Moore

Caught

Fiction – ePub edition; House of Anansi; 326 pages; 2013.

If Lisa Moore’s latest novel Caught was a film it would be described as a “road movie”.

Indeed, as I read it I couldn’t help thinking that it had all the right ingredients for a Hollywood blockbuster — a young prisoner on the run, a down-at-heel cop on his tail, a pretty girl (or two or three) and an ambitious pot-smuggling plan involving sail boats, hurricanes and all manner of dodgy drug runners — but as a novel I struggled to properly engage with it. Throughout its entire 326 pages, I felt as if I was an observer and not a participant.

On the run

The book has a dramatic opening. It is  June 14, 1975 — the eve of David Slaney’s 25th birthday.

He has just escaped prison and is heading to Guysborough, Nova Scotia, where a fellow prisoner has arranged a room for him. He hitches a ride with a trucker bringing a shipment of Lay’s potato chips to Newfoundland, and, keeping his head down, he slowly makes his way to Montreal and then Vancouver.

But his ultimate plan is to head to Colombia to finish the task that landed him in prison in the first place — smuggling two tons of marijuana into Canada.

His success is wholly reliant on meeting up with Brian Hearn, his childhood friend and partner-in-crime, who jumped bail last time round and has reinvented himself as a PhD student.

And it will also depend on evading capture, which is where a third character, Patterson, comes into the story. A jaded staff sergeant in the Toronto Drug Section, he has been passed over for promotion too many times but has been promised an advancement if he can nab Slaney.

This is not a crime novel

This might make Caught sound like a crime novel, but as someone who reads a fair deal of that genre I can assure you that this is nothing of the sort. The publisher describes it as “relentlessly suspenseful”, which suggests another sort of genre novel entirely. But again, this is not a suspense novel either. Or indeed, I did not feel caught up in the story or experience any anxiety on Slaney’s behalf.

More than anything else, this is a character-driven story, because as events unfold we learn about Slaney’s fears and dreams and every day worries, his upbringing and the love he feels for a woman  who has now gone and married someone else. He’s not a mean character, nor is he particularly ruthless. At times he seems incredibly young and naive, a bit lost and directionless, and overwhelmingly dislocated after four years in jail.

Moore does a good job of shattering the stereotypes of what we might expect a drug runner to be, and while I felt empathy, and sometimes pity, for Slaney, for the most part I felt nothing but ambivalence towards him:  I really did not care if he succeeded or failed in his mission.

Similarly, Patterson, who is less fleshed out as a character, failed to garner my full attention. And similarly, I didn’t care if he caught Slaney or not.

Lots of detail

This is not to say that Caught is a bad novel — it just didn’t engage me in the way I might have expected for a narrative that promised so much in terms of adventure and moral ambiguity. I wonder if it might have felt more immediate and suspenseful if the story had been told in the first person instead of the third?

Yet a first person narrator might have missed some of the extraordinary detail that Moore is so brilliant at capturing. She has a “cinematic eye” and creates vivid images — perhaps another reason why I thought this book would work well as a movie — and I lost count of the number of passages I underlined because I was so captivated by them. Here’s an example:

Out on the cobblestones, a hen was testing the pool of light under the street lamp, touching it once and then again with its claw, jerking the inert lump of its blazingly white body forward by the neck, taking teensy steps. The hen froze in the centre of the light, full of trembling.

While I don’t think Caught is worthy of winning the Giller Prize for which it has been shortlisted, I suspect there are other readers out there who will love its mix of character development and adventure-driven plot — but it simply did not work for me.

Author, Book review, Canada, Dennis Bock, Fiction, Knopf, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Spain

‘Going Home Again’ by Dennis Bock

Going-home

Fiction – hardcover; Knopf; 258 pages; 2013.

I’ll admit that I was in two minds about reading Dennis Bock’s Going Home Again, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. I wanted to read it, because I generally like stories about repatriation; but I also didn’t want to read it, because I know Trevor, from The Mookse and The Gripes, didn’t like it.

Yet, when I opened this book on Saturday afternoon, thinking I’d just read a couple of chapters, I found myself completely absorbed by this tale of two divorced men and their fragile relationships with those around them, and before I knew it I had almost finished the entire novel.

Moving back home

The story is narrated by Charlie Bellerose, a Canadian who has spent the best part of 20 years living in Madrid, where he is married with a 12-year-old daughter. But things are not as cosy as they first seem. Charlie and his Spanish wife are estranged, and Charlie has made the decision to return home to Toronto, where he plans to open his fifth foreign language school and start his life afresh.

And it is here in Toronto that he re-establishes contact with his older brother, Nate, with whom he has a troubled relationship. The last time he saw Nate was a decade ago — and the two have not been on speaking terms since. But things are different now — Nate seems older and wiser, even if he is going through a rather messy divorce with his wife, Monica, and he is sharing responsibility for bringing up their two sons, Titus and Quinn.

Over the course of a year, we follow Charlie’s ups and downs: his struggle to adjust to life without his daughter, whom he adores; the joy of taking on a fatherly role to Titus and Quinn, often looking after them while Nate is away on business; his reconnection with Holly, an old girlfriend, who is now happily married; and the happiness of finding a new girlfriend. As these events unfold, Bock uses flashbacks to tell Charlie’s back story: his upbringing by a kindly uncle after his parents were killed in a car crash; his life at university in which his best friend — Holly’s boyfriend — jumped off a bridge and died; his subsequent meanderings through Spain and how he met his wife; the tense, stressful — and wary — relationship he has with Nate.

The effect of this is to build up a well-rounded, and often touching, portrait of a relatively simple man leading a somewhat complicated, messy life and wondering how he ever got himself into the messes he now finds himself in — living an ocean away from his beloved daughter and finding himself caught up, once again, in his brother’s irresponsible shenanigans.

Unresolved issues

Of course, this novel isn’t perfect and there were some issues that felt unresolved to me. As a book about a man returning to his homeland after 20 years, I felt the absence of any personal dislocation very telling. But perhaps he had bigger issues with which to contend, not least the fact that his brother is still as self-absorbed as he ever was and, as we later find out in a rather dramatic “twist” near the end, quite an appalling sort of character, indeed.

And while the narrative zips along at a rather frenetic pace and effortlessly moves backwards and forwards in time, I sometimes felt as if Bock under-delivered what some of his set pieces had promised. Perhaps it was intentional, but I’m still mulling over a scene very early in the book in which Titus is accused of an abhorrent act that is never properly resolved. What was the point? Was it to foreshadow events, to suggest Titus was his father’s son?

And the ending, which involves a murder, seemed slightly dramatic in what, up until that point, had been a nicely underplayed narrative.

Domestic tale

But what I really liked about Going Home Again was this: it is a wholly domestic tale — about men and women, about marriage, about family, about the fallout of divorce — and it is told from an entirely male perspective. I cannot recall having read a book like this before, and for that reason, it felt new and interesting to me.

I’m not sure Going Home Again is likely to win the Giller Prize, but it’s an enjoyable story that will resonate with those who know that life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Canada, Fiction, historical fiction, House of Anansi Press, literary fiction, Louis Hamelin, Publisher, Setting

‘October 1970’ by Louis Hamelin

October-1970

Fiction – ePub edition; House of Anansi Press; 632 pages; 2013. Translated from the French by Wayne Grady.

Of all the books on this year’s Giller Prize longlist, Louis Hamelin’s October 1970 immediately piqued my interest. That was mainly for two reasons: (1) I’m attracted to real life historical events, especially if they involve politics and crime, that are turned into fiction; and (2) I knew absolutely nothing about this period of Canadian history and thought it sounded fascinating.

But reading this book proved to be somewhat of a challenge and my dislike for it may say more about me (and my lack of knowledge about Canadian political history) than the author. In other words, don’t let my review put you off — especially if you are Canadian and have a better understanding of what actually happened during the October Crisis.

The October Crisis

For those of you who aren’t aware of events that form the hub of this novel, this short article in The Canadian Encyclopedia gives a quick rundown.

Essentially, the terrorist group Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) kidnapped the British trade commissioner,  James Cross (renamed John Travers in this book), from his home in Montreal on 5 October 1970. They also kidnapped — and later killed — a government minister, Pierre Laporte. During the crisis mobile forces of the Canadian Army intervened in Quebec and the federal government instigated the War Measures Act, which allowed the arrest and detainment of individuals without charge. By all accounts it was a controversial, chaotic — and frightening — time.

In early December 1970, members of the cell holding Cross were given safe passage to Cuba in exchange for his release. About a month later, members of the cell that kidnapped and murdered Laporte were caught, convicted and sent to prison.


Complicated narrative

The author takes those real life events and imagines what might have happened from the perspectives of the terrorists who carried out the kidnappings. He tells the story, not in a straightforward linear fashion, but as a series of episodic “flashbacks”, none of which are revealed in chronological order. He then frames this complicated narrative as a kind of detective story in which a freelance journalist, Sam Nihilo, investigates some of the conspiracy theories surrounding the events of that time.

As you would imagine this makes for a rather “interesting” and somewhat convoluted storyline. While the narrative essentially focuses on the events between October 5 and 17, it jumps backwards and forwards in time, and not all of it centres on October 1970; some of it goes back decades earlier to help explain the FLQ’s motivations. Furthermore, some elements are told in the first person from Sam’s point of view, while others are told in the third person. And the list of characters — secret agents, police officers, politicians, lawyers, actresses, kidnappers, hostages, fast-food delivery men and so on — is so dizzying my edition came with a three-page dramatis personæ and even then I couldn’t keep up.

What this means is that I had to hold a lot of information in my head for the narrative to make any kind of sense. But this was a rather Herculean task, and while I enjoy challenging reads, October 1970 was just a little too confusing for my liking.

Ambitious book

That said, I enjoyed following certain character’s stories and found the ties between the police and the Mob fascinating, and the level of corruption in all facets of society astonishing.

And Hamelin knows how to write easy-to-read prose, has a penchant for crafting seemingly perfect lines — “He oozed grease like a pan of bacon”; “When Mr. Chevalier suggested he run for class president, he was elected as smoothly as a letter passing through the post office”; and “They laughed at the first somewhat ambiguous lines, sucking a joke from them like juice from a lemon” — and knows how to lighten the moment with unexpected bursts of humour. He is also excellent at capturing certain moods so that you can feel the fear (or the excitement) resonate off the page.

In short, there’s no doubt that October 1970 is a big, bold and ambitious book, one that may well appeal to history buffs or those who lived through events of that era. But as a work of fiction it falls far short of what I expected, because no matter how complicated the plot or how long the cast of characters, if the narrative lacks drive or any kind of page-turning quality, what’s the point of turning it into fiction at all?