2018 Giller Prize, Literary prizes

The 2018 Giller Prize shortlist

It’s time to swing into full Shadow Giller mode!

Yes, the shortlist was announced earlier this week (while I was swanning around Spain on a business trip, hence the delay in posting this) and it looks quite an interesting mixed bag of novels from writers I’ve read before and some who are completely new to me.

The titles on the shortlist are:

Over the next six weeks or so, expect to see reviews of these novels popping up here and from my fellow Shadow Giller jury members — Marcia, Naomi and Alison — on KevinfromCanada’s blog.

Between the four of us, we hope to name a winner a couple of days in advance of the real winner, who will be announced on Monday 19 November.

Now, let the shortlist reading commence!

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, Doubleday Canada, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Michael Redhill, Publisher, Setting

‘Bellevue Square’ by Michael Redhill

Bellevue Square

Fiction – hardcover; Doubleday Canada; 262 pages; 2017.

When I found out that Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square was billed as a thriller, I wondered how it had slipped onto this year’s Giller Prize shortlist, which is primarily for literary fiction. But when I picked up this book — ordered on import from Canada (there doesn’t even seem to be a UK publication date) — I discovered that it’s so-called billing wasn’t entirely correct.

Bellevue Square is one of those novels that starts off as one thing before it morphs into another. The opening chapters have all the hallmarks of a mystery thriller, but mid-way through it takes a dramatic turn and becomes a wonderful examination of mental illness, consciousness, identity and the blurring of lines between truth, reality and imagination.

In search of a doppelgänger

When the book opens we meet first person narrator Jean Mason, who is married with two children and runs a bookstore in downtown Toronto. One day one of her regular customers, Mr Ronan, questions her ability to change clothing and hairstyles in a matter of minutes. Jean, confused, wants to know what he’s talking about.

“You were in the market. Fifteen minutes ago. I saw you.”
“No. That wasn’t me. I wasn’t in any market.”
“Huh,” he said. He had a disagreeable expression on his face, a look halfway between fear and anger. He smiled with his teeth. “You were wearing grey slacks and a black top with little gold lines on it. I said hello. You said hello. Your hair was up to here!” He chopped at the base of his skull. “So, you have a twin, then.”
“I have a sister, but she’s older than me and we look nothing alike. […] And I’ve been here all morning.”

Jean’s continued denials make Mr Ronan angry and he becomes violent towards her. Later, he’s found dead in his apartment having hanged himself.

This sets a disturbing and somewhat puzzling chain of events into motion. More people claim to have seen Jean’s doppelgänger around Kensington Market. She learns from those people that her lookalike is named Ingrid Fox and that she is a crime writer.

Jean becomes obsessed with meeting Ingrid and spends an enormous amount of time hanging out in Bellevue Square, where Ingrid has often been spotted, to see if she can run into her. She befriends lots of the square’s regulars, a cohort of misfits and homeless people, to help her track down her quarry — with alarming results.

Impossible to pigeon-hole

Bellevue Square isn’t your run-of-the-mill thriller. In fact, it’s impossible to pigeon-hole, because it’s also part literary fiction, part medical fiction, part horror and there may even be elements of science fiction in it, too. That’s not to say its message or its contents are garbled — far from it.

It’s a totally compelling read, one that makes you question the narrator’s sanity (and perhaps even your own) as the storyline becomes increasingly more twisty and bent in on itself the further you get into the book. It’s fast-paced too, which can occasionally leave you feeling slightly disoriented, as if you’ve got lost in the market and can’t find an exit out.

The prose has an effortless but very immediate feel to it and Redhill brings many scenes alive with sentences that dazzle and delight, so that “electric lights make colour bouquets of fireworks in the wet road” or “the half-dozen machines connected to her chatter and sigh like ladies at a book club”.

This totally isn’t the type of book I expected when I picked it up. It turned out to be such a surprising read, so immersive and unsettling, that it has lingered in my mind more than two weeks after finishing it. Redhill has crafted a zinger of a novel, one that is well structured and well plotted, the kind of book you need to read again if only to try to understand how he’s done it. The good news is that it is the first in a trilogy. I can’t wait to read the next instalment.

This is my 2nd 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.

2017 Giller Prize

The 2017 Giller Prize shortlist — and return of the Shadow Giller

I’ve been a bit slack in announcing that I’m taking part in the Shadow Giller jury again (for more information, please see this post on KevinfromCanada’s blog), which means you will see reviews of all five shortlisted titles appear here over the coming month or so.

The shortlisted titles are:

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 20 November. The Shadow Giller will name our winner a couple of days beforehand.

In the meantime, if you are on Twitter do follow us @ShadowGiller. Please use the hashtag #ShadowGiller

2016 Giller Prize, Author, Book review, Canada, China, Fiction, Granta, literary fiction, Madeleine Thien, Publisher, Setting

‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ by Madeleine Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeliene Thien
UK edition

Fiction – paperback; Granta; 480 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It’s not often I struggle to say something about a book, but trying to review Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing has proved a challenge.

So much has been written about this novel in the past six months, mainly because of its shortlisting on both the 2016 Man Booker Prize and the 2016 Giller Prize, that I didn’t feel I could add anything new. Then, when I sat down to commit my thoughts to this blog last week, it was named winner of Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Awards and the internet was awash, once again, with praise and reviews.

On that basis I’m going to keep this short.

Life under Communism

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a careful blur of fiction and history that follows the interlinked lives of two Chinese families and their struggle to survive under China’s Communist rule. It spans the time of Chairman Mao and his Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s right through until the student protests in 1989.

The narrative comprises two threads. The first, written in the first person in 1991, is told from the perspective of Marie, a 10-year-old girl living in Canada with her Chinese mother. Their lives are interrupted with the arrival of a young Chinese woman, Ai-Ming, who is fleeing the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre. It is Ai-Ming’s story, told in the third person, of her family’s life in revolutionary China, which forms the second narrative thread.

And it is this thread that makes Do Not Say We Have Nothing such a powerful read, because it follows the topsy-turvy lives of three young classically trained musicians and their struggle to create music at a time when creative expression was forbidden except in the strictest of terms. The simple act of playing a violin, or just the “wrong” kind of music, for instance, could result in internment at best or death at worst.

An ambitious and epic novel

This book is best described as an “epic”. It’s not only ambitious in scope, its complex, interleaved narrative, which jumps backwards and forwards in time, is meticulous in its detail. Yet the story never gets bogged down, perhaps because of its wonderfully drawn trio of musicians — composer Sparrow, violinist Zhuli and the pianist Kai  — whose joys, sorrows and struggles we get to follow so intimately.

The novel’s strength is the way it so eloquently reveals how the hand of history leaves a long-lasting legacy, stretching across generations. Like several other books I’ve read recently (Magda Szubanksi’s Reckoning and Cal Flyn’s Thicker Than Water immediately come to mind) it explores intergenerational guilt, survivor’s guilt and moral ambiguity. It shines a light on how political regimes can mark the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary, often devastating, ways.

Funnily enough, for all of that, I must admit that this book did not pack the emotional punch one might expect. It’s not that I did not care about these characters — I did — but somehow I felt as if I was always kept at a distance from them (this is also how I felt when I read Thien’s novel Dogs at the Perimeter several years ago). It wasn’t until I came to Ai-Ming’s involvement in the student protests in the late 1980s that I began to feel the true weight of this story, of how history somehow has an uncanny knack of repeating itself and that it is often the young, with so much to lose, who get trammelled by it.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing
Canadian edition

I could point to many dozens of reviews more eloquent and detailed than mine, but let me just point to Naomi’s, who blogs at Consumed by Ink, for the two of us have read this book for the Shadow Giller.

In the meantime, if you loved this novel, I do highly recommend Chinese Whispers: A Journey into Betrayal by Jan Wong, a non-fiction book about the long-lasting impact of the Cultural Revolution on two students, and Beijing Coma by Ma Jian, an epic novel about the 1989 student pro-democracy movement. I have reviewed other books set in China or by Chinese writers here.

This is my 6th and final book for the #ShadowGiller2016

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, Author, Book review, Fiction, Gary Barwin, literary fiction, Publisher, Random House Canada, Setting, South America, Spain

‘Yiddish for Pirates’ by Gary Barwin

Yiddish for pirates

Fiction – hardcover; Random House Canada; 333 pages; 2016.

If there is one thing I can say about Gary Barwin’s Giller Prize-shortlisted Yiddish for Pirates it is this: I’ve never read a book so jam-packed with word play and creative use of language as this one. I would describe it as a kind of literary vaudeville; a mesmirising act of vocabulary, idioms, metaphors, puns and similes. And, if that’s not enough, it’s narrated by a 500-year-old parrot with a penchant for jokes and scathing one-liners. Yes, really.

The story is essentially a boy’s own adventure set during the Spanish Inquisition involving the aforementioned parrot — an African Grey called Aaron — and a Jewish man called Moishe, whose shoulder he perches on.

Fleeing persecution, this “odd couple” is helped in part by an underground network of Jewish sympathisers as  they endeavour to save a rare library of important Jewish texts. Along the way they fall in with Christopher Columbus and set sail for the New World. Their journey is ripe with adventure, piracy, danger, violence and revenge.

Overdosing on word play

Sounds exciting, right? But this is where I put up my hand and confess that Yiddish for Pirates was really not for me. Maybe I have a prejudice against animal narrators (for instance, I hated last year’s Giller winner, Fifteen Dogs, which was, of course, narrated by a succession of canines), but I just couldn’t engage with the story. It was too clever, too knowing. I was always aware that I was reading a book; I was always aware of the word play and the creative writing “stunts”.

The thing is, I like word play and jokes —

Oh, and by the way, the Caribs are people who eat people.
You can pick your friends.
And you can pick your teeth.
And you can pick your friends from your teeth. Sometimes little bits of them get stuck there after a nosh.

—  but the unrelenting nature of them (every single line, in fact) became wearing. I longed for Barwin to relax, to just tell the story, to let the words breathe.

Every now and then I’d come across a killer line:

The sails were pale papers waiting to be written on by the wind.

But for every great zinger of a description, there’d be another that perplexed me completely.

At least when I wasn’t feather-puffed geshvollen and stultiloquent blather and narishkayt.

I think it’s fair to say that by the last page I felt wrung out by this curious, convoluted novel. If I didn’t have to read it for my Shadow Giller jury obligations, I’m pretty sure I would have cast it aside — set it adrift, so to speak. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good book — as a feat of imagination, as a literary exercise and as a truly unique story it’s pretty hard to beat.

For a more positive take on this novel, please see fellow Shadow jury member Naomi’s review.

This is my 5th book for the #ShadowGiller2016

2016 Giller Prize, Author, Book review, Fiction, House of Anansi Press, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA, Zoe Whittall

‘The Best Kind of People’ by Zoe Whittall

The Best Kind of People

Fiction – Kindle edition; House of Anansi Press; 424 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Imagine if someone close to you was accused of a sexual crime. Would you stick by them? Throw them to the wolves? Bury your head in the sand? Be perplexed and question just how well you really know them?

This is the premise behind Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People, a fast-paced and timely novel about rape culture that has been shortlisted for the 2016 Giller Prize.

Accused of a crime

The story kicks off with the arrest of George Woodbury, a popular science teacher who has been accused of sexual misconduct with three female students under his charge on a school ski trip. The allegations are particularly shocking because Woodbury is something of a local hero and has won Teacher of the Year year after year.

When he is detained by police, his family —  his 17-year-old over-achieving daughter; his adult son, who is a lawyer; and his beloved wife, a dedicated and much-loved emergency room nurse — are immediately thrown into disarray. The novel focuses on the outfall on these three characters (their stories are told in alternate chapters), which makes for a gripping and thought-provoking read.

Interestingly, we never hear George’s side of the story, nor do we hear from his accusers. This means the reader is cast in exactly the same position as George’s family, never quite sure of his guilt or innocence, and never finding out the specific details of the allegations.

The outfall

As the story unfolds it’s interesting to see the effect on George’s loved ones as doubts about his innocence begin to creep in. From the outset his wife, Joan, is steadfast in her belief, telling her not-always-supportive sister: “You don’t stop loving someone in an instant because somebody accuses them of something despicable. Nothing is that black and white.” But later, when she entertains the idea that maybe, just maybe, he might have done something wrong, she tries to find excuses for such abhorrent behaviour:

If George was guilty, and she was far from convinced, then he could be sick. She took a sip of black coffee and contemplated this. She understood sick. Everyone is generally pleased to reduce a complicated situation to the notion of evil. Or a typical sleazeball man. He’s just evil. Evil is a word that’s lost its meaning recently, like bully. Overused, and weakened. She dissolved an antacid tablet in a glass of water. If it’s a sickness, it would not be his fault. There could be an undiagnosed tumour in his orbitofrontal lobe, causing him to have no control over his impulses.

Later still, she asks herself whether it’s “possible to be an intelligent human being — perceptive, intuitive — and also be married to someone who fools you so intensely, who is entirely a fraud, and you have no idea?”

His daughter Sadie is less sure from the start. She knows the girls involved — she goes to school with them — and isn’t sure why they’d make something like this up. She’s afraid that if he’s guilty, she is guilty by association. Whatever the case, the damage is irreparable.

If only she could have the privilege of believing him entirely. What kind of person, what kind of ungrateful daughter, doesn’t believe her own father? She had never doubted him before. She never thought he was anything but moral and civilized. She wasn’t even sure what those words meant. But if someone puts the possibility of something terrible in your head — and people around you believe it — you can’t go back to thinking it completely inconceivable. The possibility is there whether or not you choose to believe it, and you can’t go back to not knowing that the possibility exists.

His son Andrew is slightly more sympathetic to the situation, not least because as a gay teenager he has firsthand experience at being cast as a social pariah. He’s also very much aware that his first sexual relationship — with a man much older than himself and in a position of power — could so easily have been misunderstood by other people had they been aware of it. But even so, he also goes through moments of doubt, never quite sure of his father’s guilt or innocence, preferring instead to be practical about things and using his legal know-how to help George’s case.

A story ripe for discussion and debate

Despite The Best Kind of People being an issues-based novel — it embraces everything from teenage romance to feminism, gay rights to white privilege — this story is nothing short of a page turner. It’s a compelling read for so many reasons — will George be convicted? Will he go to prison? Will the family stay together, or fall apart? Will the local community ever accept the Woodbury family ever again or cast them out into the wilderness forever?

Admittedly, I thought some of the view points and characters presented here were well-worn tropes — the wronged wife, the loyal son, the busy-body interfering sister-in-law — and that some of the writing fell into cliché. But then Whittall would  include a sentence that would make me sit up and take notice. Here’s just two examples:

By his second glass he felt the balm of his arrogance returning, like a sly old lover slipping him a hotel key card.

And:

Improbable as it seemed, they settled into a new routine during this holding pattern — like when you’ve put gauze on a wound, and you’re waiting it out, hoping no infections seep in.

By the end of the book I realised it was nothing short of a stunning character study, for Whittall takes three seemingly normal and ordinary people — albeit white, privileged and living distinctly upper middle class lives  — and shows what happens to them when their worlds are turned upside down through no fault of their own.

What I liked most, however, was that it generates more questions than answers — book groups are going to have an absolute field day with it! — yet one thing is abundantly clear. Regardless of George’s guilt or innocence, the human toll — on his family, himself and his community — is irreparable. Once an accusation like this is out in the open, you can never make it disappear. That, I think, is the real message behind this exceedingly good novel.

For another take on The Best Kind of People, which has yet to be published in the UK, please see Naomi’s review at Consumed by Ink.

This is my 4th book for the #ShadowGiller2016

2016 Giller Prize, Author, Book review, Emma Donoghue, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘The Wonder’ by Emma Donoghue

the-wonder-emma-d

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 292 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher

It seems rather uncanny that the first two books I’ve read from the 2016 Giller Prize shortlist both happen to revolve around food and fasting, albeit set centuries and continents apart.

In Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl we meet an unhappy woman obsessed with staying thin; in Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder we meet a pious and joyful 11 year old girl who appears to be surviving on nothing but air. Awad’s is a thoroughly contemporary novel set in urban Canada; Donoghue’s is an historical novel set in rural Ireland. But while both novels feature complicated females starving themselves, they are doing so for very different reasons…

Starving to get into heaven?

The Wonder takes place just seven years after the end of the Great Famine, which occurred between 1845 and 1852. The time period is important, because Anna O’Donnell, the girl at the heart of the story, was born into hunger, but now food is relatively plentiful again. This makes it almost sacrilegious for her to shun it. But that is what she does. Yet, in her refusal to eat, she has not become ill, nor withered away: she is supposedly fit and healthy and has attracted much attention from the Catholic community in which she lives. Anna is being billed as a saint, and people are prepared to travel for miles and miles, just to catch a glimpse of her.

Enter nurse Lib Wright, a young widow from England, who trained under Florence Nightingale on the frontline of the Crimean War. She’s a new breed of nurse: professional, ethical and thorough. But she’s also a non-believer — in God, in religion, in Anna’s ability to live without food — which immediately posits her as an outsider in a country that is deeply religious.

Lib’s job is to keep watch over Anna for two weeks to see whether she is sustaining herself on food acquired secretly. She’s been hired by a local quack, Dr McBrearty, who claims he wants to “bring the truth to light, whatever the truth may be”. A local nun, Sister Michael, is to share the shift work — eight hours at a time around the clock.

From the outset, Lib is suspicious of everyone’s motivations and believes the girl to be a faker. But how does she prove it? And if the girl, who is well-mannered and bright, is somehow eating on the sly, how is she doing it? And who is helping her?

A detective story

Essentially, The Wonder is a detective story, but it’s not a terribly clever one, for I had figured out the solution long before it was revealed. But as a slice of historical fiction it’s a superb snapshot of a time and place on the outer fringes of Western Europe, where dogma and religion are a way of life. (It is Lib’s constant inability to understand the rituals of Catholicism and to dismiss most of its beliefs as mere fairytale that makes me wonder if the author, presumably a lapsed Catholic, isn’t having a pop at the Church?)

The first third of this book really held me in its sway as I got to know and like the central characters: sweet pious Anna and stern and determined Lib, nursing troubles of her own. Everyone else is relatively subsidiary to them until the journalist William Byrne, from the Irish Times, enters the equation. But then the story seems to run out of steam — there’s only so much you can say about a girl fasting herself that you haven’t already said in earlier chapters — until momentum picks up again around 60 pages from the end when Donoghue drops a little bombshell that changes the course of the narrative.

Yet, when all’s said and done, The Wonder didn’t have enough meat on the bones for me (pun fully intended), because the storyline was simply too thin (sorry, can’t help myself) to sustain almost 300 pages of prose. And the ending was predictable and disappointing.

This might make it sound like I didn’t like the book. The funny thing is I liked it a lot — the writing is gorgeous, the characters are deftly drawn, the mood of the room in which Anna resides is evocative to the point of feeling claustrophobic (well, the author’s had some experience writing about that kind of space before, hasn’t she?) and her depiction of the outsider coming up against a culture she doesn’t understand is spot on. I also very much liked the interaction between the nurse and her patient, and the way this changed over time as the pair developed a genuine fondness for each other.

The Wonder is, indeed, a good read — but that’s all it is. I enjoyed it, but it didn’t wow me. I’d be very surprised if it won the Giller Prize.

This is my 2nd book for the #ShadowGiller2016

This is my 1st book for the 2017 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award

2016 Giller Prize, Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, literary fiction, Mona Awad, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘ 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl’ by Mona Awad

13 ways of looking at a fat girl

Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 214 pages; 2016.

Earlier this year I read an extraordinary collection of essays called Small Acts of Disappearance by Australian writer Fiona Wright about her battle with an eating disorder. It was an illuminating (and exquisitely written) look at what it is like to be constantly at war with your body.

Mona Awad’s novel, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl — which has been shortlisted for the 2016 Giller Prize  — is cut from the same cloth. It mines a dark psychological seam of people who have an unhealthy relationship with food. It’s wry and funny, but also unsettling, for not only does Awad turn her sharp, perceptive eye towards the all-consuming issue of weight control, she also focuses on how this affects relationships between mothers and daughters, female friends, colleagues, sexual partners and the people we marry.

And as the title might suggest, the book has 13 chapters. I use the word “chapters” loosely, because each is essentially a self-contained short story, but read together they form a cohesive whole. To me it felt like a novel, rather than a short story collection, though the occasional shift in point-of-view, from the first person to the third person, and unexplained leaps in time are a little jarring.

A lifelong battle

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is largely told from Lizzie/Beth/Elizabeth’s point of view (her name changes in conjunction with her attempts at reinventing herself in line with her changing body shape). As a teen we learn that she is — well, how should we say this? — fat. Or, in any case, rather overweight. But she harbours what turns out to be a prescient desire:

Later on I’m going to be really fucking beautiful. I’m going to grow into that nose and develop an eating disorder. I’ll be hungry and angry all my life but I’ll also have a hell of a time.

Over the course of the next 200 or so pages, we follow her trajectory from chubby teen to a painfully thin woman whose weight loss has not made her happy: she’s hungry and angry all the time, as predicted, and her relationships, particularly with her husband, are strained.

The warning signs begin early, for even as a teenage girl it’s clear Elizabeth has body issues. She skips class because “there are stretches of days when I just can’t bring myself to leave my room, to be seen”.

Later, in her mid-20s, working a boring temp job, she’s dieting heavily. She’s lost weight, but it’s a constant battle of counting calories and watching everything she puts in her mouth. A co-worker with whom she goes to lunch accuses her of being a nit-picking eater, of being “salady”.

I think of the perfect comeback to the salady remark. I put us both back in the bakery and I make her say that I’m salady with clotted cream in each corner of her lips. But instead of replying, Am I? I lean in and in a low voice I say, Listen, you little skank! Not all of us can eat scones and have it turn into more taut littleness! Some of us are forced to eat spring mix in the half-dark of our low-ceilinged studio apartments and still expand inexplicably. Some of us expand at the mere contemplation of what you shovel so carelessly, so dancingly into your smug little mouth. And the way I say it, leaning in like that, with all this edge and darkness in my voice garnered from months of restraint, makes her bow her head in genuine remorse.

Impacts on relationships

When we meet Elizabeth’s mother (in a rather hilarious chapter entitled “My Mother’s Idea of Sexy”), it’s easy to see how her body issues have arisen, for Elizabeth’s mother is beautiful and narcissistic, but she also has a strange relationship with food (“she’d had her jaw wired after giving birth to me. She did it to shed her baby weight”) and has weight issues of her own.

Her mother’s emphasis is always to look good, even if that means donning clothes that are hugely uncomfortable. So when Elizabeth tries on a dress that has a sweetheart neckline that keeps falling down, for instance, her mother pooh-poohs the idea of wearing a cardigan over the top to prevent any embarrassing wardrobe malfunctions. “That’ll ruin it,” says her mother “just keep your back straight and your arms close to your sides like this.”

Eventually, the only way that Elizabeth can maintain her now slender weight is to control every other aspect of her life revolving around food. She won’t eat out (except once a month when she goes on a binge then spends the next day feeling guilty), nor socialise knowing that high-calorific food might be present. Mealtimes at home are carefully managed so that she eats separately from her husband, who despairs of the constant salads and vegetable dishes and occasionally engages in acts of secret eating (he’ll go to a hamburger joint to indulge in fast food).

A heartbreaking comedy

I hesitate to call 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl a black comedy, though it’s surely black and there are some quite funny moments in it. But the story, told in a scathing, almost caustic tone throughout, has a downcast beat to it. Perhaps it might be better to call it a heartbreaking comedy?

To be honest, I wasn’t sure how I felt about this book when I came to the end, but it’s been more than a week since I finished it and certain scenes have stuck with me, which is a good sign. I’ve grown to like it more with the passing of time.

It’s a refreshingly candid look at the pressure women are under to maintain a particular weight and raises many important issues surrounding food, body shaming and health. Awad has created a deeply nuanced novel, one that will make you think differently about your own body the next time you look in the mirror or help you re-evaluate your own relationship with food.

This is my 1st book for the #ShadowGiller2016