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review 2018-10-17 20:26
The Birth House (McKay)
The Birth House - Ami McKay

Given that this falls into a subgenre of literary women's fiction that I flippantly call the "gynecological novel", I enjoyed it far more than I expected to. A large part of that is due to the historical setting, around WW I, which gave both urgency and context to the fairly straightforward narrative of a young woman's apprenticeship in, and practice of, midwifery, chiefly in opposition to the men around her. This is largely a story of female friendship and mutual support, though I hasten to add that there are a few sympathetic male characters, notably Dora's brothers and her eventual lover. They have, however, a relatively small part to play in comparison with the three overwhelmingly negative males who create the tension in the story: the abusive Mr. Ketch, murderer of women and of Dora's reputation; Dora's feckless and increasingly controlling husband, Archer; and, of course, the obstetrical villain of the piece, Dr. Thomas.

As a woman who, if she had ever given birth, would have undoubtedly chosen to take advantage of medical science, pain relief, and the security of an institutional setting, I find myself in an odd position when asked to sympathize unstintingly with the older, less professional, in many cases highly unscientific practices and ideology of home birth and midwifery as presented here. To navigate this problem, I fall back on my knowledge of my own profound ignorance of the realities of childbearing, but also on the reassuring notion, which I devoutly hope is true, that the stark opposition of male and female, science and superstition, pharmaceuticals and plant remedies, is moderated in our own time by some mutual understanding, in a way that it was not in 1914-1918.

I said at the beginning that I'm not a fan of the gynecological novel in general. This one, fortunately for me, was character-driven rather than obsessed (as some are) with pain, blood and the fragility of life. I enjoyed Dora's gradual coming of age as a proto-feminist; near the end of the novel she travels far from her small Nova Scotia community to a foreign but friendly women's enclave in foreign but friendly Boston, where she associates with suffragists and lesbians (and her brother Charles) before returning to home base Scots Bay and her final defeat of the interloping Doctor Thomas.

The style is transparent and unexceptionable. I wouldn't characterize the novel as having a particularly vivid sense of place in comparison with some of the other east-coast Canadian novels I've read, nor is it particularly poetic in its description, but it was enough to carry the story and the characters. In enjoyed the introduction of the expected historical milestones - the Halifax explosion, the Armistice, the Spanish flu. All in all, a quick and painless read, without benefit of chloroform.

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review 2018-09-04 22:20
Obasan (Kogawa)
Obasan - Joy Kogawa

I knew of "Obasan" long before I read it; it wasn't compulsory reading in any of my high school or university courses (as it has since become, so I hear) but it was discussed, and unlike most novels its publication arguably had a material effect on society at large. It's generally acknowledged that Kogawa's 1981 imaginative depiction of the plight of Japanese and Japanese-Canadian internees in WWII and after was a contributing factor in the government's eventual (1988) apology and settlement, shamefully so many decades after the wrongs were done.

 

So it's an important novel, but was it an enjoyable read? My four stars, I must admit, are somewhat more respectful than enthusiastic. There are passages that are utterly riveting, particularly in the latter half once the characters have established themselves. I like the POV, that of a young girl, because it allows for quirky observation, and a softening (since children are resilient) of the trauma of dire material and emotional damage inflicted by the xenophobia and racist actions of the government. This does not mean that Naomi is not traumatized by the fracturing of her family, and the eventual death of both her parents. In fact, partly due to the cultural value of staying silent (referred to throughout the novel), she finds herself often in a world of inexplicable bad dreams. Naomi's silent victimhood, and that of her even more silent elderly female aunt, Obasan, is balanced by westernized and vocal Aunt Emily, whose talents for documentation and indignation bridge the gap between Naomi's remembered if rather uncomprehending childhood and her present, in which she finally finds out the fate of her missing mother. (If I say the word Nagasaki, it is probably a spoiler).

 

There is a lot of death in this novel - death of family, death of strangers, death of animals. It can get to be a bit much, and for me that was not totally balanced out by the lyricism and accuracy of the physical description, particularly that of the dry, strange province I grew up in, Alberta (actually felt it in my throat at moments). And since I come to this novel a full generation after the nation made its apologies and amends, I am not moved by the same outrage I probably would have felt as a young person in 1981 - yet still I was moved.

 

So, four stars. Read it, but not on a day when you are depressed, because although it is not a deliberately depressing novel - it is quite a bit more nuanced than that - the circumstances that gave rise to it, the mindless, careless depravity of our own society's treatment of the other, are profoundly depressing in themselves, and all too relevant today as well.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-08-22 19:29
Caedmon's Song (Robinson)
Caedmon's Song - Peter Robinson

According to his afterword, this non-Banks story from Peter Robinson, though published in 2003, was written in the late '80s (it's copyrighted 1990), and he made a conscious choice not to try to update it into the internet age. The 1980s setting is, in fact, one of its selling points for me; I have a curious nostalgia for the days when it was the norm to be unhooked from the rest of the world, and operating purely independently and often in the absence of definite information on any number of minor topics. It was actually possible not only to get lost, but to be lost to other people.

 

This is a two-stream narrative, both in the third person but very much focused on a single point of view, and both tracking a young woman. It becomes evident early on to an attentive reader that both streams are about the same person; what is unresolved until a little later is just how close in time the two narratives are, one detailing a horrifyingly traumatic sexual assault just barely short of murder by an established serial killer, and the other telling about the cascading ethical (and physical) horrors of seeking revenge. Unlike a detective novel, this one does not concern itself with the legal consequences of the three murders that the protagonist commits on that journey. In some ways, having found ourselves in her head all through the novel, that's a bit of relief. We get to decide for ourselves (or fail to decide) what justice might look like in the horrifyingly unjust world in which Kirsten first finds herself, and to which Martha and Sue eventually contribute. (The multiple names refer simply to successive disguises the woman takes on during her journey of revenge, not to multiple personalities in the "Sybil" sense, but certainly there is a resonance with that general notion of the traumatized fractured self).

 

I have seen mixed reactions to this novel on the review sites, partly attributable (of course) to that bane of series novelists, frustrated expectations, but partly with reasoned criticisms of what was in fact a first work, though not first published. Myself, I liked it very much, enough to give it my standard Robinson four stars. It already shows some of the strengths that make his mature work so compulsively readable: psychological complexity, a keen eye and ear for the details of the world, and a solid grasp of narrative progression and structure.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-08-20 02:40
Full Disclosure (McLachlin)
Full Disclosure: A Novel - Beverley McLachlin

This could have been just a novelty - a mystery novel written by an ex-Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. Excellence in the judicial sphere, though it implies a good mind and a decent command of language, doesn't necessarily presage excellence in fictional composition. But I thought this was much better than just a novelty, though it's clearly a first effort. There's a little bit of over-explaining.  The clues about the big reveal were far too numerous and a little too obvious. But the plot was well-managed on the whole, and there was just a little soupcon of ethical ambiguity at the end, which was a pleasant surprise. And, of course, the courtroom scenes were outstanding, with every psychological twist and turn fully understood and made clear, with its curious mix of deadly seriousness and lawyers' games.

If McLachlin felt inclined to self-reference, I only caught her at it once, and it was a funny sentence near the beginning: "The Arthur Erickson building that houses the Supreme Court of British Columbia  is light and airy, and there's a portrait of the chief justice of Canada on the wall (when she was young and looked good) to remind me that sometimes, occasionally, women do rule."

McLachlin made the interesting choice to locate her young defence attorney protagonist in Vancouver, and lurking not very far in the background is the still very sombre memory of Canada's worst mass murderer, Robert Pickton, who preyed on disenfranchised women, many of them indigenous, from the East End of that city. Though it was subtly signaled earlier on, I was still taken aback by the boldness with which the author made that horror personally relevant to Jilly, our heroine.

This is a very, very Canadian novel, from its description of Vancouver in sun and fog to its particular social and legal history to - dare I say it? - the genuine niceness of most of the main characters. I realized as I was reading that because of that Canadian feel, I was becoming unusually irritated by being confronted with spellings like "gray" and "splendor". A little thing, I know, and Simon & Schuster are an international firm, but once I noticed it I couldn't stop noticing it. It was like a small but noticeable distortion of McLachlin's voice. If she writes another - and I hope she will - I would be much happier if it were with a Canadian publisher or at least with one who will issue a Canadian/British edition.

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review 2018-08-05 17:43
Keith Ross Leckie: Coppermine
Coppermine - Keith Ross Leckie

This book checks a lot of my favourite boxes: Canadian history, historical fiction, and Native culture. Oh, and winter. Leckie's writing is quite good for this story. I wished I had understood the characters a little more, and I felt like Leckie maybe let their actions define their characters. I guess I'm saying there were no real surprises here. Nobody changes. Fine, for a plot-driven page-turner, but not satisfying for me. Nevertheless, I do not regret having picked it up, and it got me through some long days at the airport. Recommended.

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