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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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review 2018-07-27 16:06
The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (Johnston)
The Colony of Unrequited Dreams - Wayne Johnston

I've read a few Newfoundland novels lately, but this one, a fictionalized autobiography of Joey Smallwood, Newfoundland's first Premier, differs from the rest of them in that it is largely an urban novel, with most of the action set either in St. John's or in New York. Smallwood spent time working for the radical left-wing press in New York in his youth, and remained a socialist throughout his long political career, though his emphasis on economic development for Newfoundland meant that he controversially sided with large corporations (and foreign corporations at that) against unions in a number of major decisions. This novel is not, however, an economic or political history of Newfoundland, though elements of both are wryly scattered throughout, and the omnipresence of the historical view is very much felt through the interspersed writings of fictional historian, journalist and love interest [Sheilagh] Fielding - always known by her last name, just as she always addresses Smallwood as "Smallwood". And yes, as the title would suggest, not only are the larger dreams of the new province in Canada largely unrequited, but so too are the affections of Smallwood and Fielding, though it is hard, sometimes, to discern in which direction the unrequited feelings are flowing, both characters are so prickly, defensive and entirely caught up in their own worlds.

 

I'm not going to try to describe the way the plot winds in and out, incorporating major historical events in Smallwood's actual life like his trip on foot across the island, following the major railway line, recruiting union members; his harrowing trip as a journalist on a sealing voyage where a large part of the crew was stranded and frozen; his fraught political relationship with pre-Confederation Newfoundland politicians under the old system of colonial government from Britain; his shoestring existence in extreme poverty in New York. Nor was I particularly concerned to sort out fact from fiction in all of this. The more intriguing mystery was the characters, and how a couple of key (and likely fictional) events in their youth drove them through life. Those events involved written evidence, and the existence of written histories, and even a book of history as a possible instrument of homicide - OK, if you want more, you must read the book. And I really do think you should if you enjoy description that leaps off the page (strange, familiar, and strangely familiar settings), and characters who make you ache a bit even while they stubbornly withhold full understanding of their pain.

 

You don't need to know a lot about Newfoundland or its history to enjoy "Colony of Unrequited Dreams". You may find, however, that this fictional history about histories makes you want to know more of the truth. Heartily recommended.

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