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review 2017-07-31 03:26
Bear (Engel)
Bear by Marian Engel - Marian Engel

I remember the buzz around this Governor General's Award winner in the mid 70s when I was just beginning to be an active student of literature, and I also remember blinking and pushing it aside when I heard that it had woman-bear sex in it. At that point in my life, I was far more interested in the various romantic oddities of 18th and 19th century Gothic fiction (though come to think of it, that includes vampires, who are surely no less odd as lovers than a well-disposed bear).

Anyway, coming at this as part of my CanLit reading project, I was mercifully unaware that a recent mocking internet meme had caused a surge in its readership, and in online reviews. My attention was focused instead on the fact that the protagonist is a woman (my gender), an archivist (my profession) and of the 70s (roughly my generation). There were definitely moments of identification: when she reveled in her solitude and in her exploration of the "folly" home she lives and works in over the summer, and, of course, her self-conscious spinning-out of her half-fascinating, half-tedious work. But though I remember at second hand the era of sexual experimentation and freedom (new to women), the associated emptiness and lack of direction - a prevalent theme of this work - is not one that moves me in personal ways.

What pleased me about this novel was its good writing, clear and perceptive, about the progress of solitary emotions, and the quirky but believable details about cottage-country surroundings; so believable, in fact, that somehow it cajoles you into accepting the notion of a bear as well. I should add that this animal, though still very much wild in temperament, is not in his natural surroundings. There are different degrees of wildness, and this is quasi-domesticated vacation territory, not bear country. It is a particularly nuanced view of the wildness and solitude to which our city-dweller actually aspires. This is wildness colonialized and civilized, where your job is still to sort out an old library, and your encounters with a real bear are accompanied, quite literally, by annotations - found scraps of paper containing little pieces of historical bear information.

I was grateful that there was no anthropomorphism in the depiction of the bear. He remains an animal in his responses at all times, including his final, casual clawing, which brings Lou to her senses and sends her back to her own life.

Overall, the experience of reading this was somehow slight, and not just because the novel is very short. Though it did describe emotional states beautifully, I did not feel by the end either invested in Lou as a character or particularly knowledgeable about her. In a sad way, that may be the book's best expression of 1970s emotional alienation. And it's probably why I ended up going with 3 instead of 4 stars.

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review 2017-07-14 20:48
Kit's Law (Morrissey)
Kit's Law - Donna Morrissey

This is a small-town Newfoundland novel by a small-town Newfoundlander, and I found the first-person narrative both believable and entirely comprehensible, which is a fine combination.

 

Our narrator-protagonist is Kit, a teenager (fourteen at the beginning) with an old head on her shoulders. This is partly because she has to deal with an intellectually challenged mother, Josie. After her grandmother Lizzie dies (a woman for whom "feisty" is an entirely inadequate description), Kit digs in her heels and, with the advocacy of the local doctor and the grudging consent of rest of the nearby small community, stays put in her remote house upon the gully. A young man, Sid, son of the minister, comes around regularly to help with the heavy chores like wood-chopping. It sounds like a story of isolation but actually one of other joys of this book is the sharp, unsentimental delineation of a host of minor characters, most of whom are well-intentioned, and some of whom are genuinely good for Kit and her mother.

 

One character who is neither good nor well-intentioned is Shine, a figure of menace who takes advantage of Josie's adult sexuality, which is not controlled by an adult intellect. His death comes at the hands of one of the major characters, as he is in the process of terrorizing all three of Josie, Kit and Sid. The fallout from that incident deepens Kit's isolation and accelerates her growing up.

 

I won't disclose the twist that derails Kit's happy-ever-after with Sid, her first romantic interest. It was unexpected (to me) but entirely defensible from a plot point of view, especially in a setting where the characters are few and heavily interconnected.

I liked the writing in this novel: it was vivid in its sensory imagery, and there was a very strong sense of place, which had elements meaningful to the characters (Lizzie's partridgeberry patch, for instance, a secret place where the secrets of Kit's birth are - partially - told). And the unsentimental, but also unjudgmental, transcription of Josie's loud, repetitive, moody and often uncomprehending speech struck me as being probably born from real observation.

 

I would recommend this one.

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review 2017-06-01 16:04
Cereus Blooms at Night (Mootoo)
Cereus Blooms at Night - Shani Mootoo

This multiple award nominee from the mid-1990s was not familiar to me until I found it on the "100 Novels That Make You Proud to be Canadian" CBC list. Like many books on that list, this one is Canadian-ish, in that Mootoo was born in Ireland, grew up in Trinidad and at the time of publication was dividing her time between Canada (Vancouver) and the States. This novel is entirely set in the Caribbean (Trinidad, I assume). However, the original publisher was Canadian (Press Gang Publications). The copy I have is from Grove Press in the U.S. There is a brief mention of Canada as an emigration destination for a minor character.

SPOILERS AHEAD

So that's what it's not. Here's what it is: horrifying, and yet disarmingly poetic. At the centre of the story is an abusively incestuous relationship, father-daughter, and a rather Psycho-like discovery of the father's corpse in the family home, still inhabited by his mentally deranged daughter many years later. The discovery is made by a childhood friend and later suitor who failed Mala/Poh-Poh miserably by backing away when he first became aware of the abuse.

A framing device of the gentle development of a relationship between a gay male nurse and the transgender son of the failed suitor makes it all a bit more palatable, as does vivid and at times rhapsodic description of the natural world. The natural metaphors are heavy throughout the book; insects quite literally pervade every page, with little textual decorations of ants, beetles and other bugs acting as chapter breaks, etc. I actually found that a little discomfiting - but it was entirely appropriate to this set of characters and circumstances, for both Mala and Ambrose, her verbose and foreign-educated suitor (an entomologist), are intensely interested in insect life. And, then, of course there is that blocked off room where the body lies...

I think this is very obviously a first novel, in that, like the tropical setting, it is almost too brimming with all sorts of themes and ideas - about gender roles and non-conformity, and abuse, and religiosity, and the cruelty of conformist communities, and humans in the natural world, and the dream-splitting of the self to cope with the intolerable, and the evanescent flowering of passion (the title), and more. By the end, we have hopes and pleasant imagery for the second generation in the frame story. That, I think, is how this novel get away with having such a truly dark heart.

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review 2017-05-12 21:28
Late Nights on Air (Hay)
Late Nights on Air - Elizabeth Hay

The dark cruel winter and breezy white nights of Canada's north (specifically Yellowknife, N.W.T. and the barren landscape around Great Slave Lake) pervade this novel of the 1970s. All of the main characters are employed by a radio station (a public one, of course), and all of them bring previous selves from elsewhere. However, the indigenous people are not completely absent - there is one secondary Native character named Theresa whose function is chiefly to utter home-truths, and there are in addition brief but telling depictions of Native contributions to the Berger Inquiry into a proposed natural gas line, which hovers in the background giving a fundamentally personal tale weight and an anchor in history.

 

I really liked the way the author characterized her principals with fragments of their past, letting us get to know them as they get to know each other. Two characters (Dido and Eddy) attract, clash, separate and rejoin, eventually splitting off from the group in mysterious circumstances that suggest more violence than they ultimately deliver. Men can be abusive (and it's more than implied that Eddy is, to Dido) but the killer in this story is the North itself. A woman - a minor character whose story we have nonetheless learned something of - chooses the Northern winter as the agent of her self-immolation; we are allowed for a time wrongly to suspect Eddy.

 

The other four conduct their most intense journey into knowledge of themselves and each other in a summer trip into the Barrens. The trip is beautifully described, with all the physical discomfort and dangers fully acknowledged. And only three come back, as the North takes its second victim. The trip echoes a history of a decades-earlier fatal expedition into the same region, that they are all aware of, and that they have read and (more importantly) heard over the air in a radio adaptation.

 

In the background, we have Justice Berger conducting his Inquiry into a proposed gas pipeline. His conclusion, as most Canadians of a certain age know, was that it should be deferred until massive implications for the environment and for native land claims could be better considered. The simultaneous importance and insignificance of human concerns in that fragile but unyielding landscape is at the forefront in the main narrative and echoed in this factual backdrop.

 

I really liked the writing in this novel. It's precise, not over-complicated and somehow full of light and space like the North itself. And sometimes it's really quite funny.

If you like character studies and original description of places unfamiliar to most of us, this novel could well be for you.

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review 2017-03-31 21:21
The Luminaries (Catton)
The Luminaries - Eleanor Catton

Let's start this review with something that's just housekeeping, not criticism. I read this book as part of a CanLit project. It won the (Canadian) Governor General's award, after all. But this is CanLit only by the most attenuated of courtesies; Catton may have been born in Canada, but she grew up in New Zealand, lives in New Zealand, and writes about New Zealand. This is a New Zealand novel.

 

I liked this New Zealand novel a very great deal. Yes, the book was hard to heft in a purely physical sense, and the opening, where you are dealing with multiple inset narratives and a dozen and a half new characters, needs either great concentration or the willingness to go back and start again several times, as I ended up having to do because of too-long gaps in reading. The payoff of the unusual structure of the novel is that while you spend the first half or so grasping at the facts through masses of evocative detail, you discover as the chapters grow tighter and more focused that you have most of the pieces of the puzzle, and by the time you reach the tiny blips of prose which are the final segments, you are an expert in this particular narrative and can supply all the context you need. Looking at the cover illustration after I finished, I realized that, as well as being a representation of the waning of the moon, it also represents the narrative strategy of the novel, which starts with huge amounts of information, at the global level, as it were, and ends with merely a tiny sliver which nonetheless conveys everything you need to know. The subject of the cover "information", tellingly enough, is a young woman, and though the book at first seems to be democratically dividing the importance of the characters amongst a round dozen people, in the end it's the young woman (Anna) who's key.

 

I'm not going to spoil the plot of this thing. Though it's not by any means a conventional mystery, discovering what's what is at least half of the joy of the book. (The other half is the very interesting historical depiction of a remote and racially diverse gold rush society, so underpopulated that multiple connections between characters, which might in a populous setting seem otherwise unrealistic, seem entirely plausible ).

 

There is an apparatus of astrology attached to the title and to the chapter headings of the novel. I'm happy to report that for those who are too lazy or too uninterested to try to decipher it, it's completely unnecessary for the understanding of the story. It's entirely possible that taking the trouble to figure it out would add another layer of understanding, or perhaps another way to appreciate Catton's craftsmanship, but I must admit I didn't bother too much with it.

 

I won't lie: reading The Luminaries is an undertaking. I think most readers will find that, once undertaken, it's well worth it. Though it's only very barely Canadian, I think we'll claim it anyway!

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