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review 2018-01-11 22:24
The Outlander (Adamson)
The Outlander (Large Print 16pt) - Gil Adamson

Honestly, I can't imagine what Anansi Press was thinking, letting this first novel go out into the world with a title so similar to that of a pop-culture phenomenon. Otherwise, though, they have done well by Gil Adamson in both production and editing, and I'm very glad they published this interesting story.

 

Adamson deliberately distances us a bit from her characters. They are "the Reverend", "the Ridge Runner", the "Widow." The significance of "the widow" as the constant name for the protagonist -we don't get her real name until well into the book - is that it keeps at the top of our minds exactly what is always at the top of hers - that she has murdered her husband. And that same distancing relieves us of the responsibility of empathizing with her more than we want to, though you'd have to have a pretty black soul not to feel something by the end of her picaresque adventures through the Crows Nest Pass area in western Canada. The landscape is very definitely a character, and a cruel one, in this novel. It has its spectacularly climactic plot event in the Frank slide (a notorious 1903 landslide that wiped out a sizeable part of a mining town). I thoroughly enjoyed how well Adamson described it and wove it in to her story from several points of view.

 

The widow - Mary Boulton - is supported by a well-described set of supporting characters, one of whom, the reclusive Ridge Runner, becomes a romantic interest though not, thank goodness, in a conventionally sappy way that would have ruined everything we have come to know about both characters. I thought the inclusion of the Native characters was sufficiently nuanced and well-managed to meet the political correctness standards of our time, though Henry is a relatively minor character.

 

At the beginning of this novel, Mary is highly vulnerable, fumbling her way to survival and sometimes very nearly not making it. She is dependent on a series of saviours - an old lady (and her household), the Ridge Runner, Henry and his white wife Helen, and the Reverend Bonnycastle (working out his own demons of abuse in the rough mining town of Frank). But after she is finally caught by her slightly cartoonish Furies, a pair of red-headed giants (brothers of the ex-husband), Mary accomplishes her last escape from disaster without a saviour. This, I would say, is the principal emotional dynamic of the novel.

 

I did find this one a bit of a page-turner, and I would recommend it to anyone who likes period settings and interesting women's stories. I would warn off only those readers who have a strong need for emotional identification with a protagonist.

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review 2017-12-22 03:08
Away (Urquhart)
Away - Jane Urquhart

"The women of this family... were plagued by revenants. Men, landscapes, states of mind went away and came back again. There was always water involved, exaggerated youth or exaggerated age. Afterwards, there was absence."

From that excerpt from the opening page of "Away", you might be simply bemused at first. But, coming back to it after finishing this tale of multiple generations of Irish and Irish-Canadian women, it actually reveals itself to be remarkably precise and insightful.

There are three generations of women - Mary is the most remote in history, island-dweller in Ireland, who goes "away" in her mind early in her youth when she encounters the corpse of a young man washed up on her shores, and goes away again physically at the end of her life, long after she and her devoted husband make a home of sorts in the wilds of Ontario. Her daughter, Eileen, also ends up going away from reality, in a sort of dream of romance with a young man whose fate is bound up with the Fenian movement (the murder of D'Arcy McGee is one of the main historical events written in to this largely psychological novel, the others being massive flooding in Montreal, and the potato famine in Ireland).  Esther, Eileen's grand-daughter, is the third of the women who is in some fashion "away" (her last night upon the shores of the Great Lakes as her family home gives way to industrialization is the framing device of the book), and we are given to understand that she retells the entire story of her fore-mothers, not to any human audience.

This book really is all about water, and landscape, and men disappearing and reappearing in the lives of women, and women dissociating as they deal with the ills of the world. The writing is - I don't quite know how to describe it - it's light, and fluid, not at all like the staccato sound of Annie Proulx (whose "Shipping News" I recently read), but sharing with it a similar intense focus on physical detail that has undercurrents of symbolism.  I got wrapped up in the reading of it, though it seems to float on the surface of its turbulent plot, and I was not terribly emotionally involved. Rather, it was a pleasure in the reading itself that kept me in it, if that makes any sense at all.

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review 2017-12-04 22:26
Children of the Revolution (Robinson)
Children of the Revolution - Peter Robinson

I must say I'm always a bit of a sucker for the modern-day detective-novel trope of the multi-generational case, where incidents in the past affect the crime or crimes of the current day. Just as well, because it's rare to find a detective novel these days that doesn't have a "historical" element. What I find (wryly) amusing is that "history" is more and more often within my own lifetime. In this case, the Revolution of the title is the 60s revolution, political and sexual, and the key to one murder and one attempted murder in the present day is both sexual and political shenanigans at a 60s university, juxtaposed with the highly respectable life of a certain Lady Veronica Chalmers, one of whose young relatives is about to become politically very important.

 

If you see the words "politically very important", then of course you will understand that even though Banks solves the mystery, and we are kindly let in on the secret, there is a shadowy senior figure who makes sure the solution gets no further publicity and the case goes "unsolved". I thought Robinson cheated a bit on the ending - I was not in the least convinced that the murderous person who apparently committed suicide was in the slightest suicidal, but on the other hand, there was no indication that the shadowy figure was responsible for a cover-up. And believe me, I looked back and re-read, because I'm not used to saying, "well that's implausible..." as I finish up a Banks novel.

 

Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed following Banks through all the twists and turns of his detecting, including the red herrings, mostly because as usual Robinson's characterizations are marvellous. I get only vaguely peeved when the whiff of male entitlement enters into Banks' relationships with his female fellow-officers or the latest lust object; meh, it doesn't bother me much. I'm happy to objectify Banks and his brain-power, so he can go ahead and objectify pretty young things if he likes. I'd prefer it if his much more substantial female co-workers (and, incidentally, subordinates) didn't have scenes where they seemed to be spatting over getting his attention and approval, though.

 

Four stars, because none of the basic virtues of the Banks novels are missing, despite my reservations.

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review 2017-11-13 20:56
Funny Boy (Selvadurai)
Funny Boy - Shyam Selvadurai

If the writing is decent, as it is here, I am always inclined to be generous with autobiographical first novels. At first I was decidedly worried that this tale of a gay youngster growing up in the disapproving Sri Lankan culture would prove to be too twee and clichéd for me. After all, we do get quite a lengthy introductory chapter describing how young Arjie loves to play "bride-bride" with his girl cousins. However, the story picked up both depth and grit as it went on, and the growing racial tensions between Tamil and Sinhalese are well-introduced into the relationships of the important people - mostly women - in our protagonist's life.

There's an air of quiet menace through most of this book, but it's blunted in the first instance by Arjie's childish viewpoint, which gradually disappears of course as Arjie gets older, but also as the political situation worsens and various peripheral figures in his life disappear or meet mysterious bad ends, for reasons that can only be racial or political. In school, experiencing a first love, he also has to negotiate a bullying principal and adults' near-incomprehensible motivations. The recitation of a ridiculous colonial poem praising school takes on bizarre significance, as does Arjie's deliberate flubbing of that recitation, an act of boyish protectiveness, trying to save his boyfriend by thwarting the ambitions of the aforementioned bully. The sudden and devastating advent of war results in Arjie's family's flight into hiding, the burning of their house, and the murder of his grandparents. Though in the last chapter he finally has sex with his boyfriend, it is melancholy and awkward, and we are fully aware that Arie and his family are fleeing to Canada. Like everything else, and like the transgressive loves of all the women in the book who have reflected aspects of his story, Arjie's love falls victim to the cruelties of the larger world.

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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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