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review 2020-04-21 18:08
In the Skin of a Lion (Ondaatje)
In the Skin of a Lion - Michael Ondaatje

"... Ondaatje stressed the importance of place and having a landscape in which to envision his work. 'I can’t begin a book with an idea, or it peters out after about two pages,' he said. 'Location is essential. Once I know when and where it’s happening, it creates a situation for a story. It’s almost like a plot, a landscape.'”

 

This quotation (it's from a 2012 feature story in the Chicago Maroon, student newspaper of the University of Chicago) helped me a great deal to formulate for myself how this novel by Ondaatje differs from most fiction I've read. One difference, certainly, is that the prose is more poetic than most, with unexpected metaphors teasing around your understanding of the plain sense of the narrative, distracting and at the same time delighting you with their oddness, and, if you can decode them, their rich appropriateness. An example found just by opening a page at random: "Patrick stares at the thin layer of moonlight on the wall. His body feels like the shadow of someone in chains."

 

In this context, it is neither plot progression - the point of view and timelines jump about a lot - nor character - the main characters are notably dynamic but not necessarily deeply examined - but the rock-solid sense of location that grounds you and encourages you to continue on with this story. It's been a couple of months since I finished it, and what stands out to me most clearly are vivid pictures of locations, in many cases locations in or near Toronto that I know of: the Bloor Viaduct Bridge, the water filtration plant that looks like a palace, and has deep underground pipes that go miles out into the lake. All of these have some added moment of action that fixes them in your mind: the nun falling off the partially constructed Bloor Viaduct Bridge, for instance. In this novel, Ondaatje also fixes his story very firmly in time, bringing in the real-life disappearance of Ambrose Small, as well as both the massive and visionary building projects and the violent labour unrest.

 

Through this, our main character Patrick charts his chequered career, at a certain point taking on the lion-skin, as it were, of a saboteur and rebel, in place of his lover Clara's previous and now deceased lover.

 

There's more Ondaatje in my future: the delights far outweigh the difficulties.

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review 2020-04-14 02:34
Many Rivers to Cross (Robinson)
Many Rivers to Cross - Peter Robinson

In this novel, which continues the Zelda arc (the Eastern European woman first introduced in the last volume), Banks continues to grapple with both the evil that outsiders can do, and the evil aroused in white Britain when xenophobia gets a grip on them.

 

The main case is the murder of a 12- or 13-year-old boy from Syria, a refugee sent ahead of his family, who gets caught up in the world of drug distribution (the "county lines" - a new phrase for me). That trade, apparently, is being taken over by Albanians with a particularly ruthless line in executions for operatives or allies they deem to be unfaithful, unreliable or disposable. The boy is found stabbed in a garbage bin in one run-down Eastvale estate, but evidence quickly links him to another death, an overdose of an elderly man, in another. This second estate is about to be redeveloped by a greedy English entrepreneur who is hand-in-glove with said Albanians. Living physically as well as economically elevated above the estate, on a hill just above it, is a middle-class largely white district with an active neighbourhood watch, and a recent trauma in the form of the rape of a young woman in the park that joins (or separates) the two neighbourhoods.

 

Meanwhile, in what seems almost entirely a different book, "Zelda" (her real name is Nelia) is working out her destiny, mostly in London. Making a series of too-stupid-to-live decisions straight out of thriller movies, she pursues the two Croatian brothers responsible for abducting her into sex slavery. After the culmination of that search (I won't spoil it), she goes to Banks (her boyfriend is Annie Cabbot's father, but he's out of the country); there are some stirrings of romantic attraction, but nothing is acted upon, and she certainly doesn't confide everything to him about her actions in London. I'm presuming the resolution of this story will take up a large part of the next Banks novel.

There are a lot of nasty, violent, vicious people in this novel, and because so much of it is spent on the sub-plot I did find that I would have liked more of the cheery Eastvale police department banter as a counteractive.

 

No spoilers as to the eventual degree of guilt worked out and assigned to the various perpetrators in the two main plot lines. The primary plot is fully resolved. I still get a great deal of pleasure out of these novels, and am not finding them repetitive. Nor do I object, as some reviewers apparently do, to Banks' political thoughts about racism and Brexit - you can hardly avoid it, and I suppose I don't object because his thoughts (those of a "Guardian reader", as one of the neighbourhood watch spits) are, to me, fundamentally right and exactly what you'd hope the police would believe.

 

Just another step down the path with an old friend.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2020-02-18 19:31
Lives of the Saints (Ricci)
Lives of the Saints - Nino Ricci

Had this novel ended after 200 pages, I probably would have called it well-observed, low-key, a little distant and foreign to me. There is relatively little incident in it, though most of the main characters end up getting physically injured, through fist-fighting, snake-bite, geriatric falls or other happenstances of life in a somewhat rough-and-tumble, very small Italian town post WW II. It is told from the point of view of Vittorio, a young boy, but with a fairly adult understanding (though without any spoilerish references to future events). We are, however, left to glean for ourselves, from the plentiful evidence, that Vittorio's mother Cristina - effectively a single mother, since her husband has emigrated without her to America - has had an adulterous affair and is now pregnant. Much of the novel shows Cristina defiantly dealing with the fallout of this in her family and small community, where she does not conform to expected behaviour. Meanwhile, Vittorio also feels the backlash at school (it is a sympathetic schoolmistress who preserves him from the worst of the after-school bullying by holding him back to sweep the floor and listen to stories of the lives of the saints).

 

Cristina escapes into the big world - specifically an ocean liner taking her and Vittorio to Halifax, where she does not intend to re-join her husband. Here are a brand new set of characters and a brand new set of social mores (there's a fairly amusing byplay with the Captain's jealous wife). But the real world turns out to be too big and cruel for Cristina, and there is a catastrophic conclusion for her and her unborn child. I've left that vague for the sake of future readers, but I suppose even that deserves a spoiler tag.

 

For me, the first part of the novel was a pleasant read, but it was the conclusion, with its sudden, violent action, that gripped me and that now remains chiefly in my memory a few weeks after finishing the book.

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review 2020-01-09 22:18
Still Life (Penny)
Still Life - Louise Penny

The title of this book has at least two meanings in the context of the work: first, and most obviously, the victim of the murder is an artist (and her work - though not exactly still life - contains clues that point to the murderer); secondly, there are references in various conversations to people who do not progress morally, who have "still" (i.e. unmoving, unprogressing) lives.

 

I already like Chief Inspector Gamache, which is a good thing, as he has numerous further adventures and two of them await me on my shelf. And I like his faithful lieutenant, Beauvoir. I am left speculating whether Agent Yvette Nichol is going to have a story arc of her own in which she learns not to let her own egotisms and insecurities stand between her and becoming a good officer. She certainly gets the rough edge of Gamache's tongue in this volume; I am wondering if she is the police equivalent to the much darker case of the murderer - someone who obstinately refuses to learn, but wallows in past mistakes. As such, she might be a one-off character.

 

The jury's still out for me on whether I'm going to embrace this series whole-heartedly. There's something about the rather jumpy conversational style that holds me at a bit of a distance from the characters. I can't quite put my finger on it. On the other hand, I really liked the characterizations (the gay couple running the Bistro, and the sharp-tongued eminent old lady who's a poet, stand out for me). I liked the rural Quebec setting, and the fact that Gamache was clearly an outsider in some ways, but still knew his way about. I liked the range of cultural reference, and the way that the police officers didn't just listen to the answers to their questions, but also read the way people answered (or didn't answer) them. I liked the specificity and oddness of the detail about hunting bows and painting technique.

 

Onward to volume 2 in the series for me.

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review 2019-11-19 20:14
A Complicated Kindness (Toews)
A Complicated Kindness - Miriam Toews

There is a chicken on the front cover of this novel, and an axe hovering threateningly in the upper corner. The relevance of these objects is explained early on - as an adolescent Mennonite girl in a closed community, our first-person narrator Nomi (a childish version of Naomi) has few options for her adulthood but to work for years in the chicken slaughterhouse that partially sustains her community. You wouldn't think there's much kindness associated with that theme, but of course there are degrees of kindness associated with the slaughter.

 

The novel shows teenage Nomi becoming increasingly rebellious against her hyper-restrictive religion, shaving her head, smoking weed, pursuing a sexual relationship and the like, as well as trying to deal with a seriously ill friend and the breakup of her (also rebellious) family. Her mother and sister are both gone elsewhere, separately, by the point in the narrative where we begin. All through the cruelties, mostly inflicted by the church but also by her boyfriend Travis, we see through Nomi's interested, imaginative eyes, and we're made aware of little, complicated kindnesses in her life.

 

But we're left with the most desolate image of all - Nomi excommunicate and alone in the house of her broken family, deserted by the last person she loves, her father, who departs the town rather than force his own shunning on her (or having it forced on them) in a final complicated act of kindness.

 

It is the brilliance of the observation, the quirkiness of the plot, and the honesty of the depiction of co-existing resilience, apathy and despair that we all experience to a degree as adolescents, that save this novel from being merely, as my generation would have called it, a "downer." As an insider's view of a little-known world, a foreign subculture set in the borderlands of Manitoba - with the different foreign-ness of the U.S. only a short drive away - I can very much see how this book fits well into the Canlit establishment's agenda of promoting any work that describes and celebrates Canadian diversity.

 

Fortunately, it's also an intriguing read with a strong female personal voice.

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