Category Archives: Fiction — general

The Diviners, by Margaret Laurence (Old Favourites #13)

diviners

(Note: this review contains spoilers. If you haven’t read The Diviners, I do give away a few major plot points here, though I’d argue it’s not primarily a plot-driven novel so that may not matter as much. Still, be warned).

This might just be my favourite book of all time, and I haven’t re-read it in at least 20 years. I went back to it this week in preparation for making a Writing Wednesday Book Talk video about it, and was happy to discover that it delighted and moved me just as much this time as it did the many times I read it in my early to mid-twenties.

Margaret Laurence published The Diviners forty years ago this year, in 1974, and won the Governor-General’s award for fiction. It was her last major novel, the fifth and crowning book of five novels set at least partly in the fictional Manitoba town of Manawaka (a town similar to Neepawa, where Laurence grew up). Together, these five novels (this is assuming you count A Bird in the House as a novel, though you could also call it a collection of short stories) chronicle the lives of women from this town — you have to say “from” rather than “in” because all Laurence’s major characters eventually leave Manawaka, though none ever escapes the hold the town has over them — over a time period that begins with young Hagar Shipley, heroine of The Stone Angel, growing up in the 1890s when the town is new, to middle-aged Morag Gunn, heroine of The Diviners, writing about Manawaka from her new home in Ontario in the early 1970s. 

In fact, although The Diviners is not purely an autobiographical novel (when people said it was, Laurence was fond of pointing out that “I have two children, not one, and neither of  them is the illegitimate child of a Manitoba Metis”) the parallels between Laurence writing The Diviners and Morag writing the book that she’s writing in The Diviners are many and obvious. Which leads to the first of three reasons why I think this is such a wonderful and important novel.

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The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, by Tom Rachman

riseandfallAs I said in my last review, this is one of two novels that I picked up and read within a day of each other because I couldn’t resist the fact that both were set in bookstores. Like Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, Rachman’s new novel starts off with a somewhat quirky, reserved protagonist who runs a failing bookstore in an isolated community, trying to peddle paper-and-ink books in a world gone increasingly digital.

There the similarity ends, however, since The Storied Life takes place largely within or near A.J. Fikry’s Island Books bookstore, while the World’s End bookstore owned by Tooly Zylberberg in Rise and Fall is only the jumping-off place for her adventures. World’s End, described so lovingly by the author that it sounds like everyone’s dream bookstore, is where this eccentric woman in her early thirties has wound up in the year 2011, after a turbulent childhood and youth. But it’s also the place Tooly leaves early in the novel on a quest to understand her own past, and for much of the story it’s doubtful whether she, or the narrative, will ever come back to the quiet Welsh village and its bookstore.

For a novel that starts in a small, out-of-the-way place, Rise and Fall quickly turns into a sprawling epic, taking Tooly and the reader to Bangkok, New York, Italy, and Ireland, among other places. It also jumps back and forth in time: shortly after meeting the adult Tooly in her Welsh bookstore, the reader meets ten-year-old Tooly in 1988, travelling from city to city in the company of a man she calls only “Paul.” Then we’re in 1999, and twenty-one-year-old Tooly is living in New York City, again with a man who might or might not be her father, an older Russian immigrant named Humphrey. Two other quasi-parental figures appear in this stage of her life: the chaotic Sarah, whose appearances cause Tooly nothing but trouble, and the enigmatic Venn, whom she hero-worships. As for Paul, the father-figure of her childhood, he has disappeared from the story.

None of these people makes an appearance in the adult Tooly’s life: she seems cut off from any notion of family or personal history, until a chance online encounter with an old boyfriend results in a message telling her to come to New York because she needs to do something about her “father.” What father? Does Tooly even have  parents? Who are the adults who more-or-less raised her, what’s her connection to them, and why has she left them all behind? These are the questions that propel the story forward (always jumping back and forth between the three timelines) and the questions that kept me turning pages, trying to unravel the mysteries of Tooly’s past.

I loved this novel; I found Tooly herself a compelling character, I was interested by all the other characters — her four somewhat parent-figures, her bookstore employee Fogg, her ex-boyfriend Duncan and his family — and, most of all, intrigued by the links and connections that were gradually revealed as the story unfolded. Tooly’s personal story is set against the background of the changing world that all of us over 3o have lived through — the end of the Cold War, the cycles of economic boom and bust, the rise of the digital age — and these changes form a vivid background to the story of a woman whose girlhood unfolded across several continents, but who winds up at the World’s End, trying to create a quiet life among old books. If you dislike stories that jump back and forth in time, or stories where you have to spend time figuring out who all the characters are, you’ll hate this novel, but if not, I highly recommend it.

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The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin

storiedlifeIt’s hard for a book lover to resist a novel set in a bookstore, which was my justification for buying both this novel and Tom Rachman’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, which I’ll review next. Although, since I bought both as e-books, I’m really part of the problem that plagues A.J. Fikry’s Island Books, rather than part of the solution.

A man clinging to a bricks-and-mortar bookstore  as the rest of the world shifts away from reading paper books — a man clinging to memories of his dead wife as the rest of the world moves forward — that’s A. J. Fikry. He appears initially as a cantakerous, grumpy, difficult-to-know man, a young widower locked in his grief and unwilling to engage with anyone in the world outside. But this novel can easily be read as a twenty-first century retelling of George Eliot’s Silas Marner: the lonely man, isolated from the community, is first shattered by the theft of his most valuable possession, then drawn back into life by the arrival of a small child abandoned in his shop.

It’s this latter fact — the arrival of toddler Maya in A.J.’s life — that’s most difficult to update from the original story, because while it was quite plausible in nineteenth-century England that an abandoned child might just end up living with the person whose house she wandered into, that obviously wouldn’t run as smoothly today, what with child welfare and adoption laws and stuff. Zevin skims over the legalities of this pretty lightly, doing the bare minimum necessary to make it just slightly believable that A.J. Fikry might end up raising this child. It helps if you suspend your disbelief a little at this point.

The Storied Life is a simple book telling a simple tale. It’s not much different, in fact, from the plot of many a romance novel (though the story takes us well past the happily-ever-after into a bittersweet and very realistic ending). The writing is lovely, and the bookstore setting combined with the little pieces of short-story analysis at the beginning of each chapter, ostensibly written by A.J. as a reading guide for his daughter, remind us that this is as much a story about stories, and power they have in our lives, as it is about A.J. Fikry and the people whose lives touch his.

Also, it’s a lot more fun to read than Silas Marner. And if you haven’t read Silas Marner, just trust me on that one.

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The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet, by Katie Rorick and Bernie Su

lizziebI was a big fan of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, the innovative YouTube adaptation of Pride and Prejudice as a twenty-first century grad student’s video blog (see my two-part review of it here and here). This just-released companion novel is structured as if it were Lizzie’s behind-the-scenes diary written as her public story unfolds on screen.

 Lizzie’s voice and her telling of the story come across as fresh, fun and believable here. That said, I don’t know if this is a novel that will appeal to anyone who hasn’t already fallen in love with this version of the characters via the video series. There are dozens if not hundreds of updates, adaptations and spinoffs of Jane Austen novels currently available. What made The Lizzie Bennet diaries stand out was the vlog format, the way the story unfolded for viewers in real time with the opportunity to engage with it across other social media formats, and of course the talent of the young actors who brought it to life. If you’ve already been captivated by those elements and watched the video series, this novel will be a fun way to extend your involvement in the story. 

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The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy

the-god-of-small-thingsI’ve decided one of the things I want to do this year is to read more literature by writers from countries other than Canada, the US, and the UK. India is an easy choice for me because I’m so fascinated with the country, and I’d often heard of Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things, so I decided to start here. And it was certainly an interesting place to start.

I’m still not sure what to say about this novel. It is certainly very beautifully written and very intriguing. The setting is one that’s unfamiliar to me — it’s set in Kerala, India, mostly in the late 1960s (though a portion of it takes place many years later), among a community of Syrian Christians — a group whose existence I knew of but didn’t know a lot about.

The story centres around a pair of twins, Rachel and Esthappen, whose already fractured family is torn apart because of an illicit love affair that ends in tragedy. Caste divisions are at the heart of this conflict, and the story provides a searing glimpse into the unintended consequences of what should be an act of love.

It’s very absorbing, but also sad and disturbing, and the ending was particularly troubling. Rather than giving the closure one might hope for after the terrible events of Rachel’s and Esthappen’s childhood, the modern-day framing story closes with a scene that is just as troubling as what has gone before — leaving the reader with the feeling that the bleak history of this family is not going to take a more positive turn anytime soon. And that’s probably very realistic — but you won’t find much hopeful “triumph of the human spirit” here. What you will find is beautiful writing, vividly drawn characters, and a haunting account of a tragedy that, without human prejudice, would never have needed to happen.

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Perfect, by Rachel Joyce

perfectRachel Joyce’s novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was one of my favourite books last year, so I was understandably eager to read Perfect. While I don’t think this story will linger with me quite as long as Harold did, I did find it a haunting and beautifully-constructed novel.

Perfect tells two stories, separated by forty years. The book begins with young Byron Hemmings, an English schoolboy from a well-to-do family who is concerned because a friend has told him that the government is going to add two seconds to the year. Byron doesn’t understand how you can just tamper with time like that — a lot can happen in two seconds. Sure enough, a lot does happen in two seconds when Byron’s mother Diana is driving through an unfamiliar working-class neighbourhood and hits a little girl on a bicycle. From that two-second impact a series of events unspools that will lead to tragedy.

In alternating chapters in between Byron’s story, we meet Jim, a mentally ill man in his fifties who has spent his whole life in and out of a mental hospital. Currently living in a rundown camper van and working at a supermarket cafe, Jim barely holds his life together with obsessive-compulsive rituals and struggles to cope with everyday life now that the hospital where he spent so many years has closed and he’s out on the streets with no support. It’s a momentary collision with a car that also transforms Jim’s life, forcing him to interact with other people in ways that challenge and change him.

For most of the book there’s no indication of how the two stories fit together, although the reader is encouraged to draw conclusions. As with Harold Fry, there’s a revelation near the end of the story that both confirms and challenges our suspicions — it may not be what we initially expected, but it makes perfect sense of everything that’s gone before.

Intriguing as both Byron and Jim are, the really intriguing character her, the axis around which the story revolves, is Byron’s mother Diana. Byron’s childhood best friend thinks Diana is “perfect” and she certainly is trying hard to be perfect. She’s married to Seymour, a wealthy and distant man who leaves her alone with the children in an elegant home all week while he works in London, and comes home only for weekend visits that make everyone uncomfortable. Diana has married “above her station” and is trying hard to fit her husband’s expectations, but the accident forces her to confront what lies beneath the perfect veneer of her new life.

I found this a quick but very compelling read.

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A Matter of Honour, by Jeffrey Archer

archerThis is definitely not a book I would have chosen to read on my own, since Cold War thrillers are hardly my thing (Cold War yes; thrillers no). For reasons I don’t fully understand, since it matches oddly with the more literary books on the list, this novel is one of the books teachers can select for our Grade 12 English course here in the province. I’ve never taught it, but this year I decided to let my students choose the second novel themselves from the approved list, and wouldn’t you know it, one student had to be difficult and choose the book I hadn’t read. So then I had to read the book and make up assignments on it.

After reading through it in two days, I’m no wiser as to how Archer ever made it onto a high-school reading list (if you wanted to include more mainstream, commercial fiction along with the literary fiction there are still a lot better writers you could go with). That said, I’ll give Archer this much: what the book does, it does well. The pages kept turning and I was at least mildly interested throughout to see how everything was going to work out.

The characterization is quite thin and caricatured in places. Adam, the main character, is bequeathed a mysterious letter from his dead father which leads to a priceless Russian icon with a document hidden inside that could CHANGE THE COURSE OF HISTORY. An eeeeevvil KGB spy, Romanov, is also after the icon, and pursues Adam across Europe. Adam is virtuous, noble and admirable throughout (minus telling a few lies and stealing the odd thing to help him get away); Romanov practically twirls his mustache. Both men are in top physical condition, excellent fighters, quick-witted and brilliant and disguise and thinking up cover stories. The female double-bass player with a British symphony orchestra who twice shelters Adam and helps him escape looks like she has the potential to be an interesting character, but probably in a completely different novel.

Still, as I said, it’s a page turner, and it was a quick and painless read. If you like thrillers and Cold War era intrigue, you could definitely do worse. 

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Whirl Away, by Russell Wangersky

whirlawayRussell Wangersky’s collection Whirl Away is the second short-story collection I’ve read this year, which is something of a record for me, and like the other collection (Ed Kavanagh’s Strays) I thoroughly enjoyed it. Wangersky is a master of using language: every phrase and sentence seems perfectly polished. But the beauty of his writing never distracts from the characters in the stories and the dark, often painful situations they face. Weeks after reading this collection, two of the stories still haunt me; both are, in a way, about domestic violence, but in each case the situation is approached from a perspective you wouldn’t normally see, and it makes the sadly familiar suddenly chilling. In “Echo,” a five-year-old (possibly autistic?) child suffers from echolalia and can only repeat the words he hears his parents exchange: coming from a child’s mouth those words tell a frightening story. In “Look Away” an isolated man in an isolated place — a lighthouse keeper — is frustrated with his wife and children; only as the story unfolds does the reader grasp that the lighthouse-keeper’s perception and his reality are two very different things. 

If you love a well-constructed short story that captures a slice of time and human experience so vividly you won’t be able to shake it off — or if, like me, you’re skeptical about short stories but would like to try a few — pick up Whirl Away. You may be haunted, but you won’t regret it.

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The Islands of Doctor Thomas, by Francoise Enguehard

islandsdoctorthomasThis slim novel, set mostly in the French islands of St. Pierre et Miquelon off Newfoundland’s south coast, tells the story of a collection of decades-old photographs taken by a doctor who came to the islands in the early 1900s and used his camera to record the life of the community he saw around him. The photographs are discovered by Francois, a middle-aged architect who now lives in France but returns to his St. Pierre homeland for frequent visits, and Emilie, the teenaged daughter of Francois’s childhood friends. Francois and Emilie feel a strong affinity both for each other and for the photographs, and dedicate themselves to curating the collection, sharing it with others, and finding out more about the mysterious Doctor Thomas. Pieces of his story are imagined by Emilie, who aspires to be a writer, as a sort of novel-within-the-novel.

The material is interesting and the glimpse into St. Pierre culture intriguing — like many Newfoundlanders I know far too little about these islands, which still belong to France, despite how close they are to our shores. But the novel is so short that many potentially interesting elements of character development — especially the nature of the tie that binds Emilie and Francois — are left only as hasty sketches rather than fleshed out in vivid colour, and there is very little in the way of a strong plot to pull the reader forward. This was definitely one of those books that left me wanting much more.

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Every Little Thing, by Chad Pelley

everylittlethingI’ve read most of the fiction published in Newfoundland over the last two years, and of all the books I’ve read, whether by “big name” writers or relative unknowns, whether considered “literary” or “commercial” fiction, Chad Pelley’s Every Little Thing was by far the book that kept me turning the pages most quickly, eager to find out what happened to his characters. His main character and first-person narrator, Cohen Davis, is in prison as the novel opens, and tells the story of how he got there in a series of flashbacks. Even moreso than Lisa Moore’s antihero David Slaney in CaughtCohen Davis is an unlikely prisoner, a highly educated and thoughtful young man, and the reader is naturally interested to find out about the crime that landed him in jail. His story goes back several years to a tragic death in his family, and indeed there’s tragedy piled on tragedy in this story — disease and disability, multiple assaults, deaths both accidental and violent, love and betrayal. There’s a woman at the centre of it all, of course, Cohen’s ex-girlfriend Allie Crosbie, who comes into his life on the heels of one tragedy and is driven out of his life by another. And guiding us through his story is Cohen, a nebbishy everyman with a keen intellect but frequently poor judgement.

I really liked Cohen and I liked the way the story unfolded. I liked the way Pelley avoids the easy and too-obvious resolution at a few points in the story, even though that left me with an ending bleaker than I was happy with. I was caught up enough in the story that I was only able to judge its flaws only on reflection, after finishing the story. One major gap in the story is the lack of any strong sense of place: it’s set somewhere in Atlantic Canada, but the details are vague enough that it could be anywhere in Newfoundland (though the geography doesn’t fit easily with that of this island), or in New Brunswick or Nova Scotia. Only a few scenes set on a trip to Halifax feel genuinely grounded in a real landscape, as specific and recognizable places in Halifax play a role in that part of the story. Another weakness is that Allie, while fun to read about in her scenes with Cohen, is very much an “alluring woman” as filtered through a male gaze (whether that of Cohen the narrator or Pelley the writer, I’m not entirely sure); if you look at her as a separate character it’s hard to understand what motivates Allie at certain crucial points in the book, and her characterization doesn’t always seem consistent. That said, though the book has its flaws, I found it highly readable and far more compelling than Pelley’s debut novel, Away from Everywhere. I finished it in less than a day and was never bored, which to be honest is more than I can say for a lot of literary fiction. 

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