Category Archives: Fiction — general

Sweetland, by Michael Crummey

sweetlandI have a huge backlog of book reviews to post from all the books I read on vacation, but I’m going to post about the last book I read first because I’m so excited about Michael Crummey’s Sweetland, which I mostly read on the plane flying home. After Galore, I would not have believed it possible for Crummey to top his accomplishment of writing THE “great Newfoundland novel,” but I think he has at least equalled if not surpassed it with Sweetland.

Comparisons are inevitable, and instructive. Galore told the story of an isolated Newfoundland outport over a period that stretched from the early nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. Paradise Deep, in that novel, was a community so cut off from the outside world it might as well have existed on another planet (until near the very end of the novel). Galore offered a rich tapestry of how a town like this grew, changed, suffered and struggled over the years when the cod fishery was the lifeline of thousands of such tiny communities.

Sweetland takes the story of the Newfoundland outport through the last half of the twentieth century and up into the beginning of the twenty-first, and while Galore showed us a way of life rooted in the cod fishery and based on the land, Sweetland shows us the end of that way of life. Rather than being remote from the outside world, Sweetland, a tiny island off Newfoundland’s south coast, is being absorbed into it. The community is about to be resettled — not forcibly, as with the government-driven resettlement of the 1960s, but with government support. Most of the residents want to leave the tiny, struggling outport, reduced to a skeleton like most such communities have been in the twenty years since the cod moratorium. The provincial government offers a generous resettlement package — upwards of $100,000 per household — but it comes with the same caveat that made the earlier, forced resettlements so unpopular. Everyone on the island must agree to leave, or there’ll be no resettlement package.

The title of the novel refers not just to the place but to the story’s main character: Moses Sweetland, a lifelong resident of the island nearing seventy, is one of the last few holdouts who refuse to leave. Naturally that creates resentment, and Sweetland’s neighbours pressure him to sign on along with all the others. But for reasons he can’t articulate even to himself, Sweetland doesn’t want to go.

The story unfolds over a period of about two years, while the resettlement plan comes to fruition, but the present-day chapters are interspersed with flashback chapters that paint scenes from Sweetland’s earlier life and give us a glimpse of life on the island as it used to be. The contradictions and complexities of a twenty-first century town that’s rooted in a much older way of life are perfectly echoed in this novel. Moses Sweetland engages in some of the most ancient of human activities, like hunting and cleaning the meat he eats, while at the same time getting pulled into that most modern of poignant moments: viewing tributes on the Facebook page of a dead loved one. He is a man with a foot in both worlds, unwilling or unable to move forward.

The novel is, of course, a tragedy — what else could it be, with such a backdrop? — and Sweetland is the tragic hero who pits his own will, not against the will of the gods as in the Greek tragedies, but against the equally implacable will of community and authority. As a tragic hero he is closest to King Lear, especially in the latter part of the novel, the abandoned old man raging against his fate and howling out his grief, leaving both himself and the reader unsure how mad or how sane he is. Like any good writer of tragedy, Crummey is relentless in stripping Sweetland of everything and everyone that might offer him comfort and peace, which results in a tale that is sometimes almost too painful to read, but so compelling you can’t turn away from it.

As always with Michael Crummey, language is handled with a poet’s precision, and every word, from the perfectly-echoed outport dialogue to sweeping passages of description of the landscape, is chosen with care. I couldn’t find a wrong note in the entire book; every phrase felt as if it were the only possible one to choose. Again, I compared it to Galore: in that novel, the reader saw through the eyes of numerous characters throughout the sweeping scale of the story; here we are locked into a single perspective, always seeing, hearing and thinking what Sweetland sees, hears and thinks. Crummey handles the limited third-person point of view more skilfully than any novelist I’ve read since Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall: we are so close to Sweetland it’s as if we’re looking over his shoulder.

It’s not too much of a spoiler, I hope, to say that there’s a large swathe of the novel in which Sweetland is all alone with no human contact, and it’s a real tribute to how brilliantly this is written that even that section of the book fully held my interest. You have to appreciate that I never enjoy stories where the protagonist is all alone, battling man-against-nature with nothing but his thoughts for company. I’ve never read Robinson Crusoe; as a teen I tried to read Island of the Blue Dolphins because everyone said it was great, but I couldn’t get into it; don’t even get me started on the ordeal of studying The Old Man and the Sea in Grade Eleven! But Sweetland is such a vivid and beautifully drawn character and his voice is so compelling that even those parts of the story where he was alone for long stretches held my attention completely.

Finally, I’ll say this, both as a reader and as a fellow Newfoundland writer whose new book is appearing in the same season as Sweetland — if this book does not sweep all the local and regional book awards and make at least an appearance on the shortlists for the major national awards (preferably winning those too), there’s no justice in CanLit. Newfoundland writing, and Canadian writing, and just writing, doesn’t get much better than this.

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How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky, by Lydia Netzer

toledoThere’s little doubt that “quirky” is the word most often applied by reviewers to Lydia Netzer’s How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky; I used the word myself in reviewing her debut novel Shine Shine Shine. Like her first novel, Toledo is a love story with unexpected twists and turns, one that’s hard to categorize but easy to enjoy.

The central characters, George and Irene, are both astronomers/physicists/whatever you call those really really smart people who know all about black holes and the universe and stuff. While Irene is dedicated to pure science, George’s days are punctuated by mystical visions of ancient gods and goddesses, and he’s searching for a soulmate he almost remembers, but can never quite find. Irene might just be that soulmate — but is their connection too perfect? Is it fate, destiny, or science?

As with Shine Shine ShineToledo asks (but does not necessarily answer) a lot of difficult philosophical questions inside a not-so-simple love story. Along with the science there are elements of magic realism (a major plot point hinges on the reader accepting that two people can have a meaningful conversation and transmit actual factual information during a shared lucid dream) and, of course, lots of gray areas where we can’t quite be sure what’s science and what’s magic — as with George’s visions, in addition to the lucid dreams.

I have two quibbles with this otherwise enjoyable book, one of which is the author’s fault and one of which may not be. When you create a cast of very quirky characters (and there are some extremely quirky ones in this book) and have them meeting up and doing improbable things, it’s often hard to make the dialogue sound believable. While this novel succeeds brilliantly in some scenes, in others it ends up sounding clunky and unrealistic. (That said, I realize this is a matter of opinion like everything in reading, because I read another review that criticized the dialogue, and the passage they used to illustrate the bad dialogue was one of the ones that I thought was most natural and believable in the whole book — in that passage I could hear the characters speaking out loud, which I couldn’t always).

The second problem I had was that a very significant plot point, which was revealed carefully and delicately in flashback scenes throughout the story, was given away in the book’s description in my online bookstore (and in every review I’ve read, so probably on the physical book jacket also). It’s a detail that I thought would have had a lot more impact and been much more interesting if the reader had been allowed to figure it out as the characters did; I wish I hadn’t gone into the story knowing it. You’ll notice I’ve carefully avoided revealing that detail here, a caution which will be completely meaningless if you read any other summary of this book online, but I’m doing what I can here.

If you like an offbeat love story that has its feet on the ground but its head well up in the clouds, you should pick up How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky.

 

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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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