The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson

summerbeforethewarThis was a book that grew on me as I read it. At first I liked it, then I liked it a lot, and by the end I was in tears and completely engrossed in it. 

The Summer Before the War begins almost light-heartedly in the summer of 1914, when Beatrice Nash arrives as the new Latin teacher in the English town of Rye. Hiring a woman to teach Latin is a bit of a bold move, not to mention a young woman who rides her own bicycle and is determined to be independent. The early parts of the novel have very much the feel of a comedy of manners and a gentle romance, but these are, as we know from the title, the last weeks of the old Edwardian world, and everything is about to change forever.

In fact, the title is a bit misleading, because most of the novel’s action takes place after the August declaration of war. Belgian refugees arrive in town, and the young men of Rye enlist in the military — including two of the man characters, Hugh Grange and Daniel Bookham, nephews of the delightful Mrs. Agatha Kent. The point of view shifts around among several key characters but comes back most often to Hugh and Beatrice, two young people whose views of what constitutes a good life are deeply challenged by the changes that war brings.

I found this novel felt more authentic than a lot of historical fiction in adequately representing the attitudes of the time — towards a single woman’s independence, towards a divorced and remarried couple, towards a pregnancy outside marriage (no matter the circumstances of conception), and towards homosexuality (which hovers as an issue in the background of much of the novel without any character ever once coming out and saying in plain language what they’re talking about — which is of course entirely appropriate for people of that social background at that time). We modern writers, writing about the lives of people a century ago, often gloss over the differences in attitudes and don’t seriously grapple with how great the pressure of social disapproval was on issues like these. Although the language is contemporary and easy to read, The Summer Before the War sometimes felt more like a novel written in the early 20th century, rather than a modern novel about that time, since it seemed to me to reproduce so convincingly the social world of pre-war, small town England.

In a novel full of young men of military age, set in the dawning days of the Great War, a reader would be foolhardy indeed to expect that every character is going to make it safely to the epilogue, and indeed I was speculating early on as to who was doomed to die in battle. Even so, I did not expect to find the ending as emotional as I did. It’s not often I actually cry while reading a book, but here, I did. I found every relationship in the book absolutely believable and all the characters deeply engaging, and it will probably be one of my favourite reads of this summer.

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Mister Nightingale, by Paul Bowdring

nightingaleThe latest book by Newfoundland novelist Paul Bowdring was one I did not want to miss. Mister Nightingale is the story of a middle-aged Newfoundland writer, James Nightingale, returning to his home province after living in Toronto for many years. His marriage has ended, his books are modestly successful, and while he takes some time out to reconnect with old friends, his university-aged daughter, and his aging father, Nightingale reflects on where life has taken him and what he’s actually accomplished.

There’s a lot of reflection here — this is not the book for anyone who wants a fast-paced, plot-driven story. If I’m comparing it to other books I’ve read in the past few weeks, the comparison that resonates most is between James Nightingale and Sripathi Rao from The Hero’s Walk. Both are men in later middle life whose lives have, in many ways, disappointed them, men who feel they have not fulfilled their own early dreams or others’ expectations of them. However, as Nightingale is a writer, there is the added layer of artistic angst, which means that he not only struggles with the meaning of his artistic vocation, what it has achieved and whether it was even worth pursuing — but also that he does so in stunningly beautiful language.

This is a novelist’s novel, a book for people who love words. It’s also a fun read for anyone who knows and loves St. John’s, Newfoundland and its literary scene, which is the main reason it floated to the top of my overcrowded “to-read” list. Apart from the general caricatures of the local scene and the loving evoked details of the city, there are a few characters that are pretty clearly (and in some cases, hilariously) based on thinly-disguised real people. Another strand of the novel that will strike a chord with many readers is Nightingale’s relationship with his elderly father, Malc. Malc, who lives in a long-term care facility, occupies that marginal space around the edges of actual dementia that is so familiar to those of us who have dealt with aging loved ones. Sometimes his conversation is completely sensible, only to be replaced seconds later by non-sequiturs that show how far he’s strayed from the present-day reality.

I’ll admit there were aspects of this novel’s plot that I didn’t find entirely believable or satisfying (particularly one major incident near the end of the book), but in the end, this is not a novel to be read for the plot. This is one man’s reflection (Nightingale’s and, perhaps, Bowdring’s, though I always try to be careful in speculating about how autobiographical a writer’s work is) on what it means to be a writer, what it means to be more than halfway through your life, and what it means to go back to the place you came from. A reflective and well-written book, and often quite a funny one as well.

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Bone and Bread, by Saleema Nawaz

boneandbreadThird in the three “Canada Reads” selections I covered this month was Saleema Nawaz’s Bone and Bread, the story of two sisters united and divided by family and personal tragedy. The narrator of the story is Beena, a woman in her early 30s who has just learned of the death of her sister Sadhana. The story alternates between the present tense, in which Beena, her 18-year-old son Quinn, and her boyfriend Evan try to deal with the aftermath of Sadhana’s death, and the past in which the story of the girls’ childhood and troubled adolescence unfolds.

Beena has a strong, readable first-person narrative voice that carried me quickly through this story. Her relationship with her sister has all the complexity of a real sibling relationship — it’s definitely love/hate — with the added twist of hardship added by the girls being orphaned quite young. In addition to (or most likely in response to) their losses, the girls both have a difficult time as teenagers — Beena becomes pregnant at 16 while Sadhana develop anorexia. The story is set in 1980s, 90s and 2000s Montreal, with the characters’ love for the city an ever-present background to their story (even though Beena has chosen to live in Ottawa as an adult). Bone and Bread was a story that carried me forward quickly through its pages, not so much because of any shocking plot twists or breathtaking suspense (almost everything I’ve told you in this plot summary is clear from the first couple of pages of the book, so I’m not spoiling it) — rather, it’s a strong narrative voice and a realistic portrayal of tangled family relationships and complicated grief that keeps the pages turning. I found the resolution of the story just a little anticlimactic, but not enough to mar my enjoyment of the whole. 

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Birdie, by Tracey Lindberg

birdieIt’s really, really hard to know what to say about Birdie. It’s the second of this year’s Canada Reads selections that I read this month, and it is beautifully written. It deals with the very important and current issue of the abuse and murder of Aboriginal women in Canada. Almost every woman in the story, including the main character Birdie (Bernice) has been the victim of some kind of violence. Birdie herself spends much of the novel in bed in a near-catatonic state as a result of trauma, and a good bit of the novel is relayed through her memories and dreams while she is bedridden. However, the story unfolds in such a non-linear, allusive fashion that I wasn’t always fully certain what was actually going on. There are vivid, beautifully drawn vignettes, but even a few days after reading this book I would have a hard time giving you a plot summary of what actually happened. I found this a shortcoming, although it was obviously done deliberately, because the characters were engaging enough that I wanted to get more involved in their story. Yet the narrator seemed to always keep me, the reader, at arms’ length, never quite sure what was actually going on. Beautiful writing on an important issue, but I needed the story to be a bit more plot-driven before I could fully immerse myself in it.

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The Hero’s Walk, by Anita Rau Badami

heroswalkLike two other books I read this month, The Hero’s Walk was a selection in this year’s annual “Canada Reads” competition. Sometimes I get around to reading all the Canada Reads books before or during the contest week (and sometimes I never do); this time, except for one I’d already read, I got around to them long after the radio discussion had ended, but it introduced me to some excellent books, as it always does.

The Hero’s Walk is set in India (with a very brief section taking place in Canada). It is essentially the story of how one man, Sripathi Rao, copes with middle age and the sense that he has not accomplished much in life, as well as how his extended family copes with a horrific tragedy. Sripathi’s family — his long-suffering wife, his disappointing son, his disappointed sister, and his frankly nasty old mother — are all drawn with beautiful detail. So is his community, set against the wider backdrop of contemporary India. I love everything with an Indian setting, and this novel gives a flavour of India that feels authentic without being “exotic” or romanticized. Sripathi Rao is living, essentially, a very ordinary life, and that’s really his problem — he was led, mostly by his mother, to expect that he needed to live an extraordinary life, and as he nears old age he realizes this hasn’t happened. Can he cope with it, especially in the face of shattering loss?

This novel reminded me very much of Joan Clark’s The Birthday Lunch, in that it examines in minute detail a family’s response to a sudden tragedy, and how that loss reveals the fault lines in all the family relationships. It is an intimate novel about people struggling to make meaning out of their ordinary lives, and I enjoyed it very much.

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Children of Earth and Sky, by Guy Gavriel Kay

childrenofearthandskyAs always, a new novel by one of my favourite fantasy authors is a cause for celebration. In Children of Earth and Sky, Kay returns to the nearly-Europe of some of his earlier novels, with a story set in cities and landscapes that closely parallel Venice, Dubrovnik, Istanbul and the lands around them, a generation after the fall of Constantinople. Kay’s fantasy world is, as always, not quite our world, so he has the freedom to play around with characters and events. This lightly fantastic genre also allows elements of mystery, magic and the supernatural to brush the edges of the story — like a dead character who speaks inside his granddaughter’s head, or a god-touched grove where inexplicable things can happen.

A disparate group of characters — a female archer bent on revenge, a reluctant nun turned spy, a merchant’s restless son, a doctor with a secret mission, and an artist on his way to an enemy court, all meet on a ship in the middle of the not-quite-Mediterranean. Out of this chance and violent encounter between these five people comes death, romance, heartbreak and new directions in life that none of them could have predicted. As always, not only is the world these characters inhabit vividly realized, the characters themselves are people so real they can — and often do — break your heart. This will take its place on my Guy Gavriel Kay shelf as another favourite book.

 

 

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Circling the Sun, by Paula McLain

circlingthesunFrom being down and out in to Elizabethan England with Christopher Marlowe, I travelled via my next book pick to experience the life of a wealthy white colonizer and a trailblazing woman in early 20th century Africa. Circling the Sun is the story of Beryl Markham, the first woman (and second person) to fly across the Atlantic from east to west. She was the daughter of a white farmer in Kenya, a highly skilled racehorse trainer at a time when that was largely a men-only career, and a society woman with several high-profile affairs as well as three marriages. And most of this was before she started to fly planes.

Beryl Markham certainly lived an interesting life — the book only covers her life up to her early thirties, and she lived into her eighties. And she inhabited an interesting world in interesting times. Also, Paula McLain is good at vividly recreating a woman’s life in times past and drawing the reader in, as she did in The Paris Wife. So this was an intriguing book that I read quite quickly. Beryl is not always a likable protagonist, but she was, to me, always engaging. I cared about what happened to her even when I didn’t like the choices she made. And, as is nearly always the case with well-written stories about women’s lives in decades or centuries past, I found myself struck by how limited her choices were, how difficult it was even for a relatively wealthy, privileged woman blessed with intelligence and a strong will, to carve out anything remotely like an independent life for herself.

What’s missing from Circling the Sun is both infuriating and also absolutely appropriate. The book vividly paints the world of expatriate English people living our their lives in the African colonies, amusing themselves with everything from jungle safaris to casual infidelity, but never investigates the strangeness of the fact that all their wealth and ease (and even their hardship, as when farmers like Beryl’s father fail to make their farms pay) is built on theft. The mere idea that you can move into a land where someone else is living, exploit that land’s resources for your own benefit, and make the native population serve you, is, on the face of it, preposterous. Hopefully it seems preposterous to most of us today. But for people living in Beryl Markham’s time, it was simply the way the world worked (albeit a world that was going to end far sooner than most of them realized). The politics and power struggles in the background of the book are about which group of white people are going to control which piece of Africa; the native population is never treated serious as owners and masters of the land, as they had been before European conquest and would be again within a couple of decades.

It’s jarring to a modern reader that nobody in the book ever reflects or comments upon this, but I also think it’s absolutely right, because the lives of people like Beryl Markham and the others she associated with (including Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton, probably better known to most reader than Beryl herself) were made possible by never thinking about the ridiculous immorality of the project they were all engaged in. As a child, she spent a lot of time in the nearby native village (I don’t know whether this is historically accurate or a detail invented by McLain, as I hadn’t read anything by or about Markham before), and it particularly close to one boy near her own age. When both Beryl and the African boy are adolescents, she makes a brief sexual advance towards him, to which he succinctly responds, “Do you want to get me killed?”

Later, that same African friend, Ruta — now grown, married and with a family — becomes Beryl’s most trusted retainer, but there’s never any question that he is a servant, not an equal. That disparity between black and white underpins the entire world that makes Beryl’s story possible, and it’s entirely believable that a woman like Markham, iconoclastic as she was in so many areas, would be entirely conventional and accepting of that system that benefitted her so much. 

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