We’ll All be Burnt in our Beds Some Night, by Joel Thomas Hynes

burntJoel Thomas Hynes’s Governor-General’s Award-winning novel was by far the wildest literary ride I’ve been on so far in 2018. I started the book with a healthy dose of skepticism. There’s no doubt Hynes is a great writer; one of the best contemporary Canadian writers we have today. I enjoyed his first novel, Down to the Dirt, and liked the follow up Right Away Monday, although I felt that it was a bit of a repeat in that while the plot was different, the main character seemed essentially the same person.

Not that there’s anything wrong with an author finding the thing they do well and doing it in different books. I do that myself; I can see certain tricks and tropes that come up over and over in my own work, and I see it in the work of others. It may seem a little more ubiquitous in Hynes’ case simply because he is an actor as well, and the character who appears in his books is also pretty much the same character he always plays on-screen –whether the show he’s appearing in is set in contemporary St. John’s or Toronto or back in the 17th century, it’s always the same sleazy little street-smart tough guy. So when I heard he had a new book out and that the blurb for it began: “Scrappy tough guy and three-time loser Johnny Keough is going a little stir-crazy awaiting trial for an alleged assault charge ….” my immediate thought was: is this the same JTH story once more, only going across Canada this time?

Well, yes and no. Johnny Keough is recognizably cut from the same cloth as Keith Kavanagh, Clayton Reid, and every character Hynes has ever played on your TV screen (and the character he’s going to play in the upcoming series Little Dog). But the depths to which Hynes takes this character, and the dexterity with which he brings Johnny to life, is a staggering achievement. It’s not often I read the Governor-General’s award-winning novel and think, “Yes, this probably IS the best book published in the country this year,” but I felt that (and so many other things) after reading We’ll All Be Burnt in our Beds Some Night.

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Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

homegoingHomegoing is a wide-ranging, ambitious novel about Africans in Ghana and African-Americans in the US. It begins in the 1700s with one family in a Ghanaian village. A woman named Maama has two daughters, Esi and Effia, by two different men. Due to the difference in the villages where they grow up and the status of their fathers, Esi and Effia, who never meet each other or know they are sisters, live very different lives. While Effia is married off to a British colonial officer, Esi is sold into slavery and held captive in the bowels of the infamous slave castle where Effia and her husband, along with other British officers and their African women, live.

When Esi is shipped across the sea to America, her descendants begin the long journey through slavery, poverty and abuse. Meanwhile, Effia’s mixed-race son follows a different path back home in Ghana, where that branch of the family lives through the rise of British colonialism, clashes between Asante and Fante nations, and the struggle for independence. The complicity of African people in the enslavement of other Africans is not glossed over here, even as responsibility is clearly laid at the feet of the Europeans who exploited local rivalries to pit one group against the other and sell slaves into a living hell that most back home could never have imagined.

Gyasi is a Ghanaian-American writer who handles this complex story in her debut novel with skill. Each chapter moves the story forward a generation, covering over two hundred years and more than a dozen characters that alternate back and forth between the African and American branches of the family. By the time the modern-day descendants of Esi and Effia finally encounter each other in 21st century California, they have, of course, no idea that they are distant cousins many times removed. Jumping from one story to the next like this might feel jarring, but it worked well for me as Gyasi carried the threads of each story forward enough to weave the plot lines together and let us know what happened to the parents and grandparents of the previous generation, providing a little closure to each storyline as she opened the next. I found this a powerful and insightful look at two hundred plus years of African and American history from a perspective you don’t often read about.

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First Snow, Last Light, by Wayne Johnston

first snowFirst Snow, Last Light, is Johnston’s latest installment in a possibly-trilogy that began with The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. I read and enjoyed that book when it was first released years ago (loved the stage adaptation even more) but did not read the follow-up book, The Custodian of Paradise. This may be just as well, since in First Snow, Last Light Johnston’s best-known and most beloved character, Sheilagh Fielding, claims The Custodian of Paradise is a story she made up, an alternate history she concocted for herself. Fielding is back First Snow, Last Light, as memorable as ever, and although the story that surrounds her may not be as powerful as Johnston’s version of the Smallwood story in Colony, Fielding remains one of the great original characters of Canadian literature.

Johnston is doing something tricky and admirable with historical fiction in these novels — writing a version of relatively recent history that includes real-life characters like Joey Smallwood, Sir Richard Squires and many others, alongside fictional characters. Sometimes the fictional characters, like Sheilagh Fielding, are purely the product of Johnston’s imagination; real historical characters like Smallwood (who doesn’t really appear in First Snow) are re-imagined as fiction. Then, somewhere in the middle ground in between, are fictional characters who are obviously inspired by real people, like Ned Vatcher, the main character in First Snow, Last Light.

Ned is the son of Edgar Vatcher, a boy from a poor family on Shea Heights who wins a scholarship, makes good, marries an Englishwoman who never settles into Newfoundland life, and winds up working for the widely-loathed prime minister Squires. On a snowy winter day in 1936, teenaged Ned comes home to find his parents gone. This is odd enough, as his mother rarely leaves the house — but far stranger is the fact that they never return, and stranger still, no trace is found — of them, of their bodies, of the car they drove off in.

Ned grows up to manhood under the shadow of this mystery, watched over by his father’s odd and angry extended family, by his priest and athletic coach Father Duggan, and by the enigmatic Fielding, who Ned believes his father might have been in love with. Ned goes away to the US for college on an athletic scholarship, decides to get rich, comes home to start a magazine inspired by the American tabloids, and eventually starts Newfoundland’s first TV station. And this is the point at which, if you hadn’t already realized it, it dawns on the reader who knows Newfoundland history that you’re reading about a fictional character whose life is at least loosely based on that of one of our most famous, larger-than-life real characters, Geoff Stirling. (If you’ve never heard of Geoff Stirling, please read this).

Obviously, the parallels aren’t exact. Presumably Johnston wanted to take more liberties with his Stirlingesque character than history allowed him to take with his Smallwoodesque Smallwood character, so Ned Vatcher is not Geoff Stirling. Stirling, whatever he was driven by, was not driven to solve the mystery of his parents’ disappearance, as Ned Vatcher is. (And my father, who remembers most of the real-life characters here and knew them personally, pointed out to me that some aspects of Ned Vatcher’s life in the novel are borrowed not just from Stirling but from Joseph Butler, Sr., another Newfoundland media pioneer. Ned Vatcher’s pilot’s license and habit of flying along the Newfoundland coast solo are a tip of the hat to Butler, who died in a plane accident in 1954). But Stirling is the most obvious real-life antecedent to Ned Vatcher, and to me, the only real weakness in an otherwise fine and beautifully-written piece of historical fiction is that the fictional creation is a pale shadow of the historical original. 

You probably could write a character as bizarre, outsize, larger-than-life as the real Geoff Stirling — Wayne Johnston certainly has the talent to do so — but Johnston hasn’t done it here. For all his personal quirks and tragic history, Ned Vatcher often remains somewhat of a cipher at the heart of this novel, never as fascinating as the real character that inspired him. Once again, as in Colony, it’s Fielding who steals the spotlight, and whose character arc from the previous book (or books if you read Custodian) reaches an unexpected and, for me, quite satisfying resolution here. We also find out the solution to the mystery of the Missing Vatchers, as the conclusion to this glimpse into a long and turbulent period of Newfoundland history.

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How to Stop Time, by Matt Haig

howtostoptimeWhen an online book club I sometimes participate in suggested How to Stop Time, my immediate reaction on reading the blurb was, “Well, this is a book tailor-made for me!” It combines historical fiction with fantastic/sci-fi elements, as its main character has a rare condition called anageria. This is the opposite of progeria, the real-life condition where people age more quickly than normal. Tom Hazard, in this novel (one of many names he goes by), ages about fifteen times more slowly than normal people. He is one of a handful of anagerics who have been alive for hundreds of years; as the novel opens in the present day Tom is over 400 years old but looks to be in his mid-thirties. He has had to move around frequently throughout his life, since if he stays in one place longer than a few years people start to notice that he hasn’t aged and they get suspicious. In the olden days, this could mean accusations of witchcraft or other supernatural shenanigans; today it’s more likely to mean pursuit by ruthless scientists who want to study these “albatrosses” to harvest the secret of eternal youth. So Tom lives in the shadows; he has hung out with Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald in his time, and developed an impressive list of skills, but he’s been unable to maintain any long-lasting relationships, because eventually everyone he loves will be left behind.

Four hundred years later, Tom is still pining after his lost love from the early 1600s, Rose, with whom he had a daughter Marion, who is still around somewhere because she too shares Tom’s condition. The novel relates Tom’s life story in flashbacks, alternated with scenes in present-day London where he tries to blend in as a history teacher (good career choice there), continues his centuries-long search for Marion, and considers the possibility of loving again.

A lot of great fiction confronts the question of mortality, of the shortness of human life and how we can live and love knowing it will all be lost. How to Stop Time comes at this question from the opposite direction: what if you knew that youlife was virtually endless, but that all those around you were doomed to age and die? Could life, could love, still have meaning under those circumstances?

I thought How to Stop Time was a lovely and very engaging novel that handled those questions in an insightful and thoughtful way. Tom was a likable enough character that it was possible to empathize with him even though his situation is not one that any of us can relate to. Except that time does keep passing, things do keep changing, and we all, sometimes, want to stop it. So maybe we can relate after all.

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Bellevue Square, by Michael Redhill

bellevue squareBellevue Square, winner of this year’s Giller Prize (Canada’s richest literary award), is one heck of a weird book. Though the Giller Prize only goes to works that are pretty clearly “literary fiction,” Redhill’s credentials as a mystery writer (under a pen name, which turns out to be significant here) are on display as Bellevue Square opens with an intriguing hook.

A middle-aged woman who owns a bookstore, the novel’s first-person narrator Jean Mason, is told by two different customers that she has a doppelganger. Both people have seen a woman who looks exactly like her on a Toronto street not far from her bookstore. Jean befriends the second of those people before she finds out that the first has died under somewhat mysterious circumstances. But even before the quest to find and confront her double has begun to consume Jean’s life, the reader has started to notice that little details about her account of her own life are slightly off. Jean tells us that her husband is a retired police officer, having left the force after making good money in the stock market. But he still wears a uniform and seems to think he is still on the force. And a good deal of her time is spent Skyping with her sister, who has a brain tumour, yet when her husband asks her who she’s been talking to, she evades the question. She has two kids she obviously cares for, yet she is able to wander the streets and sit chatting with homeless people in a city park for hours at time, oblivious to her family’s needs in a way that any mother who’s raised actual children at once realizes is not at all believable.

In short, Jean quickly proves to be a very unreliable narrator; the idea of “double lives” operates on many levels in this book; we are quickly led to question what is and isn’t real, and who is really telling us this story. This is all great stuff and kept me turning pages quickly for the first two-thirds of the book. The thing with a great set-up like this, though, is that the writer has to have the chops to pull it off. You can’t set up a bunch of intriguing mysteries unless you’re able to wrap it up with a resolution that makes the reader go “Aha!! So that was what was happening all along!” (See my review of John Darnielle’s Universal Harvester, which, despite my deep and intense love for Darnielle and everything he does, failed on this count for me).

So, does the ending of Bellevue Square — which is as action-packed and exciting as any thriller reader could hope for — pay off? Well, different readers have different takes on that. Some are left saying “Aha!” while others are left with more of an “A … ha?” reaction. I think I was in the latter category. The book is certainly well-written and intriguing, and I didn’t expect everything to be tied up with a neat and tidy bow. But I wanted at least a few answers, and I felt I was left with far more questions. What’s real and what isn’t? At the end of Bellevue Square, we’re still not entirely sure. Which may, of course, be exactly what Redhill intended.

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The Boat People, by Sharon Bala

boatpeopleIf there’s one book by a Newfoundland-based author — in fact, if there’s one book by a Canadian author — that you’re going to hear buzz about this year, it’s going to be Sharon Bala’s novel The Boat People. It’s already been chosen as a selection for this year’s Canada Reads competition, and I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about it when awards season rolls around.

I had the privilege of reading an earlier version of The Boat People in 2014, when I judged the Percy Janes First Novel Award and picked it as the winner out of a strong field of contenders. I loved it even more on reading the final, published novel. This is an important and timely novel about immigration, racism, violence and fear, but most importantly it’s a novel full of real people who I came to care deeply about.

The background for this story is a real event: the 2010 arrival of a boat full of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka to Canada’s west coast. Earlier waves of immigrants, including irregular arrivals like boat people, had been welcomed warmly to Canada, but by 2010 the combination of fears of terrorism and the Conservative government then in power, combined with the shock effect of 500 refugees arriving at once, guaranteed these Tamil refugees a far less friendly reception. Many remained in detention for months as their claims were processed through the system. The novel’s main character, Mahindan, is a widowed father who only hopes for a better life for his son Sellian. But Sellian and Mahindan are separated, with adult men going to one detention centre and women and children to another, despite the fact that there is no mother to care for Sellian. Mahindan’s fierce love for his son and the ache of separation is a thread that runs through the novel.

But there are other characters, all equally well developed: Priya, the young law student who is unwillingly pulled into the refugee claimants’ case during her articling year; Priya’s Sri Lankan family, whose own journey to Canada decades ago hides many secrets; career civil servant Grace, daughter of Japanese-Canadians interned during the Second World War, who now finds herself adjudicating the refugees’ hearings, trying to decide which ones should be allowed to stay in Canada and which, if any, pose a danger to the public safety.

The danger, though it is used by the federal government to score political points, is not entirely illusory. Through the flashbacks of Mahindan’s story, we recognize that the Tamil Tigers are indeed a group capable of horrific acts of violence, and that while the refugees are fleeing the chaos of civil war in the country, many of them, Manhindan included, had been drawn into taking sides in that conflict in one way or another. The flashback scenes are what give the novel its power and poignancy: through these scenes we see Mahindan’s “normal” life when he was married to Chitra, their love and hope during her pregnancy, his grief when she dies in childbirth, and then how the world they shared is shattered by war and Mahindan reduced to a homeless, desperate man on the run. When the ship arrives in Canada he believes his suffering is over and a new life is beginning, but the reality is more complicated.

There is so much happening in this novel that is complex and real and relevant: the plight of refugees, the fear of terrorism, the tendency of one generation of migrants to fear the influx of newer arrivals and safeguard their position by saying things like “We came to this country legally; why can’t they go through the process like we did?” (I cannot tell  you how many American friends I have heard say this in the current refugee/immigration debates). But the characters are never just caricatures representing different groups of people or different positions; they are all drawn with humanity, depth and insight.

One of the strengths of this novel, I think, is that it’s topical without being too topical. Right now, our fears about immigration and terrorism (at least here in Canada, but I think for the most part in the US and Europe as well) are so focused on groups like the Syrian refugees and the fear of ISIS-style Muslim extremism, that we’ve almost forgotten Middle Eastern Muslims are far from the only group of people on the planet to have produced both terrorists and refugees. The author’s own family roots in Sri Lanka no doubt made the story of the Tamil refugees an interesting one for her to explore, but it also allows the reader the opportunity to explore the problems posed in this novel at one remove from the heat of current debates. In addition, it gives a much needed correction to the smugness we liberal Canadians often feel about what a welcoming and inclusive country ours is. Sure, we may look good compared the US right now, but we’re not perfect. Canadians are as susceptible to fear, suspicion, paranoia and racism as any other country — and that includes Canadians of all backgrounds.

Hauntingly real and unforgettably personal, The Boat People is a novel that will linger with most readers for a long time. It certainly will with me. Yes, it’s topical, it’s relevant, it has its finger on the pulse of current debates, but at it’s heart this is a story about human beings just longing for what we all want: a safe place to call home.



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Leo Africanus, by Amin Maalouf, translated by Peter Slugett

leoafricanusI decided to pick up this book (and when I say “pick up” I obviously mean “download” because it’s not like this translation of a 1986 French novel was just sitting on a bookshelf at my local chain bookstore) after I read The Badass Librarians of Timbuktu and reflected on how little I know about African history. This novel is a fictionalized account of the life of a real man who is known to history as Leo Africanus, though that is not the name he was born with. Nor was he African by birth: Hassan, as he was called, was born in Granada in the late 1480s or early 1490s, just as the Muslim civilization that flourished there fell to the Christian crusade of Ferdinand and Isabella. Hassan’s family fled, as many Muslims did, to Morocco, and it is the life that unfolded for him there — as a travelling merchant and eventually a diplomat — that led to him writing a book about his travels across North Africa. 

As always, a good historical novel is like a glimpse into another world. Through Hassan/Leo’s eyes the reader visits Granada, Fez, Timbuktu, Cairo and Rome in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. It was a taste of African history that I would like to get much more of, so any book recommendations are welcome!

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