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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Everyone Brave is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave

everyonebraveI don’t know if Everyone Brave is Forgiven is, technically speaking, the “best” book I’ve read so far this year, but it certainly has been the most emotionally engrossing — to the point that I nearly stopped breathing at one point when a character’s life was in danger. 

All the characters’ lives are in danger, because the novel is set during the Second World War, in London and also at the front. One character, Alastair, serves in France before Dunkirk and later at the siege of Malta, a piece of the war I’d never read anything about before. The other two main characters, Mary and Tom, are doing war work on the home front during the London Blitz. On the simplest level, the novel is a love triangle among these three characters, but it’s so much more than that. It’s about how terrible times of stress and violence can bring out not only the best but also the worst in people, about questioning what your life’s purpose is, about love and friendship and survival, about how to put the pieces of your life back together after it’s been shattered.

The glimpses of London during the terrible year of 1940-1941 go far deeper than the historical cliches we all know so well about brave Londoners during the Blitz, to really explore how the brutality of life in a city at war exposes divisions along race, gender and class lines. The characters are so memorable and real that I cared deeply at once about what happened to them, and the writing is brilliant in the way Cleave is able to so quickly sketch a scene that reveals so much about that turbulent time and place. 

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Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng

littlefiresLittle Fires Everywhere is a book I heard recommended from all directions before I finally read it, and it did not disappoint. It’s a story about a neighbourhood, a family, and a woman, all which aspire to perfection, and another woman who moves into that neighbourhood and defies its expectations and norms. It’s a coming-of-age story about five teenagers — the three good, conforming children of Elena Richardson’s “perfect” family, along with that family’s black sheep Izzy, and their friend Pearl, daughter of artist and single-mom Mia. Mia and Pearl move into the Richardsons’ lives when Mia rents an apartment from them, but when she becomes their housecleaner and Pearl forges relationships with each of the Richardson teenagers, things get messy.

Complicating all this is a story that involves none of these main characters directly but which all of them get drawn into. A local couple, friends of the Richardsons, have adopted a Chinese baby after years of infertility. But this baby is not adopted from a Chinese orphanage: she was abandoned on the steps of the firehall, and the mother is a local woman who regrets her decision and fights to get her child back. As everyone takes a stand on the controversial case, cracks in relationships and turning point in people’s lives appear, and everyone is tested and changed.

I had a couple of very minor quibbles with this book — I thought Moody’s feelings towards, and relationship with, Pearl, would likely have been clarified before a particular crisis in the story hits, and I expected more of a surprising twist at the end than I actually got. But those were minor indeed for a book I enjoyed reading so much, and the very end packed such a huge emotional wallop that I was briefly knocked back — it was so right and so powerful. Mother/daughter relationships are a very central theme here, which is something I always find interesting, and the complexities of that relationship in its many forms are beautifully, and often painfully, explored in this book. I highly recommend it.

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Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward

unburiedSing, Unburied, Sing, is a short, intense, powerful novel set in contemporary rural Mississippi. At the heart of the novel is JoJo, a 13-year-old boy with a black mother and a white father who are both mostly absent from his life and that of his three-year-old sister Kayla. Their father, Michael, is finishing up a jail sentence; their mother, Leonie, is sometimes well-meaning but addicted to drugs and obsessed with her own problems (and her love for Michael, which looms far larger than her love for her children). The people who have cared for JoJo and Kayla all their lives are Leonie’s parents, whom JoJo calls Mam and Pop, in whose home they live. Mam is dying of cancer; Pop is the moral and emotional centre of JoJo’s fractured world.

There’s so much going on in this brief and powerful story. Plotwise, it’s very simple: over a period of a couple of days, Leonie takes her two children and a friend on a car trip to meet Michael as he’s being released from prison. Nothing much happens, though at one point it seems like it might. But this book is about so much: race in America, addiction, parents and children, mass incarceration, coming of age, and also, a ghost story. In fact, there are two ghosts — Riche, a boy JoJo’s age who was imprisoned with Pop decades ago, and who died tragically while attempting to escape, and Given, Leonie’s brother who was murdered by Michael’s cousin when they were teenagers. (This is less confusing in the book than it sounds in my synopsis).

Jesmyn Ward is a beautiful writer with a keen and unsparing eye for the details that reveal poverty, bigotry, courage, and hope. I found this a very powerful novel that will linger with me for a long time.

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