Monthly Archives: June 2006

Sweetness in the Belly, by Camilla Gibb

I’m not sure how to describe Sweetness in the Belly, except to say that you really have to read it. It was a book club selection at one of my favourite online hangouts, , and I was disappointed that I didn’t get it from the library in time to have it read before author Camilla Gibb came online for a chat with readers. The library finally came through for me, and Sweetness in the Belly was well worth the wait.

This novel explores several interesting and little-known cultural niches through the eyes of a heroine who is a perpetual outsider: Lilly never really fits neatly anywhere. She’s the child of wandering English hippies who leave her at a Muslim shrine in Morocco and then fecklessly get themselves killed, leaving her to grow up at the shrine. So this little white girl is raised by Sufi mystics in Morocco, then finds her way to Ethiopia and eventually to England, where she lives as an adult among Muslim refugees — her own people, despite her white skin and English pedigree.

Camilla Gibb gives the Western reader a glimpse into a multifaceted Islamic world that is much more complex and nuanced than the oversimplified vision of Islam we often have in the West. We also get glimpses into Ethiopian history and politics that will probably be new and revelaing to many readers, as they were to me. But this is not a dry presentation of the author’s research; rather, it’s a compelling story told through the eyes of a woman we really care about. Lilly is a difficult, prickly, suspicious character who has been badly hurt and has had trouble moving on from her losses, but I found myself cheering for her (and the attractive Dr. Gupta!) every step of the way. Other characters — including the two men Lilly loves, and the large cast of friends and acquaintances she meets along her journey — are drawn just as deftly; even characters with bit parts are memorable and sometimes heartbreaking. I highly recommend this novel!

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- general

Deafening, by Frances Itani

I became aware of Deafening when it was Maureen McTeer’s selection for this year’s round of Canada Reads. It’s the story of a deaf woman, Grania, who lives in a small Ontario town at the beginning of the twentieth century. Grania loses her hearing at age five due to an illness, learns to lip-read and sign, goes to a school for the deaf, marries a hearing man, and waits at home for her husband, Jim, to return from the first World War.

That’s about all the plot there is to Deafening. Even speaking as someone who doesn’t like plot-driven novels and is quite happy with a “slow” book, I found Deafening a little too slow. I thought the information about what it was like to be a deaf woman 100 years ago was interesting, but while Itani created Grania’s world well, neither Grania nor Jim nor any of the other characters ever became truly compelling to me. As a “woman on the home front” WWI novel, it still doesn’t beat Rilla of Ingleside. I’m not sorry I read this book; it was somewhat interesting, but it never grabbed me as I’d hoped it would.


Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical

The Constant Princess, by Philippa Gregory

Philippa Gregory is sticking with what works for her — the Tudors. Though she has been a longstanding writer of historical fiction set in various eras, Gregory seems to have “made it big” a few years ago with her novel The Other Boleyn Girl (that would be Mary, who possibly got lucky with Henry VIII before her unfortunate sister Anne did). Next she tackled the court of Mary Tudor with The Queen’s Fool, then produced a curiously weak-willed Elizabeth I in The Virgin’s Lover. Now she’s back with a novel about the early life of Katherine of Aragon.

I like Katherine of Aragon. You can’t help feeling sorry for her, and admiring her incredible stubbornness, her determination to cling to what she believed was her right — to be Queen of England, regardless of the fact that her husband was willing to change law, religion, and history to divorce her. Today, she’d probably hire a hotshot lawyer and end up with half of Hampton Court Palace, but back then her options were a little more limited — however, she did the best she could.

But this — is not that story. This is the story of how Katherine — Catalina — came from Spain to England to marry Henry’s ill-fated older brother Arthur. In this historical debate about the Katherine-Arthur marriage, Gregory comes down firmly on the side of believing it was not only consummated, but was a passionate love affair that dominated the rest of Katherine’s life. It’s an interesting way to look at the story and Gregory sells it believably. I enjoyed this novel. I still am not willing to give Gregory a permanent spot in my historical fiction pantheon of goddesses (alongside Sharon Kay Penman and Margaret George) — she sometimes strikes a false note, and there’s a certain depth and resonance lacking — but she’s well up on the second tier, with another very readable story. Unlike The Virgin’s Lover, in which she took one of the strongest women in history and reduced her to a girl who can’t decide what to have for lunch unless Robert Dudley orders for her, in The Constant Princess Gregory takes one of the most tragic women in English history and creates a backstory for her that fits perfectly with everything we already know about Katherine of Aragon.


Filed under Fiction -- historical

In the Company of the Courtesan, by Sarah Dunant

Sarah Dunant’s follow-up to her highly acclaimed historical novel The Birth of Venus is every bit as enjoyable, in my opinion. In the Company of the Courtesan tells the story of a Venetian courtesan of the sixteenth century, Fiammetta Bianchini, as told through the eyes of her male dwarf companion Bucino. I thought it was an intriguing and well-drawn glimpse into the world of that time and the lives of women who made their living at the upper-class end of the sex trade. The characters seemed a little distant at first, but as the story went on I realized I cared about them more than I’d thought I did. I was drawn gradually into the world of this story and of these characters. My favourite element is the relationship between Bucino and Fiammetta — a lifelong bond that is not sexual, but is incredibly intimate and loving. Since I’m fascinated by stories that explore the dynamics of friendship — which is to say, the dynamics of love that is not necessarily, or not primarily, erotic — I really enjoyed that aspect of the novel.

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Filed under Fiction -- historical

Small Island, by Andrea Levy

Cool. I figured out how to make the book cover pics bigger.

I had heard several good recommendations for Andrea Levy’s Small Island but it took me awhile to get around to reading it. I’m glad I did. It’s the story of a Jamaican couple who move to England in the 1940s and the English couple in whose house they live for a time. The structure of the novel was different from what I expected: I thought the story would begin with Hortense and Gilbert’s arrival in England and continue to follow them throughout the years. Instead, it starts with their arrival in England and then goes into flashbacks to reveal each character’s backstory — how they got there.

I like when novels do this, because we have to re-evaluate our judgements of people based on their actions, once we get a glimpse into who they really are and what has shaped them. This novel does a brilliant job of making each of the four characters a living human being we really care about. It also vividly creates both Jamaica and postwar England as places we can see, touch, smell and taste — and illuminates the contrast between them, the culture shock immigrants of that era must have experienced.

I wasn’t happy with the ending of this book, but to explain why would involve spoilers, and the book is good enough that I don’t want to spoil it for you. You might disagree with me about the ending: you will almost certainly enjoy the process of getting there.

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Filed under Fiction -- historical

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See

It’s great when a book can transcend your pre-conceptions. I love historical fiction about woman, but if you had asked did I want to read a book about women’s lives in nineteenth-century China, I would have said, “Probably not.” However, I read a great review of this book by my online friend, writer Katrina Stonoff, so I decided to give it a try.

I’m glad I did, as Lisa See has done a wonderful job of evoking the lives of women who lived a completely restricted and enclosed existence. The story begins when the narrator, Lily, is almost old enough to have her feet bound — and I can tell you that whatever you’ve heard about this practice in the past is nothing compared to the vivid description of a girl actually going through it. If you have a six-year-old daughter, as I do, it’s almost painful to read this part of the novel, in which “mother love” is expressed through the brutal mutilation of her daughter’s body.

Lily is not an entirely sympathetic or likable character, yet the reader is drawn into her mind and her world. The most important relationship of Lily’s life is her arranged friendship with Snow Flower and their correspondence through nu shu, the secret writing taught only to women. Lily’s choices have disastrous consequences for that friendship and for Snow Flower, yet we empathize with Lily as well as with Snow Flower, recognizing how limited women’s choices were in that place and time. I highly recommend this compelling novel.

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Filed under Fiction -- historical

Riding the Bus with my Sister, by Rachel Simon

This is a simple but memorable memoir about a professional woman in mid-life who has to come to terms with her relationship with her mentally retarded sister. Rachel agrees to spend a few days each month for one year riding the city buses with Beth — this being Beth’s favourite occupation. Along the way Rachel meets a lot of interesting characters, soaks in some homespun wisdom, and reflects on her own life path. All this might be a bit cliche, but what rescues it from being too saccharine is Rachel’s uncompromising honesty about her own ambivalent feelings towards Beth. Rachel makes it clear that she has learned much from Beth and respects her sister on her own terms, but she also faithfully reflects the frustration and disappointment of dealing with a family member who isn’t “normal.” I read this book quickly and really enjoyed it. Apparently it was made into a TV movie last year, starring Andie McDowell and Rosie O’Donnell. I didn’t see the movie, but based on the Amazon reviews I won’t be rushing out to buy it. Read the book; don’t wait for the movie.

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Filed under Nonfiction -- memoir