Category Archives: Canadian author

A Brightness Long Ago, by Guy Gavriel Kay

brightnesslongagoYet another book by one of my favourite authors, and once again a beautifully-realized story from a fantasy world parallel to our own that Kay has been crafting in painstaking detail throughout several novels. This story takes place in the same world as The Lions of Al-Rassan and The Sarantine Mosaic — the world with two moons, where the dominant Jaddites worship Jad the sun-god, the marginalized Kindath worship the sister moons, and the star-worshipping Asharites from the desert threaten the Jaddite world with their rising power. (So, basically, Christians, Jews and Muslims in medieval Europe and the Middle East … kinda).

This novel takes place hundreds of years after Al-Rassan and Sarantine, and there are many echoes and callbacks to the The Sarantine Mosaic and a few to Al-Rassan, but its closest links are to Kay’s last novel in this world, Children of Earth and Sky. Interestingly, Brightness is not a sequel but kind of a prequel to Earth and Sky — it takes place about 25 years earlier and sets up some of the events we see happening in that book.

So, that’s where it stands in the canon of Kay’s work, all of which I’ve read. This novel is the story of Guidanio Cerra, a tailor’s son given an education above his station, finding his place as a young man in a land which is, for all intents and purposes, pretty much Renaissance Italy, a land of warring city-states and larger-than-life leaders. Two of those leaders — Folco Cino d’Acorsi and Teobaldo Monticola di Remigio — are rivals whose paths both cross Guidanio’s at various points in his journey, and we see the world from both their perspectives as well. There are also two extraordinary women at the centre of this novel: Adria Ripoli, a Duke’s daughter who doesn’t want the life expected of a noblewoman, and Jelena, a pagan healer who lives on the margins of society. How the great events of the day intersect with these individual lives — especially how they shape Guidanio’s life into an unexpected path — is the meat of this book.

It’s almost misleading, at this point, to categorize Kay’s work as “fantasy,” even though the world in which this book is set has two moons instead of one, and different place names. He kicked off his career with a trilogy (The Fionavar Tapestry) that was very much classic high fantasy, but in his more recent novels he seems to be trying to see how little magic you can put into a novel and still have it shelved in the fantasy section. This isn’t a criticism: I love how good writers play around with the boundaries of genre. In Kay’s later novels, any fantastical elements are mostly contained within the religion and folklore of the characters’ worlds — things that they believe are miracles, or mystical experiences, or magic, just as people might do in a historical novel set in our world. Only two marginally “magical” things happen in this novel: one, a miracle that happens to an extremely minor character, and the second the appearance of a ghost to a major character that has no significant impact on the plot. Fantasy readers who are mainly interest in complex magical systems might find this disappointing, but the vividly detailed world-building is more than enough to draw me in and keep me reading.

I can divide Guy Gavriel Kay novels into those I’ve liked, and those I love passionately and would re-read over and over. While Brightness is beautifully written and I inhaled it in a couple of days, I think it might end up falling into the “liked” rather than “loved” category, simply because it’s not as plot-driven as some of his other books — I didn’t find myself breathless at the end, unable to rest till I knew how it ended. This is more a slice-of-life than a plot-driven book, and while it has great, richly realized characters, a key event three-quarters of the way through the novel made me far less invested in how the characters’ lives turned out. But a different reader might find this resonates differently. It is a beautiful addition to his canon of books.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- fantasy

Juliet’s Answer, by Glenn Dixon

julietsanswerIt’s kind of unusual, for my reading habits at least, to read a memoir by a man about wandering around the world, trying to find himself, and straightening out his love life. I read a lot of those kinds of books by women, and Glenn Dixon’s Juliet’s Answer, while it’s no Eat, Pray, Love, definitely fits into the genre.

To be fair, Dixon doesn’t exactly wander the globe. He goes to Verona, Italy, and volunteers with the group of people who answer the thousands of letters that arrive yearly from people around the world writing about their broken hearts and hopes to the fictional Juliet of Shakespeare’s play. Dixon neatly sketches the entire Romeo-and-Juliet-centric tourist industry of Verona, and the gently good-hearted people who take on the task of dealing with Juliet’s mailbag. His stated reason for going is to deepen his own knowledge of a play he’s been teaching at the high school level for many years; his deeper reason is to untangle the threads of his own messy love life.

There are really three stories here, woven together: Dixon’s two trips to Verona, his experiences teaching Romeo and Juliet to ninth-grades back in Canada, and his unhappy long-term relationship with a woman he’s been “just friends” with since college. The Verona story is a nice piece of travel writing. The teacher story is a nice, not too idealized, look at the ways in which teaching a 400+ year old story can intersect with the lives of 21st century teenagers. I could definitely relate to this part after 20+ years teaching Shakespeare. (I say Dixon’s story is “not too idealized” — there’s obviously some editing for dramatic effect in the classroom scenes, and I almost laughed out loud at the touching scene where he and his class are reading the very last scene of the play on the very last day of school — what, they’ve spent all this time reading Romeo and Juliet and there’s no unit test, no final exam, not even a final project to complete? No assessment whatsoever?)

The narrator’s own love story ranges from “endearingly awkward” to “slightly cringeworthy” — it’s obvious that he is completely inept either at understanding the feelings of this woman he’s been in love with for decades, or at expressing his own feelings, and it’s hard not to wonder what her side of the story sounds like. However, while it doesn’t have a happy ending in the most obvious sense, there is an important message here about not being too tied to the romantic ideal of “one true love” — which guarantees that Dixon’s story has a less tragic ending than Juliet’s.

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Something for Everyone, by Lisa Moore

somethingforeveryoneLisa Moore is almost certainly the most nationally celebrated and critically acclaimed author to come out of the Newfoundland literary scene in my generation, and of the four of us who are up for this year’s NL Reads award, she’s the only one who could be considered a literary household word. Her latest collection of short stories, Something for Everyone, provides what her readers have come to expect: stories whose insight into the human experience (centred almost always in contemporary St. Johns, though there is, unusually for Moore, one historical piece in this collection) is mediated through richly layered metaphor and detailed observations. Some of her short stories feel as much like prose poems as like short fiction.

There are times, in the midst of a Lisa Moore story, when I feel I’m almost drowning in sensory detail. I can find myself submerged in paragraph after paragraph of incredibly detailed description of — to pull one example from a story in this collection — a hotel caretaker using a long-handled net to pull debris from an outdoor pool, a description so minute it includes the sentences: “The pole he has is made of sections joined by plastic cuffs that screw together. Some blue sections, some silver, joined together without consideration for alternating colour.” Swimming through sentences like that in the midst of four paragraphs of the caretaker cleaning the pool (that’s four paragraphs just at that point in the story — Moore will bring us back to this description later, more than once) can leave a reader a little breathless. You can love the attention to detail but also wonder if this story is going anywhere or whether it’s just flowing from one visual image to the next in non-linear fashion. Then, two-thirds of the way through the story that contains the pool caretaker, you’re suddenly reminded of a tiny detail in the first sentence of that story, a detail you almost forgot: “Orlando, Florida. I’m here with a conference of twenty thousand librarians from all over North America, two weeks after the Pulse massacre.” When you’re suddenly reminded of the when and where of this story and (at least part of) the why, it’s like being yanked out of that warm pool of sensory detail, gasping for breath in the sudden sharp air of human tragedy.

Possibly because I generally prefer novels to short stories, my favourite part of this collection was the last story, Skywalk, which is really a novella in five chapters. It begins with a chance encounter between two young university students: the girl, newly come to St. John’s to study nursing, is nervous about crossing the parkway skywalk at one a.m., and asks a boy standing nearby to call her and stay on the phone till she’s made it safely across. From that single brief encounter, the story spirals out like the arms of a starfish, reaching backwards into the girl’s past, and the boy’s, forward into their futures, each piece of the story unfolding gradually against the backdrop of a series of horrific crimes being committed in St. John’s. Every character, every encounter, every piece of dialogue, and yes, every lovingly-detailed sensory description, is note-perfect in this piece.

Maybe it’s just because so many of these stories are set on the same streets where I live and work and walk every day, and those streets and the people who frequent them are so vividly depicted (though sometimes with jarring changes presumably for fictional purposes — I wasted far too much time trying to figure out where Chelsea’s bus stop was, sure it was in my neighbourhood but that it couldn’t logically exist within the parameters given, until I reminded myself that Lisa Moore has a poetic license and the right to use it), but to me the strength of these stories is how real some of the moments within them feel. They feel like slices of life that seem to be lifted directly from a spot right next to me, where I might have been standing a moment ago. 

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- general, Newfoundland author

Hysteria, by Elisabeth de Mariaffi

hysteriaI hesitated for a moment over whether to class this as “historical fiction.” I mean, it obviously is; it’s set in the past, but sometimes people slap an arbitrary definition of how many decades before the time of writing qualifies a book as historical fiction, and I’m not sure if everyone considers the 1950s “history.” But it is, and in fact, as this book illustrates, it can feel so distant it’s like another world.

Hysteria actually begins in the aftermath of World War Two, when young Heike and her younger sister Lena escape the devastated city of Dresden on foot. Heike makes it to the safety of a Swiss convent where she is cared for by nuns, but Lena is lost in the forest (not a spoiler; this happens in the first couple of pages of the book) and this loss — not just of home and family and past life, but of a child she loved who was in her care) haunts Heike throughout the book and lays the foundation for much of what happens to her within the story.

Still, when we meet Heike ten years later as the main plot of the novel begins, she seems to be relatively well-recovered from her trauma (there’s actually even more trauma in Heike’s post-war experience than the escaping-Germany flashback reveals, but this takes time to come out). She is living in upstate New York with her doctor husband, the mother of a little boy named Daniel, living a life of comfort and leisure with few expectations on her. Her marriage does not seem entirely happy, but she takes great comfort in her son. The fact that her husband is heavily focused on developing and experimenting with new psychotropic drugs doesn’t seem terribly sinister … at first. 

But of course, it is.

Things start unravelling for Heike when she and her son, on a day’s outing, meet a little girl with whom her son plays, who doesn’t seem to be entirely real. The encounter has Heike questioning her own memories and senses, a process helped along by a husband who clearly appears to be gaslighting her.

Although the “historical” aspect of this novel is relatively recent, it’s actually one of those settings that seems most distant and difficult for me to read about — the world of upper-middle-class white women in post-WW2 America, women who lack jobs, independence, purpose or agency, who are often manipulated by their husbands or other men in their lives. Heike seems so passive throughout much of the book, and even after a shattering loss threatens her child, her reactions seem out of sync with what we’d expect or find normal. Why doesn’t she swing into action, take control of events, start solving her problems? At this point the reader may want to shake Heike, but the backdrop for her bizarre passivity has been well laid — by the trauma of her past, by what we know about her husband and his profession, and also by the systemic sexism of the world in which she lives.

I read this book, which I can best categorize as a literary psychological thriller, very quickly, and found the plot compelling and often hard to put down. If your pleasure in a thriller depends on being surprised by an unexpected plot twist, you may have a problem with this one: there’s a fairly huge twist, but it’s one that I and a lot of other readers figured out way ahead of the reveal (and trust me, if I figure out a twist, it’s not hard to figure out, because I am the dumbest reader when it comes to figuring out the curves and bends in a plot. I never know whodunit). However, figuring out the big twist didn’t diminish my pleasure in this book — rather, I was reading to find out if I was right about what I thought I’d figured out, and if so, why? How? Did all the pieces fit together in a way that gave me that satisfying “Aha! It all makes sense now!” reaction? And I found that it did — the ending was both satisfying and hopeful. 

If you like a twisty psychological thriller with some literary flair and some serious thoughts about how trauma and sexism can interact to keep a woman a virtual prisoner, you should pick up Hysteria.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- general, Fiction -- historical, Newfoundland author

A Measure of Light, by Beth Powning

measureoflightStill in the 17th century, I turned to Canadian novelist Beth Powning’s novel about early American martyr Mary Dyer. I’ve already read one novel about Dyer, Mary Dyer: Illuminated by my friend (and real-life Dyer descendant) Christy K. Robinson, who probably knows as much about Mary Dyer as any one alive. Powning’s novel takes a more literary and less historical approach to the story, but still hews pretty closely to the historical facts so far as we know them (though filling in many gaps that are not known to history). 

The fundamental problem with writing an engaging novel about Mary Dyer is that while she did something absolutely admirable and fascinating for a woman of her time — deliberately committing civil disobedience and choosing to die a martyr’s death as a form of protest against a brutal theocracy — many of the same qualities that made her admirable also make her difficult for the modern reader to identify with. To Powning’s credit, she leans hard into this “unlikeable female protagonist” issue rather than trying to soften Mary’s character or make her more “relatable.” In Powning’s portrait, as Mary grows closer to God, she also becomes more distant from her husband and children, less bound by wordly ties. She may not be likeable, but Mary Dyer is never less than memorable in this re-telling of her story.

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Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan

washingtonblackThis highly acclaimed recent novel reminded me at first very much of one I read earlier this year: Andrea Levy’s The Long Song. Both begin as the story of a young enslaved person on a Caribbean island in the waning days of slavery (in the British Empire, that is — of course it continued in the US for another 30+ years). Each young person falls under the influence of a white slave-owner who takes a personal interest in them. But young Wash Black’s life takes a radically different direction than July’s life does in The Long Song. Because of the eccentricities of the plantation owner’s brother Titch, who takes Wash on as his apprentice, Washington Black embarks on a life of unexpected adventures that take him far from the Barbados plantation where he grew up.

While Washington Black’s adventures may strain credibility in places, they do provide fascinating glimpses into many different slices of life in the mid-19th century and what it might have been like to live as a black person in many different worlds. I felt that the ending of the novel did not resolve the story as much as I had hoped, though I’m sure this was the writer’s intention. She takes us on an intriguing journey and leaves much up to the reader in terms of where this journey may ultimately end up.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical

Rilla of Ingleside (again), by L.M. Montgomery

rillaAfter looking up a half-remembered quote from this book for my Remembrance Day blog post, I decided to sit down and re-read the book from beginning to end. While I have read this book probably closet to 100 times, to the point where I have there are sentences and paragraphs I remember word for word, I hadn’t revisited it since 2010, when I re-read it and several other Montgomery books for period detail while I was writing That Forgetful Shore.

I already wrote a blog post about that 2010 reread, which you can read here, so I don’t need to cover all the same ground again. What I wanted to write about here was not so much a review (of a book that’s so much a part of me, how can I even review it?) but a reflection on what it meant to re-read it specifically November 11, 2018, as our part of the world paused to remember the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One, the conflict which makes up the subject of Rilla of Ingleside.

I am more convinced now than ever that Rilla is Canada’s great First World War novel; its overt (but beautiful, and fully earned) sentimentality, and the focus on small-town women’s activity on the home front, lead people underestimate it on this score. L.M. Montgomery wrote the book very soon after living through the war and losing her best friend in the flu epidemic that followed it. By all accounts she was as unquestioningly supportive of the Allied war effort, as devoted to following war news, and as convinced that God was on the Allied side, as the Blythes and their friends are in the novel.

This uncritical support of the cause jars on the modern reader, even on Remembrance Day, even for someone who loves the novel as much as I do. The only pacifist in the novel, a sanctimonious church elder nicknamed “Whiskers-on-the-Moon” Pryor, is treated with unrelenting ridicule, and is the novel’s only true villain (except the distant Kaiser, of course).

The possibility that Allied accounts of German atrocities might be exaggerated to get civilians to support the war effort, that the beloved British Empire has committed atrocities of its own, or that ordinary German soldiers (and their families back home) may be as deserving of sympathy as the stalwart Canadian characters, never seems to occur to anyone in the book. The characters represent a wide variety of approaches and attitudes to the war, from the staunch and ever optimistic Susan Baker to the often gloomily despondent Gertrude Oliver, but none save the villain ever questions the rightness of Britain’s cause or the value of their soldiers’ sacrifice — including the soldiers themselves.

There are so many details of day-to-day life and attitudes that a contemporary novelist effortlessly gets right, which a historical novelist rarely can — that’s the richness and value of reading a novel written during or shortly after the events it depicts. The weakness is that lack of perspective and reflection that only time brings: the patriotic fervor of Rilla of Ingleside is as rah-rah as the Victory fundraising and recruitment rallies that Rilla organizes and speaks at.

The kind of detail that is so lovely is the way the novel takes us into ordinary Canadians’ engagement with the war — for example, the fact that Susan, a 64-year-old housekeeper with minimal education, finds herself becoming an expert on European geography and politics as she pores over the daily news reports. The details of the family at Ingleside discussing and debating each incremental bit of war news is part of what makes this book such an informative and intimate portrayal of life on the home front.

I mentioned sentimentality, and this novel has it in buckets. “Buckets” is also an excellent unit of measurement for the tears I shed during this re-reading. Amid vivid realism and plenty of humour, there is nothing subtle about the pathos of this book. While the battlefield death of one of the Ingleside boys (even 97 years later, I won’t spoil it by saying which, but you’ll know as soon as you start the book who is Marked To Die) is milked for every tear. The soldier-poet son, Walter, writes a stirring poem while in the trenches which is an obvious stand-in for John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields.” Walter’s poem, called “The Piper” becomes an instant classic around the Commonwealth, the “one great poem of the war,” and while Montgomery (wisely) never includes the actual poem in the novel’s text, I cried every time it was mentioned.

Of course, as everyone who has read the novel knows, the largest box of tissues must be reserved for Jem Blythe’s faithful Dog Monday, who spends the entire war (and sometime afterwards) living in a storage shed at the local railway station, after refusing to leave until he sees Jem return. (Something I had never thought about before this reading is that at the time the war breaks out, Jem has been away for five years at university and med school, presumably home only on holidays, and Dog Monday has never exhibited this severe separation anxiety before. The implication — further borne out by other unusual canine behavior he demonstrates later in the book — is that Dog Monday has the ability to sense that this is more than an ordinary absence for his young master; that Jem’s life is in danger and he must stand guard). I suppose there are people who can read the descriptions of Dog Monday’s vigil at the railway station and laugh at the corny early-20th century sentimentality. But frankly, if you are the person who can read the following paragraph and not shed a tear, I’m not sure I want to be friends with you, you hard-hearted cynic:

“Ay, wait there, little faithful dog with the soft, wistful, puzzled eyes. But it will be many a long bitter day before your boyish comrade comes back to you.”

The aspect of this novel that makes it hardest to re-read on Remembrance Day 2018, 100 years later, is part and parcel of its unwavering belief in the Allied cause — it’s the bright-eyed optimism about the war’s lasting impact. In a letter written on the eve of battle, Walter the poet writes that he is fighting for:

“the future, not of Canada only but of the world — when the ‘red rain’ of Langemarck and Verdun shall have brought forth a golden harvest — not in a year or two, as some foolishy think, but a generation later, when the seed sown now shall have had time to germinate and grow.”

Later, Rilla quotes her other brother, Jem, after the war has ended:

“‘We’re in a new world,’ Jem says, ‘and we’ve got to make it a better one than the old. That isn’t done yet, though some folks think it ought to be. The job isn’t finished — it isn’t really begun. The old world is destroyed and we must build up the new one. It will be the task of years. I’ve seen enough of war to realize that we’ve got to make a world where wars can’t happen.’”

“A generation later…” Walter writes. Yes, the seed sown from 1914-1918 did germinate a generation later. Montgomery lived to see it, and if she had had the heart to continue the series, we know that the sons of Rilla and Ken, Jem and Faith, Nan and Jerry would have been just old enough to fight in the Second World War. Knowing that makes this book’s optimism, its heartfelt belief in the value of those young men’s sacrifice, almost unbearable to read 100 years later. And that — even more, perhaps, than Dog Monday, is why I cried this Remembrance Day.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical, Old Favourites