If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English, by Noor Naga

This novel was on the Giller Prize shortlist and is a short but compelling story about a young woman who is Egyptian by heritage but raised in the US, who goes to live in Egypt and starts a relationship with a young man who was a photographer during the Arab Spring uprisings (this story is set a few years later) and has since struggled to find regular work and is also dealing with a drug addiction. Through the course of their brief affair, told in alternating point-of-view chapters, the novel explores the cultural gaps between them, the experience of Egyptians who participated in the uprisings only to find the hoped-for freedom did not follow, and the difficulty of navigating gender, culture, and class differences in a relationship where two people do not share a common first language.

I’ve seen some readers criticize this book for the ending, which, after a shocking end to the affair, suddenly turns very meta, with the first-person “author” having the work critiqued in a writing seminar. She has written an epilogue to the story that is not in the text we have before us, and the other writing students are critiquing that ending, in an extended scene that seems to suggest there is no “right” way to end this story. I liked the metafictional twist, and found the story overall thought-provoking and insightful.

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Still Life, by Louise Penny

For ages it seems like everyone in my extended family (well, my dad, my cousin, and my aunt, anyway) have been reading Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache mysteries, but I had never picked one up. I finally decided with the new year, and the appearance of a TV series based on the books, that I should give them a try.

So … Three Pines, in the Eastern Townships of Quebec (I think it’s the Eastern Townships … some rural place with a lot more English people than you’d expect in Quebec) is an idyllic little village made up of quirky, colourful characters. Idyllic, that is, until a beloved local former teacher and aspiring artist is brutally murdered, and the wise and kind Inspector Gamache comes down from Montreal to investigate. Unfortunately, it looks like this is going to be the first in a string of (at this point) 18 brutal murders, so I’m guessing Three Pines is a lot less idyllic after all these books have been written, but it’s still a pretty quiet little place in this novel, and if the quirkiness of the characters sometimes veers a bit into twee-ness, well, it’s still better than a hard-edged gritty mystery that ends with you hating the victim, the murderer, the detective, and the rest of the human race.

Inspector Gamache is a nice change from the hard-bitten, cynical, world-weary detective: a gentle, insightful man whose most important detective skill is really listening to people, and who seems to genuinely care. I hope that he, like Three Pines, is not too badly tarnished by the bloodbath that’s about to unfold over the next several volumes. The actual mystery took till about halfway through the book before it became genuinely engaging (and I found the same to be true of the second book in the series, A Fatal Grace, which is all I’ve read so far — but I have no problem with a book that has a slow start and takes time setting the scene. Not an un-put-downable five-star read for me, but a solid four stars that interests me enough to continue on with the series.

The Wards, by Terry Doyle

This will likely be my last book review for 2022, and honestly, I may have saved one of the best for last. I knew from reading Terry Doyle’s short stories that he’s a vivid and incisive writer who can depict slices of contemporary Newfoundland working-class life like almost nobody else writing today. I was excited to see what he could do with the space of a novel, and I wasn’t disappointed. I started reading The Wards after midnight last night, when I finished the other book I was reading and wasn’t sleepy yet. Stayed awake until almost 1:30 reading it, then woke in the morning and didn’t get out bed till I’d finished it — that was how compelling I found it.

That’s not to say that this is a book that’s going to pull you along with a mystery plot or anything else that will keep the pages turning to find out “what’s going to happen?” Only one major thing is going to happen, and it happens between the halfway and two-thirds point of the book. What will keep you reading is not trying to resolve suspense or solve a puzzle, but seeing how one simple, though devastating, event affects every member of a family whose characters are sketched in relentless but loving detail.

The Wards — Gloria, her husband Al, their 19-year-old daughter Dana and 23-year-old son Gussey — are a middle-class St. John’s family, their lifestyle (house on a cul-de-sac, giant lifted pickup truck in the driveway) sustained by pipefitter Al’s stints working away from home on various megaprojects, currently at Voisey’s Bay. Gloria and Al seem — not exactly happy, but contented and used to the rhythm, and the annoyances, of their marriage. Dana is trying to spread her wings at university and fly beyond her family’s limited circle; unemployed Gussey, whose main interest is smoking weed with his best friend Mark, seems to be forever stuck on the ground. Completing the circle of characters is Gloria’s sister Paula, who lives on the same street; with a husband who has left her and two sons working away in Alberta and rarely in touch, she envies Gloria’s life.

None of these people — not even Dana, with her aspirations to an educated and broader life — is good at handling, or talking about, emotions. The person who might be most in touch with his feelings is not one of the Wards, but Gussey’s loser friend Mark — a guy portrayed as so incompetent that, in a hilarious appropriation of a real-life event for fictional purposes, he is the person who painted “DRIVE TRUE” on a drive-through restaurant’s pavement. Mark scribbles poems (which he calls “lyrics” although he’s not a musician; he recognizes that a young man who admits to writing poems is about 5000x more vulnerable than one who says he’s writing lyrics) in a notebook that nobody sees, but he can’t articulate what he’s feeling any better than any of the Wards can.

It’s a galactic distance from the St. John’s world of the Wards to the upper-crust British world of The Crown, yet something that I said when I first watched that TV series came back to me in reading this book: “It’s quite an accomplishment to make an entire dramatic series about a group of people whose guiding principle is to show as little emotion as possible.” The emotional incoherence of the Wards and their family and friends does not stem from exactly the same sources as the British stiff-upper-lip philosophy, but it’s not entirely different either. You do what your sphere in life requires you to do — whether that’s working away from home at a job you hate, or keeping a family together when they seem to have no desire to be together — and, crucially, you don’t complain. Or rather, you “piss and moan,” as Al accuses Gloria of doing at one point in the novel, but you don’t ever open up about how you really feel, or have an honest conversation about difficult emotions with someone you care about.

So the central question at the heart of The Wards is (for me, anyway): when people who are so distanced from their own emotions and any ability to talk about them get hit with one of life’s Big Events, how do they process it? How do they deal with themselves, with each other, with loss, with change? That’s what this book is about, and there are no huge epiphanies or giant about-faces: the Wards are not those kind of people. There are only small moments: a tiny self-discovery, a mute attempt at connection, a missed opportunity to love. The book isn’t flawless, but it’s beautiful and sharply observant and a little heartbreaking, in all the best ways.

Also, there’s a dog in the book, and I have an ongoing beef with author Terry Doyle about the fate of dogs in fiction that goes back to a short story in his collection Dig and a conversation on my podcast. When I heard him read the first few pages of this novel, in which Gloria buys a dog off Facebook Marketplace, I was very concerned for the fate of the dog. I won’t do a “Does The Dog Die” style spoiler here, but I will say — the dog probably makes out better, in the end, than most of the Wards do.

Urchin, by Kate Story

Urchin is a weird, twisty tale full of unexpected directions. It weds electricity with fairy magic in 1901 St. John’s, as Guglielmo Marconi arrives to test his new wireless technology. Thirteen year old Dorthea has plenty of worries: she doesn’t fit in at her posh girls’ school; her family is ruptured after the deaths of six siblings in infancy or early childhood; her mother is distant and her father often absent; her house is said to be built on a fairy path which might account for any number of strange occurences. Add to this the fact that Dor’s feeling of being uncomfortable in her own skin is extreme even for a pubescent girl in a society with extremely rigid gender roles: she’s never really felt “right” about being a girl, and also she’s got a pretty intense crush on her best friend. In other words, Dor has a lot to cope with even before Marconi arrives in town and a friend who is also a newspaper reporter needs a spy inside Marconi’s operation to find out what the mysterious inventor is really up to.

When Dor slips into the disguise of Jack Kelly, she finds an identity that fits far more comfortably than her own — but she also discovers that the fae activity that’s been disturbing her home is more dangerous than she suspected, and is being exacerbated by Marconi’s experiments. Fairies apparently don’t like people interfering with unseen forces like electricity, and Dor ends up fighting unexpected battles — not least, the battle to discover her own identity.

Urchin is technically a young-adult novel, and would definitely appeal to young readers who enjoy a challenging read with a blend of realism and fantasy, but it’s also a great adult read, with a vividly realized turn-of-the-20th-century St. John’s as its backdrop and an unconventional protagonist who pulls us into this tale of fairy lore, modern technology, and self-realization.

Bloomsbury Girls, by Natalie Jenner

Bloomsbury Girls is, very loosely, a sequel to Jenner’s The Jane Austen Society, but only in the sense that it follows one character from that novel into her future life (other JAS characters make cameo appearances in this book, but none are central to the plot).

At the end of The Jane Austen Society Evie Stone, a brilliant girl from a poor family, had performed an amazing feat by quietly cataloguing the vast library of books in the old manor house where she worked as a servant, and was on her way to study at Cambridge due to the support and encouragement of her friends in the Society. Bloomsbury Girls picks up with Evie at the end of her college career, her path to academic advancement thwarted by the old boys’ network. Instead, the same book-cataloguing and sleuthing skills that started Evie’s academic career now lead her to a rare bookshop in London that is mired in the past while the rest of the world seems to be moving into the future. Evie needs the bookstore job to support herself, but she also has a secret mission while there.

However, the novel is just as much about the store’s other employees, particularly the other two women, aspiring novelist Vivien, and unhappily married Grace who needs the job to support her husband and two sons. Though the women are the focus, the men of the bookshop are just as intriguing, as are the cast of real-life writers and publishing people from 1950 London who make fictional cameos in this book. I really enjoyed this perspective on the lives of working women and the book business in postwar London.

Haven, by Emma Donoghue

Irish/Canadian novelist Emma Donoghue is one of those rare writers (my good friend Michelle Butler Hallett is another) whose novels exhibit a startling diversity of subject because she writes about literally whatever pops into her head to be interested in. There’s no “finding a groove and sticking with it” as many of us do, for an author like Donoghue. Emma Donoghue books I have loved have touched on topics ranging from Victorian divorces, to an 1876 smallpox epidemic in San Francisco, to a contemporary story about a woman and child held captive in a tiny room — probably her most commercially successful and best-known work. Donoghue could have followed up the massive success of Room by writing more contemporary fiction about victims of crime, but instead she continued to delve into dusty corners of the past such as an Irish girl allegedly surviving miraculously for months without eating, and a lesbian love story amid the chaos of the 1918 influenza epidemic (The Pull of the Stars, coming out in the summer of 2020, proved to be surprisingly timely, but only by accident — even if the timeline weren’t so tight, Donoghue is not an author you would ever accuse of writing a “pandemic novel” just to capitalize on current events).

All this lead-in is just to say that I will follow Emma Donoghue pretty much anywhere her fancy takes her, even if it takes her to an isolated, unpopulated island off the coast of Ireland in the 7th century CE. The place is Skellig Michael, where monastic communities have existed for centuries (it was the film setting for Luke Skywalker’s monastic-style retreat in the later Star Wars movies). But this novel is not based on the real history of any of those communities. Rather, it’s a story about three men: a single-minded, visionary monk, and the two companions he recruits in response to what he believes is a call from God to leave the monastery and set up an even more isolated contemplative community, far from any human interactions, in what some might call a God-forsaken place. The visionary monk, Artt, believes passionately that as God has called them to the island, God will provide everything they need to live there — a vision that inevitably clashes with the day-to-day realities the other two monks face as they try to keep themselves and Artt alive through the winter. I read most of this novel in a single night and found it engrossing and thought-provoking,.

We Should Not Be Afraid of the Sky, by Emma Hooper

Of all the half-told, half-obscured women’s stories that come down to us from history and legend, some of the hardest to make into compelling fiction for modern readers are probably the lives of the saints — particularly those obscure “virgin saints” of the early Christian era who suffered martyrdom rather than submit to marriage and sex. In this novel, Emma Hooper takes the tale of Saint Quiteria, a Portuguese 2nd century martyr, and weaves it together with other traditions and saints’ tales, including one that says that Quiteria was one of a set of nonuplets, all beautiful young women who converted to Christianity and were martyred for their faith. The result is a rich, image-soaked novel that feels more like mythology or fantasy than historical fiction — appropriately, since saints’ tales are generally full of the kind of miracles and unlikely occurences that take us out of the realm of realistic fiction.

The Sea Between Two Shores, by Tanis Rideout

This intriguing novel juxtaposes two modern stories with one historical one; two families and two tragedies linked by the larger tragedies of colonialism and climate change.

In Canada, Michelle Stewart is still overwhelmed by grief after the accidental drowning death of her son Dylan — so much so that a year later she is unable to connect with her husband or her two surviving children or move forward in any way.

On an island in Vanuatu, a world away, Rebecca Tabe and her husband David are also grieving the loss of their son — their infant, Ouben, died after being unable to get adequate medical treatment for an illness after a devastating cyclone disrupted transportation, communication, and health care on their island.

What links these two families is that several generations earlier, Michelle’s ancestors, William and Josephine Stewart, came to the Tabe’s island as Christian missionaries. In the flashback historical chapters, we see their arrival and impact on the island through the eyes of a young woman named Faina who is an observer and participant in the tragic end of this missionary experiment. In the present day, David Tabe reaches out to Michelle Stewart and invites the Stewart family to come to the island for a ceremony of reconciliation. Every member of both families is impacted by the encounter, especially the Stewarts’ surviving teenage son Zach, who has been torn apart by conflicting emotions around his brother’s death. However, the author never loses sight of the fact that this is more than just a story about two families’ personal experiences of grief and loss. This is highlighted in a devastating scene where Rebecca gets angry with Michelle and points out that the loss of Rebecca’s son is considered by most people to be far less of a tragedy than the death of Michelle’s child — that the deaths of children in developing countries due to poverty, inequity, and and the unequally distributed effects of climate change, are considered acceptable losses by most people in Western countries.

This is a story that presents beautifully detailed and believable sketches of all its many characters, while at the same time posing big questions about culture, colonialism, and what “reconciliation” really means — as well as intimate personal questions about how we cope with and attempt to move on after terrible losses. It offers no easy answers. This was a very compelling read for me.

Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, by Kate Beaton

I knew of Kate Beaton as a Nova Scotia artist who was the genius mind behind the weird and brilliant historical and literary comics Hark! a vagrant. I was excited to see she was coming out with a memoir in the format of a literary novel, even knowing it would be something very, very different from Vagrant.

The subject matter is familiar to anyone who’s grown up in Atlantic Canada: having just graduated with a liberal-arts degree, young Katie Beaton can’t find a job in her field or in her area of study (Cape Breton; history) that will even come close to helping her dig out of her massive student-loan hole, so she heads to Alberta like so many East Coasters, picking up one of the plentiful jobs in the oil sands. There, she makes the promised money, but also sees first-hand all the things that make life in that place so hard: the isolation, the loneliness (especially when she moves from living in Fort Mac to working in one of the camps), the rampant sexism (and worse) experienced by the handful of women who live and work among these men who are so far from home. The toll on the environment; the toll on human mental health. All these things are depicted unsparingly, but so are the acts of kindness, the humanity, the fragile sense of community she encountered among the many men and few other women that she worked alongside there. Ducks is a coming-of-age memoir that also paints an unforgettable portrait of life in the industry that makes our world both possible and doomed, an industry we rely on and often revile but are generally glad (if we don’t work in it ourselves) to know as little as possible about. It’s that perfect balance of a deeply personal story set against the backdrop of a huge, complex, and very relevant story that impacts us all, and Kate Beaton’s words and pictures — which are inseparable from each other; I can’t imagine this book as a straight prose memoir — brings it all to awkward, uncomfortable, touching life.

Missed Connections: A Memoir in Letters Never Sent, by Brian Francis

I stumbled across this book in a most old-fashioned away — seeing it on the shelf at the bookstores — and that seems appropriate, because it’s about an old-fashioned experience. Brian Francis writes about the time that, as a young gay man in the early 1990s, barely out of the closet, he placed a personal ad in the newspaper. None of the replies he got panned out into a lifelong love, though he did meet up with a few of the respondents. He also held on to several letters he never answered, and now, as an older man, he goes back to those letters and writes what he would like to say to those men all these years later. It’s an intriguing way to structure a memoir about coming out, growing up, and re-evaluating the person you were and the person you’ve become. This was a wonderful, quick read that I thoroughly enjoyed.