This was a short but powerful book about a young man living in the shadow of his dead brother and the act of violence that killed him. Years after Frances’s death, Michael and his mother still live in suspended animation in their lower-income Toronto neighbourhood, unable to move forward from the tragedy that shattered their lives. Michael’s mother and his absent father were immigrants from Trinidad, and the novel is a vividly-written and uncompromising look at people who are not “the model immigrant,” whose story of coming to North America is not a rags-to-riches success but rather a story of staying mired in public-housing developments and dead-end jobs. One girl from Michael’s high school, Aisha, managed to achieve the sought-after goal of getting away and making a better life — and it’s her return home, after her father’s death, that kicks off this novel, and Michael’s exploration of his brother’s life and memory. A short novel that left a big impact on me as a reader.
Category Archives: Canadian author
This was storm book #2, and what an engrossing, lovely read it was. Author, academic, and musician Sonja Boon explores her complicated family roots (she often describes herself as “Dutch-Canadian” for simplicity’s sake, but the reality is much more complex) in a book that at the same time a personal memoir, a family history, and an exploration of archival material relating to slavery and colonialism in Suriname, where many of Boon’s ancestors came from.
The resulting book is thoughtful and absorbing. It’s also a visually beautiful hardcover (this is one I’m glad I didn’t read as an e-book; it was given to me as a Christmas gift and the physical book is a true pleasure). There are photographs interspersed throughout the narrative, though never as many as I wanted (sometimes photographs are described in the text, as the author looks through archival or family materials, but not all of these are reproduced in the book). I also wished, very much, for a family tree to be included, as I wanted to map the relationships of the various grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great grandparents she writes about. Regardless of the things I’d like to have seen more of, I loved reading this book, and thought it was such an insightful take on the idea of “family history.”
This was the first book I read during the infamous “Stormageddon 2020″/State of Emergency that paralyzed St. John’s from January 17-25. This, by the way, is the beauty of e-reading: you never need to worry that you’re going to get trapped in your house for eight days with nothing to read but the 1000 books already in the house. (I guess if the power had gone out, I’d be singing the praises of those 1000 paper books instead).
Empire of Wild is the story of Joan, whose beloved husband Victor vanished without a trace a year ago. Then Joan sees him again — under a different name, living a different life, with no apparent memory of her. But she’s determined this is Victor and she’s going to get him back.
Then, from this apparently realistic narrative, we veer into the world of magic realism, as Joan is instructed by her mentor, an older woman named Ajean, into the mythology of the rogarou. A rogarou is like a Metis version of the werewolf myth, and Joan begins to believe that Victor is not just missing and possibly suffering from amnesia, but has been possessed by an evil wolf-spirit. So she takes her twelve-year-old nephew Zeus and goes to try to find him and set him free.
It’s a love story, and a road trip story, and a mythic story, and also a story about exploitation of indigenous people and indigenous land in Canada. It’s beautifully written, and weird, and powerful, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Years ago, when I was teaching at our Seventh-day Adventist school, I had a student who was not SDA, but belonged to an even more conservative Christian group, who was a huge fan of Elisabeth Elliot’s books. Until I met this girl, I’d never heard of Elisabeth Elliot, her husband Jim Elliot, or the ill-fated mission to an isolated Ecuadoran tribe that led to the violent deaths of Jim Elliot and several other American missionaries in the 1950s. Elisabeth Elliot went on to become a celebrated author and speaker who devoted herself to keeping the memory of her husband, his fellow missionaries, and (what she and many others portrayed as) their martyrdom, alive.
At the time, I was not that interested in the story of how or why Jim Elliot and the others died; I was mostly intrigued that this woman writer, Elisabeth Elliot, was one of those conservative Christian women who saw no irony in writing and speaking widely about her faith while also promoting a traditionalist view of men’s and women’s roles within Christianity and within marriage. This apparent contradiction of women who don’t believe women should lead, but are willing to be leaders themselves (and clearly don’t “keep silent” in church) fascinated me then and now, but I didn’t think much more about it until I picked up Joan Thomas’s Five Wives, the 2019 Governor General’s Award winner for English Canadian fiction.
I found this book utterly engrossing, and I have so much to say about it. First, I’ll point out that the title is misleading, presumably for the sake of making a good title: while the five men who died did indeed leave behind five wives, only three of these wives are major characters in the novel, and several of the major viewpoint characters are not the wives but are people connected in other ways to the tragedy. That’s a nitpick, but one I want to get out of the way up front.
The author makes an interesting choice in fictionalizing a not only real, but relatively recent story. It’s tricky business writing fiction about real people, especially when either they or their children are still alive to read and have opinions about what you’ve written. Thomas keeps the names and identities of all the people involved in the original story intact, though she treats them as fictional characters by freely giving them thoughts and motivations the real people may not have had. But for their children and grandchildren, who are still living, she creates entirely fictional people who are not analogues of the real descendants of the missionaries, which gives her even more freedom to play around with and explore how this tragedy resonated through generations of these families.
Five Wives is one of those books that I’m always looking for and rarely find — a book that writes about a religious subculture, particularly that of evangelical Christianity, from a perspective both within and outside that subculture. That is, the writer’s perspective is much broader than that of her characters: we see what they could not or would not see — that their incursion into the world of the people they called the Auca (actually the Huaroni) was akin to an invasion, and their complicity with American oil companies in “opening up” these indigenous people’s territories was a cultural genocide. But she also portrays, realistically and believably, how completely the missionaries themselves — most of them anyway — believed in the truth of their mission, and believed they were truly called by God.
It’s rare to find a writer who writes about religion in way that so completely “gets” the subculture — this book is easy to compare to The Poisonwood Bible, which is also an excellent and brilliantly written book about missionaries and cultural imperialism, but Kingsolver, I would argue, does not understand evangelical Christianity from the inside the way Thomas obviously does.
I found this a thought-provoking and fascinating novel. If I have one criticism, it’s that so many characters are introduced that some perspectives and storylines don’t have time to be fleshed out as completely as I might have wished. But that’s about what I want as a reader, not what the writer was trying to accomplish. What Joan Thomas set out to do in this novel, she did brilliantly — so this is one of the years in which I agree wholeheartedly with the choice of the GG judges (I’m sure they’re hugely relieved to have my stamp of approval!)
I’ve been reading through all the books nominated for this year’s NL Reads awards because, as last year’s winner, I get to be one of the defenders this year (more on the wonderful book I’ll be defending in a later blog post). Kevin Major’s mystery novel One for the Rock is one of the nominees, a short and relatively light mystery novel set in contemporary St. John’s.
The premise is good: our hero is a cantankerous middle-aged man named Sebastian Synard who runs high-end hiking/dining tours of St. John’s for wealthy mainland tourists. Sebastian has a very sweet gig going (and the details of both hiking and dining in St. John’s are well-researched and absolutely spot-on, as they should be), but he is Bitter and Cynical because he’s a middle-aged man whose wife has left him for another, and also the world doesn’t seem to be giving him everything he thinks he deserves (I realize I may be a teeny bit Bitter and Cynical myself about the trope of middle-aged dudes in fiction and in mysteries specifically. Lighten up, man!).
Tragedy (but not much tragedy because it happens to an unlikeable character we barely know) strikes on one of Sebastian’s hikes when a tour group member perishes in a way that’s suspicious enough that almost everyone in the group might be a suspect. And, wouldn’t you know it, the police officer investigating the death is the very same guy that Sebastian’s wife ran off with, so Sebastian is Bitter, Cynical and Unwilling to Co-operate With the Investigation (at first, anyway).
From this premise, the mystery unfolds pretty quickly, with some wry humour along the way and lots of plot twists (some of which are more neatly tied-together than others: there were a couple of loose ends I wasn’t sure about). If you like mysteries and contemporary Newfoundland fiction (and don’t mind the odd grumpy middle-aged man), you should definitely check out this book.
This book, nominated for the Giller Prize, features the brilliant clarity of language, deft characterization and description you’d expect from a Michael Crummey novel. The subject matter is as harsh and bleak as the landscape where it’s set, and how you feel about that subject matter may determine how much you enjoy reading this book.
Sometime early in the 19th century (this is not specified, but you can work out the general time period from context clues), a pre-teen brother and sister are left orphaned in a Newfoundland cove so isolated that they are the only family there. Their parents and a baby sister have died, and at first their only choice seems to be to get aboard the next ship that puts into their cove and go to the nearest community to throw themselves on the mercy of whoever might take them in. But having inherited the fierce and stubborn independence of their parents, the siblings decide not to leave their parents’ land, choosing instead to try to survive alone. Through the cycle of the year they fish, make fish, keep house, cut wood, feed themselves and generally try to survive — assisted on occasion by a few visitors from the outside world, but for the most part relying only on themselves and each other.
Crummey does a wonderful job of capturing the innocence of these innocents — all the things they experience without having words or context for them. The language is beautiful here, as you would expect, the rhythms of speech perfectly captured.
If you’re thinking that this is the story of a brother and sister who age from about 12 to 15 during the time of this story with no other people around most of the time, and you’re wondering whether sex is one of those things they don’t have words or context for and whether the story is going to go in an incest-y direction … well, you’ll have to read it and see, but remember I told you it’s bleak, and there’ll definitely be some disturbing passages. This is probably not going to sit alongside Galore and Sweetland as one of my favourite Michael Crummey books, but I have to stand in awe of the brilliance of his writing.
I knew this book was going to be funny — it’s a memoir by our most beloved local comedian, for cryin’ out loud — but I did not expect it to be this funny. And I know I’ve said this before, especially about books by performers, but trust me with this one: you have to listen to the audiobook. You have to hear Mark Critch read this, especially when he does the voices of his mother and his (also locally-famous, at least to people of my generation) radio newsman father, Mike Critch. In fact, he does voices for absolutely everyone in the book, so that it feels like a full-cast recording, except the whole cast is Mark Critch.
Critch is a few years younger than I am, and while there are things about our upbringing that were very different (Catholic school, for example) and things that are pretty much unique to him and absolutely no-one else (e.g. growing up in a house next to the VOCM building, so far out on Kenmount Road that he had literally no neighbours or playmates), there are also so many things about childhood in the 1970s that were completely relatable — except transformed into utter hilarity not only by Critch’s writing but by his delivery of every story. Please, please listen to this audiobook. You won’t regret it.