Category Archives: Fiction — general

Five Wives, by Joan Thomas

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!)

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Conversations with Friends, by Sally Rooney

Another Sally Rooney novel — this one released before Normal People, I think, and although her meticulous examination of the way people think and relate to each other is just as much on display here as in that novel, I didn’t like it as much. I didn’t find either the main character, Francis, a 21-year-old college student, or her friend/ex-girlfriend Bobbi, to be particularly interesting people. Unlike Connell and Marianne in Normal People, I just couldn’t get engaged in these characters lives or care deeply about what happened to them. It’s well written, but just didn’t hit the spot for me.

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The Book of Speculation, by Erika Swyler

This is a book with an intriguing concept that I enjoyed reading, but didn’t grab me quite as much as I’d hoped it would. The main character is Simon, a young man living alone in a crumbling seaside house, about to lose his job in a struggling local library, mourning the loss of his parents and trying to keep in touch with his troubled sister. When he receives a mysterious book in the mail, he begins to plunge into his family’s history, uncovering a tale of circus performers and women with a strange tie to the sea.

Simon himself has inherited his mother’s uncanny ability to stay underwater far longer than a normal person should be able to: along with this, however, comes a family history of untimely deaths by drowning, and he begins to fear that his sister might also be marked by this family curse. The story that unfolds in the present day alternates with a past story of Simon’s circus-performer ancestors, and both were interesting, but I didn’t get quite as immersed in the characters as I had hoped to, given how many ingredients of a great story were present.

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Akin, by Emma Donohue

This is a book that tells a small but beautiful story of unlikely travellers thrown together. Noah is an elderly retired professor from New York who is about to make a long-delayed journey back to the French city of his childhood, which his family left during the Second World War. But at the last minute a wrench is thrown into his plans by the appearance of a great-nephew he has never met. Michael is a street-smart eleven-year-old whose life has been thrown into chaos by his grandmother’s death; his unknown great-uncle is the nearest relative he has while his mother is in prison, and Noah very reluctantly agrees to take temporary custody of the boy until something more permanent can be arranged.

This complicates Noah’s trip, but he ends up bringing Michael along. Also along for the ride: many unanswered questions. Noah has a collection of mysterious photographs taken, not by his own grandfather who was a world-famous photographer, but by Noah’s mother, who remained behind in occupied France for some time with her father after she had sent Noah to safety with her husband in the US. Noah has never learned much about his mother’s life during the war, and now wonders why she stayed behind, what she was doing in France, and what the photographs represent. He is trying to piece together and unpick all of this — and his own complicated feelings about it — while trying to forge some kind of a relationship with a frightened and often resentful young boy. It’s as complicated as you would expect and, in the hands of a master storyteller like Donoghue, very engaging to read. I liked this book a lot.

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Normal People, by Sally Rooney

Normal People starts with two teenagers in an unusual relationship. Connell’s single mother is a house cleaner: Marianne’s family is one of the families she cleans for. There’s a social gap and a power imbalance between the two, for sure, but it doesn’t play out exactly as one might expect. At school in their small Irish town, Connell is popular: good-looking, athletic, well-liked. Bookish Marianne is something of an outcast: a freakish loner nobody likes. Although they quickly become friends — and more — Connell is not willing to risk the social ostracism of being known at school as Marianne’s friend, much less her boyfriend.

When they get to university, the tectonic plates of their social lives shift: here in Dublin, suddenly Marianne is the popular one with loads of friends, while Connell is the outsider, his working-class status leaving him often feeling he can’t keep up with his college acquaintances.

Over the years that span the end of high school through university, Marianne and Connell orbit around each other: sometimes they are close friends; sometimes friends-with-benefits; at one point they are openly dating each other; for another stretch they don’t speak at all. The novel is, in other words, about all the heart-rending ups and downs of being in your late teens and early 20s, navigating the transition to adulthood in the company of a person you (maybe) love, certainly are obsessed with, but can’t quite figure out how to live with (or without).

Rooney is as brilliantly insightful a writer as all the people who recommended this book told me she was: the point of view shifts between Marianne and Connell as each minutely examines what they are feeling at each new stage, and there are brilliant understated insights into the differences that money and class introduce into a relationship. There’s darker stuff here too: spectre of Marianne’s terrible family life and the reasons she hates to go home lurk in the background behind everything that happens between and around herself and Connell.

I found this novel hard to put down once I got into reading it, and felt a little breathless at the end, unsure where exactly we’d gotten to, or what we might imagine as the future for Marianne and Connell. I think this openness at the end is quite intentional on the author’s part: she’s not going to spell out for us what happens next, but we know, at least, that they have come through this particular turbulent stage of life, on to whatever lies beyond.

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The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters, by Bali Kaur Jaswal

While this novel doesn’t have as catchy a title as Bali Kaur Jaswal’s last book, it is once again a fun, fast-paced exploration of the world of contemporary British Sikh women, this time through the story of three adult sisters who, while not quite estranged, certainly have some strained relationships. All of them had complicated relationships, too, with their now-deceased mother. They have come to India together as an unlikely threesome to fulfill their mother’s dying wish that they take this trip to her homeland, but each of them has troubles and plans that they don’t share with the others. There’s some deep heartbreak here, but the tone is generally light and often funny: the kind of family drama that’s well-flavoured with warmth and humour.

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Everything You Are, by Kerry Anne King

Everything You Are is a heart-warming story rooted in family and community, with a touch of romance — just the sort of thing you’d expect if you’ve read Kerry Anne King’s previous novels. However, this one also comes with a twist of magic realism that you might more readily associate with her alter ego, Kerry Schafer, the name under which she writes urban fantasy. While the magical element here is light, and you could, if you wished, brush it off as just superstition (as some of the characters do), I loved the flavour it added to the story.

Ophelia “Phee” MacPhee inherited her grandfather’s business as a luthier (that’s someone who makes and repairs stringed instruments). Brandon Healey is an alcoholic ex-musician who gave up playing the cello after an injury to his hands. Now Brandon’s ex-wife and son are dead and he’s left with custody of a resentful teenage daughter, Ally, who plays the cello that Brandon left behind. That cello, as it turns out, was sold to Brandon when he was a child by Phee’s grandfather, and it just … might … have a curse on it. Or have a sentient soul of its own that haunts the person it’s meant to bond with for life.

So that’s the set up. The execution is a gentle, sometimes funny, sometimes heart-wrenching journey through the power of love, the power of music, and the place where the two intersect.

 

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