Category Archives: Fiction — general

How to Stop Time, by Matt Haig

howtostoptimeWhen an online book club I sometimes participate in suggested How to Stop Time, my immediate reaction on reading the blurb was, “Well, this is a book tailor-made for me!” It combines historical fiction with fantastic/sci-fi elements, as its main character has a rare condition called anageria. This is the opposite of progeria, the real-life condition where people age more quickly than normal. Tom Hazard, in this novel (one of many names he goes by), ages about fifteen times more slowly than normal people. He is one of a handful of anagerics who have been alive for hundreds of years; as the novel opens in the present day Tom is over 400 years old but looks to be in his mid-thirties. He has had to move around frequently throughout his life, since if he stays in one place longer than a few years people start to notice that he hasn’t aged and they get suspicious. In the olden days, this could mean accusations of witchcraft or other supernatural shenanigans; today it’s more likely to mean pursuit by ruthless scientists who want to study these “albatrosses” to harvest the secret of eternal youth. So Tom lives in the shadows; he has hung out with Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald in his time, and developed an impressive list of skills, but he’s been unable to maintain any long-lasting relationships, because eventually everyone he loves will be left behind.

Four hundred years later, Tom is still pining after his lost love from the early 1600s, Rose, with whom he had a daughter Marion, who is still around somewhere because she too shares Tom’s condition. The novel relates Tom’s life story in flashbacks, alternated with scenes in present-day London where he tries to blend in as a history teacher (good career choice there), continues his centuries-long search for Marion, and considers the possibility of loving again.

A lot of great fiction confronts the question of mortality, of the shortness of human life and how we can live and love knowing it will all be lost. How to Stop Time comes at this question from the opposite direction: what if you knew that youlife was virtually endless, but that all those around you were doomed to age and die? Could life, could love, still have meaning under those circumstances?

I thought How to Stop Time was a lovely and very engaging novel that handled those questions in an insightful and thoughtful way. Tom was a likable enough character that it was possible to empathize with him even though his situation is not one that any of us can relate to. Except that time does keep passing, things do keep changing, and we all, sometimes, want to stop it. So maybe we can relate after all.

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Bellevue Square, by Michael Redhill

bellevue squareBellevue Square, winner of this year’s Giller Prize (Canada’s richest literary award), is one heck of a weird book. Though the Giller Prize only goes to works that are pretty clearly “literary fiction,” Redhill’s credentials as a mystery writer (under a pen name, which turns out to be significant here) are on display as Bellevue Square opens with an intriguing hook.

A middle-aged woman who owns a bookstore, the novel’s first-person narrator Jean Mason, is told by two different customers that she has a doppelganger. Both people have seen a woman who looks exactly like her on a Toronto street not far from her bookstore. Jean befriends the second of those people before she finds out that the first has died under somewhat mysterious circumstances. But even before the quest to find and confront her double has begun to consume Jean’s life, the reader has started to notice that little details about her account of her own life are slightly off. Jean tells us that her husband is a retired police officer, having left the force after making good money in the stock market. But he still wears a uniform and seems to think he is still on the force. And a good deal of her time is spent Skyping with her sister, who has a brain tumour, yet when her husband asks her who she’s been talking to, she evades the question. She has two kids she obviously cares for, yet she is able to wander the streets and sit chatting with homeless people in a city park for hours at time, oblivious to her family’s needs in a way that any mother who’s raised actual children at once realizes is not at all believable.

In short, Jean quickly proves to be a very unreliable narrator; the idea of “double lives” operates on many levels in this book; we are quickly led to question what is and isn’t real, and who is really telling us this story. This is all great stuff and kept me turning pages quickly for the first two-thirds of the book. The thing with a great set-up like this, though, is that the writer has to have the chops to pull it off. You can’t set up a bunch of intriguing mysteries unless you’re able to wrap it up with a resolution that makes the reader go “Aha!! So that was what was happening all along!” (See my review of John Darnielle’s Universal Harvester, which, despite my deep and intense love for Darnielle and everything he does, failed on this count for me).

So, does the ending of Bellevue Square — which is as action-packed and exciting as any thriller reader could hope for — pay off? Well, different readers have different takes on that. Some are left saying “Aha!” while others are left with more of an “A … ha?” reaction. I think I was in the latter category. The book is certainly well-written and intriguing, and I didn’t expect everything to be tied up with a neat and tidy bow. But I wanted at least a few answers, and I felt I was left with far more questions. What’s real and what isn’t? At the end of Bellevue Square, we’re still not entirely sure. Which may, of course, be exactly what Redhill intended.

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The Boat People, by Sharon Bala

boatpeopleIf there’s one book by a Newfoundland-based author — in fact, if there’s one book by a Canadian author — that you’re going to hear buzz about this year, it’s going to be Sharon Bala’s novel The Boat People. It’s already been chosen as a selection for this year’s Canada Reads competition, and I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about it when awards season rolls around.

I had the privilege of reading an earlier version of The Boat People in 2014, when I judged the Percy Janes First Novel Award and picked it as the winner out of a strong field of contenders. I loved it even more on reading the final, published novel. This is an important and timely novel about immigration, racism, violence and fear, but most importantly it’s a novel full of real people who I came to care deeply about.

The background for this story is a real event: the 2010 arrival of a boat full of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka to Canada’s west coast. Earlier waves of immigrants, including irregular arrivals like boat people, had been welcomed warmly to Canada, but by 2010 the combination of fears of terrorism and the Conservative government then in power, combined with the shock effect of 500 refugees arriving at once, guaranteed these Tamil refugees a far less friendly reception. Many remained in detention for months as their claims were processed through the system. The novel’s main character, Mahindan, is a widowed father who only hopes for a better life for his son Sellian. But Sellian and Mahindan are separated, with adult men going to one detention centre and women and children to another, despite the fact that there is no mother to care for Sellian. Mahindan’s fierce love for his son and the ache of separation is a thread that runs through the novel.

But there are other characters, all equally well developed: Priya, the young law student who is unwillingly pulled into the refugee claimants’ case during her articling year; Priya’s Sri Lankan family, whose own journey to Canada decades ago hides many secrets; career civil servant Grace, daughter of Japanese-Canadians interned during the Second World War, who now finds herself adjudicating the refugees’ hearings, trying to decide which ones should be allowed to stay in Canada and which, if any, pose a danger to the public safety.

The danger, though it is used by the federal government to score political points, is not entirely illusory. Through the flashbacks of Mahindan’s story, we recognize that the Tamil Tigers are indeed a group capable of horrific acts of violence, and that while the refugees are fleeing the chaos of civil war in the country, many of them, Manhindan included, had been drawn into taking sides in that conflict in one way or another. The flashback scenes are what give the novel its power and poignancy: through these scenes we see Mahindan’s “normal” life when he was married to Chitra, their love and hope during her pregnancy, his grief when she dies in childbirth, and then how the world they shared is shattered by war and Mahindan reduced to a homeless, desperate man on the run. When the ship arrives in Canada he believes his suffering is over and a new life is beginning, but the reality is more complicated.

There is so much happening in this novel that is complex and real and relevant: the plight of refugees, the fear of terrorism, the tendency of one generation of migrants to fear the influx of newer arrivals and safeguard their position by saying things like “We came to this country legally; why can’t they go through the process like we did?” (I cannot tell  you how many American friends I have heard say this in the current refugee/immigration debates). But the characters are never just caricatures representing different groups of people or different positions; they are all drawn with humanity, depth and insight.

One of the strengths of this novel, I think, is that it’s topical without being too topical. Right now, our fears about immigration and terrorism (at least here in Canada, but I think for the most part in the US and Europe as well) are so focused on groups like the Syrian refugees and the fear of ISIS-style Muslim extremism, that we’ve almost forgotten Middle Eastern Muslims are far from the only group of people on the planet to have produced both terrorists and refugees. The author’s own family roots in Sri Lanka no doubt made the story of the Tamil refugees an interesting one for her to explore, but it also allows the reader the opportunity to explore the problems posed in this novel at one remove from the heat of current debates. In addition, it gives a much needed correction to the smugness we liberal Canadians often feel about what a welcoming and inclusive country ours is. Sure, we may look good compared the US right now, but we’re not perfect. Canadians are as susceptible to fear, suspicion, paranoia and racism as any other country — and that includes Canadians of all backgrounds.

Hauntingly real and unforgettably personal, The Boat People is a novel that will linger with most readers for a long time. It certainly will with me. Yes, it’s topical, it’s relevant, it has its finger on the pulse of current debates, but at it’s heart this is a story about human beings just longing for what we all want: a safe place to call home.

 

 

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Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward

unburiedSing, Unburied, Sing, is a short, intense, powerful novel set in contemporary rural Mississippi. At the heart of the novel is JoJo, a 13-year-old boy with a black mother and a white father who are both mostly absent from his life and that of his three-year-old sister Kayla. Their father, Michael, is finishing up a jail sentence; their mother, Leonie, is sometimes well-meaning but addicted to drugs and obsessed with her own problems (and her love for Michael, which looms far larger than her love for her children). The people who have cared for JoJo and Kayla all their lives are Leonie’s parents, whom JoJo calls Mam and Pop, in whose home they live. Mam is dying of cancer; Pop is the moral and emotional centre of JoJo’s fractured world.

There’s so much going on in this brief and powerful story. Plotwise, it’s very simple: over a period of a couple of days, Leonie takes her two children and a friend on a car trip to meet Michael as he’s being released from prison. Nothing much happens, though at one point it seems like it might. But this book is about so much: race in America, addiction, parents and children, mass incarceration, coming of age, and also, a ghost story. In fact, there are two ghosts — Riche, a boy JoJo’s age who was imprisoned with Pop decades ago, and who died tragically while attempting to escape, and Given, Leonie’s brother who was murdered by Michael’s cousin when they were teenagers. (This is less confusing in the book than it sounds in my synopsis).

Jesmyn Ward is a beautiful writer with a keen and unsparing eye for the details that reveal poverty, bigotry, courage, and hope. I found this a very powerful novel that will linger with me for a long time.

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In the Midst of Winter, by Isabel Allende

inthemidstIn the Midst of  Winter is many things. It’s a later-in-life romance about two people in their sixties. It’s an unsparing glimpse into the plight of illegal immigrants in the US and the situations that drive them to such desperation in their home countries. And it’s a cross between a crime novel and a screwball comedy as the three main characters try to dispose of a dead body for which none of them is responsible, but which they can’t simply walk away from.

A winter storm in Brooklyn, New York, brings the reclusive college professor Richard together with his tenant, Chilean visiting lecturer Lucia. Though both Richard and Lucia have plenty of broken romances in the past and are now well set in their single ways, there’s an attraction between them. But it doesn’t come to fruition until a minor car accident brings Evelyn, a girl from Guatemala now working as a nanny to a wealthy and sinister New Yorker’s family, into their lives. Evelyn, her employer’s car, and the inconvenient contents of its trunk.

All three characters’ backstories unfold throughout the novel. Evelyn’s early life in Guatemala, Lucia’s Chilean past, and Richard’s long-ago marriage to a vivacious Brazilian woman, are all rife with tragedy. Through their unlikely adventures, they form a bond and begin to create new lives out of the ruins of old.

I liked all the elements of this story and found the glimpses into Lucia’s and Evelyn’s lives particularly compelling — Evelyn’s story of illegal immigration is of course especially relevant in the light of current conflicts over immigration in the US. However, I found the style of writing less polished than I expected from Allende. I haven’t read a novel by her in many years, and I was surprised, since she is a very highly-acclaimed author, to find some of the same things I’ve complained about in Ken Follett novels — reams of telling instead of showing to convey information, very little subtlety, dialogue that’s often weighty with exposition and lacking in nuance. She definitely has a great story to tell here, but I feel like if this work had come from a beginning author rather than one with the weight of Allende’s name and reputation attached, an editor might have suggested working with it a little more, so that readers could draw some of their own conclusions rather than having the author wave morals and meanings in our faces as baldly as she does in some of this novel’s scenes.

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Love for the Lost, by Catherine Fox

loveforthelostThe third and final book in Fox’s earlier “trilogy” of loosely connected novels introduces us to Isobel, who was a minor character in The Benefits of Passion. Isobel was a fellow student of Annie Brown’s in that book, also studying for the ministry, and often mocked by Annie for her straitlaced, humourless approach to life. In Love for the Lost we are immersed in Isobel’s world as she serves in her first pastoral role, where she is the curate under a gentle, kindly and tolerant priest named Harry. Isobel is, indeed, strait-laced and overly sincere, though we learn a good deal in this story about her early life and what made her the person she is. A person who genuinely tries to be good and thinks she’s doing a pretty good job of it is a difficult character to write sympathetically, but Fox manages to make us feel for Isobel even as the reader sometimes wants to wring her neck.

Isobel believes it’s better to ignore emotional pain and get on with the job, and of course that policy of dealing with problems is always going to bite back at you in the end — most likely in real life, but definitely in fiction. When Isobel falls in love with one entirely unsuitable man and then sleeps with another (who might actually be suitable except for the fact that she doesn’t love him), her carefully constructed world falls apart. Meanwhile, the reader gradually becomes aware of what Isobel is completely oblivious to: a third man, waiting patiently in the wings, who may truly be able to offer her the kind of companionship and acceptance she can only dream of.

Once again, characters from the earlier two novels reappear here, some peripherally and at least one very central to the story. We find out what has become of Mara, John, Annie and Will, but we don’t find out, entirely, what becomes of Isobel. Catherine Fox shows again her fondness for the open-ended ending, leaving Isobel in a place where it’s possible for the reader to hope for a bright future for her, but also leaving many things unresolved, including the romance plot. In fact, if you had read this novel when it first came out, you would have had to wait nearly 20 years for a passing reference in one of the Lindchester novels to find out where the romance plot of Isobel’s storyline was heading. When I finished Love for the Lost I had to go back and skim through the middle Lindchester novel to see if my vague half-memory of some of those passing references was correct (obviously I didn’t pay much attention to them the first time, because not having read the original series I didn’t know the characters to which they were referring).

Now that I’ve read all six of these novels by Catherine Fox I am eager for her to write more (though apparently she’s going to back to writing YA sci-fi for the moment, which, while I’m sure she’s good at it, is not exactly what I’m in the mood to read). It was odd reading her work “in reverse,” as it were, because you can definitely see that she grew and matured as a writer in between the two trilogies. She remains a master at creating believable, real characters, and incorporating their spiritual struggles into stories just as naturally as sexual desire, career choices, and all the other things that characters deal with in the course of a story. I can’t think of anyone who writes better and more naturally about faith and spirituality in the context of the modern novel.

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The Benefits of Passion, by Catherine Fox

benefitsThe Benefits of Passion is the follow-up novel to Fox’s Angels and Men, which I reviewed in my last post. After spending 300 or so pages with the prickly, discontented main character Mara in the previous novel, The Benefits of Passion offers the reader a much lighter mood and a much funnier main character. Annie Brown is a young woman studying for the Anglican priesthood while also, on the side, pursuing a career as a writer (sections of the novel Annie is writing are interspersed here with her own story). Annie is a thirty-one-year-old, single, former teacher, a witty observer of the foibles of others, especially her fellow students. Though she feels she had a genuine call to the ministry, she is now wrestling not only with her vocation but with her faith in God. She’s also wrestling with her own sexual desires, which she personifies as a large, unruly dog called Libby (after a former student’s mispronunciation of “libido” as “Libby-do”). Libby must constantly be called to heel, especially after Annie meets an attractive but irascible young doctor who she finds abrasive and insulting yet somehow endlessly fascinating.

That’s the set-up for the classic romance novel, of course, but this being a Catherine Fox book, the story goes in some very un-romance-like directions, including into some very deep and thoughtful reflections on the nature of ministry and faith. This story takes place some ten years after Angels and Men and at first appears to have little to do with the earlier book except for being set at the same university. But as the novel progresses, Annie encounters both Johnny Whittaker and Mara Johns from the first book, and the reader gets updated on how their story turned out. There’ll be further updates in the last novel of the series, which I’m getting to … but this book focuses on Annie and her need to make a life for herself that is true to all aspects of who she is. It’s not an easily resolved struggle, and in Fox’s novels there are no simple answers. But there is a rewarding story about a character I found very easy to identify with.

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