Category Archives: Fiction — general

Belzhar, by Meg Wolitzer

belzharThis was another young adult novel I picked up recently, in this case by a writer whose adult fiction I had already read. It was interesting to compare Meg Wolitzer’s portrayal of adolescent experience in The Interestings, which starts out with a group of gifted teens at a summer camp, and here in Belzhar, which is set among a group of gifted but emotionally damaged teens at a boarding school. Apart from the fact that The Interestings follows the characters into midlife, its portrayal of the characters and their experience is also subtler and more nuanced, and I don’t think it’s necessary that the emotional landscape of a teen novel has to be flatter or more black-and-white than that of a novel for adults.

That said, there was a lot to like about Belzhar, as the main character, Jam, tries to cope with the grief from a shocking loss that has thrown her into a deep depression. The boarding-school setting is a little contrived (actually, by the end of the book I’d decided it was more contrived than I thought it was, based on the ending, but I’ll get to that later). The school is designed for students who are gifted but “fragile,” and the friends the main character meets at school have suffered a wide range of traumas — but apparently the school does not allow students to be on any medication, nor does any form of psychological counselling or any other sort of therapy seem to be offered. The suggestion seems to be that simply by isolating a bunch of traumatized teens from their families and friends and educating them together in a remote rural setting, they’ll get better without any more specific interventions.

This seems unlikely, as does the school’s ban on cellphones and internet access (question: how would any modern high-school student complete homework without internet?) — but, like the blizzard that keeps Jam from getting home over Thanksgiving break, it’s an obvious contrivance — to make the world of the boarding school a closed system, in which inconvenient relationships and information from the outside world can’t break in to trouble the plot. A kind of bell jar, in fact — the students read Sylvia Plath, and the title is a reference both to her book and to the sealed-off world they find themselves entering (a concept I’ll get to in a moment) — but it also relates to the school itself.

Once you accept these contrivances, the story is pretty good, and kept me engaged. The main conceit of the plot is that a group of students gets hold of something that allows them a kind of limited time-travel — back to the times and people in their lives that triggered their traumatic experiences. Everyone has the opportunity to revisit those experiences, enabling them, ideally, to find the kind of closure that was denied them in real life, and then move forward with their lives. It’s an intriguing concept, though you can see how it would work better with some traumas than others. For someone grieving the loss of a loved one, as Jam is throughout the novel, it’s easy to see how a chance to say goodbye and accept the loss might help. But what about the girl who endlessly relives the day she let her younger brother get off the bus a few stops before home so he could go to a store, only to lose him forever when he’s kidnapped between the bus stop and home? What kind of re-living could ever help a person reconcile themselves to a moment like that? All the time-travel device could do would make you search endlessly for things you could have done differently — and, in fact, this is pretty much what happens.

Despite my doubts about it, I read this book quickly and found it engaging. The ending has a big twist that did a good job of surprising me — but the more I thought about it, the more the twist ending made me reconsider what I thought of the rest of the book.

If this is enough to intrigue you and you think you might read this book sometime, STOP HERE. I’m going to discuss the ending, so SPOILERS BELOW!!!

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction -- fantasy, Fiction -- general, Young Adult

I’ll Give You The Sun, by Jandy Nelson

giveyouthesunThis very highly-acclaimed young adult novel has an appealing premise and an intriguing structure. Jude and Noah are twins who are inseparable (though very different) at 13 and barely speaking to each other at 16. In alternating point-of-view chapters, Noah tells the story of what happened that summer three years ago to change the direction of both twins’ lives and tear their family apart, while Jude narrates what’s happening now, in their sixteenth year. Both voices are vivid and compellling though I did find the author’s attempts to make them quirky and distinctive went too far at times, particularly artist Noah’s habit of interpreting people’s emotional states in terms of visual images he could imagine painting. It’s intriguing and appropriate in small doses, but we often get it in large doses and it sometimes distracts from the story.

The story is good and well told — the desire to find out what happened in the past that was affecting everything the twins did in the present, kept me turning the pages. In some ways I thought the ending resolved things a little too neatly, but overall this was a quick and enjoyable YA read.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction -- general, Young Adult

Walt, by Russell Wangersky

waltI read Walt very quickly — finished the book in less than a day, so it certainly kept the pages turning. The style is pure Russell Wangersky — beautiful writing, perceptive descriptions, but the language is always made to serve the plot and characters rather than the other way around. The main character is the titular Walt, a nondescript middle-aged guy who works as a janitor in a St John’s grocery store. I couldn’t decide if Walt’s first-person narrative voice always felt authentic for the character Walt is supposed to be, but it certainly was compelling. There are other voices here too — a police officer trying to solve the disappearances of several women, including Walt’s wife Mary, and a young women, Alisha, who believes someone is stalking her.

Someone is, and that someone is Walt. The device that lets us into Walt’s head, and lets him into the lives of Alisha and the other women he stalks, is the simple grocery list — torn-off scraps of paper people leave behind in their carts and on the supermarket floor. Walt collects and analyzes these, putting together mental pictures of the shoppers behind the lists, and sometimes, as in Alisha’s place, even taking it so far as to actually follow them home and watch their lives through lighted windows. Sometimes, Walt goes farther.

But how far? It’s explicit from early on in the story that Walt is a stalker, but what else is he? Is he a home invader? (Yes). Is he a rapist? (Maybe?) Is he a murderer? (Hmmmm…) As he’s the first-person narrator for most of the book and relates his own stories, this also raises the question of how unreliable a narrator Walt is. He doesn’t mind relating tales of peering through women’s windows or pawing through their underwear drawers, but he’s evasive about other specifics, like what happened to the hitchhiker he picked up, or where exactly Mary went when she left him.Is this Walt being evasive with us, or Russell Wangersky, or both? This book raises a lot of questions, and they won’t all be answered by the last page — which will frustrate some readers who came to this book because they saw it described somewhere as a “thriller.” If it’s a thriller, the thrill is of a very literary type, and at the end of the novel you still may not know whodunit, or at least whathedun.

A friend of mine had a stalker in college, and it was creepy to watch the escalation of this guy’s obsession. Some time later, I tried to write a story from a stalker’s point of view, making his actions not at all excusable, but justifiable within his own head. The story was a disaster — I read it to a writing class I was taking at the time, and people actually started laughing out loud because the idea of this guy trying to justify these actions was so ridiculous, no-one could take it seriously. So I know from experience that it’s very hard to do what Wangersky does here — take a person who does inexcusable things, and bring us into his perspective enough to show how he is able to excuse them to himself.

The genius of using the shopping lists as a device is that that kind of fascination with other people’s lives is something most of us can relate to. Just as I was reading Walt, I heard another Canadian writer, in an interview, talk about her penchant for picking up other people’s discarded shopping lists in stores and perusing them (she wasn’t discussing Wangersky’s book, either — the topic arose completely separately from that). If we haven’t done that with shopping lists, we’ve certainly eavesdropped on other people’s conversations in the coffee shop (maybe even incorporating them into our novels!). Most of us have looked curiously at an attractive or intriguing stranger and wondered who they were and what they were like. And the vast majority of us wouldn’t take that curiosity to the next step of following the person home, much less peering into their windows or breaking into their houses. But what Walt, the novel, does so well is to show us how Walt, the character moves from the kind of curiosity we find acceptable, through the invasion of privacy we know is clearly “over the line,” to actions far more serious … and how, in his mind, it all makes sense. While this book may not have given the reader quite as much information as many of us will want, I do admire Wangersky’s brilliant ability to get inside Walt’s psyche and make it seem real.

Leave a comment

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

Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle

wolfinwhitevanThis is a book I read a few months ago and have been thinking about off and on ever since, which is certainly not a bad thing. I waited eagerly for its release, because it’s the first full-length novel by John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, who I think is possibly the best lyricist in the world of music today. I was intrigued to see what someone who can sketch an entire story in a three-minute song could do with a whole novel, and I wasn’t disappointed.

I read Wolf in White Van very quickly when it came out in September — overnight, really — and then gave it to my son, who is a huge fan of Darnielle’s music. I fully intended to re-read the book soon, because it left me with more questions than answers. But Chris (who did like the book as well) took far longer than I did to read it, and by the time I got it back I was on to other books, so I haven’t yet reread it (though I probably will). I think it’s a book that grew more meaningful to me after thinking it over for awhile, and will probably offer even more on a second reading.

Wolf in White Van tells the story of Sean, a youngish man whose face is hideously disfigured due to an act of horrific violence when he was seventeen. In his isolated life as a near-recluse, Sean has constructed a fantasy world: a text-based role-playing game called Trace Italian, in which players move through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, writing letters through the mail to Sean in which they choose their next moves. Based on their choices, Sean mails them the next scenario. The scenes of the game were all mapped out in his head during his long and painful recovery years ago and now stored on paper to be shared with the handful of people still fascinated by a text-based game played through the mail.

The novel unfolds in Sean’s lonely present-day but also travels back through his past to the fateful day when his world changed forever. The truly chilling thing about that day and that event, when we finally get back to it at the end of the novel, is that there’s no reason, no explanation, no cause, for what Sean did. Reading this book as the parent of two teenagers I found this terrifying: every parent’s worst fear is that their child will be either the victim or the perpetrator of a horrific act — or, as in the case of suicide, both. When such a thing happens, people latch on to reasons — abuse, severe mental illness, trauma — to explain why it happened. But “why” — a question Sean is asked by a child in a park at the novel’s opening — is not a question to which this novel offers an answer.

Teenaged Sean is lonely, isolated, and doesn’t always get along with his parents — but none of those things is more true for him than it is for most other teenagers most of the time. On the day of the tragedy, nothing goes especially wrong — in fact, some things go quite right. And yet it happens anyway. The book suggests that life is like a role-playing game. Every day we face turning points, and we don’t always recognize their significance. The urge to self-destruction arrives and the impulsive young person acts on it, or lets it pass. And life continues unchanged, or ends — or is transformed into something unrecognizable.

Present-day Sean will always live with the consequences of teenaged Sean’s action. Reflecting on the book afterwards, I found that prospect less bleak than it did while I was reading it. From his isolated apartment, Sean does interact with others — primarily with the people who play his game and the caregivers who come to his home to help him, but also with the child in the park, some teenagers in a parking lot, and a couple of old friends from high-school days with whom he has brief encounters. Some of these interactions are definitely negative: a phone call from his parents relating news of a death in the family is devastating; a pair of young gamers become so immersed in Sean’s Trace Italian world that they attempt to act out the game and die in the attempt, as a result of which Sean faces a legal battle.

But other interactions are positive and hopeful — people show Sean small and unexpected kindness, and in turn he reveals his own kindness, his fragile ability to hope and trust. Ultimately, I came away feeling that the message of this short, compelling, beautifully-crafted book is both terrifying and inspiring: we shape the game by the choices we make.

1 Comment

Filed under Fiction -- general

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

completelybesideourselvesThe only book by Karen Joy Fowler that I’d read previous to this was Wit’s End, which I enjoyed at the time but didn’t remember well at all, and The Jane Austen Book Club, which I found to be a fun read but quite light, not at all a heavy-hitter in the literary sense. So I was surprised to see  her novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves show up on so many awards and best-of lists. This, too, reads like a deceptively light novel, even a funny one, but it explores several deep issues through a compelling and highly readable story.

The main character is college student Rosemary, who is haunted by the disappearance of both her sister and her brother during her childhood. These traumas have turned her from an extremely talkative child to a very quiet young woman, but her first-person narrative voice is engaging, sharp and witty. Two stories unfold parallel to each other. One is the story of Rosemary’s unconventional childhood — which she, like nearly all children whose upbringing is unusual, assumed was fairly normal until she was old enough to be singled out and taunted by other children at school. The other is the story of Rosemary in the present, trying to piece together who she is in the present, especially in the absence of Fern, the sister whose presence defined her childhood and made it exceptional.

The novel keeps its focus clearly on Rosemary and her family, but, as the best novels do, uses that very specific story to explore much broader issues — in this case, the issue of animal research, animal testing, and cruelty to animals in general which, as Rosemary’s animal-rights-activist brother Lowell points out to her, is the ignored and unacknowledged underpinning of so much of human society. To keep the pages turning as quickly as they did for me in this book, while at the same time plunging into big and significant issues, requires an exceptionally gifted writer, and Fowler clearly is one.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction -- general

The Children Act, by Ian McEwan

childrenactIn The Children Act, distinguished family court judge Fiona Maye has to rule on a difficult case involving a seventeen-year-old Jehovah’s Witness boy who refuses a blood transfusion that may save his life. He is just under the legal age to refuse consent himself, and the court must decide whether to force him to receive the treatment against his own wishes and the wishes of his parents. Because the case occupies such a legal grey area, Fiona takes the unusual step of going to visit the boy in hospital herself rather than simply relying on the social workers’ reports. 

Her encounter with the boy, Adam, has implications which spread far beyond the legal decision Fiona makes later that night. This case and its aftermath, unfolding at the same time as a crisis in her till-then happy marriage of thirty years, forces Fiona to take a close look at herself and the choices she has made in life. This is a detailed, thoughtful character study where the character’s inner life is far more important than what happens to her in the outside world.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction -- general

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, by Chris Bohjalian

closeyoureyesIn the first few pages, I thought Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands was going to be a futuristic dystopian novel. But it quickly becomes apparent that it’s set in the present day — or as near the present as makes no difference, next year or the year after — and that the dystopia is very localized rather than global. A nuclear power plant in northern Vermont experiences a meltdown, leaving nineteen people dead and thousands homeless.

Among the dead are the parents of sixteen-year-old Emily Shephard. Not only are they dead; they are being blamed posthumously for the disaster, which has been credited to “human error” — Emily’s father was an engineer at the plant, her mother was in charge of public relations, and both had a drinking problem. Emily’s family is a loving but troubled one; she’s been a difficult teenager both at home and at school. She’s also an only child and so are both her parents, so in the aftermath of the tragedy she has — or, at least, thinks she has — no place to go.

Terrified to reveal her true identity, trusting no-one, and hounded by anxiety, Emily goes from one bad decision to another, resorting to theft, drug abuse, self-harm and prostitution, eventually reduced to living in an igloo made of frozen garbage bags. But she’s also wonderfully resilient and kind-hearted, and when she find a nine-year-old runaway foster child who also has nowhere to go, Emily thinks she might just have found a reason to stay alive.

Throughout it all, Emily’s voice is sharp, perceptive, and humourous despite the tragedies all around her. Her story unfolds in an almost stream-of-consciousness narrative as she relates the events of the last year out of order, as the memories crop up. I suspect most readers’ appreciation of the novel will hinge largely on how much they respond to Emily’s voice and empathize with her, but for me, this was a completely engrossing book and I couldn’t put it down.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction -- general, Uncategorized