Category Archives: Fiction — general

There There, by Tommy Orange

There ThereThere There is a book I’ve heard people talking about for the past year, and it really is amazing. The novel has a huge cast of characters, especially for a short book. The characters are all First Nations people (they, like lots of First Nations people in the US, usually refer to themselves as Indians and of course people get to pick what they are called; it’s just that as a settler-descended white Canadian it feels weird to type “Indian” when that term is sometimes seen as pejorative in this country), mostly living in contemporary urban settings in and around Oakland, California. They are all kinds of people — those fiercely proud of their native heritage and those completely cut off from it; powwow dancers and activists; criminals and addicts; people who want to build something and people who want to tear something down. And none of those categories is discrete, because these are real, complex, flesh-and-blood people.

The pace of the book seems dizzying at first — you meet character after character in short chapters, and at first these characters seem to have little or nothing to do with each other and the book reads more like a collection of loosely linked short stories — linked, perhaps, by the experience of being Native American in today’s America and, more specifically, in today’s Oakland. But soon you start to see links and connections, see how some of these characters’ stories are woven together. Some connections are direct — members of an estranged extended family who may not even realize they are related — while others are indirect. The most important connection, it turns out, is that all these people are going to the same event: a powwow held in a local arena. They’re all going for different reasons, but when the trajectories of their journeys begin to converge, the pace of the story picks up. The multiple points of view continue, but the chapters get shorter, the camera shifting from one character to another as we see how events play out, leading to a climax that’s shattering in every sense.

There There is a beautiful piece of writing (and a master class in how to handle multiple points of view), but it’s also the kind of writing by Native American/Indian/First Nations writers that more settler-descended people like me need to read. It’s one thing to toss around phrases like “intergenerational trauma” but another to see so vividly and viscerally depicted the impact of generations of dispossession and discrimination. This was an important, overpowering, almost overwhelming piece of fiction.

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Something for Everyone, by Lisa Moore

somethingforeveryoneLisa Moore is almost certainly the most nationally celebrated and critically acclaimed author to come out of the Newfoundland literary scene in my generation, and of the four of us who are up for this year’s NL Reads award, she’s the only one who could be considered a literary household word. Her latest collection of short stories, Something for Everyone, provides what her readers have come to expect: stories whose insight into the human experience (centred almost always in contemporary St. Johns, though there is, unusually for Moore, one historical piece in this collection) is mediated through richly layered metaphor and detailed observations. Some of her short stories feel as much like prose poems as like short fiction.

There are times, in the midst of a Lisa Moore story, when I feel I’m almost drowning in sensory detail. I can find myself submerged in paragraph after paragraph of incredibly detailed description of — to pull one example from a story in this collection — a hotel caretaker using a long-handled net to pull debris from an outdoor pool, a description so minute it includes the sentences: “The pole he has is made of sections joined by plastic cuffs that screw together. Some blue sections, some silver, joined together without consideration for alternating colour.” Swimming through sentences like that in the midst of four paragraphs of the caretaker cleaning the pool (that’s four paragraphs just at that point in the story — Moore will bring us back to this description later, more than once) can leave a reader a little breathless. You can love the attention to detail but also wonder if this story is going anywhere or whether it’s just flowing from one visual image to the next in non-linear fashion. Then, two-thirds of the way through the story that contains the pool caretaker, you’re suddenly reminded of a tiny detail in the first sentence of that story, a detail you almost forgot: “Orlando, Florida. I’m here with a conference of twenty thousand librarians from all over North America, two weeks after the Pulse massacre.” When you’re suddenly reminded of the when and where of this story and (at least part of) the why, it’s like being yanked out of that warm pool of sensory detail, gasping for breath in the sudden sharp air of human tragedy.

Possibly because I generally prefer novels to short stories, my favourite part of this collection was the last story, Skywalk, which is really a novella in five chapters. It begins with a chance encounter between two young university students: the girl, newly come to St. John’s to study nursing, is nervous about crossing the parkway skywalk at one a.m., and asks a boy standing nearby to call her and stay on the phone till she’s made it safely across. From that single brief encounter, the story spirals out like the arms of a starfish, reaching backwards into the girl’s past, and the boy’s, forward into their futures, each piece of the story unfolding gradually against the backdrop of a series of horrific crimes being committed in St. John’s. Every character, every encounter, every piece of dialogue, and yes, every lovingly-detailed sensory description, is note-perfect in this piece.

Maybe it’s just because so many of these stories are set on the same streets where I live and work and walk every day, and those streets and the people who frequent them are so vividly depicted (though sometimes with jarring changes presumably for fictional purposes — I wasted far too much time trying to figure out where Chelsea’s bus stop was, sure it was in my neighbourhood but that it couldn’t logically exist within the parameters given, until I reminded myself that Lisa Moore has a poetic license and the right to use it), but to me the strength of these stories is how real some of the moments within them feel. They feel like slices of life that seem to be lifted directly from a spot right next to me, where I might have been standing a moment ago. 

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Hysteria, by Elisabeth de Mariaffi

hysteriaI hesitated for a moment over whether to class this as “historical fiction.” I mean, it obviously is; it’s set in the past, but sometimes people slap an arbitrary definition of how many decades before the time of writing qualifies a book as historical fiction, and I’m not sure if everyone considers the 1950s “history.” But it is, and in fact, as this book illustrates, it can feel so distant it’s like another world.

Hysteria actually begins in the aftermath of World War Two, when young Heike and her younger sister Lena escape the devastated city of Dresden on foot. Heike makes it to the safety of a Swiss convent where she is cared for by nuns, but Lena is lost in the forest (not a spoiler; this happens in the first couple of pages of the book) and this loss — not just of home and family and past life, but of a child she loved who was in her care) haunts Heike throughout the book and lays the foundation for much of what happens to her within the story.

Still, when we meet Heike ten years later as the main plot of the novel begins, she seems to be relatively well-recovered from her trauma (there’s actually even more trauma in Heike’s post-war experience than the escaping-Germany flashback reveals, but this takes time to come out). She is living in upstate New York with her doctor husband, the mother of a little boy named Daniel, living a life of comfort and leisure with few expectations on her. Her marriage does not seem entirely happy, but she takes great comfort in her son. The fact that her husband is heavily focused on developing and experimenting with new psychotropic drugs doesn’t seem terribly sinister … at first. 

But of course, it is.

Things start unravelling for Heike when she and her son, on a day’s outing, meet a little girl with whom her son plays, who doesn’t seem to be entirely real. The encounter has Heike questioning her own memories and senses, a process helped along by a husband who clearly appears to be gaslighting her.

Although the “historical” aspect of this novel is relatively recent, it’s actually one of those settings that seems most distant and difficult for me to read about — the world of upper-middle-class white women in post-WW2 America, women who lack jobs, independence, purpose or agency, who are often manipulated by their husbands or other men in their lives. Heike seems so passive throughout much of the book, and even after a shattering loss threatens her child, her reactions seem out of sync with what we’d expect or find normal. Why doesn’t she swing into action, take control of events, start solving her problems? At this point the reader may want to shake Heike, but the backdrop for her bizarre passivity has been well laid — by the trauma of her past, by what we know about her husband and his profession, and also by the systemic sexism of the world in which she lives.

I read this book, which I can best categorize as a literary psychological thriller, very quickly, and found the plot compelling and often hard to put down. If your pleasure in a thriller depends on being surprised by an unexpected plot twist, you may have a problem with this one: there’s a fairly huge twist, but it’s one that I and a lot of other readers figured out way ahead of the reveal (and trust me, if I figure out a twist, it’s not hard to figure out, because I am the dumbest reader when it comes to figuring out the curves and bends in a plot. I never know whodunit). However, figuring out the big twist didn’t diminish my pleasure in this book — rather, I was reading to find out if I was right about what I thought I’d figured out, and if so, why? How? Did all the pieces fit together in a way that gave me that satisfying “Aha! It all makes sense now!” reaction? And I found that it did — the ending was both satisfying and hopeful. 

If you like a twisty psychological thriller with some literary flair and some serious thoughts about how trauma and sexism can interact to keep a woman a virtual prisoner, you should pick up Hysteria.

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Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, by Balli Kaur Jaswal

punjabiwidowsPersonally I don’t see how anyone could avoid picking up a book titled Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, but that might just be me. Oh, and in case you were wondering, while this book is not exactly what the title suggests, there are examples in here of the titular erotic stories, and they are a little explicit, though in a very gentle way, so you might want to be aware of that.

Really, though, this is a fun contemporary novel set in London’s Sikh community. The main character is Nikki, a girl in her early 20s who has an uneasy relationship with her Sikh family and community. She’s not estranged from her family exactly, but her mother and sister are both more traditional that she is (sister Mindi is seeking an arranged marriage, which horrifies Nikki), and Nikki still feels guilty about the fact that her father died of a heart attack soon after she announced she was dropping out of law school: she’s afraid that disappointment over her career choice might have killed him. Nikki still sees her mom and sister, but she doesn’t live with them; she lives in an apartment over the bar where she works while she’s trying to figure out what to do next with her life.

What comes next is unexpected: Nikki ends up teaching a class for Punjabi women at a Sikh temple. She thinks it’s going to be a creative writing course; the women come expecting a basic literacy class. What emerges is something quite different from both, as the women begin sharing stories of forbidden fantasies and Nikki discovers that beneath the sedate and proper exterior of the widow lies a turbulent blend of desire, memory and fantasy.

I’ve called this a “fun” novel and the tone is quite light and often funny, and includes a sweet romance subplot. However, it does deal with some quite heavy and serious issues, particularly around the experience of a young woman named Maya whose tragic death is still a very fresh and recent wound for many people in the community. Maya’s story, which Nikki becomes intrigued with, lays bare many of the pressures faced by women in traditional communities — forced marriage, the pressure to conform, the obsession with a woman’s and a family’s honour. While the overall tone of the book is usually light-hearted, there’s a darkness around the edges that is dealt with seriously.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would definitely recommend it if you don’t mind a few vividly-described scenes of sexual fantasy, allegedly written by devout Sikh widows.

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If You Come Softly, by Jacqueline Woodson

softlyI picked up this YA novel, now 20 years old, because of an online book club I’m part of that was reading it. It tells the story of a romance between two high school students in New York City. Both Ellie and Miah (short for Jeremiah) are smart, sensitive kids from well-off families who meet at private school. But Ellie’s family is white and Jewish (though not observant), while Miah, whose dad is a famous movie producer, is black. Afraid of prejudice against their interracial romance, Ellie and Miah keep their relationship quiet for awhile, especially from Ellie’s fairly dysfunctional family. Then the outside world intervenes in a shattering way.

This is a short and in many ways fairly simple story of young love meeting racism and hate, by the always-poetic Jacqueline Woodson. I thought many of its themes were more powerfully explored in a more recent novel, Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, but I did enjoy If You Come Softly.

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Bridge of Clay, by Markus Zusak

bridgeofclayI read several disappointed reviews by readers who said that Zusak’s Bridge of Clay is nothing like his blockbuster hit The Book Thief, but I actually thought that structurally they were very similar. Bridge of Clay doesn’t have the Holocaust/WW2 background that made The Book Thief instantly fascinating and emotionally powerful for so many readers. Instead, it is set in present-day Australia, and the only historical event outside the characters’ lives that makes any impact is the Cold War, as we learn that Penny, the narrator’s mother, defected from Eastern Europe in the 1980s. Other than that, this is a novel very tightly focused on the lives of a single family: Penny, the man who becomes her husband, Michael, and the five sons they have together. It’s no spoiler (since you find this out very early in the novel) to say that Penny dies and Michael leaves the family when the boys are still relatively young, leaving them to pretty much raise themselves through the teenage and young-adult years — and yes, for everyone who immediately jumps to that comparison, the atmosphere in the household is not unlike a very literary Australian version of The Outsiders in its recklessless and anarchy.

For me, the similarities to The Book Thief came in the patient, roundabout way Zusak unfolds his story. I think people who read The Book Thief years ago and loved it sometime forget how slowly that story builds, how you get introduced to characters and events via hints and oblique references and may only learn hundreds of pages later why that person is important or how that seemingly-unimportant event played out. Bridge of Clay does the same thing, but even moreso, and I think over a much longer book (I read it as an e-book so it’s hard to be sure but it felt quite long, though not in a bad say). Some people will definitely find this frustrating; the book demands a lot of patience and attention, but I felt it paid off beautifully.

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Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid

exitwestThis is a novel about immigration, with a slight magic-realism twist. Saeed and Nadia are two young people who meet and fall in love in an unidentified city in the Middle East — a city on the brink of civil war between the government and fundamentalist militants. As life becomes more and more impossible, Saeed and Nadia think, as so many people do, about getting out, starting a new life somewhere else.

This is where the magic realism twist comes in. Saeed and Natasha’s world is pretty much our contemporary world, with one important exception: there are magical doors that you can walk through in one part of the world and emerge in another. These doors can appear randomly, anywhere — in the closet of any ordinary house, for example. You step through, and find yourself — well, on the island of Mykonos, in Greece, for example, which is where the door that Saaed and Nadia step through takes them.

I read a review by a person who was absolutely enraged by this concept — they clearly were not prepared for any magic realism and thought it was a ridiculous way to sidestep the actual business of emigrating from one place to another. I thought it was brilliant. It allows Hamid, in a relatively short book, to focus on the experience of adjusting to a new life, which is what the book is about — how migration changes people. 

The device of the doors does another thing — it removes the natural barriers of distance, deserts, oceans and other things that make travel difficult and dangerous during our current migrant/refugee crisis. If people could simply step through doors from strife-torn countries and appear in wealthy, safe cities thousands of miles away, Western countries would be overloaded with a flood of refugees far greater than they were able to cope with, and the rising threat of nationalist, anti-immigrant violence would become unmanageable. That’s the situation Nadia and Saaed find themselves when they step through a second door from the refugee camp on Mykonos to a London neighbourhood bursting with refugees.

Exit West not only puts our real-world problems with refugees under the magnifying glass of fiction, it also puts one particular couple’s relationship under a microscope, using Nadia and Saaed’s love story as a way to explore the pressures that change, hardship and upheaval can subject a relationship to. The book has an ending that, despite the difficult subject matter, is suprisingly hopeful. I don’t know if you’d call it a happy ending, but I found it satisfying.

 

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