Category Archives: Fiction — general

Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club

This is a book people have been recommending to me since literally before it was even finished (I first heard about it when author Megan Coles visited my podcast along with Robert Chafe, who made a point of getting her to promote the book she was, at that point, still working on). Everyone I know who’s read it has described themselves as having been overwhelmed or found it breathtaking, even though they also often describe it as “difficult.” And, indeed, the terse and cryptic author warning — “This might hurt a little” — on the page usually reserved for an epigraph, is absolutely a relevant warning for anyone opening the pages of this novel.

The setting is contemporary St. John’s, on a stormy Valentine’s Day when snow, high winds, and rolling blackouts keep most of the sensible townies indoors. The un-sensible ones, in this novel, are largely the staff and patrons of a hipster downtown restaurant called The Hazel. This novel has a large cast of characters, with point of view shifting frequently between them, and the author is not about to spoon-feed the reader any explanations about who these characters are and how they connect with each other. I will admit that I spent a lot of the first third of the book trying to figure out how everyone connects, weaving together the various threads of backstory we are given, and wading through some incredibly complex extended metaphors to get to “Who is this person and how do they relate to the other six people I just read about?”

Once that initial learning curve is mastered, which for me was about one-third of the way through the novel, the pace picks up as we begin to see how all these various characters connect and how their stories will converge on a stormy night in the only restaurant that stays open in the storm.

Violence and power are recurring themes as Coles ruthlessly puts the relationships among this group of people under the microscope. The characters range from nearly-innocent victims to brutal predators (the “hunting” analogy of the title threads throughout the book and is one of the novel’s more successful metaphors), but almost all are portrayed with empathy, thoughtfulness, and nuance, even those who are pretty obviously bad people — we see, at the very least, some of the reasons why they are bad people, or at least the fears and the past experiences that lead them to choose to do bad things, to victimize others.

The only exception (at least among the point-of-view characters) to this compassionate gaze, is the (fictionalized) mayor of St. John’s, who is portrayed as an absolutely cartoon villain without a shred of interest in his humanity, which I thought was an interesting choice, given how many (on the surface) “worse” characters are given at least the dignity of motivations. I don’t think this is in any way accidental: the author may be suggesting that the powerful and wealthy decision makers at the top of society’s pyramid (nearly always rich white men) are truly apex predators of this food chain, and less deserving of our empathy even than rapists and abusers.

Yes, there is rape and abuse in this novel, and both the acts and their aftermath are portrayed with an unflinching and often painful gaze. Remember, we were warned this might hurt a little. It does. A brutal gang-rape is placed next to an apparently consensual affair to show us how, though the two sexual acts are very different, power and powerlessness lie at the core of both. Women, as the narrator tells us in one searing passage, have so very little power. And some women have less power than others — poor women, indigenous women, rural woman, uneducated women, are the ones who, over and over, end up as the small game being hunted here. One passage — it’s hard to tell whether it should be described as the character’s internal monologue or the narrative voice, as it blends both — in which the potential consequences of reporting a rape are considered, is absolutely harrowing to read because we recognize its truth at the core, from the countless times we’ve seen the scenario play out. That passage alone should be required reading for everyone.

It goes without saying that neither the urban St. John’s downtown of the story’s present, nor the rural communities where the characters’ past lives are revealed in flashbacks, bear much resemblance to the tourist-commercial version of what our license plates once called “The Happy Province.” This is the dark underside of our culture, of every culture, and it’s displayed and dissected here in its most raw and relentless form.

Both in subject matter and in style, Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club is by no means an easy read, but it is one that is worth a reader’s time and attention. I ended up by being unable to put it down.

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Never Have I Ever, by Joshilyn Jackson

It’s always the same old story with Joshilyn Jackson — I wait a couple of years for her to come out with a new book and then I devour it in less than a day. Her writing is always so crisp, her plots so compelling, her characters so real and believable.

Never Have I Ever starts with a group of suburban moms whose tight little circle is infiltrated by Roux, a newcomer to the neighbourhood. Roux gets everyone a little drunk at book club and gets people to confess the worst thing they’ve ever done. Turns out lots of these ladies have secrets they’d rather hide, but only one — main character Amy — has a secret she’s willing to do anything to protect. And as the story unfolds it becomes clear that Roux’s game wasn’t just an edgy icebreaker: she’s after Amy’s secret, and if she reveals it, Amy’s marriage, her kids, her entire life could be at stake.

This is a bit more thriller-y than Jackson’s previous novels, and I don’t usually read thrillers, but I’m willing to be taken on this kind of ride by a writer I trust. This, like my last review, is another book where the “dark secret in a character’s past” trope really pays off — it’s utterly believable that Amy would do everything she does to keep the truth from coming to light. There was one small aspect of Amy’s character (her relationship with her mother, glossed over in a fairly cliche way by a writer who is normally so good at mother-daughter relationships and almost never resorts to cliches) that disappointed me a little bit. But it’s the only remotely flat note in an otherwise pitch-perfect symphony of plot and character that pulled me right along to the satisfying conclusion.

And now I have to wait for her next book ….

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Melmoth, by Sarah Perry

This is an odd book that took quite awhile to lure me in, but in the end I found very compelling and moving. It starts in modern-day Prague, where an English translator, Helen Franklin, is living a life of quiet austerity that goes beyond mere introversion — it becomes clear that she is haunted by guilt and trying to atone for something in her past. Into Helen’s tidy and ordered world collides an ancient tale of a restless spirit called Melmoth the Witness, the Wanderer, who might be real (what is real?) or an embodiment of guilt, or a symbol of those who bear witness to atrocities.

The story shifts around — from Helen’s present, to several different characters and locations in the past, including the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide, and eventually back into the hidden secret in Helen’s own past. Along the way, these gothic-horror-tinged narratives all play with the idea of “bearing witness.” It can be deadly: standing by and doing nothing when your words or actions might save someone. But sometimes, when tragedy is inevitable, bearing witness is the only thing you can do. The idea of the shadowy Melmoth as a witness becomes a metaphor for all the tragedies we bear witness to.

I’ve read several novels this summer that play on the idea of a character having a terrible, guilty secret in their past, and the problem with this trope is that often, when the secret is finally revealed, it’s anticlimactic — the reader has either already guessed it, or it wasn’t that big a deal. Not so here (or, in fact, in the other books I read this summer — the “dark secret” was uniformly dark in all of them). When we find out what (other than Melmoth) has been haunting Helen, her guilt and her need to punish herself make perfect sense. The only question is, when she finally meets both her past and the ghost that haunts her — what is she going to do now?

Weird, mystical, creepy, and thought-provoking.

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Onion Tears, by Shumnam Khan

I enjoyed this rich and detailed novel about three generations of Indian Muslim women living in South Africa. The relationships between Khadeejah, her daughter and her granddaughter, and the secrets each woman holds, made this a very engaging read. The setting is vividly realized, and, as an added bonus, Khadeejah loves to cook and the author describes everything that happens in her kitchen in loving detail, so that even though this is quite a serious novel that grapples with big issues, I found myself wishing there were recipes in the back. A trip to a local Indian restaurant may have to suffice.

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Neverworld Wake, by Marisha Pessl

In this very high-concept young-adult novel, a group of high school friends is torn apart after the mysterious death of their golden boy, Jim, in a possible suicide near the end of senior year. Or rather, one of the group — Jim’s girlfriend, Beatrice — is torn away from the rest of the group, retreating into her private grief while the other four members of the group remain close. At the end of her first year of college, Beatrice meets up with the other four, and a second tragedy at the end of that night traps all five young people in a time loop. They are doomed to relieve the last few hours of their lives over and over until they can agree on which one of them will survive — and only one can make it out alive.

This contrivance is used to explore the five characters and how they react to the situation. The ways in which they deal with the time loop will be familiar to anyone who’s seen any film or read any book that deals with the premise of repeated time or repeated lives — they try to escape, then they immerse themselves in hedonistic pleasure, then they finally settle down to seriously trying to solve the problem presented by the loop. One of the group, Martha,, convinces everyone that in order to get out of the loop, they need to solve the mystery of Jim’s death, and so they become obsessed with conducting an investigation, eventually learning that they can travel back to relive different days. When they finally get back to relive the night Jim died, all the pieces are in place for them to finally break out of the Neverworld Wake. Or rather, for one of them to break out.

I read this in a day; it kept the pages turning and kept me engaged in solving the mystery of Jim’s death and waiting to see how/if/who would survive at the end of the novel.

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Even Weirder Than Before, by Susie Taylor

Even Weirder Than Before is a quiet, introspective coming of age story set in a Toronto suburb in the late 1980s. As the book opens, Daisy is a Grade Eight student struggling with the breakup of her parents’ marriage and the normal adolescent “where-do-I-fit-in?” questions. The novel is  not long, but it unfolds over the next four years: by the time the story ends, Daisy is finishing Grade Twelve and has learned a great deal about her family, her friends, and, of course, herself.

Despite covering so many years in a relatively short book, the story is, in a way, slow-paced, in the sense that it’s more episodic than plot-driven. It’s a coming of age novel that is just that: the story being told is simply the story of Daisy growing up, dealing with all the issues that growing up entails. It’s fascinating to watch her relationships with those around her change. We see that change within her family, as her mother copes with single parenthood and a new relationship, and her older sister seeks her own path in life, and her father settles in with the younger woman he left for. We also see it, perhaps even more so, with her friends. The most important of these relationships is with her childhood best friend Wanda: the shape and fabric of this friendship stretches and changes over the years of high school as both girls grow up, and as other friendships and crushes bloom and fade, but Wanda remains a constant in Daisy’s life.

The book is filled not only with beautiful, understated moments of self-realization, but also with wonderful period detail. I am about half a generation older than the author — at my first job out of college I was teaching students Daisy’s age — and I was keenly aware of the story manages to feel both contemporary and like a period piece, a throwback to that time when teenagers managed to meet up and hook up without cellphones or Snapchat. The pains of adolescence are, to some extent, universal and timeless, yet deeply rooted in the popular culture of the years during which you’re a teenager. Daisy’s world is a completely believable one anchored in a very specific time and place, but also in the growing pains that we can all, to some extent, relate to.

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The Break, by Katherena Vermette

I had picked up and looked at The Break a few times when it was up for Canada Reads a couple of years ago, but it was a friend’s recommendation that finally got me to read it. The Break tells the story of a single act of violence on a winter night in Winnipeg’s North End, and how the lives of numerous people, most of them connected by ties of extended family, are impacted by this crime. Victim, perpetrator, police officer, witness, and many people affected simply because they’re part of the community — perspectives and voices overlap as the many characters, most of them First Nations women, tell their parts of the story.

In the multi-voiced structure and the story’s situation within the larger story of First Nations communities in a contemporary North American city, this book reminded me to some extent of Tommy Orange’s There, There. In that book, all the multiple characters’ stories converged towards a single act of violence; here, they refract outwards from it, showing a little of what led to the crime but far more of what happens as a result. Along the way there is anger, grief, resilience, humour and hope. It’s a beautiful novel, largely about strong indigenous women and how they try to hold themselves and their families and communities together amid the impacts of generational trauma and institutionalized racism.

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Filed under Canada Reads, Canadian author, Fiction -- general