Category Archives: Fiction — general

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Martian, by Andy Weir

themartianI tagged this book as “Fiction — General” although it really should be tagged as “Science Fiction,” but I read so little sci-fi that I don’t have a tag for it. Jason read this book and enjoyed it so much that he kept reading me excerpts aloud, till finally I decided to read it for myself. It’s completely different from anything I would normally read — not only it is “hard” science fiction with a lot of realistic sciencey stuff that, to be honest, I kind of skimmed in places; it’s also a Robinson-Crusoe, man-struggling-alone-against-the-elements kind of story. I’ve explained before that I usually don’t like those kind of stories at all, but earlier this year I was captivated by Michael Crummey’s Sweetland which told that very kind of story. The Martian couldn’t be more different from Sweetland — it’s a short, snappy piece of sci-fi with no pretensions to be literary fiction — but it, too, managed to hold my attention with the story of a man who struggles alone, not on an island but an entire planet, to survive against the odds. Why was I interested in this type of story when I’m usually not? One word: voice.

The setting is the very near future, and engineer/botanist Mark Watney is left behind, presumed dead, when a manned mission to Mars goes wrong. But Watney’s not dead: he survives, alone on the planet with a big tent intended to support human life and a couple of vehicles, but no way to communicate with Earth or let anyone know he’s still alive. The situation requires almost superhuman courage, ingenuity and determination, but fortunately for the reader, Watney, as he reveals his story through a series of log entries, is also possessed of a snarky wit that makes his character jump off the page and makes it very easy to root for his survival.

My only disappointment is that you don’t get much backstory on Watney or much sense of his inner life beyond his determination to survive his Martian exile — which might be because it’s not that kind of book, might be because the story is largely told through his log entries which wouldn’t include that kind of detail, or might perhaps be because he’s a mechanical engineer and he’s not going to spend a lot of time reflecting on his past or his emotions. I loved his practical approach to his situation and his sense of humour, but I did feel that it should have taken more of a physical and emotional toll on him, and that there would realistically have to have been at least a few cracks in his otherwise cheery facade.

Though the character could have been a bit more layered, he’s got a great voice and he feels real immediately. As the story of his struggle to survive unfolds along with the story of the people on earth who are determined to rescue him against tremendous odds, I couldn’t put the book down. It was gripping, and I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys science fiction — and also to some people who usually don’t. Like me, you might find this an unexpected delight.


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Lila, by Marilynne Robinson

lilaAs a fan of Marilynne Robinson’s novels Gilead and Home, I was excited to pick up the third volume in this not-really-a-trilogy, LilaGilead told the story of the Reverend John Ames, aging Congregationalist minister in the town of Gilead, Iowa in the middle of the last century. Home, which I (unlike most readers) loved even more, told a different story that was unfolding at the same time as the events of Gilead — the return home of the prodigal son of Ames’s lifelong friend (and fellow clergyman) Robert Boughton, told from the perspective of Boughton’s daughter Glory. Now, in Lila, instead of taking the story further forward, Robinson takes us back in time. This novel is told from the perspective of Reverend Ames’s much younger wife, the mother of his child.

Lila is completely unlike the characters we’ve met so far in Gilead and Home, with their comfortably middle-class lives and their worldviews shaped by church-going, Bible-reading, and education. Lila knows nothing of her birth family, having been not so much adopted as stolen by a woman named Doll and raised amid a group of migrant farm workers. Lila’s life is bare, hardscrabble subsistence; her knowledge of the wider world is almost non-existant; her only loyalty, and that a fierce one, is to Doll. As for religion, she is utterly ignorant of it until she wanders into John Ames’s church seeking shelter one day. By that time Doll and the other companions of her childhood are long gone; Lila has survived a stint as an unsuccessful prostitute and later house-cleaner in a brothel, as well as several other hard, low-paying jobs. When she sets out on the road not knowing where she’s headed, she is entirely unprepared to find love, marriage and a family with the aging preacher in Gilead.

That last sentence sounds sentimental and romantic, which is the most misleading impression I could possibly give. Lila is the least sentimental story imaginable about love and marriage. The book is narrated in a third-person limited point of view: though Lila doesn’t tell her own story, we see and know only what she sees and knows. What she knows is that you can’t trust people; as for God, once she’s informed of His existence, she doesn’t much trust Him either, especially if He’s going to condemn people like Doll to hell just for not knowing about Him. Reverend Ames baptizes Lila, at her request, but she later goes back to the water to “unbaptize” herself. Baptism is a recurring metaphor throughout the novel, as are redemption and grace. Lila’s life is saved and changed by grace and love — but she remains her stubborn, independent self within, never sure whether she can settle into this new life or whether she might just pack up and take off tomorrow. She’s a wonderful character, and it’s a tribute to Robinson’s skill that she walks with such determination off the pages of the story.

I was initially disappointed, when I learned what Lila was about, that Robinson wasn’t taking us further into the future of the story she’d laid out in Gilead and Home. Those events are still several years in the future by the time we reach the last page of Lila. Yes, I still want to know more about the other characters — about what happens to Jack Boughton and his sister Glory, about what happens to Lila and her son after Reverend Ames dies (which we know, from the first pages of Gilead, can’t be long happening). But each of these books is a treasure in and of itself, and if Marilynne Robinson wants to keep writing about Gilead and its inhabitants till she dies I’ll gladly read every book (unless I die first). No-one else that I can think of (at least, in the English-speaking world) today is writing about faith with the kind of depth, insight and honesty that Robinson brings to the topic, and I can’t wait for another novel from her pen.

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