Category Archives: Newfoundland author

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.

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

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

The Last Half of the Year, by Paul Rowe

lasthalfWhen it comes to judging books by their covers, I couldn’t have gone in with a more positive opinion of a book than I did of The Last Half of the Year, because I am SO IN LOVE with this cover. I also have a very high opinion of the author, Paul Rowe, an intelligent and kindly writer who, along with his partner Mona, came to my studio for a lovely podcast chat a few weeks ago. In the end, though, a book has to be judged on its own merits, regardless of how pretty the cover or how charming the writer. And I’m glad to say that The Last Half of the Year holds up in its own right.

This novel tells three parallel stories, switching back and forth fluidly between them. Jason Dade grows up as a golden child in a small Newfoundland outport, brilliant at school, good at everything beloved by all. The story of his father Saul, who served in the merchant marine in WW2 before settling in the little town of Birthlayn, is told through flashbacks. But we also flash forward to the story’s present, when the promising and beloved little Jason Dade has become a university dropout, apparently without direction or purpose. As his own and his father’s stories unfold in the past, present-day Jason sets off on a question that looks as if it might hold the key to his future — but his road trip takes a dark and unexpected turn.

This is the kind of book where you start out thinking you’re reading one type of book about one type of character, and then things twist 90 degrees and you realize that a lot of what you assumed about the story and the character is wrong. That things are not what they seem to be. Hop into the back seat behind Jason Dade and enjoy the twisting road ahead … and behind.

Leave a comment

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

Crying for the Moon, by Mary Walsh

cryingforthemoonCrying for the Moon is the first novel by celebrated Newfoundland actor and comedian Mary Walsh, and it is as gritty, memorable, and deeply rooted in the culture of St. John’s as anyone familiar with Walsh’s work would expect. The novel tells the story of Catholic schoolgirl Maureen Brennan, whose already-difficult life as the child of poor and sometimes abusive parents goes even further off the rails after a school choir trip to Expo ’67 in Montreal. 

Maureen is a great character, though I didn’t feel the writing was always completely consistent in portraying her — there’s a bit too much of Walsh telling us what Maureen is like, whereas the novel’s greatest strengths are always when she simply shows us. Maureen gets pregnant, drops out of school, falls through a series of unpromising relationships, and then almost accidentally commits a major crime, at which point the novel takes a sharp turn away from coming-of-age drama and into a sort of crime fiction. It’s Maureen’s voice and perspective, her dogged yet so often doomed determination to rise above the narrow downtown streets where she was raised, that propel this novel forward, even through some unlikely plot twists.

For anyone who grew up in St. John’s, there’s so much here that’s rich, relatable, and vividly drawn that Crying at the Moon was a pleasure to read. I am about 15 years younger than Maureen, Protestant and middle-class where she is Catholic and working-class, and while all those things make a difference, her world is still one in which many of the details are familiar to me. The fact that those details were so lovingly depicted made it all the more jarring the few times I stumbled across a detail that was anachronistic or geographically inaccurate; I wish I wasn’t bothered by those things, but I can’t help it. However, it didn’t diminish my enjoyment of a novel with a truly memorable heroine growing up in a very real place and time.

Leave a comment

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

The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes, by Bridget Canning

wandajaynesThis is one of several recent novels by Newfoundland writers (and one upcoming one) that I had the privilege of reading before it was published, when I got to judge an unpublished novel contest a few years ago. The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes was one of the very strongest contenders, and it’s terrific to read it in its finished form.

Wanda Jaynes is a youngish Newfoundland woman, an adult-ed instructor whose job is about to be budget-cut out of existence, and is in a long-term relationship with attractive and charismatic musician Ivan. Her life is pretty average — until the day she goes to the supermarket at the same time as a man with a gun, and finds herself in the unexpected position of stopping a mass shooting.

Overnight, with the help of a viral video, Wanda goes from being a nobody to being a local hero — a position she’s not at all comfortable with. The novel explores serious issues — post-traumatic stress, the dark side of internet fame, random acts of violence — yet manages to be wickedly funny, largely due to the wry voice of Wanda as the point of view character. There’s also a wealth of great detail here about contemporary St. John’s life that really rings true.

This connects to something I said about the last Newfoundland novel I read, Berni Stapleton’s This is the Cat: if you’re going to introduce fantastical or hard-to-believe elements into a realistic story, the realistic bits really have to ring true. The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes contains no talking cats or restless ghosts, but Wanda does find herself catapulted into a realm of experience most of us don’t share: we rarely get to take out a would-be mass murderer with a well-aimed can of coconut milk, nor do most of us become the focus of overnight online fame. But as Wanda moves through these unlikely events, the everyday details of her life feel completely believable and lived. It was those everyday details that drew me into the story originally: I, like Wanda (and, I believe, like the author) teach in an adult-education program, and while I wasn’t personally affected, I vividly remember the round of real-life budget cuts to our sector that, in Wanda’s fictional world, kicks off her horrible, no-good, very bad day. Details like this ground the reader in Wanda’s world and make it easy to follow her into her less likely adventures.

To draw yet another parallel to a book I’ve read lately, the details about Wanda’s internet fame, from her viral YouTube video to the way she becomes an instant meme, are very much grounded in the social media world of the mid-2010s, in the same way the use of teen slang and hip-hop music grounds Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give in the year it was written. Like Thomas’s YA novel, Canning’s book will feel “dated” in a few years, but I think that’s fine, because it’s a snapshot of what it means to “go viral” and become famous at this specific moment in time. It’s not meant to be a universal experience, because the way the world reacts to Wanda’s sudden notoriety is unique to this time and place.

What is universal is the way Wanda’s life starts to unspool in the face of trauma, the way the cracks in her relationships and her own view of herself can no longer be ignored once the pressure is on. Bridget Canning has written a funny, serious, fast-paced, thoughtful contemporary novel that remains light while exploring heavy subjects. This is an extremely readable and enjoyable book, and I hope to read more from Bridget Canning soon.

Leave a comment

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

This is the Cat, by Berni Stapleton

ithisisthecatEven the most compulsive overreader would be hard-put to read every book published by a Newfoundland author every year, but I try to get through a good cross-section of local fiction. One thing that always mystifies me is why some books seem to fly under the radar, getting far less acclaim and attention than (I would think) they deserve. Berni Stapleton’s This is the Cat is one such book. Most Newfoundlanders probably know Stapleton best as an actor, comedian, and playwright, but her fiction debut shows she’s got significant talent in this area as well. 

This is the Cat tells, in short chapters and snippets of e-mail, the story of Bridie Savage, who lives the life of a modern-day Newfoundland artist, existing from contract to contract strung together with long threads of Employment Insurance to keep her balancing in between. She’s currently in an ongoing argument with Service Canada because they claim that her benefits are “exhausted,” although, as Bridie points out, her benefits aren’t nearly as exhausted as she is. Interspersed between chapters from Bridie’s point of view and her emails with Service Canada and others are chapters narrated by one of Bridie’s two cats, who is enjoying the latest in her long series of incarnations, and happy to have finally found a means to communicate with the outside world through Bridie’s Come-Pewter (the cat’s syntax and grammar leave much to be desired, but her insight and wit are on-point). Oh, and let’s not forget the ghosts inhabiting Bridie’s downtown St. John’s house, and the prostitutes camped out at the end of her street — all these characters and many more parade through this vividly detailed, funny and poignant story.

I think one of the keys to writing a story with quirky, fantastical elements (like ghosts, and cat narrators) is to keep the real-life elements as believable and grounded as possible, and this is where I feel Stapleton really shines. Anyone who has had a protracted battle with any kind of bureaucracy will be able to relate to Bridie’s Service Canada emails, but beyond this, the fact that Stapleton has lived the life of a working artist in this city for many years really shines through — even when the details of Bridie’s working (or non-working) life are clearly exaggerated for humourous effect, the author’s knowledge of the world she’s writing about shines through. It doesn’t necessarily come across as autobiographical but as “write what you know” in the best and truest sense: take what you know well and use it as a jumping-off point to explore the fantastical, including a cat who once lived with Cleopatra and is now using your computer to create an online dating profile for you without your knowledge.

The quirky main human character and her animal narrator invites, in my mind, comparisons to Jessica Grant’s Come Thou Tortoise, another witty and unusual local book that won acclaim and awards when it was released a few years back. I’m surprised This is the Cat didn’t get the same level of attention, as in my mind it certainly deserved it. While I know that Stapelton keeps pretty busy on stage, I hope that she (and possibly her cats) find the time to return to the Come-Pewter for more fiction before too long.

Leave a comment

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

Found Far and Wide, by Kevin Major

Layout 1Years ago, I noticed the interesting fact that one of Newfoundland’s greatest maritime disasters — the great sealing disaster of 1914, in which nearly 80 men perished when stranded out on the ice for two nights — occurred in 1914, a few months before World War One started and hundreds of Newfoundland young men went overseas, many to die in the trenches on the Western Front. I wondered if any men who were survivors of the sealing disaster subsequently went off to fight and die in the war, and thought of how interesting it would be to write about a character whose life intersected with both these events.

In fact, the life of Kevin Major’s main character in Found Far and Wide, Sam Kennedy, touches not just on these two events, but also on the 1920s era of Newfoundlanders working on the high steel in New York City, run-running during the US Prohibition years, and Sir Wilfred Grenfell’s work in Northern Newfoundland and Labrador. Sam’s a bit of a Newfoundland Forrest Gump in that sense, on the scene for so many key events of our history, but he’s no happy-go-lucky schumck like Gump. Sam’s a pretty intense guy, and it’s sometimes hard to get a handle on what motivates him. The events he lives through and experiences are depicted in vivid and memorable detail (I especially liked that the war experience we see up-close through Sam’s eyes is not the Battle of Beaumont Hamel, which has been written about so much by Newfoundland writers including Major himself in other works, but the earlier and lesser-known Gallipoli battle). The man himself, at the heart of these great occurrences, remains a bit of an enigma — perhaps to himself as much as to the reader.

Leave a comment

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

Art Love Forgery, by Carolyn Morgan

artloveforgeryCarolyn (no relation) Morgan’s first novel, Art Love Forgery, illuminates a little-known true story from Newfoundland history, embellished with details from the author’s imagination.

The facts: a European artist named Alexander Pindikowsky painting murals on the ceiling of the governor’s mansion in St. John’s, in the 1880s. Pindikowsky was in prison at the time for forging cheques, and was permitted to reduce the term of his sentence by carrying out artwork for the governor — under guard, of course. At some point, Pindikowsky married and had a daughter with a Newfoundland woman named Ellen Dormody. Little is known beyond that, but you can see how that would be more than enough to pique a novelist’s imagination and get her itching to create the rest of the story.

In fact, author Carolyn Morgan has only recently come to fiction, having been for most of her career a visual artist. Her background not only explains her knowledge of and interest in Pindikowsky’s story; it also shines through in the lovingly detailed descriptions, not only of Pindikowsky’s murals but also of Ellen’s millinery creations, and most tellingly, the process of creation for both characters. For a story that takes a little-known oddity of local history and fleshes it out into a story with fully rounded characters and period detail, Art Love Forgery is a great read.

Leave a comment

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