January 16, 2017
I absolutely loved Take Us To Your Chief, by Drew Hayden Taylor, which was just as fun as its cover promised, and meaningful in a way I should have expected. Because while there is indeed something incongruous about First Nations’ science fiction, it’s only because I’ve never read any, not because it doesn’t make total sense. Is there a cultural group more familiar with notions of alien contact and invasion, for example, as in “A Culturally Inappropriate Armageddon,” in which broadcasters at a community radio station inadvertently summon attention from extraterrestrial beings? In “I Am…Am I,” scientists manage to create artificial intelligence, and the being (who is fed encyclopedias of knowledge) is drawn to notions of First Nations culture for its notions that all things, in fact, have souls, because the alternative is too hard to bear. In “Lost in Space,” an astronaut contemplates being Native in orbit: “What happens when you aren’t able to run your fingers through the sand along the river? Or walk barefoot in the grass? Or feel the summer breeze blowing through your hair?”
In “Dreams of Doom,” an Ojibway journalist learns that dream catchers are a government conspiracy, actually devices to spy on and control First Nations people and keep them in line: “You will notice that since Oka and Ipperwash, other than a few flare-ups here and there, things have been relatively quiet.” In “Mr Gizmo,” a suicidal teenage point is given a wake-up call by a toy robot, in keeping with his culture’s understanding that all things are imbued with a soul (including, awkwardly, your toilet). The narrator of “Petropaths” is a man whose troubled grandson learns to travel through time via ancient codes in petroglyphs. In “Superdisappointed,” the shockingly common conditions of housings on a First Nations reserve (houses with mould, substandard drinking water) causes a chemical effect that renders one man an actual superhero. And finally, in the title story, three reticent Objbway men are taken as ambassadors from Earth when aliens arrive on the planet.
I’ve cited nearly every story in the collection here because they were all of them hits, no misses. I read this book exclaiming at how fun it was, and appreciating the way in which Taylor plays with sci-fi tropes, and that each story pursues such a different line. And yet this collection is not merely an exercise in whimsy either—Taylor’s stories are fervent arguments as to the continuing tragedy of colonialism, which seems to be a solid through-line from the past and right into the future. Familiar ideas then, to those who’ve been paying attention, but the point is that too few are paying attention and maybe more might be with this fresh and utterly engaging context.
January 5, 2017
For me, the experience of reading Deborah Levy is a disorienting one, nothing immediately obscure and yet nothing is familiar either. Or maybe it’s that everything familiar is made a bit foreign under her curious lens. I have a copy of her non-fiction book Things I Don’t Want to Know, and while I’ve read it at least three times and even like it, I’ve never finished it. And I wonder if some of my difficulty comes down to her being South African—I had a similar problem with Katherine Mansfield; do writers writing in English from the Southern Hemisphere always read a little upside downly? Even though Levy is South African by way of England and for many decades, and certainly has an English sensibility too. I read her acclaimed novel Swimming Home in 2012, and don’t remember anything about it —possibly because I was eight weeks pregnant when I read it, an experience which never does much for me as a reader. Although my review reveals that I felt the same about it as I do about her latest book, Hot Milk: “At its murky depths…the trick isn’t to underline just what is significant in the text, but instead to understand that everything is.” Except that I went on to say that Swimming Home wasn’t immediately satisfying, but oh, Hot Milk was. Oh so much. An entirely excellent way to start off my 2017 reading year.
I wasn’t really sure though until about two thirds of the way in that with this book I was on solid literary ground. Where was the method, I wondered, in so much weirdness? Under-socialized daughter who happens to be a trained anthropologist (non-practising) arrives in Spain with her hypochondriac mother who claims to suffer from paralysis in her legs, at least sometimes. Daughter Sofia takes her mother to bizarre clinic with eccentric doctor, and embarks upon affairs with both the man who works in the injury hut on the beach (tending to her jellyfish stings, jellyfish in local parlance referred to as “medusas”) and an uber-cool German seamstress who embroiders a word onto a silk shirt and gives it to Sofia who thinks the word is “beloved.” The notion of being beloved empowers Sofia to be emboldened—and she flees to Greece to see her estranged father who lives there with his wife (an EU economist who is a disciple of austerity, who is just a few years older than Sofia) and their very young child. And it is here where she has an epiphany:
“‘My father only does things that are to his advantage,”‘ Sofia tells her father’s wife.
“She stares at me as if I am crazy. And then she laughs. ‘Why would he do things that are not to his advantage?'”
This being a novel by Deborah Levy, what happens next isn’t entirely straightforward, but the entire narrative with all its different components (“When I started to write Hot Milk,” she says, “I asked myself: what are the dominant stories in 2014? And I thought they were debt, austerity, big pharma, migration, sexual identity and illness.”) But the brilliant thing is how they all come together, like stars in a galaxy, the image the introduces the novel, although the galaxy is on Sophia’s screensaver instead of in the sky—and also fractured into pieces because she’s dropped her laptop on a concrete floor and shattered the screen. Woven throughout the prose are lyrics from “Space Oddity” and David Bowie and his music (and his image) turn up through the book. And then the scene in which Sophia finds her mother’s footprint in the sand, as monumental as those discovered by another anthropologist, Mary Leakey in 1976—what they reveal about where we come from, who we are—is beautiful and awful
This is a novel about mothers and daughters like you’ve never read before, about selfishness and selflessness, about sea and sky, about all those things that are connected. Or not: “The tendrils of the jellyfish in limbo, like something cut loose, a placenta, a parachute, a refugee severed from its place of origin.”
Or someone sitting in a tin can, just say. Far above the world.
December 11, 2016
As always, I’ve failed in both my efforts to read everything I wanted to read in 2016 and also to keep my top ten to a number below twenty. Still, I think I’ve failed quite successfully here, and I’m really happy with how the year has read up. Thanks to the authors and readers who inspire me and make my reading life so much.
“I loved its humour, its prose, its quietness and detail. I loved its subtle subversions—second abortions and pregnant women with a drink. I loved the difference between the two characters’ voices, how richly the two were delineated, and that the title is tongue-in-cheek—in a Mad Men fashion, Alam’s novel takes the idea of “types” of women and a binary approach to womanhood and complicates the idea entirely to show that women can be whole, flawed, inexplicable and fully realized people whose lives and experiences are worth writing about, thinking about. Which really shouldn’t be such a revelation, and this is still a completely excellent book for those of us who already know.”
“Bennett nicely situates the personal against the political, Nadia’s experience with anti-abortion politicking by church members (although not so avidly—these are reasonable people) and also about how one’s convictions become flexible when an unwanted pregnancy is a fact instead of an idea. She shows how a woman can choose an abortion and know it’s the right choice, but still mourn what she’s lost and wonder at the could-have-beens. That an abortion, like a lot of things that happen to people over the course of their lives, is a complicated, multi-faceted thing.”
“I kept laughing out loud, which is a mark of literary achievement. Though I also cringed—as one who has never mastered air-kisses, I recoiled at Coleman’s recounting of her first bisous and how she actually made cheek contact. She writes about being asked to play her violin in a hair salon, but how her own unruly do caused a great upset when she arrived. Or the man she met who wanted to perform songs he’d written, which turned out to be “sex songs” with lyrics like, “The horny bull wants a bouncy ride.” And she meets a lot of men, Coleman, and in the beginning, being lonely, takes them up on their invitations, until she realizes that she’s setting herself up for a lot of awkward interactions. She longs for the company of women friends as well, but these kind of relationships are harder to find. Not to mention that at the beginning of her time in Paris, Coleman hardly speaks French.”
“It’s a novel about the 1960s, about idealism and reality, about the narrow confines of a wife’s identity and that of a mother. Familiar themes, all of these if you’ve read books like Margaret Laurence’s The Fire Dwellersor watched Mad Men, but themes made fresh with the nuances of the novel’s point of view, the carefulness with which these ideas are examined. In Becoming Lin, the prose is mostly inconspicuous, but what grips the reader is the evolution of Lin’s consciousness, and the complexity that arises from the absence of polarities—unusual for a history of a decade so constructed of extremes.”
“I spent Thanksgiving weekend—as summer turned into fall, the leaves turned into reds and oranges, as everything started to wither and die—reading Gemma Files’ Experimental Film, which was so fitting for the season. I absolutely loved it, and was not the only one to do so—the novel won the Shirley Jackson Award in the summer and the Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic in September. It’s a book about horror movies, and the history of Canadian cinema, and motherhood, and parenting a child with autism, and there are ghosts and it gets creepy, and it gave me bad dreams—which I mean as a testament to the book’s power.”
I’d preordered The Trespasser, French’s first book since 2014, and it seems fitting that my year of Tana French should have a new release by her within it. (I was in Barbados when I learned this new book was forthcoming. Imagine my joy: that there would be another Tana French when the books in the Waitrose bag were done!). And it was everything I’d hoped it would be—a return to tradition of the first four books, a narrator on the edge who doesn’t know how close she is, a strange and tricky murder whose solution is not immediately in sight. I love her plots, her characters, her humour, and that I learn insults like “wankstain” (which shows up in two books). I love her complicated women and men, and their aloneness, and the awkward ways her characters connect with each other. I love her prose, her twists, and her portrayal of Ireland post-boom. Can you tell that I love everything?
“These fragments are preoccupied with the poster for a Keanu Reeves flop; the tiresome anecdotes we tell our friends about our babies presuming they’ll be interested (and once those friends have babies, they even actually are); a mention of the woman who drowned her five children; a horrible woman whom Galchen regularly encounters in her building’s elevator who has strong feelings she must articulate about her baby’s size; on head shapes, their remarkability and otherwise; about troubling proclivities toward orange; one piece beginning, “Literature has more dogs than babies, and also more abortions.”; about Frankenstein, Godzilla, Rumpelstiltskin, Lucille Ball, and The Tale of Genji (but not all in the same essay); about screen time, and what writers had children and who didn’t, and why writers’ children keep writing about closed office doors (and Galchen wonders why these doors are more troubling than the doors at Daddy’s work, downtown in a high rise building); about babies in art; and her complicated feelings about women’s writing and “women’s writing,” which she fascinatingly teases out.”
“Joan Haggerty is an extraordinary writer, her prose Woolfian in its stream of consciousness, its immediacy. This is a saga sweeping four decades written in the present tense. And it’s true that when we talk about summer books, we sometimes mean that they’re a bit light in substance, but this is a different kind of summer book. It’s not difficult, and it’s got its own kind of lightness (strung together by summers as it is), but it’s not a “beach read.” Which isn’t to say it would be wonderful to read it at a beach, but still, it’s not the kind of novel that would blow away in the breeze.”
“On the surface, Lola Lafon’s novel The Little Communist Who Never Smiled (translated from French by Nick Caistor) is a fictionalization of the life of Nadia Comaneci, but that (of course) is just a cover. What the book is really about is messaged in between the lines (or, quite literally, between the words). The Little Communist… is a book about the Cold War, the politicization of sport and womanhood, about deciphering codes and, fundamentally, this is a novel about punctuation.”
“It’s always a good sign when the blank pages inside a book become riddled with notes and diagrams, as has been the case with my copy of the Governor-General’s Award/ Giller-nominated The Party Wall, by Catherine Laroux, prize-winner in its original French, translated into English by Lazer Lederhendler (Nikolski!). Not because the stories themselves in the novel are so difficult to figure out—in fact, they read beautifully with luminous prose (“Fall is approaching and the warmth of the South throbs on the horizon like a sack of gold at the foot of a rainbow”)—but because the challenge and the pleasure is discovering how all of it fits together. While the shape of most narratives is a horizontal line (with the inevitable bump for a climax), the shape of The Party Wall is multi-dimensional, arrows pointed in all four directions and connections that hold the whole thing fast.”
“Surprisingly, Birdie is not a heavy book, even with all the violence and tragedy. It’s as funny as it is sad, and more than that, it’s vibrant—powered by the voice of a woman who seemingly lies unconscious, which is kind of ironic, but there’s a lot going on inside Birdie’s mind, even as she’s got one half-opened eye on The Frugal Gourmet. As a character she’s rich and realized, and Lindberg never makes her a victim of her circumstances, her agency retained even in her lowest moments. Her very act of retreating into her mind, while passive from the outside, is a powerful gesture, and necessary for healing, for the possibility of a future.”
“It’s heavy, but it’s not. I read this book all day on Sunday, a few hours in the afternoon in my hammock. I devoured it, and loved the shape of the project—that this is a novel gesturing outwards, pointing to the world, using the world and its threads to build something new, offering structure, frameworks, where we hadn’t seen such a thing before. Daring to state that girlhood is significant, even if it’s a stage, and even if it’s a stage. I loved the poetry of Murphy’s prose, the power of her language. The power of the book full stop—it’s both the story of my life and also unlike anything I’ve ever read before.”
“Frankie Styne is a new edition of Page’s novel, first published in 1993, and it put me in mind of my favourite Hilary Mantel novels, her first two, Every Day is Mothers Day and Vacant Possession, dark comedies about the dark edges of humanity and their successful attempts to outmaneuver meddling social workers. Page’s social worker is Annie Purvis, who we know first from the point of view of her client, Liz Meredith, who’s just been moved into a terrace house with her baby. Liz has spent her time most recently living on a railcar after becoming estranged from her family, but since her baby’s birth (compounded by the fact that he has developmental abnormalities) she’s become tangled up in “the system”. Although she diverts all attempts to get her installed with a phone (living as she does by her grandmother’s advice to “Always avoid ties that bind”), she could do with a television, but in the meantime, she contents herself by listening to conversations between the troubled couple next door and imagining a different kind of reality existing on a planet far away, that life itself is merely the plot of a cheap pulp novel she’s somehow been stuck in.”
“Clear the decks if you’re thinking about picking up this book, because you’re not going to be able to put it back down again. Don’t start reading it at night though or it’s going to be hard to fall asleep. I was intrigued by this psychological thriller, the debut novel by Iain Reid who’s previously been known for two award-winning heartwarming memoirs. Could he really pull off such a literary change of pace? But he does, and it’s breathtakingly good. Best of all, no one is going to compare this book to Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, but it’s something altogether different. It also manages to be completely creepy but actually free of gore and violence, which is an incredible literary feat. And finally, that a book can be so enthralling and disorienting at once is just incredible.”
“There are writers who sit down and painstakingly plan their books before they start writing, a mess of post-it notes and index cards, and one gets the feeling that Maria Semple is not one of them. The plots of her books resemble those dotted lines on maps in Saturday morning cartoons in which small children navigate space with curious and often dangerous diversions. Which is kind of a funny way to plot a book, but think of the joy you once got in running your finger along that line, and also of the momentum inherent in this kind of narrative, the briskness with which the reader is brought along for the ride. It also turns out that plot isn’t really the point is, but voice is, and Eleanor Flood’s is the kind of voice that’s hard to get out of your head.”
“For me, Smith has always been a masterful novelist whose works just kind of peter out before the end, and my explanation for that is that her stories are so excellent that the endings are always going to be a let-down and/or do we really expect her to come up with a novel like that and properly end it too? But in her fourth book, it seems she’s finally got the conclusion that comes with a gut punch, the last fifty pages or so finally bringing the pieces together, the patterns emerging. The conclusion of Swing Time is wonderful, devastating, and ambiguous in the most engaging fashion. Yes, the book is a bit bloated in the middle, but reading any of Smith’s prose is a pleasure. And all of it matters—you just don’t know how until the end.”
“At nearly 400 pages, the novel is long, but swiftly paced and never dull. The bleakness of its considerations are broken up with incredible humour, from the cacophony of the voices in its background to the sheer audacity of Harriet herself, her nerve, all the things she is willing to do and say. There is a humour too in the contrast between the child’s point of view and the world around her, and—in the case of Harriet’s friend, Darcy, in particular—the person she is trying to to be. The sheer naïveté of these would-be old souls. Darcy likes to go on about, “that Caitlin whore,” a friend from her old neighbourhood, and we learn about what Caitlin did to her at Guides: “I was a Sprite and she was a Pixie. That ho bag made like all the cool girls were Pixies….Then the skank fucked up my puppetry badge.””
“The family tree at the beginning of the book is useful, but the reader soon becomes acquainted with the women of this family, so it won’t be referred to throughout. Momentum is strictly forward as the pieces begin to come together, Vermette deftly moving in and out of time to create a three-dimensional feel to the narrative—we come to feel we know this story from all sides. Four generations of a family, and how tragedy trickles down with all the goodness, the former not negating the latter though. As Vermette has made clear, this is a novel about women and about survival, a story that complements but also takes issue with stories and statistics about First Nations and Metis women as victims before they’re even people proper. But her characters are people here, people with flaws and foibles, strengths and weaknesses, and it’s the strength that endures: “‘It’s okay, my girl. It’s okay.’ Her answer to everything.”’
In her book, We Oughta Know: How Four Women Ruled the ’90s and Changed Canadian Music, Andrea Warner articulates that whole scene, and the remarkable fact that four Canadian women were leading the charge of women in song: Celine Dion, Sarah McLachlan, Shania Twain, and Alanis Morissette. These four women too are (along with Diana Krall) are the only Canadians on Canada’s best-selling artists lists, coming in above the Beatles. And even more remarkably, they all made their mark during a five year period in the mid-1990s. What was going on exactly, Warner wonders? How did they do it?
From Shrill: ““Everything happened in those five years after my abortion. I became myself. Not by chance, or because an abortion is some kind of mysterious, empowering feminist bloode-magick rite of passage (as many, many—too many for a movement ostensibly comprising grown-ups—anti-choices have accused me of being), but simply because it was time. A whole bunch of changes—set into motion years, even decades, back—all came together at once, like the tumblers in a lock clicking into place: my body, my work, my voice, my confidence, my power, my determination to demand a life as potent, vibrant, public, and complex as any man’s. My abortion wasn’t intrinsically significant, but it was my first big grown-up decision—the first time I asserted unequivocally, “I know the life that I want and this isn’t it”; the moment I stopped being a passenger in my own body and grabbed the rudder.”
While the entire book is fantastic, Whittall gets full points for her spectacular ending, however, which turns the story inside out and disturbingly rips us away from the singular perspectives of characters to reflect the wider culture of rape and sexual violence against whose context the entire novel has been taking place. Which is to say that this is not just a story about a family. And then the final sentence, which will haunt you long after you’ve finally finished reading, quiet, subtle, devastating and terrible, just like the injustice that is Justice, which isn’t anything like justice at all.
Notes is a way of starting. Trying. Essai. If a manifesto is a red rag, then a note is a building block, a puzzle piece. The reader responds not by charging, but by saying, Yes and, or Yes but. She doesn’t respond by tearing the whole thing down.
I love the way the narrative thread of Wunker’s book makes its way with seeming effortlessness. There is nothing laboured about how a discussion of rape culture leads to the Jian Ghomeshi trial leads to women coming together leads to a chapter on friendship. (Which references The Babysitters Club. Yes, and!!) Why are so few of our formative texts about female friendship? “What is it about female friendship that inspires such insipid descriptors?” What are relationships between women often so fraught?
“Is it too hard to write your own narrative and witness another’s, simultaneously?”
“I loved Alice Zorn’s Five Roses, a novel that’s a love letter to Montreal, its neighbourhoods, and to the magic and serendipity of city life that is inevitably born from the fact of so many characters living in close proximity. It’s a bit of a mess, it is, city life, what with different cultures, and types of people, and old traditions and new traditions, and money and poverty, home and commercial enterprise, and history and the moment, which is now, and impossible to capture anyway…because the only thing that ever stands still in the city is the force of change. Zorn’s novel, however, manages to convey all this and not be a mess, disparate narratives woven together in a way that sparks magic but is left just untidy enough to still ring true.”
November 6, 2016
Of the many terrible consequences of abortion having been turned into an “issue”—a binary issue at that, a “debate”—is that the narratives have lost their meat. So caught up in the rhetoric, women become uncomfortable with the nuanced reality of the situation. And instead one is either for or against, pro or anti. Abortion is good or evil, a life-saver or murder. And what gets lost in all this opposition are the stories. That abortion is not an issue, but that it’s a fact of so many women’s lives, and it exists on a spectrum with a million degrees of experience.
In The Mothers, the debut novel by Brit Bennett—which has received all kinds of buzz and which I finally bought after hearing it praised over and over again, and I’m so glad I did—those experiences are explored over a half decade in the lives of three young people connected to an African-American church community in a coastal California town. Although it might be more accurate to say say that two of the three are disconnected— Nadia Turner’s mother had been a devout churchgoer, but she’d killed herself six months before Nadia gets herself knocked up by Luke, the wayward son of the preacher. There’s never a doubt in Nadia’s mind about what she must do—she’s got a scholarship to the University of Michigan, and this is her ticket out of a life as narrow and confining as her mother’s was, and she doesn’t want to relive her mother’s mistakes, who had Nadia when she was just 17. And so Nadia gets an abortion, setting herself back upon the path that she’d envisioned for herself. Though there is still a summer to get through before she can finally get away, and she’s forced into taking a job as the assistant to Luke’s mother. Spending more time at the church than she ever had before, she develops a friendship with Aubrey, a girl her age who joined the church after being rejected by her own mother (and fleeing abuse from her mother’s boyfriend). Both girls motherless then, and Nadia has rejected motherhood, and every chapter begins with a chorus of voices, “the mothers” from the church, women whom Barbara Pym would have termed as “excellent.” Unbeknownst to both girls, they are being watched over.
With sweeping narrative maneuvering, Bennett conducts this cast of people through years and great changes in their own lives. We see Nadia moving away and excelling in all the ways that had been imagined for her, and how she cannot manage to escape the decision she made to end her pregnancy, how she carries the experience with her. And how too it dwells within Luke, who fails to support Nadia properly, but then theirs had never been a proper relationship anyway, and as his life remains at a standstill, Nadia’s abortion comes to stand in for all the opportunities he has lost and a source of his pain. And for Aubrey too who becomes close to Luke and has her own pain that needs healing.
Bennett nicely situates the personal against the political, Nadia’s experience with anti-abortion politicking by church members (although not so avidly—these are reasonable people) and also about how one’s convictions become flexible when an unwanted pregnancy is a fact instead of an idea. She shows how a woman can choose an abortion and know it’s the right choice, but still mourn what she’s lost and wonder at the could-have-beens. That an abortion, like a lot of things that happen to people over the course of their lives, is a complicated, multi-faceted thing.
The Mothers was born out of Brit Bennett’s MFA thesis at the University of Michigan, and there were some edges of the narrative that whispered (but didn’t scream) to me: first book. Not in the usual sense—the story is substantial, developed, and written with deep empathy and understanding of the experiences of its characters. This book is solid. But I could also see how this is the work of a writer at the start of her career—some of the set-ups were familiar, the kind of thing that you read in a lot of first books, a seam or two visible. But that this could be both conspicuously a first book and be as ambitious as it is, and not only be reaching but be exceeding its grasp? How incredible is that?
The Mothers is an outstanding achievement, one of the best books I’ve read this year, the kind of book that leaves its reader waiting for whatever its author has coming up next.
(And in the meantime, read her essay, “I don’t know what to do with good white people.”)
October 31, 2016
I spent Thanksgiving weekend—as summer turned into fall, the leaves turned into reds and oranges, as everything started to wither and die—reading Gemma Files’ Experimental Film, which was so fitting for the season. I absolutely loved it, and was not the only one to do so—the novel won the Shirley Jackson Award in the summer and the Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic in September. It’s a book about horror movies, and the history of Canadian cinema, and motherhood, and parenting a child with autism, and there are ghosts and it gets creepy, and it gave me bad dreams—which I mean as a testament to the book’s power. I liked it so much, and found it had uncanny connections to Maria Semple’s Today Will Be Different, which I read right after—both protagonists are socially awkward, intellectually brilliant and unmoored in their own lives. In fact, I’d really like to go out for drink with both of them.
I was grateful for the chance to ask some questions about the book to Gemma Files for a feature at 49thShelf. I hope you’ll check it out and enjoy her thoughts on film and literature, the haunting capabilities of both, about how the movie Candyman inspired the book’s structure, the influence of Shirley Jackson, and what it means for literature to be weird.
October 25, 2016
On the surface, Lola Lafon’s novel The Little Communist Who Never Smiled (translated from French by Nick Caistor) is a fictionalization of the life of Nadia Comaneci, but that (of course) is just a cover. What the book is really about is messaged in between the lines (or, quite literally, between the words). The Little Communist… is a book about the Cold War, the politicization of sport and womanhood, about deciphering codes and, fundamentally, this is a novel about punctuation.
The book begins with Nadia’s performance on the uneven bars at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. (I call her Nadia. Everybody did. I wasn’t born until 1979, but I came into a world where girls were still gymnastics-mad and it occurs to me that gymnasts from that time are the only Olympic athletes I’m familiar with who aren’t from my country. From a very young age, I knew who Nadia Comaneci was.)
Her victory hung on point of punctuation, kind of—a decimal. Her score of 10.0 had never been achieved in gymnastics before and therefore the display screen didn’t have the capacity to show it. Lafon shows the confusion and crisis and judges and administrators realized what had happened and the scoreboard read 1.0, and the implications of this—this was an athlete from whom an entirely different system of success would be designed. “New numbers need to be invented. Or just abandon numbers altogether.”
On page 18, Lafon describes Comaneci: “Her arched back is a comma.” Which is significant because of how conspicuous commas are in the text. Comma splices are scattered throughout the novel, and I had to consider their implication, what they do to sentences. How in English they join unlike ideas in slightly jarring ways that makes the reader think twice, and it made me think about Romania in the 1970s and 1980s, a point in between the Cold War divides of East and West. Later in the book, Lafon shows Comaneci delivering an address in 1984 to announce her retirement from competition, an address that was written for her by the writer who composes all her official speeches: “He writes them out in short lines with commas so that she can pause for breath between them.” But in this address there are no commas. “She had not planned to be silent for so long she is simply searching for the comma, she thought she saw it but there wasn’t one, her words are chosen for her one last time, the comma jumps from one word to the next, like the decimal point: one point nought nought, she raises her eyes to those who have no words…”
The echo of the uneven bars creaking at the Montreal Olympics is “an uneven punctuation for her body as it folds itself around them.” Periods are replaced in between the letters of rival Olga Korbut’s first name in a Man From U.N.C.L.E.-like Cold War allusion (O.L.G.A). In her imagined exchanges with Comaneci, Lafon considers the punctuation used in newspaper coverage about Comaneci, “exclamation marks that compete with the ellipses.” There are references to the story of Nadia being written, rewritten (and indeed they are in Lafon’s imagined exchanges, which cast doubt on everything represented by facts. Truth is nowhere. Everything is suspicious.) and defying translation.
And then there is the period, the decimal point in another form. Full stop. Also menstruation (which I don’t think shares its name with a punctuation mark in the novel’s original French, interestingly, although apparently the French term for menstruation means “rules,” so it’s equally firm), which is hugely significant in this text. The arrival of the period signals the beginning of the end of Comaneci’s career, no matter her coach’s and manager’s efforts to stymy the effects of puberty through training and pharmaceuticals. But in the context of Romanian history, it has wider and more disturbing ramifications regarding forced pregnancy tests women were submitted to to eliminate instances of abortion, the way that not only Nadia had her body regarded as property of the state. And really, this sense of ownership over women’s bodies is a universal thing—anyone else who’s not an Olympic gymnast ever been chastised for not smiling?
And yet Lafon avoids obvious and facile comparisons with East and West with her imagined dialogue with Comaneci, who questions the ways in which women and athletes in the West are necessarily more free. While never minimizing the negative effects of life under the Ceaușescu regime, Lafon complicates notions that here and now is necessarily better than then and there. While Romanian people had nothing during the 1980s, Lafon is reminded in imagined conversations that sometimes nothing is better than insatiable materialist desires. All this so that we’re left with a notion of history and truth that is as elusive as Nadia herself, always just slipping out of one’s grasp.
“You quietly airbrushed your mistakes…could we say that?”
“Yes, exactly. I rewrite everything! But….discreetly.”
Thank you for the International Festival of Authors for inviting me to be a part of your blog tour and giving me the opportunity to read this truly excellent book.
Lola Lafon’s appearances at Toronto’s 2016 International Festival of Authors
(Supported by the Consulate General of France):
Monday October 24 8pm “Interpreting the Past” (Reading/Round Table)
Wednesday October 26 6pm “EUNIC: Writing History Telling Stories” (Reading/Round Table)
October 18, 2016
It’s always a good sign when the blank pages inside a book become riddled with notes and diagrams, as has been the case with my copy of the Governor-General’s Award/ Giller-nominated The Party Wall, by Catherine Laroux, prize-winner in its original French, translated into English by Lazer Lederhendler (Nikolski!). Not because the stories themselves in the novel are so difficult to figure out—in fact, they read beautifully with luminous prose (“Fall is approaching and the warmth of the South throbs on the horizon like a sack of gold at the foot of a rainbow”)—but because the challenge and the pleasure is discovering how all of it fits together. While the shape of most narratives is a horizontal line (with the inevitable bump for a climax), the shape of The Party Wall is multi-dimensional, arrows pointed in all four directions and connections that hold the whole thing fast.
The Party Wall is several stories, and while one might argue it’s more a story collection than a novel, I have more fun considering it as the latter. These stories could probably all each stand on their own but the whole is much more than the sum of its parts, which come together in the beginning as a series of curiosities: a woman in Bathurst, New Brunswick, discovers she is not the biological mother of the son she gave birth to; a married couple with a cosmic connection (and he actually the Prime Minister of a future, post-apocalyptic Canada) discover they are twins who were long ago given up for adoption; and a brother and sister (a police officer and an Olympic runner) in San Francisco sit by the bedside of their difficult mother who is dying, and each try to come to terms with the fact that they may now never discover the identity of their father. These descriptions might give the impression that these aren’t stories that are steeped in realism, that they belong to a nether or even an ether world, but that’s not the case. There is magic and there is wonder, and while these situations are indeed highly unlikely, look around you and consider what isn’t.
If these stories are rooms in a house, the walls of the house (that connect them and divide them) are a story on another scale, one that takes place over the course of a single morning in Savannah, Georgia, two sisters wandering the rough and familiar edges of their neighbourhood. From details in the larger-canvassed stories, the reader understands premonitions of danger, this offering the book in parts the momentum of a novel—and where the danger is actually found is probably not where the reader expected. Anticipation of narrative links also urge the reader through the book, and the revelations are never cheap or disappointing, instead adding texture to the richness of the narrative.
In addition to the narrative links, the stories are joined by references to unfortunate cats (whose names include Bastard, Wretch and Shabby), a fixation on horizons (“the boundary between the two worlds, and what manages, unbeknownst to scientists and the gods, to travel from one to the other”) and walls that get knocked on, punched in, listened though and lived in. And yes, the splendid writing, twists that bend your mind, and a story that stretches across a continent, across years and lives, and binds them all together.
October 17, 2016
The first time I read Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, by Maria Semple, was the night after Iris was born via c-section, when I was immobile and yet expected to breastfeed my squalling baby off and on throughout the night (and many nights after…). Not exactly the best of times but it turned out to be the best of books, so much so that every time the baby woke, I was excited to pick up the novel again. It made for splendid reading. Bernadette was smart, funny, clever, breezy, dark, light, and I have always been a little sorry it ended. I’ve never completely gotten over this book.
I read Semple’s first novel, This One is Mine, not longer after, hungry for more of the goodness. It was not as good as Bernadette but had the same something. The same understanding that smart books need not be serious, and humour and situations surely born from their author’s experience writing for television. The same slightly neurotic, irresistible (if you’re a certain kind of reader) point of view. Awhile after that, I read Where’d You Go, Bernadette? again, because I wanted to and also because I wanted to see if it was as wonderful as I remembered/if perhaps I’d been influenced by being on drugs in my adoration of it. It was/I wasn’t.
And so I’ve been waiting more than three years to read Maria Semple again, a situation that brings with it enormous expectations, and I am very pleased to say that Today Will Be Different didn’t disappoint. And nor was it like anything I’d expected. I did a Q&A with Marissa Stapley last week at 49thShelf.com, and she noted that readers and critics of commercial fiction need to take notice of when its writers are taking risks with their work, and celebrate those risks. Here is a book that defies categorization, that pushes the limits of fiction and its tools (and how—the novel contains a mini graphic memoir, among other paraphernalia). Structurally, it’s a fascinating book…why is why I was totally annoyed last week when I listened to an interview with Semple and the interviewer refused to talk about the book outside the realms of autobiography.
It’s true that writers like Semple do make it easy for critics to fall into the trap of conflating author and narrator. It’s true too that very often the two are properly conflated. But when we view our fiction (and our fiction by women in particular) through such a narrow lens, we limit ourselves as to what fiction is all about and missing the chance to talk about women as artists and creators instead of giant sacks of feelings and experience (and after all, what then is memoir for?).
The way that Semple mines her experience and the world around her is interesting. There. There’s a start. Also the way she blurs fact and fiction even in her form, by including extra textual documentation and creating cultural reference points in vivid detail. Today We Will Be Different differs remarkably from Bernadette in its first person narration—while Bernadette was an enigma, we know exactly where Eleanor Flood is, and the reader is stuck right inside her head. Which is a little hard to take at times, and why this is the case is a worthwhile question and makes me thing of demonstrable evidence that people prefer the sound of a male voice to a female one. It’s also a matter of Eleanor’s idiosyncrasies, her digressions and preoccupations, and bluntness—she actively maintains a list of subjects she proactively chooses not to care about, diversity among them. Eleanor Flood is not dying for you to like her. And yet like her, you probably will. She even knows you will.
The book begins with the prospect of a new day, a day which (no surprise here) our protagonist becomes determined will represent a turning point away from the rut in which she has found herself stuck. “Today I’ll play a board game with Timby. I’ll initiate sex with Joe. Today I will take pride in my appearance. I’ll shower, get dressed in proper clothes and change into yoga clothes only for yoga, which today I will actually attend.” An ordinary day that might make all the difference, and it does, but not for the reasons that Eleanor imagines it will. Her plans soon go off the rails: her son’s school calls requesting she pick him up as he’s suffering from a fictional stomach bug; her lunch plans (with the friend she’s spent a decade being unable to shake) are not what she bargained for; and when she shows up at her husband’s office to foist their son upon him, it turns out he’s told his staff that he’s on vacation for a week and they’re surprised that Eleanor and Timby aren’t with him. Where is he?
There are writers who sit down and painstakingly plan their books before they start writing, a mess of post-it notes and index cards, and one gets the feeling that Maria Semple is not one of them. The plots of her books resemble those dotted lines on maps in Saturday morning cartoons in which small children navigate space with curious and often dangerous diversions. Which is kind of a funny way to plot a book, but think of the joy you once got in running your finger along that line, and also of the momentum inherent in this kind of narrative, the briskness with which the reader is brought along for the ride. It also turns out that plot isn’t really the point is, but voice is, and Eleanor Flood’s is the kind of voice that’s hard to get out of your head.
While parts of the narrative seem too brisk, a careful reader will discern clues hearkening to a deeper story, a complicated one of family and Eleanor’s sister, who is only alluded to briefly and mysterious in the novel’s first section. Why the elusiveness? Follow the urgent dotted line, and you will discover the answer, and while the novel ends in a story line that is as ridiculous as the end of Bernadette, you will just be so devastated that it’s over.
October 3, 2016
Katherena Vermette, who won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry in 2012 for her collection North End Love Songs, is demonstrating that winning writing need not be constricted by form—her debut novel, The Break, which has all the suspense and plot of of a thriller while not sacrificing literary richness, is a finalist for this year’s Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. It’s a novel whose pieces are disassembled in the beginning, and a most ambitious project—a story told from so many points of view. A woman sees a crime being committed from her window one cold dark night; we see young girls getting ready for a party; another teenager has walked out of her juvenile detention centre; two sisters negotiating rich but complicated adult lives; their mother whose own sister died years before, another Native woman who became a statistic. And then their mother, growing old and frail, at the back of her children and grandchildren’s minds, but a constant. The dead woman too has a voice in this story, and it is her daughter who sees the disturbing scene out her window, blood in the snow that will be covered by morning.
The family tree at the beginning of the book is useful, but the reader soon becomes acquainted with the women of this family, so it won’t be referred to throughout. Momentum is strictly forward as the pieces begin to come together, Vermette deftly moving in and out of time to create a three-dimensional feel to the narrative—we come to feel we know this story from all sides. Four generations of a family, and how tragedy trickles down with all the goodness, the former not negating the latter though. As Vermette has made clear, this is a novel about women and about survival, a story that complements but also takes issue with stories and statistics about First Nations and Metis women as victims before they’re even people proper. But her characters are people here, people with flaws and foibles, strengths and weaknesses, and it’s the strength that endures: “‘It’s okay, my girl. It’s okay.’ Her answer to everything.”
Though that strength too—that will to survive—is a power that Vermette shows can be used for better as well as worse; women indeed contain multitudes both within themselves and amongst each other. The great power of this book is that it shows that.
The Break is a compelling, gripping and wholly necessary novel. I’m glad it’s receiving the praise and attention it deserves.
August 23, 2016
While Zoe Whittall has made a career of writing about misfits and outlaws (which is part of the title of an anthology she edited in the early 2000’s), she turns the tables in her latest novel by writing about a family of unremarkable (were it not for their resolute upstandingness) middle class people who suddenly become misfits and outlaws in their very own lives. The book is The Best Kind of People, which I read on my summer vacation and handed directly to my husband when he asked me what book he should read next. And the family is the Woodburys, the patriarch of whom shocks his wife and children and entire community when he’s accused of sexual assaulting girls at the high school where he teaches.
“How could a person do such a thing?” is the kind of question that tends to be raised after the fact, although Whittall is more interested in another question with wider ramifications, which is, “How can the people around that person, the people who love that person, who did it make sense of their lives and the world once he has?” Joan Woodbury tries to make sense of her past and her future—what was her marriage all of these years, and who is she going to become outside of the relationship that has so long defined her? She deals with threats and violence against her home and family, hears the whispers and the rumours, and knows that many people implicate her along with her husband, because as his wife, how could she not have known?
Her daughter carries many of the same burdens with her at school, and is forced to reconcile her own burgeoning sexuality with her father’s egregious crimes, not to mention falls in with a group of Men’s Rights Activists who try to use her and her father as a pawn for their cause. And when the Woodbury’s son returns home from his life in New York to take care of his family and support his father, he’s forced to confront his own difficult past as a gay boy coming of age in a small conservative town.
Similar to Joan Thomas’s novel, The Opening Sky, The Best Kind of People ponders how the politics and morality of well-meaning, liberal-minded people are tested when they find themselves in situations they never expected. In Whittall’s book, the result is a complicated range of emotions and reactions, and while she puts her characters through test after test, the result every time in believable, entirely (and sometimes unbearably) human. There is so much nuance here, but the book is also devourable, utterly gripping, unfolding with the pace of a thriller and also that hard to put down, as the case unfolds day by day and then week by week, right up until the trial.
While the entire book is fantastic, Whittall gets full points for her spectacular ending, however, which turns the story inside out and disturbingly rips us away from the singular perspectives of characters to reflect the wider culture of rape and sexual violence against whose context the entire novel has been taking place. Which is to say that this is not just a story about a family.
And then the final sentence, which will haunt you long after you’ve finally finished reading, quiet, subtle, devastating and terrible, just like the injustice that is Justice, which isn’t anything like justice at all.