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January 14, 2015

Her by Harriet Lane

her

UPDATE: I can’t believe I forgot to note the extraordinary ends to which Lane uses the sinister implications of classic children’s literature, including Goodnight Moon and “James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree”. So very good.

There is such a descriptor as sippy-cup sinister.

“I’m reading a terrifying book about a woman with a newborn,” I told my husband, who went pale then, because a woman with a newborn is the most terrifying thing he’s ever known.

“I’m tired of female pain and also tired of people who are tired of it,” write Leslie Jamison in “Grand Unified: Theory of Female Pain,” from The Empathy Exams, and I sometimes feel similarly about the reading of the burdens of motherhood.

It’s a burden documented in vivid detail in Her, the second novel by journalist Harriet Lane. The novel is a mash-up, one scene after another presented from two points of view. One from Emma, recently a mother of two, in her late thirties, struggling to get the stroller up the steps as her three-year-old clamours for her attention, and the baby cries, and she contemplates her life, wondering where her once-self—a successful journalist, happy and carefree—has got to. And then the other, from Nina, who spies Emma from a distance, knows her from long ago, and becomes determined to work her way into the other woman’s life to enact some form of revenge.

To Emma, hoever, Nina—a successful painter, her own daughter nearly grown—is a saviour, always turning up at the right time, offering Emma exactly what she needs, providing a glimpse of the world outside, of the life she’d like to have. Nina is a respite from the drudgery of a schedule Emma describes as full of tasks all both so urgent and tedious, breaking the day into useless pieces, rendering the whole thing as just scraps. But why is Nina so interested in her? It’s a nagging question, but one that Emma pushes to the back of her mind, which is already overwhelmed by lack of sleep, stress, financial worries, marital strife, and general ennui. She’s so vulnerable, which Nina recognizes instantly, and realizes she can prey on.

Which makes Her so compelling, so beyond those other narratives which tire me whose only virtue is their honesty, is that the truths revealed about new motherhood are just the starting point. From here, Lane has created a psychological thriller so convincing in its reality, so ominous in its mundanity, so sippy-cup sinister in a manner I last recall reading in Emily Perkins’ excellent 2008 book, A Novel About My Wife.

Nina gets closer and closer to Emma, welcomed into her home, caring for her children, and while we know along she has nefarious intentions—presented in the alternating chapters which, like Emma’s, are written in first-person—we don’t know why she’s out to exact revenge from Emma, who doesn’t remember her at all. We don’t know either which form her revenge will take, though as the novel progresses, indicators emerge, signs and signals that are so terrifying, all hurtling towards  the novel’s very end, which is completely and utterly devastating.  Not to mention amazing. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

It’s a page-turner, but the reader will be slowed by Lane’s prose, the pitch-perfect imagery and descriptions, which are to be savoured. By the nuance too, suggesting the motherhood (and everything) is a many-sided reality after all. And the reader will be chilled by Lane’s suggestion that danger lurks even in the safest of places, that the most heightened maternal vigilance might never be enough.

January 11, 2015

The Devil You Know by Elisabeth de Mariaffi

the-devil-you-knowThe stakes were high for Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s The Devil You Know. On Wednesday morning, I walked 2km at -25 degrees to get a copy, because I’d been hearing such good things about it and it seemed like exactly the kind of book you want to hang out with curled up warm while the blizzard howls. A mystery, a thriller, a book set in Southern Ontario during the 1980s and early ’90s, during which a series of young girls were kidnapped and sometimes found murdered, otherwise their faces depicted on posters for years afterwards under the heading, “Missing.” Years later, “aged-enhanced” images of these children would be updated, but we’d still recognize them. I’ve noticed that reviewers have been responding to the book personally, viscerally. There’s a whole generation of us haunted by these missing girls—I could plot my own history by theirs, from Nicole Morin to Alicia Ross. (I was too young to know about the disappearance and murder of Sharin’ Morningstar Keenan in 1983, though she was taken the very playground where my children play.)

Evie Jones, rookie reporter and protagonist of The Devil You Know is similarly haunted, not least because she’s currently covering the Paul Bernardo case as he and his wife are arrested for the murders of Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy in 1993. But also, in particular, because her own childhood best friend was one of the dead girls, Lianne Gagnon, whose story is a fiction conflating the cases of Keenan and Allison Parrott, who was last seen getting into a car with a strange man near Varsity Stadium eleven years before. Leanne’s killer was never found. And when a strange man begins appearing on Evie’s fire escape and elsewhere, a dark figure skirting on the periphery of her life, she begins to wonder if it’s Lianne’s killer returned and if there’s something that he wants from her. Her fears are dismissed by those around her, but she can’t shake the feeling that she’s under threat, and no wonder—her own history, and the stories of women in the world that she covers in her job, do absolutely nothing to suggest otherwise.

It is suggested—perhaps too strongly, my one criticism of this book, for the signs are there and the reader surely can read them—that Evie’s job as a crime reporter is part of her need to control the forces in her life, that she seeks out stories like Bernardo’s and the stories in missing and dead girls, in order to be in command of the narrative for once. And by those concerned for Evie’s wellbeing, it is suggested too that her need for control is a bad thing, that it’s detrimental to her mental health, and that it’s this desperation making her imagine the footsteps at the door… I mean, never mind the actual footsteps at the door.

But with Evie, de Mariaffi dares to posit instead that female agency is a salve instead of a symptom. Evie Jones is far from perfect, but she’s smart, unflinching, shameless, and brave. The hero of her own story, certainly.

In her research, employing a brand new tool called the internet, Evie starts looking back at the records of what happened to her friend, and learns that there is more to the story than she ever knew. The big picture that emerges as she puts pieces together begins to suggest that the story of Lianne’s disappearance is less random than Evie ever supposed, and that she can trace the case back to a place that’s closer to home than she can bare to imagine. And that all the trouble (and the footsteps) might not be in her head after all.

The Devil You Know is a gripping, fast-paced book that I had to be torn away from, an excellent crime book with strong female protagonists, in scintillating company with those by Laura Lippman and Gillian Flynn. But there is more to it than that. More than just nostalgia too, though it’s a part of it. de Mariaffi was long-listed for the Giller prize a couple of years ago for her short story collection, How to Get Along With Women, which included her acclaimed short story, “Kiss Me Like I’m the Last Man on Earth,” which I first read in The New Quarterly. And while it seemed like a leap for a writer to go from literary short stories to a thriller, once I began reading The Devil…, the connection seemed quite straightforward to me. Partly because of the nostalgia that infuses both the novel and the story, 1980s Toronto in startling specificity. But also because of how much short story writing sets one up to write a plot driven novel—this has never occurred to me before.

Short stories are all about atmosphere and their scenes, one moment standing in for many, representative of a broader picture. Nothing is extraneous, and so too is it with a crime novel, plot-driven, which just really means one scene after another. Though perhaps with some writers and books, the reader doesn’t notice the scene, so preoccupied is she by plot, but the scenes stand out in The Devil You Know. A gripping, fast-paced book that I had to be torn away from, and I kept noticing the scenes, which were like tiny short stories contained within. The plot is the book’s foundation, but the story rises far and large above it.

It was terrific, and definitely worth a walk in the cold.

December 16, 2014

Our Favourite Picture Books of 2014

if-i-wrote-a-book-about-youIf I Wrote a Book About You by Stephany Aulenback and Denise Holmes

I love this book, whose prose is as whimsical and delightful as its illustrations. Its chief appeal is that it’s about love, and even comes close to describing that indescribable love we have for our children, but not before getting silly before it gets saccharine. The silliness is so good, and so is the word play, and the pleasure the book takes with words in general. Plus, Harriet is fascinated by this being a book about a hypothetical book, because she adores books in books. Of course she does.

sam-and-dave-dig-a-holeSam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen

We have a huge stack of Jon Klassen’s books at our house, and his latest with Mac Barnett is beloved for its weirdness, its humour, its dog and its cat. It’s fun to read in the same deadpan voice as I Want My Hat Back, and it cleverly situates the reader as an omniscient force in the narrative, which is really empowering…until the very end when nobody knows what’s going on. Which is kind of amazing.

jacket_medMusic is for Everyone by Jill Barber and Sydney Smith

Iris is chief music lover (and singer and drummer and bum shaker) in our household, and so she’s getting this book for Christmas, just so it can do some preaching to the choir. Smith (whom we know from Sheree Fitch’s books ) is a fabulous illustrator, and musician Barber knows what she’s talking about, so I think we’re going to have a lot of fun with this book, which explores the world of music and how all of us can play.

goodnight-youGoodnight You by Genevieve Cote

The fourth book in Cote’s Piggy and Bunny series is her best yet. In it, the two friends go camping and find that courage and fear are relative things, and both friends can be a comfort to the other. It’s a good story with a surprise twist at the end, but I am really fond of how Cote creates a second canvas (ha) with the friends’ tent, on which they create shadow puppets to add tension and a whole other layer to the story. It’s a clever device, and the book is sweet and fun.

toronto-abcToronto ABC by Paul Covello

We are all besotted with Covello’s Toronto ABC, from which Iris has learned that there is indeed a tower on her horizon, and she points to it every time she goes outside. It’s a beautiful book, up to the moment, and a gorgeous celebration of our city and all our favourite places—the ROM, the Islands, streetcars, High Park, the AGO, and more. This kind of book is a perfect lesson for kids about how books connect with the world.

the-silver-buttonThe Silver Button by Bob Graham

And speaking of cities, no one else writes cities in picture books quite like Bob Graham does, including the graffiti and the homeless woman pushing a shopping carts, because he wants his books to be as beautiful and complex as the world is. His latest is really wonderful, about the whole wide world and how it hinges on a single moment in which a baby takes his very first step. And I don’t just love it because I read it while I was reading Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, and the connection between the two books was just uncanny.

juliaJulia’s House for Lost Creatures by Ben Hatke

If you know Zita the Space Girl, that you’ll be thrilled to know that its creator has published his first picture book, which is as weird, wonderful and full of mystery as the Zita books. It’s about a girl called Julia whose house is on a turtle’s back, and when she settles down by the sea, she finds it all a bit too quiet. And so she opens her doors to various creatures requiring homes of their own, which brings its own complications. Being an awesome, enterprising young person, however, she figures out a way to solve her problem, and to make her house a proper home for everyone—including herself.

alphabetOnce Upon an Alphabet by Oliver Jeffers

This one is wrapped up and waiting under the Christmas tree, but I can’t wait to read it with Harriet. Jeffers explores the alphabet, letter by letter, imbuing each letter with a personality and life of its own. For those of us who can’t get enough of abecedarian things, the book will be sure to delight, and young readers will find it a quirky twist on their usual ABCs.

spic-and-spanSpic and Span by Monica Kulling

Kulling’s biography of Lillian Gilbreth (who was mother of the family from Cheaper by the Dozen, not to mention a psychologist, efficiency engineer, an inventor, author and eventually a single mother to 11 children) is fascinating and Gilbreth is a great example to boys and girls that there is no limits to what a smart girl can become. Plus, she invented the shelves in your fridge door, and check out that checkerboard floor. Whoever said the domestic was dull?

mr-frankMr Frank by Irene Luxbacher

I love Luxbacher’s gorgeous collage illustrations, and the sense of cultural history revealed by the story of the clothes a tailor has sewn over time—army uniforms, psychedelic mini-skirts, ripped jeans in the ’80s. But now Mr. Frank is about to sew the creation of his life—a caped ensemble that will impress those readers who are particularly enamoured with all things super-heroic. This is a super-hero story of a different sort, and a great celebration of grandparents.

julia, child

Julia, Child by Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad

Out of one kitchen and into another with this acclaimed book by a children’s literature dream team. Loosely based on the life of Julia Child and her friendship with Simca Beck (though a note advises readers to take the whole thing with a grain of salt), the story is one about the pleasures of cooking, and butter, and friendship. And to the importance of never forgetting what it is to be a child—the recipe for a happy life, perhaps?

peachgirlPeach Girl by Raymond Nakamura and Rebecca Bender

In Peach Girl, Nakamura turns the Japanese Momotaro folktale into a feminist celebration of feisty girldom. Momoko hatches from a peach, and then sets up to defeat an ogre in her quest to make the world a better place. She’s gutsy, unflappable, and inspires her companions. Spoilers: the ogre is just misunderstood, and they all partake in tea. Rebecca Bender’s illustrations of the Japanese countryside are stunning.

squirrelsThe Secret Life of Squirrels by Nancy Rose

Iris is still pretty choosy about books, but we have a feeling she’ll be into this one, another Christmas present. Rose’s photos of squirrels doing human things are pretty hilarious, and she’s created a fun narrative from them all. But it’s most impressive when you look in the back of the book and learn how Rose set up these photos in her own backyard (mostly by hiding nuts in her set-pieces). Iris won’t really get it though, and she’ll just like it the same way she likes the squirrels in our backyard, which she points to while shouting, “Meow!”

the-most-magnificent-thingThe Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires

This one is pretty much my ideal picture book: great images, empowered heroine who makes things, who wields a hammer, who dares to express her rage, and it all turns out okay. The takeaway too is invaluable: sometimes you have to fail in order to get anywhere. It is okay to mess up. Hard work is hard work. Perfectionism is anathema to creation. I don’t know if there is anything else I really care if my children ever learn. I love this book: the most magnificent thing indeed.

fisherman-throughFisherman Through and Through by Colleen Sydor and Brooke Kerrigan

It’s not often I read a picture book with a line of prose that bowls me over, but I was really struck by “…until the sun got snoozey and settled down, down on an orange cloud, toward the lip of the sea.” I love that Fisherman Through and Through is so literary—the fishermen are called Ahab, Peter and Santiago. Though the kids won’t notice that, but they’ll be compelled by this story of wishing and dreaming, and extraordinary miracles thrown up by the sea. Um, plus there is kind of a string of bunting on the cover.

December 14, 2014

2014 Books In My Head List

I feel strange about this list. First, because my reading seemed less monumental this year—I missed the blockbusters like The Goldfinch, or The Interestings.  Second, my local bookshop closed, which is from where so much of my zest for reading came—I am sure I missed many books that in previous years, Book City staff would have kept neatly stacked on their new books table. And third, there are so many 2014 books I haven’t read yet. The scramble to get them all read was making me crazy, so I gave up, and now they’ll have to wait for the new year.

Luckily, books keep. Case in point: there are books here on the 2014 list that weren’t published in 2014 at all.

While this is kind of my Top Books of 2014 list, I’m thinking of it more as The Books In My Head list. The books whose reading experiences I remember so vividly, the books I kept talking about, whose characters, stories and ideas have lived on in my mind long after the last page was finally read.

In a particular order, which is alphabetical.

ellen-in-piecesFitting though, that Caroline Adderson’s Ellen in Pieces is topper most. It may well have been. This is the book that was oddly overlooked by awards juries, and yet readers have embraced it, Ellen love-ins taking place on Twitter and Facebook quite regularly, I am finding. I have recommended it widely, and only received glowing reports back. It’s a funny, brutal, rich and challenging book. I’ve never read such an unflinching story of cancer (and love, and aging, and motherhood, and mortality). As I wrote in August, “It’s a brave take on things, really, but typical, because the exquisite nature of the entire book comes from Adderson defying her readers’ expectations, surprising you with every line, with every turn of the page.” I do think that Ellen in Pieces is THE book of the year, and you’re missing out if you haven’t read it yet.

Purchase Ellen in Pieces from McNally Robinson

just-pretendingI read Lisa Bird-Wilson’s Just Pretending in May, starting it while we were visiting Winnipeg, and just after reading Pat Barker’s Union Street, a collection that situates the lives of working-class English women similarly to how Bird-Wilson presents First Nations women in Canada. At the time, we were promoting The M Word and it was Mother’s Day, so Bird-Wilson’s themes of motherhood resonated with me, and complicated my own understanding of these themes in my comfy middle-class context. The stories in Just Pretending portray “the wholeness of marginalized women’s experiences, experiences which hinge on maternity, on motherhood and daughterhood, and on what happens when these connections are broken,” and they’re so important now with untold stories of Canada’s Indigenous women’s experiences finally being brought to (some) light.

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9781459708433_cover_coverbookpageIt was on Mother’s Day weekend that we visited Blue Heron Books in Uxbridge, the same day that Steve Burrows was appearing there to promote his book, A Siege of Bitterns. I was happy to buy a copy, as I’d been intrigued with his novel about a birdwatching detective, and I was so pleased to absolutely adore it. Unsurprisingly—the book has received rave reviews. The crux to the mystery’s solution involved not just birdwatching, but grammar. This book is a geek’s paradise. I’ve also been pleased to have happy readers reporting back after following my recommendation for this one. And good news: Burrows next title in the Birder Murder Mystery series is A Pitying of Doves, out this spring. I am so excited.

Purchase A Siege of Bitterns from McNally Robinson

eating-habitsI’m so grateful to the good people at All Lit Up, without whom I might never have discovered Megan Gail Coles and her story collection Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome. Which contains this paragraph: “The reason Garry did these things was ’cause he couldn’t afford any better. Half of what he earned over at Pretty Paws was carted off to Newfoundland. Child support for an autistic kid he had with Slutty Marie down Gilbert Street, this the result of a one night stand./ Have you ever heard a sadder story, Dame? I mean, really? I barely poked her. We weren’t even lying down. It’s like her body sucked me sperm right inside her that night, vacuum cunt on her. Don’t ever have a go at the neighbourhood whore in an alley. Nothing good will come of it.” How could you not want to read this book?

Purchase Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome from McNally Robinson

one-hour-in-parisUnfortunately, as 2014 progressed, Karyn L. Freedman’s One Hour in Paris: A True Story of Rape and Recovery only became more and more important. I read it last spring as I pushed my baby in a swing. “The world, [Freedman] tells us with two decades of perspective in addition to her own violent rape, is a dangerous place for women, as statistics demonstrate in places as close as our own neighbourhoods and as far away as the war-wracked Congo. But nobody talks about these experiences, suggesting that such incidents are rare, suggesting to those lucky enough to not know better that sexual violence is a crime of circumstance, that it’s something most of us should be able to sidestep. It’s why newspaper columnists suggest that if a young woman refrains from drinking to excess, she might not get raped, and if she is raped, she should have known better. Thereby perpetuating victim’s sense of her own complicity in the crime against her, ensuring her silence, and so the cycle continues.” I’m so pleased that this book has been shortlisted for the BC National Non-Fiction Award.

Purchase One Hour in Paris from McNally Robinson

mommyblogsI read Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood by May Friedman in September, and it was huge for me for all kinds of reasons. It laid the framework for the latest session of my blogging course, convinced me of the usefulness of academic theory for the very first time, and also that the history of women and blogging is one that is seriously under-documented and certainly worth telling. While Friedman’s research pertains to mommyblogs in particular (and her conclusions are always surprising, illuminating—if mommyblogs seem tired to you, she invites you to think again), it’s also hugely relevant to women and blogging in general, and is a fascinating and nuanced depiction of 21st century motherhood. And mostly, I am so struck by her notions of the usefulness of uncertainty (which reminded me of Rebecca Solnit, and ultimately led to cake): “In trying to form conclusions about mommybloggers—and about mothers—I am reminded of my children attempting to jump upon their own shadows: I am attempting to trap an essentially untrappable form of knowledge. After the initial discomfort and frustration that this inconclusive conclusion elicits, however, I have found that there is much to gained, as a researcher in general and as a motherhood researcher in particular, in looking instead at uncertainty as a valuable critical lens.” Feminism desperately needs this kind of approach, which is a fitting response to the complexity of actual people and the world.

Purchase Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood from McNally Robinson

in-love-with-artI remember reading In Love With Art by Jeet Heer on one of the first few days this spring when it was warm enough outside to walk and read without mittens, or it’s possible that it wasn’t actually that warm, but I was just enjoying the book so much. Francoise Mouly is a fascinating biographical subject, and I’d never heard of her, but unbeknownst to me, I’d seen her work—she was a long-time Art Editor of The New Yorker, and she’s the founder and Editorial Director of TOON Books, whose books we’re in love with at our house. And thisbook found its way into my (cold) hands just as Harriet was started to really get into comics, so I was pleased to learn so much about comics as an art form, and also the process behind comics creation, and what is  entailed by the role of their editor. It was an excellent book, part of Coach House Books’ Exploded Views series of short books about big things, and I do love me a paperback that fits in my pocket.

Purchase In Love With Art from McNally Robinson

bookI only read The Bookshop That Floated Away last week, but I was so taken by Sarah Henshaw’s book, and I think that I’ll continue to be as much. We’re planning at trip to the UK in the spring, and top of my list of things to do there is tracking down the book barge. It’s the ideal book for anyone who ever thought that opening a book on a boat sounded like a perfectly sensible idea, and I loved its unabashed oddness, the absurd adventure, and all the references to books and reading, and also to Victoria Sponge Cake.

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they-left-us-everythingPlum Johnson’s They Left Us Everything was the most terrific memoir, ostensibly the story of a woman cleaning out her parents’ house after their deaths, but it’s also a record of a wonderful family history, about the curious shape and contents of archives and the stories they tell, about caring for aging parents, coming to terms with the past, the complexities of daughterhood and motherhood, and understanding our parents as people in their own right. I’m so pleased that it’s been nominated for the 2015 Charles Taylor Prize for Non-Fiction.

Purchase They Left Us Everything from McNally Robinson

Penelope_Fitzgerald_A_LifeHermione Lee’s biography, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, was the first book I finished in 2014, and it was how I spent my holidays—so so delightful. And anti-social. Biographers don’t come much better than Lee, and lives are rarely more interesting than Penelope Fitzgerald’s—though hers did pose a challenge for the biographer considering that all her early papers were lost when her houseboat sunk on the Thames during the 1960s (where she was living in abject poverty, barely supporting her three children. She went on to publisher her first book at age 60, won the Booker Prize at 7o). Fitzgerald’s novels had always seemed obscure to me, but their author’s life story has cast them in a new light (and I am excited for the new editions with covers by Julie Morstad).

Purchase Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life from McNally Robinson

adult-onsetAnd oh! Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald, the book that inspired me to write over 1300 words in response. I love how this book has been everything to everybody—I read the review that said it was about anxiety, the one that said it was about being queer, and to me it was all about motherhood. What a fascinating book that can be read through so many different lenses. I also am intrigued by the weird and wonderful ways Adult Onset flirts with genre, oh so subtly. It’s a book about parallel lives and parallel universes, ordinary city sidewalks rendered fantastic.

Purchase Adult Onset by McNally Robinson

thunderstruckSpeaking of sidewalks, I still remember walking up Bay Street toward the subway in August reading Thunderstruck and Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken, a hardback no-less. I was hooked from the first delicious sentence: “Just west of Boston, just north of the turnpike, the ghost of Missy Goodby sleeps curled up against the cyclone fence at the dead end of Winter Terrace, dressed in a pair of ectoplasmic dungarees.”  I loved this book, and its stories: “Many of them are about grief, about the peculiarity of details during the times in life in which we’re grief-struck, or stricken at all. They’re about human connection in surprising places, about misunderstandings in which the connection is missed. Their about the things that get lost and what we choose to preserve. They’re funny even with the sadness, a many sided shape. And they’re absolutely extraordinary.”

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all-saintsLast summer I reviewed All Saints by KD Miller in The Globe and Mail. “Most of [Miller’s characters] are searching for meaning; Miller – in language that doesn’t draw attention to itself, but bends to suit her purposes – uses the small moments in life to illuminate big questions. Where did the story start? What is destiny? Is there an order to the universe, to a life? But a life, we learn, is only a piece of the puzzle, meaning and wholeness only emerging when separate lives connect. Crucially and compellingly, such connections are mysterious – Miller shows how we are all figments of one and other’s imaginations.”

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know-the-nightFor a few weeks in February, I was deep into the memoir Know the Night by Maria Mutch, which I reviewed for The National Post,  a book I read twice and puzzled through with so many notes, and figured out like a complicated math problem—so utterly engaging. All to the soundtrack of “Mercy Mercy Mercy” by Cannonball Adderley. “Know the Night, a memoir about a boy who doesn’t speak, is in love with language. Mutch’s prose is electric (when describing her relationship with her partner, she writes of “that ingredient vital for love, which can best be described, I think, as conspiracy” — my favourite line in the book) but the book is more concerned with words than the stories they tell. Mutch probes the connections between words and what they symbolize, as well as other connections for which words are a conduit.”

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sanaaqAnother winter book I read around the same time was Sanaaq by Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk. Nappaaluk had been asked to write down some Inuktitut phrases for a missionary to learn, but didn’t stop at simple grammar exercises and went on invent a whole cast of characters and create the first Inuit novel. “The narrative skirts omniscience in a way that seems curious to the reader who is accustomed to the English novel. There is a matter-of-factness to the telling, perhaps related to its origins—it was written in a shorthand that can be written as quickly as it is spoken, and so this written novel has an oral nature. There is also a simplicity to its delivery that only comes across as such because a whole layer of the narrative is inaccessible to me as a reader (and I think that this is the challenge for this reader that Martin was writing about in her review). Saladin d’Anglure’s foreword makes clear that the apparent simplicity of Nappaaluk’s novel is undermined by the Inuit symbols and stories referenced, as well as details of Nappaaluk’s own life and members of her community. In short, this is only a straightforward story because I’m not smart enough to know it isn’t otherwise.”

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boy-snow-birdHelen Oyeyemi’s Boy Snow Bird was one of my vacation reads this summer, and I was enthralled by its twists and turns, and by how the British-born Oyeyemi channels American-ness in this novel. That it was based on a fairy tale might have had me supposing a certain shallowness to the narrative, but Oyeyemi drills down deep to show why an archetypal story like Snow White has such cultural resonance, and then introduces race as a theme to add a whole new layer of relevance. This novel was smart, sharp and gorgeous.

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a-tale-for-the-time-beingI also adored Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, which I read in April. Late to the party (because it had already been internationally celebrated by then) I read it for own pleasure, and realized it deserved all the hype. At heart, this is a novel about quantum physics, which shouldn’t scare you off. It’s a weird, wonderful story about the whole wide world, which is as terrible as it is beautiful, and it’s brilliant how Ozeki manages to knit it all together.

Purchase A Tale for the Time Being from McNally Robinson

chez-larabeI haven’t talked much here about Chez L’Arabe by Mireille Silcoff, which I read this fall, but I loved it and my review is forthcoming in Canadian Notes & Queries. From my review: One can read Silcoff’s collection as a catalogue of beautiful well-made objects…Which is not to say that the stories lack depth, that they skim along their lush or shiny surfaces, but instead the things themselves are invested with meaning, each one “permeated with some little, important, imported world of its own.” “Materialist” is hurled as a slur more than once but, as a character replies (she of the sugar sifter), “I don’t see why anything should be considered less meaningful just because it’s concrete.””

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view-from-the-laneDeborah-Anne Tunney’s The View From the Lane was another recent read, but one I’ve not been able to shake off yet.  It was a promising first book more than a perfect one, but a huge part of its promise is the atmosphere that Tunney creates. It reminded me of Atwood’s Cat’s Eye and Isabel Huggan’s The Elizabeth Stories in all the best ways. The night I finished this book, I stayed up late searching for the streets she writes about on Google Maps—I was left with such a sense of the place, and I wanted to see it for myself.

Purchase The View from the Lane by Deborah-Anne Tunney

MyRealChildren_Jo-WaltonAnd finally, My Real Children by Jo Walton, a book I loved so very much and have given as a gift at least three times since I read it (and I replaced my ARC with a hardcover). Lots to say about this one—it connects interestingly with Lisa Bird-Wilson’s Just Pretending in its notion of real children (those we give birth to) as opposed to those who are miscarried or adopted and the “unrealness” that pervades these relationships through semantics. And with Ann-Marie MacDonald’s book, which also explores queer relationships and parallel lives. I reread this book for my book club and realized that while Walton’s strength is not as a prose stylist—there are a few lines in the book that are a bit painful to encounter—she has performed something remarkable in her creation of Patricia Cowan and her lives, so much so that this book reminded be of Hermione Lee’s Penelope Fitzgerald biography (Fitzgerald and Walton’s Patricia are near contemporaries). I’m going to be returning to this book again and again for the enthralling nature of its story, for its genre blurring and alternate histories, and for what Walton has to say about the shape and the details of an ordinary woman’s life.

Purchase My Real Children from McNally Robinson

December 9, 2014

The Bookshop That Floated Away by Sarah Henshaw

bookThe trouble with being a little bit odd is that my book recommendations are not always universal, and so it is useful when I encounter a book as odd as I am, to which I can point and say, “This book is not for everyone. BUT.” Say, if you are the type who can identify with a woman who finds an injured pigeon (while travelling on her canal boat, which she has converted into a financial under-performing bookshop) and then decides to uncover all references to pigeons in the Western canon, then The Bookshop That Floated Away by Sarah Henshaw is definitely for you. It is definitely for me. My husband is a bit relieved that I’ve finally finished it, because for the past few days, I’ve been reading him passages from every other page, and while he conceded that they were indeed quite funny, he found the whole thing rather strange.

Last night in particular was the part in the book that was narrated from the perspective of the boat itself (oh yes—and its narration replicates Black Beauty, with which the boat [called Joseph] shares a colour) in which Henshaw comes home traumatized by having found “a discarded sanitary towel pressed between the pages of a reference book on cowboys… [S]he said that book vandalism was the devil’s own trade mark, and if we saw any one who took pleasure in leaving menstrual paraphernalia between pages, we might know to whom he belonged, for the devil was a murderer from the beginning and a tormentor to the end. On the other hand, where we saw people who loved their books and were kind to hardback and soft cover, we might know that was God’s mark; for ‘God loves books.'”

To be fair, that’s probably the oddest part of the book. I don’t want to give you the wrong idea. But still….

The premise of this book initially put me in mind of Penelope Fitzgerald, with the offshore and the bookshop, and everything, and while Henshaw doesn’t reference Fitzgerald, The Bookshop That Floated Away still did not disappoint. It’s not really a book about a premise anyway, but instead very much of itself, about the curious incidents that transpire when the strange and insular worlds of books and canal boating connect. The latter is not always romantic—in Burnley, they have to navigate over a sofa, and then she fears a human head has become stuck on her propeller. And then there are the locks, so many locks, mostly manual, which is no small business when you are a solo journeyer and your boat is sixty feet long. It’s a different kind of off-roading, which results in travel book that reminded me of Beryl Bainbridge’s English Journey, if Bainbridge had been travelling by canal boat and had a propensity for hosting book clubs on her boat and imbibing far too much wine.

Henshaw’s journey comes about when her plans for opening a bookshop on a barge aren’t as lucrative as she’d supposed, the problem perhaps exacerbated by a conspicuous lack of business savvy—her one qualification for the gig is a voracious appetite for books, and the ability to see the whole world through a bookish prism. So she decides to go on a six month journey from the Midlands to London, then to Bristol, back through the Midlands to Leeds and Manchester, and then home, bartering books for Victorian sponge cake and spreading the word about the importance of independent bookshops.

On the way, she has good days and catastrophes, the boat indeed floats away, people vomit on its astroturf roof, she finds three injured pigeons, the boat is stolen, vandalized, the Mayor of Bath calls Joseph a “she”, and they are banned in Bristol. She tells her own story, and is so deft with allusion that she successfully navigates a Heart of Darkness meets Scuffy the Tugboat set-up. The narrative is further powered by other references to boatish and adventure books—Treasure Island, and The Wind and the Willows, plus Anna Karenina, The Count of Monte Cristo, Dick Whittington and His Cat, Our Mutual Friend, but not The Complete Guide to Starting and Running a Bookshop, because Henshaw couldn’t get into it.

The book is crazy wonderful, if you’re a certain kind of reader, though I suspect that if you’re reading this, you might well be. I discovered The Book Barge (which is misnamed, Henshaw tells us, and is actually a narrow boat, the discrepancy causing much consternation among boating purists) from The Bookshop Book, and was pleased to find out (spoilers!) that Henshaw decided not to jump ship at the end of her journey, determining that there was indeed nothing else worth doing as messing about in boats, as both Mole and Rat will attest.

  • Discover The Book Barge online.
  • learn more about The Book Barge
  • PS In an ironic twist of fate, The Bookshop That Floated Away is not available outside the UK (or not here at least), so I was unable to order it through my local independent bookshop, and had to get it through The Book Depository instead. But I am so glad I did…

November 27, 2014

Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome by Megan Gail Coles

eating-habitsMy reading rut from last week was successfully defeated by the books I picked up at the Toronto Book Fair, in particular Megan Gail Coles’ Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome, which was the book I bought because I kept seeing other people walking around carrying it. In some crowds, such a method of book selection could steer one wrong, but not in this one. The book was fantastic, a collection of short stories about Newfoundlanders at home and away. The characters in the stories have lives that are linked, but the connections are loose, and stories take place across a long period of time, so that the connections vaguely inform one another rather than being integral to the collections’ construction. They do give a wonderful sense of these characters’ lives off the page being rich and ongoing, the stories themselves just standing in for a moment in time.

Coles, whose background is in theatre and playwriting, is the real thing. Deft with prose, gifted with voices, writing from a wry, wise and empathetic perspective, she is undoubtedly part of the established tradition of fine Newfound short story-writing.

In “There are Tears in This Coconut”, two fractious sisters take a trip together to Thailand following the eldest’s divorce, a lifetime of resentment and anger acted out on the part of each of them.

“Everyone Starves to Death As I Eat Here” begins with the shining line, “Damon thinks, this, everything, is Brenda Hann’s fault for making him believe her pussy was made of gold.”

And then a few pages after, “The reason Garry did these things was ’cause he couldn’t afford any better. Half of what he earned over at Pretty Paws was carted off to Newfoundland. Child support for an autistic kid he had with Slutty Marie down Gilbert Street, this the result of a one night stand./ Have you ever heard a sadder story, Dame? I mean, really? I barely poked her. We weren’t even lying down. It’s like her body sucked me sperm right inside her that night, vacuum cunt on her. Don’t ever have a go at the neighbourhood whore in an alley. Nothing good will come of it.”

And then in the next story, Nigerian immigrant to Newfoundland working at Tim Hortons woos a local woman and thinks his life is made, the story ending on the suggestion that this is perhaps not the case. Time telescopes in “A Sink Built for Small People,” which is next, in which a couple moves to Korea to teach English and their relationship (predictably) falls apart. A new mother laments what’s become of her life in “I Will Hate Everything, Later.”

A widower wonders about his shaky domestic life with a new partner: “I think washing up the supper dishes shows I care. I always flushes the toilet three times. And I knows that’s more than Father ever did. She says that’s gross. Not like in her books. That my love is vulgar. Not refined. Not civilized. I’m rural in my heart. She plans the birthday party she’d like. I does the same. We always ends up with the wrong birthday party. And we aren’t young.”  We always ends up with the wrong birthday party—isn’t that some kind of amazing definition of a tragedy?

A woman navigates the terrain of a new life, after breaking up with the man she’d thrown away her twenties on in “This Empty House is Full of Furniture.” Another contemplates the circumstances that led her to homelessness and vagrancy in “French Kissing is For Teenagers.” “Single Gals Need All Wheel Drive” is one of the best stories I’ve ever read about a character with cancer. A Haitian immigrant to Montreal plots a future with her dodgy landlord in “There’s a Fish Hook In your Lip.” “Ultimatums Grow In This Wild Place” returns us to first story, this one written from the perspective of the divorced sister’s ex as he prepares to end their marriage (and have her finally face the fact that he’s gay).

And then “A Dog is Not a Baby”, which is simply the thoughts going through a an elderly mother/grandmother’s mind as she waits for the phone to ring, for one of her children or grandchildren to call: “If she starts thinking on how the phone never rings now, she won’t be able to be conversational when it finally does. Instead, she’ll respond with a series of grunts. Maybe make an off-handed remark on how she might as well be dead. Tiffany will feel guilty, her mother Margaret won’t even notice, and Joss will say, it’s a wonder anyone calls her at all. / What would anyone want to call you for? You never got anything pleasant to say sure.”

The stories in “Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome” are also linked by references to food, to hunger and indulgence, flimsy plastic forks and years ago when spinach was rare. Vivid, mordant and moving, they’re about connection and disconnections, and the ways in which we hurt and heal ourselves, and each other.

November 9, 2014

Mr. Jones by Margaret Sweatman

mr-jonesSo on Thursday night, I was at the Canadian Children’s Book Centre Awards, sitting up the in the balcony (because the seats on the main floor had been filled while we were still out in the lobby getting that one last glass of wine), and the program was great—wonderful books celebrated, Shelagh Rogers was the host—but there I was reading a novel. Which is a shameful confession, as usual, my complete and utter failure to be in the moment, but what you have to understand about the moment was that I was on the final 100 pages of Margaret Sweatman’s Mr. Jones. A spy novel, no less, intrigue upon intrigue—and upon even more intrigue by that final stretch. How was I supposed to be doing anything else? And something more to understand: this isn’t a small book. A 500 page thick hardback, and I brought it in my purse. Which tells you everything, really. Mr. Jones is an electric, compelling, scintillating read.

endpapersOk, it’s 500 pages, but these are small pages—perhaps a bit too small? 500 narrowish pages are tough to get a grip on, so I dropped the book a few times. It was hard to hold open with my feet. (Does this count as legitimate criticism?) Apart from these niggling details, the book is of stunning design, so gorgeous. Check out the end papers. The prose just as appealing from an aesthetic point of view, all comma splices and curious sentences. The effect of the book as a whole slightly dizzying, as perspective moves 360 degrees, from character to character, but only in pieces. We never see it all at once until it all comes together at the end. Hence the last 100 pages, and my furtive reading in the auditorium balcony in the dark.

It’s a period piece, the spy novel ala Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana. Emmett Jones is Canadian, a World War Two Bomber Commander disillusioned by his wartime deeds and adrift in post-war Toronto. Attending university, he finds himself attracted to John Norfield, a charismatic figure with Communist sympathies, in which Emmett too becomes embroiled, partly out of a need to belong to something, and because of how he is drawn to Norfield (and Norfield’s sometime girlfriend, Toronto deb Suzanne).

We first meet Jones in 1953, a civil servant in External Affairs, post-Gouzenko and the Cold War (and McCarthy) heating up, and he’s under investigation with the RCMP for possible Communist connections. Emmett is now married to Suzanne, with a young daughter, and Norfield is a distant figure in their past—or so the Jones’ pretend as they attempt an idyllic 1950s life. But there are complications. Jones had fathered a son in Japan, where he was stationed in the late 1940s, and his own background (born and raised to Canadians in Japan) makes him a mysterious figure in the Civil Service, particularly as troubles in Vietnam are beginning and all things Oriental are viewed with suspicion (Asia seemingly a monolith vulnerable to to a Communist sweep). Suzanne too has trouble fitting into a cookie-cutter life, her subversive photography revealing her interests in a way that won’t necessarily be helpful for her husband’s career.

And there are other matters we see, as Sweatman moves us back and forth in time, through the 1940s and 1950s, when politics were complicated and nothing was ever quite as it seemed. There is no whole truth, we begin to understand, but only parts of a truth, and they come together to form a puzzle whose final pieces are harrowing and powerful. A Cold War spy novel with a Canadian bent—and a beautiful one to boot. A rare bird after all, Mr. Jones is, just like Jones himself is, perplexing, enigmatic, mysterious, and so intriguingly aloof.

October 28, 2014

Hello, Sweetheart by Elaine McCluskey

hello-sweetheartI love Elaine McCluskey’s short stories, and have been looking forward to her third collection, Hello, Sweetheart, which follows The Watermelon Social and Valery the Great. To begin to read one of McCluskey’s stories is to immediately be struck by the force of her voice, a voice rich with humour, perspective and compassion. Hers is a voice so compelling that it conjures a world, and the reader becomes immersed in that world, entirely on the level with McCluskey’s hapless characters.

They’re hapless, and they’re losers, but she loves them. Their stories are also terrifically funny, even when they’re sad. They’re pure of heart, always. The stories in Hello, Sweetheart take place in Halifax amidst circles that are loosely linked. We begin at the Toy Eros sex shop, where our protagonist has finally landed a job (though she tells her mother she’s working at a bookstore: “Do they know you have three years’ university?” she asks./ “Oh yes,” I lie. “They are very impressed.”) She’s overcome a tragedy that’s not made quite clear, except that it’s resulted in a special kind of clarity: “[W]e all go through life with a great ticking time bomb of tragedy strapped to our chests,” and it’s with this awareness that she regards the curious world she now inhabits.

We all go through life with a great ticking time bomb of tragedy strapped to our chests. For most of McCluskey’s characters, the bomb’s gone off, but this does not mean relinquishing all dignity. I don’t think I’ll be able to explain the point of “Giddy Up,” the man who’s convinced that he used to be a pony, who responds to most inquiries with, “If it doesn’t bother me, then why should it bother you?,” and who manages to draw his own line in the sand and is probably more powerful and free than anyone else in the book is. There’s the man who changes his dog-walking route in order to avoid “the kind of woman who wore rubber boots whether she needed them or not.” An adult woman enrolled in undergraduate courses trying to get over being duped by a guy called Dwayne. A terrifying story that begins with an early morning wake-up and ends with a kidnapping, it all happening so fast that you’ll thumb back through the pages wondering, “How did she take me there?”

“Chez Helene” is a wonderful story in which, like so many of these, the real story is in the subtext, the space between the lines, which is that “people can believe anything they want to. And that’s ok.” (The idea that underlines so many of these stories—this is the definition of compassion.) “Jaw Breakers” is a very McCluskeyian story of a former swim champ whose career trajectory went wrong, and then he begins to lose his father in a curious way, and there goes the ground beneath his feet. Similarly sad is the life of the man falsely accused of sexually abusing children who is then left to make his own way with his shattered reputation—though McCluskey offers him the slightest reprieve from his sorrow.

“Rating Dr. Chestnut” is the story I’ve been waiting for all my life, that which is told through the structure of comments on a RateMyMD.com site. Which is not the only story in the book to engage with life online, other stories with Facebook and text messaging as embedded in the fiction as it is in real life, one even comprising two of those “Ten Things About Me” lists that were uber-memed a few years back. And Margaret, whose whole story takes place in her head as she’s playing a drinking game (alone) while watching Say Yes to the Dress. These are stories that engage so readily with the stuff of the world.

And then the final story, “Hello, Sweetheart,” a story that explains a lot, about grief and mourning, most of the text seemingly delivered from McCluskey to her father shortly after his death. He’s the subject of her second-person narration, and she tells him a story from his funeral. “It was funny, Dad, and you would have laughed. It would have been one of those stories we could have told. Over and over again.”

I finished that last story, shut the book, and clutched it close, and said, “Yes.” The whole project making sense, those stories, the sadness. Some of these stories are a bit rough around the edges, though in McCluskey’s work, form is always secondary to language. There is an exuberance to her work, an energy, that is so compelling to encounter, and there’s nothing else like it, really. She’s one of the best short story writers at work in Canada—which is saying something indeed.

October 19, 2014

Ithaca by Susan Fish

ithaca

Since we’re talking soup—or at least we will be—I’d like to offer the literary ingredients that I’d put to use were I cooking up a novel like Susan Fish’s Ithaca (which I loved). First, half a stack of Barbara Pym novels, since Pym is the original chronicler of the unknown fascinating inner-lives of lonely middle-aged women, particularly those who type indices for academic men. Next, toss in a novel or two by Wallace Stegner, or at least All the Little Live Things and Crossing to Safety, for their depictions of the intimacies of long marriages, late-in-life-garnered insight, and—in the case of the latter book—a cozy look at academic communities. Then season with Barbara Kingsolver, perhaps her most recent, Flight Behaviour, for its illumination of the subtle effects of environmental devastation, and as a portrait of how an activist can be borne of an ordinary woman. Let it simmer. Indeed.

Ithaca is the story of Daisy Turner, whose husband has recently died, leaving her unmoored in a world in which she’d always felt so solidly ensconced. Unquestioningly so. Her husband had been everything to her, their grown son far away living his own life in Singapore, and now with him gone, the sole event on Daisy’s calendar (apart from the trip they’d booked months in advance to celebrate their 40th anniversary—what to do about that now?) is the Wednesday suppers, a longstanding tradition in which her husband’s academic colleagues and students and their families would gather together for friendship and conversation and Daisy’s famous soups. The suppers are all she’s got left now, and she constructs her weeks around them, too ashamed to let anybody know the extent of her grief and loneliness, that Arthur’s death has left her without any solid ground to stand on.

But there is something to be said for unsteadiness, because too much steadiness is to have the world be sure, which it’s not, and something also to be said for how the process of reconstructing a broken life can bring forth growth and change and a new kind of resolve. As with those proverbial butterflies flapping their wings, it all starts with a small thing, Daisy invited by a friend to help harvest honey. The hives bought for his wife years ago, ailing from MS, with the hopes that their royal jelly might succeed where her medicine hasn’t, but it doesn’t and her health has only worsened. She can’t even venture out of her house these days, and so Daisy goes with Henry, instead of his wife, and on the way, she notices the signs protesting “fracking” in their area.

Fracking. She doesn’t know the word, but she understands enough about its context—39 years of marriage to a geologist is some kind of education. Oil companies are planning to drill deep into the shale that surround their community for oil deposits—a proposition that promises to save farms from foreclosure and wreak environmental devastation, depending on who you ask. And then at the next Wednesday Supper, Daisy hears the term again, learns a young professor is teaching a night course on the topic. Uncharacteristically, Daisy decides to enrol, surprising herself, and everybody who knows her. Through involvement in her course, her community widens, the Wednesday night suppers becoming more interesting as her “frackivist” pal starts attending, broadening Daisy’s horizons. And Daisy starts asking more questions, about what changes are necessary in her life, about what she needs to hold onto and let go from the past, and of what possibilities are still before her? Never mind the complicating force of her attraction to Henry, her friend with the bee-hives (and the wife!), he for whom she leaned in close to hear something and he kissed her on her ear. He did. And she keeps encountering women at church who seem concerned she’ll steal their husbands—what if, unbeknownst to her, they’re onto something after all?

Fish’s Daisy put me in mind of another Daisy, Carol Shields’ Daisy Stone Goodwill from The Stone Diaries, another small life with large ramifications and great surprises, a women who reinvents herself over and over again. Another novel steeped in stone and geology as well, rooted in the layers upon layers beneath its characters’ feet. With humour, insight and grace, Fish writes similarly of the “small ceremonies” of ordinary life, of human intimacy and kindness and complications.

Her Ithaca is timely and profound, rich with surprises and delight.

October 5, 2014

Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald

dept of speculationI’ve been frustrated lately by hearing authors complain that their books about motherhood aren’t being treated as “literary,” as though any story with a tricycle and a diaper pail is by definition silly and shallow, for lactating readers only. Though I sympathize—the few times I’ve seen my book catalogued with “Essays” instead of “Parenting”, I’ve been overjoyed at the inclusion in the wider realm. It’s certainly true that stories about motherhood are ghettoized, but then almost every time I’ve read the books in question by the complaining authors, I’ve wanted to reply that the reason their books aren’t regarded as “literary” is because they’re not literary. Because these authors have gotten confused about novels, and written a catalogue for a hipster baby boutique instead whose characters are stereotypes and mannikins. (There is also a trend toward making postpartum depression the thing that explains everything else, when in fact, in a book, it should be just the beginning…)

So perhaps the real conversation should be about how it’s difficult to write literature about motherhood. Which is true. Part of it is because the early days of motherhood are a journey away from language—the words don’t work here, they don’t even apply. Rachel Cusk writes about reliving her own evolution towards language as her baby grows, “like someone visiting old haunts after an absence.” And even then, the words come together to mean something different than before, something perhaps intangible to a reader who has never lived it.

The fragmentation of a novel like Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, say, is not surprising. A novel whose form and language are shaped by the character’s experience is motherhood, just as much as her life is, the plot is—here is a book demonstrating that not all stories of motherhood are relegated to the literary dustbin. That literary motherhood is possible after all.

adult-onset

And here is another, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Adult OnsetIf her previous novel, The Way the Crow Flies, was about post-war family, coming of age in technicolour, their parents’ valiant efforts (and failure) to to be ones who got it right—shiny cars, green lawns, and lacquered hair—then here is the story of the trauma of the aftermath. Though ostensibly, this is also a novel about a week in the life of a mother, Mary Rose MacKinnon, a writer who has taken early retirement to be home with her kids, usually alone, while her partner directs plays in a city across the country. It’s a life I recognize, very much, partly because I walk the same streets Mary-Rose walks, my kids play in the same parks, and I walk by the blue door of her kids’ Montessori School every day en-route to get my own daughter to and from kindergarten. And partly also because I know the trial of trying to wrench an unwilling two-year-old into a pair of boots, or what it is to race across town before the nap window shuts and the whole day is shot. Though even if you don’t know, MacDonald will show you.

Of course, the blue door of the Montessori School is is not exactly the same one I walk past, because the one in the book is fictional. Which sounds like an annoying author trick, but then MacDonald goes and does something so interesting with all the connections between fiction and reality, between her novel and her life. Mary-Rose MacKinnon is author of two books in a (hypothetical) trilogy about a girl who discovers a long-lost brother in a parallel universe. In Adult Onset, we are privy to sections of these novels (which are quite compelling—not something you can say about all books within books) and eventually it becomes clear that MacDonald’s own novel, with all its vivid realism, is operating with a vaguely sci-fi subtext, that indeed this novel takes place in a parallel universe (which is slightly askew—though what universe isn’t?). Geographical details are altered slightly to suggest that this is time out of time. The Balloon King on Bathurst becomes a Starbucks in the course of a day or so. But then isn’t that what happens in a city? Not just that everything turns into a Starbucks, but that the street-scape is ever-changing, a time lapse photograph in real time. Everything is neither here nor there.

Can you tell yet how much I am fascinated and in love with this novel? I started out unsure though, not convinced by MacDonald’s command of her structure. Each chapter a day in the life of Mary-Rose, parenting solo as per usual, going through the motions and tedium of her days, but something is stirring beneath the surface. An ache in her bones, the bones in her arm, which were operated on twice in her childhood. The novel flashes back to her childhood, to her mother’s miscarriages and stillbirths between Mary-Rose and her older sister, and the dead babies after. Before Mary Rose, there had been another Mary Rose, who’d been stillborn and not baptized, and so Mary-Rose inherited her name. These stories are their family lore, the details hard to keep straight anyway, never mind her mother’s deepening dementia. And Mary-Rose is feeling similarly troubled neurologically—there are gaps her days and in her memory, just like the holes in her bones that ailed her in childhood. It is disorienting how the narrative dips in and out of time, into Mary Rose’s childhood and her more recent past. Everything is connected to everything else, and to scratch at the surface is to dare to disturb the precarious arrangement of mental stability, of family harmony.

There are other traumas. Mary-Rose is troubled by the mellowing of her parents in old age, the disappearance of her mother’s rage, her parents’ ease and happiness with their grandchildren, considering how fraught was her own childhood, and also her parents’ reaction to her coming out as a lesbian years before. The cruelty with which they’d treated their daughter, wishing she’d had cancer instead, refusing to acknowledge her relationship, to visit her home. Not banishing her altogether, which might have been simpler, but treating her personal life with a certain coldness, taking years to come around to it. And then finally, there they are in love with the biological child of their daughter’s wife—here we are in the 21st century. It gets better. But how does one heal from that, Mary Rose is asking in Adult Onset (which MacDonald herself asked in a Globe and Mail article last summer during Pride Week in Toronto)? Can we ever forgive our parents for the ways they failed us? And are we destined to repeat their mistakes with our own children, personality as much a part of our genetic legacy as everything? Can we forgive our parents and love our parents, but still seek out lives that are different from theirs? Is it possible to choose our own destinies? Are there lessons for us in parallel worlds after all?

In its details, Adult Onset is certainly a novel about the minutiae of motherhood, the kind of thing Shirley Hughes chronicles in her picture books. Maternal ambivalence isn’t named, as it really shouldn’t be in literature, or the world for that matter, because what in life do we ever not feel two ways about? Instead, the life of a person with children is explored, her complex feelings toward her children a bit interrogated, a bit taken for granted, all of this connected to deeper things, because just as no mother is an island, neither is her maternity in relation to the rest of life. A mother is never just this one thing, even at the worst times when she imagines she is.

In a really wonderful conversation, Jenny Offill says, “If you look at literature on motherhood, there’s still some very interesting space to be filled. In Grace Paley’s stories she’s a mother, an activist, and a wife, with this amazing and relentless observing eye. She writes how it feels to be in the middle of all this. That’s what we need more of.”

In this, and in so much more, Ann-Marie MacDonald has delivered.

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