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Pickle Me This

April 16, 2020

The Union of Smokers, by Paddy Scott

I confess that I cheated a bit with this one. A book about a twelve-year-old boy, “the heroic last day in the life” according to the copy on the back, and these days I just don’t have the stomach for heartbreak, so I read the last page first to see if this was a tragedy that was survivable—for me or the character, or both, perhaps—and I determined that it was. I could take this.

So I knew what I was getting into with Paddy Scott’s The Union of Smokers, is what I mean, but did I really? In this story of Kaspar Pine, a farm kid from the outskirts of Quinton, ON, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the town of Trenton, right down to the swing bridge and the creosote plant with a propensity for catching on fire.

Not everyone takes Kaspar seriously, in fact nobody really does, except Kaspar himself. (“Getting snorted at by women is bound to happen if you’ve learned your entire repertoire of charming manoeuvres from senior citizens.”) His mother’s whereabouts are unknown, and he was brought up by his father in a kind of deprivation, until circumstances changed and he was brought to live with his maternal grandparents on a farm outside of town. They, at least, provided him with the stability and love that had been missing from his life, and a sense of identity in farming culture, which most of the people who live in town don’t properly understand.

Kaspar, a prolific smoker thanks to the collection in his butt baggie, bikes into town to replace a canary (twice) and here is where the book begins, when he meets up with Mary Lynn, love of his life, just a couple of years older, with whom years before he’d once shared a dramatic adventure while dressed in a cowboy costume, but she doesn’t remember. The two of them become yoked, and it turns out their bond is even deeper than that, although not in the way that Kaspar longs for, and Mary Lynn herself has no idea what to make of this wacky weirdo kid who won’t leave her alone and ends up using her bra as a tourniquet, but not in a sexual way.

An eccentric portrait of small town life; a narrative voice that gets in your head and proves unforgettable, a story that manages to be utterly devastating and uplifting at once thanks to a character so strangely and richly imagined, with the most indefatigable sense of himself and his story and his worth—no matter what anybody else thinks, and you’re going to take his side. Not to mention be sorry when it’s finally time to leave it. I really loved this book.

PS I picked up the book finally after its virtual launch at 49thShelf. Throughout this month and next, we’re spotlighting new releases that deserve our attention at a moment when launches and festivals have been cancelled. Hope you can pay attention to what we’re doing here and do your best to support these books and authors.

April 9, 2020

A Conversation With Tara Henley

Like many of you, I found myself unable to read as this crisis arrived in our lives, perpetually in a panic, scrolling news feeds instead. Not being able to read, however, only compounded the trouble I was in, because if I’m not a reader, then who am I? And it was Tara Henley’s new memoir LEAN OUT: A MEDITATION ON THE MADNESS OF MODERN LIFE that brought me back to books again, a gorgeously written memoir that is perfectly timed for our current moment. Henley was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the book, so please read on to learn about how Madeleine L’Engle’s books expanded her vision for her life, what are the limits of self-care, and how “right now we’re seeing in stark terms the price we all pay for inequality.” I love this book so much.

April 8, 2020

How to Pronounce Knife, by Souvankham Thammavongsa

Make your book pink. Make your book slim. Put a nail file on the cover, and have your reader forget that it’s actually a blade, and this is how you do it, create a story collection that seems unassuming but will cut you with its razor edge. The “Yes, Sir” delivered in a tone that really means, “Fuck you!” And it gets under your skin, of course, a book like this, Souvankham Thammavongsa’s fifth book after four acclaimed poetry collections and her debut fiction, the short story collection How to Pronounce Knife. (Full disclosure: the writer and I were classmates twenty years ago, and I since followed her career with admiration.)

These stories are subtle, wonderful and jarring. They range between those from the perspective of children of immigrant families from Laos (reflective of Thammavongsa’s own background), children who are know before many of their classmates the way that parents are actually fallible after all, that they struggle and have limits, and stories of people awkwardly navigating social and romantic mores, failing to fit in with convention (which is another way of not failing at all—especially in a story).

In the title story, a child takes her father’s guidance on the correct way to pronounce “knife,” and learns the lessons of a lifetime in the process. In “Paris,” a woman who works in a chicken factory dreams of getting a nose job—and experiences vicarious heartbreak. A seventy-year-old woman has an affair with her young neighbour in “Slingshot,” a story with the most perfect, powerful ending.

I LOVED “Randy Travis,” the story of a family who immigrates from Laos, and the mother falls in love with country music, which helps define for her a different kind of life she desires for herself. In “Mani-Pedi,” a failed boxer who ends up with no choice but to take a job at his sister’s nail salon—but who insists on keeping his dreams. “Chick-a-Chee” is about one family’s embrace of a bizarre local ritual. “The Universe Would Be So Cruel,” awesome and heartbreaking, about a man who runs a small print shop and has an uncanny knack for knowing the future for the couples whose invitations he creates. A child considers the mystery of her mother in “The Edge of the World.” A school bus driver realizes he’s losing his wife in “The School Bus Driver.” A mother watches her daughter from afar in “You Are So Embarrassing.” The story “Ewwrrrkk” begins, “The summer I turned eight, my great-grandmother showed me her boobs.” An accountant looks for love (and potential clients) in “The Gas Station.” A childhood friendship is recalled in “A Far Distant Thing.” And a young girl goes to work with her mother in the final story, “Picking Worms.”

The stories are quiet but powerful, the sentences extraordinary, the volume as a whole is such a pleasure to read and to discover.

April 2, 2020

No More Nice Girls, by Lauren McKeon, and Lean Out, by Tara Henley

Although almost everything I was reading a month ago seems kind of irrelevant now, Lauren McKeon’s No More Nice Girls feels like it could be an exception. This underlined by the number of Canadian politicians and public health officials who are women and spearheading efforts to fight and control what’s going on right now, women we are turning to for answers and reassurance, one of whom, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, shows up early in McKeon’s book as as “a new kind of power that’s completely, deliberately at odds with a very old, very masculine one.”

In her book, McKeon imagines what might be possible with a different kind of power, and writes about ways that people are imagining such things already, with all-women co-working spaces, the #MeToo movement, “identity politics of lonely, angry men” as a backlash to women’s power. She writes about how conventional power doesn’t tend to work for women when they achieve it, corporate achievement as an example, where the women at the top still have to contend with the same challenges that all women do—sexism, harassment, discrimination, violence, a gender pay gap. The ways in which women have to be “better than perfect” to be accepted, while any guy in a poor fitting suit seems to fit the bill. And the limits of #GirlBoss kind of power, which is the kind of individualized, status-quo sustaining power that the patriarchy likes.

It’s difficult to synopsize McKeon’s book, whose range is so wide. She writes about race and representation; economics and federal budgets; gender and the media; how technology affects our lives and what it means that so much of technology is created by men; feminist cities; online trolling (McKeon is author of F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism, which I read and loved in 2017); and about numerous and inspiring ways that women all over the world are raising the bar and changing the narrative on traditional notions of what a life of a woman ought to look like. It’s an incisive and inspiring read.

*

I read No More Nice Girls in “the before times” and then was unable to read anything properly for a couple of weeks, as the world before my eyes was changed into a surreal and disturbing reality. And the book that finally brought me back to reading was Tara Henley’s Lean Out: A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life. (Full disclosure: Henley wrote a kind and generous review of my novel back in 2017. We also share an editor. Neither of these factors are why I’m so obsessed with her book, but are definitely worth noting.)

Reader, this book was a balm, as it was always meant to be—but it meant so much more than it would have even a month ago. Suffering from physical symptoms of anxiety in 2016 after a decade of living in the big city and working in journalism, Henley reached a breaking point and realized that things would have to change—but also that she was limited as to what change was possible to her as an individual, this becoming even more apparent after she moves back to her hometown Vancouver and is confronted with the city’s unaffordability. Does modern life truly have to be like this, Henley wonders? A less solipsistic Eat, Pray, Love is how I am thinking about this book.

Lean Out is rich with reporting, but underlined by Henley’s own story and family history. (It’s also gorgeously written and inspired by the works of Madeleine L’Engle, which meant a lot to me after My Year of Vicky Austin.) She writes about alternatives to the way we do work, connect with nature, eat food, make and spend money, live online, combat loneliness, find community, and make our homes. Arriving at not definitive answers, but instead broadening the range of what is possible for a more fruitful way of living both as individuals and as a society. And, as with McKeon’s book, it all comes down to inequality in the end—data shows that unequal societies, Henley writes, make life demonstrably worse for everybody, even those who are at the “top.”

Which is something all of us should keep in mind as we think about what kind of world we want to live in “when all this is over.” I am so grateful to these authors who are already doing the work of imagining new and better ways of being.

*Both these books are included on a Books With Vision list I created at 49thShelf. And an amazing Q&A with Henley will be up on 49thShelf in about a week. Stay tuned. And buy her book in the meantime—you will be glad you did.

March 5, 2020

Polar Vortex, by Shani Mootoo

At first glance, this is a novel about a love triangle. Priya, who is married to Alex (a woman), and they live together in quaint and rural Prince Edward County. But something isn’t right, even before we learn that their household is about to be disturbed by a visit from Priya’s old friend, Prakash. Even notwithstanding Priya’s erotic dream about Prakash, which opens the novel. There is a distance that stands between Priya and her wife, and also a strange, uncanny hollowness to Priya’s first-person narration—or maybe it’s not hollow, but instead there’s a kernel of something there (what?!) that the reader is not privy to.

Prakash is a very old friend, a friend that Priya has barely spoken of to Alex, though she has pointed him out in an old photo from university, a photo of the two of them alongside Priya’s first girlfriend, Fiona. And is Alex threatened because he shares a cultural heritage with Priya? They are both diasporic Indians, Prakash from Uganda (where his family was expelled and brought to Canada as refugees) and Priya from Trinidad—though Priya would argue that this isn’t such a remarkable connection. But of course there is more to it, more than even Alex knows, more than Priya is willing to admit to herself or to even remember.

The novel takes place over the course of a day, and the tension in the text can be excruciating—but in the very best way. The kind of excruciating tension that makes a book unputdownable, that causes a reader to yell at a page. Polar Vortex becomes a book about truth and memory, about how little we know each other, and ourselves. Strange, ominous, haunting, it’s a propulsive read and a deliciously unsettling one.

February 28, 2020

Disfigured, by Amanda Leduc

While I was intrigued by the premise of Amanda Leduc’s Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space, I wasn’t anticipating just how interesting I would find the book, as someone who can get through the day (for now, at least) without giving disability a whole lot of thought and who also didn’t grow up with a strong connection to fairy tales, Disneyfied or otherwise. A few years older than Leduc, I was lucky enough to make it out of childhood without ever longing to be Ariel and before the age when Disney started marketing dresses, so that if I’d ever wanted to dress up as a princess, I would have had to design the costume myself— and that is only part of the reason I never did.

But to say that I did not grow up in a culture steeped in the messages and symbolism of fairy tales, steeped in those stories, would be disingenuous, as Leduc makes clear in Disfigured. Because these stories are everywhere, and yes, they’re only stories… but they’re not only stories. And throughout those stories are representations of disability—hands and heads chopped off in Grimms’ tales that magically grow back, and dwarfs, and women without voices, and witches with crutches, hideously disfigured beasts, and changelings, plus fairy godmothers who exist to reverse one’s fortune.

Leduc, who has cerebral palsy, uses her own experiences (and the text includes her own childhood medical records) to tell a story of what it means when happily ever after means learning to live with one’s disability, instead of magically overcoming it—and suggests that what must be overcome is society’s ableism instead. Disfigured is gorgeously written, a fascinating blend of memoir, scholarship and cultural commentary, a quick read that’s also packed with stories about fairy tales and disability, as well as questions and curiosities. It’s the kind of book that illuminates the ordinary and points to possibilities for a better kind of world.

February 6, 2020

Don’t Look Down, by Hilary Davidson

Oh, give me a great novel in February, a book to get lost in, a book that has me spending the whole day anticipating the point when I can get back to it and find out what’s going to happen next, because I’ve got absolutely no idea. New York-based Canadian crime writer Hilary Davidson’s latest novel, Don’t Look Down, was that book for me this week, such an absolute pleasure.

It begins with Jo Greaver, the young CEO of a successful cosmetics company, who’s on her way to a dilapidated apartment building for a meeting with whomever has been blackmailing her with photos and videos from her troubled past. She’s got a bagful of cash and she’s also got a gun, and then the encounter turns violent, she’s got no choice but to use it, escaping down the fire escape to save her life.

When NYPD Detective Sheryn Sterling arrives on the case, it all looks pretty simple. There’s a dead guy and he’s got Jo Greaver’s card in his pocket. When Greaver finally surrenders to authorities, all the pieces seem to line up, and she’s going to be charged with the murder of Andray Baxter, the man whose body was found in the apartment. But of course, nothing is simple and Sheryn Sterling knows that. She’s also still thinking about her teenage son who had the day before been arrested at a protest against the deportation of illegal immigrants. The thirst for her justice that drives her, Sheryn knows, could get her son into all kinds of trouble, and as a Black policewoman and as the mother of a Black boy, the stakes for her are very complicated.

Don’t Look Down is the kind of book you can point to when people cry CENSORSHIP at scrutiny of how stories about characters who are Black or people of colour are being told (and by whom). Because the fact is not that a white author can’t do it, but instead that she has to do it so well, and I think that Davidson really does in this novel, which engages smartly and thoughtfully with race and racism. White is not the default for Davidson’s characters, which a reader would expect from any halfway decent novel set in New York City—Sterling’s partner is Latinx, a key witness is Thai, Jo Greaver’s vice-president is Chinese-American, her lawyer has a Japanese surname. (This is just a handful of examples.) These choices are thoughtful and interesting, and a reflection of the world as it is.

The story is twisty and absorbing, and I had no idea how it was all going to turn out. Deftly plotted, it did not even begin to get a little bit silly and over-the-top until close to the end, which is altogether forgivable. The writing was great, dialogue fun and snappy, and the pacing never missed a beat. Don’t Look Down was delightful, and everything I want in a read.

December 9, 2019

Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo

Photo of a cup of tea (in a fancy cup with saucer) on a table beside GIRL WOMAN OTHER by Bernardine Evaristo.

It’s so good. It’s that simple. Girl, Woman, Other is the first book by Black woman to ever win the Booker Prize (a long time coming, right?) and so you should read it, but you’ll also want to . You will start reading and not want to put this book down, and in the meantime you’ll be raving about it to strangers on the streetcar. That is, if your experience is anything like mine.

Evaristo has explained the style of the novel as “fusion fiction”: “that’s what it felt like, with the absence of full stops, the long sentences. The form is very free-flowing and it allowed me to be inside the characters’ heads and go all over the place – the past, the present.” Ostensibly about a single evening in London as a play by a Black lesbian playwright opens at the National Theatre, the novel spans the twentieth century, moves between communities in Britain, Africa and the Americas, and tells the story of twelve central characters from birth to death in a few cases, and in others to the present day. It’s a novel “about Black womanhood,” but what falls under that umbrella is wide-ranging, kaleidoscopic, diverse and disagreeing in the most fascinating way. This is a novel that’s rich with twists and connections, and surprises.

The characters include Amma, the aforementioned playwright, who recalls her radical days in contrast to now being considered establishment (or as much as a Black woman could ever be); her daughter who must find new ways to rebel against her counterculture parents; and her longtime friend and former collaborative partner, who fell in love and moved to a feminist commune in America where she becomes trapped in an abusive relationship.

The connections are not always clear at first—Carole, a superstar in the world of finance, is attending Amma’s play, but she’s part of the tapestry in other ways as well, and so is her mother, Bummi, who steers the following section, telling the story from her youth in Nigeria, her immigration to England, the death of her husband, and her determination to build a business and succeed—as well as her disappointment at how her own daughter’s success has put distance between them. And then we meet LaTisha, once upon a time Carole’s classmate, but her life took on a different kind of trajectory.

Amma’s childhood friend, Shirley, who teaches unruly youths at a London school, who started out teaching with big dreams and great ideals, which become ground into nothing after working through the Thatcherification and bureaucratization of teaching and society in general in the 1980s. And Shirley’s mother, Winsome, whose own story comes with a surprising twist, and Penelope, Shirley’s colleague, who’s got one of her own.

And then a non-binary social media influencer, Morgan, and their great-grandmother, Hattie, who lives on the family farm near Newcastle, and her own mother, Grace, which takes us to long before and far away from the opening night of Amma’s play, but everything is connected, in satisfying and illuminating ways.

That a single novel can hold so much is extraordinary —and that it can do it while being stylistically innovative and so joyful to behold is even more so. Girl, Woman, Other is magnificent, and honestly, it’s the only Booker winner you need.

December 3, 2019

Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann

“Well, there’s a book I’m never going to read,” was my first thought upon hearing about Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann, the 1000 page book consisting of (mainly) a single sentence, shortlisted for the Man Booker and winner of the Goldsmiths’s Prize. Because you know how there are people who carry about tote-bags that say, “I like big books and I cannot lie?” I am not one of those people. I don’t like big books, not at all, not because of the heft necessarily (check out my own tote-bag, where I’m often carrying no less than three hardcovers at a time. I can lug book weight), but because for me so much of the pleasure of reading is thinking about what I’m going to be reading next, and the same book for weeks at a time slows me down, makes me feel like I’m standing still. Long books don’t fit easily into the pattern of my life. It’s also a huge demand to make of a reader as well, 1000 whole pages, and I’m usually irritated by anybody who’d dare to ask it.

You can keep Your Struggle, buddy. I’ve got enough of my own.

The shift began from Twitter commentary, however . (Yes, it turns out Twitter has a purpose after all.) Steven Beattie tweeted that it read up quick, and by the time Biblioasis Publisher Dan Wells had sent me an email promising that this would be a novel right up my street, I’d already started reading it.

With Ducks, Newburyport, I did what I always do with huge and overwhelming challenges, which is that I broke it down into manageable pieces. Though I have heard others making a solid commitment to the novel, going in for the long haul, and they report enormous pay-offs, because it’s an amazing novel, and what a thing to give it one’s entire focus. But that’s not the reality of my reading life right now, where focus gets spread thin, and there are so many other books I have to read in the meantime, so instead of going all in for Ducks, I committed to reading 5 or 10 pages every night, and I liked that it was the kind of book that was easy to dive in and out of again. If I’m going to read 1000 pages, this is way I would like it to happen. It’s give and take.

And so it took me three months to read it, as opposed to binge-reading, and this has had a curious effect on my life. As though Ducks, Newburyport was like a plant with amorphous tendrils, and as I read, they crept their way into every facet of my life, until I was no longer sure where I ended, and Ducks, Newburyport began.

“That’s a lot like Ducks, Newburyport,” began to be the thing I said at parties, or on Twitter, no matter the topic, really, because everything is a bit like Ducks, Newburyport. Or perhaps what I mean is that Ducks, Newburyport is like life itself, which is the point of the exercise. Somebody talking about how they can never remember the word for nasturtiums, and maybe the unnamed narrator of Ducks, Newburyport had been talking about hydrangeas, but such distinctions mattered as much as the distinction between fiction and life. Everything was blurry.

It’s not accurate to say that this book is a single sentence, clauses conjoined by commas and the phrase “the fact that” to form the stream of consciousness of an Ohio woman baking pies and cookies in her kitchen, because to say this would be to forget about the parts of the novel that are written from the perspective of a cougar. Or a mountain lion, “the lioness.” What kind of novel is this anyway?

It’s the kind of novel that’s concerned with ordinary things, the mundane, the domestic. Except what does it mean that among these things ordinary and domestic are mass shootings and domestic homicides, a lunatic president and the rise of ethno-nationalism? These things melding in with the other, as our unnamed narrator caramelizes apples for tartes tatin, and fails to avoid painfully stepping on her son’s plastic toys, and worries about her distant teenage daughter, and thinks about the amazing fact of her love for her husband, never mind the sorry state of her libido, especially since her recovery from cancer not so long ago, rotting window frames and the guilt she feels for her failure to be a proper parent to her four children at the time, and she’s still not over the death of her own mother, and how their whole family fell apart during the years her mother was ill, and now her husband works so hard, is often travelling, and she adds to their income with her home baking business, because they’re broke after all her healthcare bills, supplying local shops and restaurants, her labour too blurs boundaries, both paid and domestic. And undervalued all of it.

Oh oh my gosh, the popular culture, classic films, and Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman (and how he was mean to her during Kramer Vs Kramer, when she’s a better actor than she’ll ever be), and the passages about Julie & Julia (“only we hate the Julie bits…”) and so much ruminating about Little House on the Prairie (as you do…), and bridge building (her husband, Leo, is an engineer), and musical theatre, and Harrison Ford and Witness, and the bee at Bread Loaf. Always, the bee at Bread Loaf, and we never actually learn anything about the fact of the bee at Bread Loaf, but other parts of the story we begin to be able to put together, puzzling out, like who is Abby, and her first marriage to Frank, and what happened to her mother, and the fact of the ducks at all. And Newburyport.

And oh, the angst of baking, her worries about sending these goods out into the world never sure that they’ve turned out successfully, because the proof is in the eating, and you can’t control it all. She’s got a freezer packed with failed experiments in lemon drizzle cake, not bad enough to be abject disasters, but not good enough to sell, and she feels guilty subjecting her children to it. Children are never enthusiastic about lemon drizzle cake anyway, the lack of frosting. Who’s actually enthusiastic about lemon drizzle cake anyway? Lemon drizzle cake existential angst, I mean. I’ve never felt so seen before. The kind of stuff that keeps me up at night.

There’s a chicken coop, and pets, and time passes, weeks and months, and in the breaks, the lioness wanders with her cubs, on overpasses and through thickets, across backyards and down into ravines, and she would like to keep her distance from humans, but she cant help it, and she becomes separated from the cubs, who are taken away in a truck to the Columbus Zoo.

Ohio is a funny place, not so different from the stories about the Florida men, really. Insane abortion laws and women kept captive in basements, and fact and fiction blurs too as our narrator recounts the stories she’s heard, news headlines. Some of them true, but it starts to feel like all of them are factual, because everything else in the novel is so familiar after all, that it becomes uncanny how much of it is not uncanny, when possibly it should be. What does it say about the world we live in (and all of us, in general) if it isn’t?

To celebrate my completion of this novel, I made my own tarte tatin. It was not a great success, which I already kind of knew it wouldn’t be, having read the book and learned that caramelization is not easy,

Against this backdrop of her stream-of-consciousness, a lot actually happens, although you could almost miss it, because the tone of the narrative never changes whether she’s concerned about puff pastry or is actually imperilled. She gets stranded in a snowstorm while out delivering pies, and takes her family to a mall whose parking lots entrance is washed away in a flash flood (which is the kind of thing that happens now, in Ohio and elsewhere), and then her daughter goes missing, seemingly every mother’s worst nightmare, save for another one which she comes face-to-face with by the novel’s end. But no spoilers…

Is there such thing as a pre-apocalyptic novel, was a thing I wondered as I read this book, an ordinary story with such ominousness at its margins, and creeping ever-closer, which is pretty close to how it feels sometimes to live in the world right now.

It was a commitment, this book, even if the smaller pieces I broke it into, and the other night as I finished it, I could not quite fathom what it would be like to not have this book sitting on my bedside. Three months is a long time, a quarter of a year, and as I read this novel, weeks went by, the season changed, we celebrated holidays and birthdays, had a federal election, I baked tens of dozens of muffins, and now the book itself feels indelibly connected with all of it.

This novel’s outsizedness, its audacity, is a statement on the curious proportions of life itself. What gets to be an epic? The fact that (as she’d put it) I might have spent more time ruminating on a disappointing drizzle cake than yesterday’s mass shooting; climate change and (not or) a teenage daughter’s petulance; saving the world and raising one’s children; a single person against the enormity of the human population—it’s all enough to make you go cross-eyed, to be honest. How do you understand it all, attempt to contain it all?

With this novel, however, Ellmann gets come close. A book that seems like a feat of endurance, at first, but turns out to be so much more than that.

November 28, 2019

Five Wives, by Joan Thomas

There’s a possibility I might have let the year pass me by without picking up Joan Thomas’s latest, Five Wives, winner of the 2019 Governor General’s Award for Fiction. And what a disaster that would have been, my reading year without one of the best books of the year included. But disaster was averted because I finally picked up the novel last week, and it was one of those experiences like I mentioned while I was writing about The Dutch House. As in, I was instantly enveloped and not remotley moved to clean my bathroom . (Full disclosure: this novel was actually one of those books I read in the bath until the water got so cold…)

Based on the true story of a group of American evangelical missionaries murdered in the Ecuador jungle in 1956 after making contact with an isolated Indigenous group, Thomas blurs fact and fiction fascinatingly in Five Wives—as she did with her earlier novel, Curiosity, which imaged the life of nineteenth century fossil hunter Mary Anne Anning. Billed as “in the tradition of The Poisonwood Bible,” I actually found the novel more in conversation with Miriam Toews’ Women Talking (with shades of Irma Voth!) in its consideration of the role of women in religious communities, in religion in general, and also with the fraught question of female solidarity. Because as with the women of Women Talking, and women anywhere, actually, and with people in general, the women of Five Wives do not speak with a single voice and view their shared story through very different lenses.

Although when the novel begins, theirs is a collective voice, “the wives,” in the immediate aftermath of the deaths of their husbands. The narrator does not distinguish these women, who themselves are “putting the story together”of what had befallen the men. A story that would become legend in evangelical circles, a story Thomas herself grew up hearing told, as she explains in her interview at 49thShelf. But in her novel, she complicates this mythology and explores the way in which story and narrative is constructed from the raw material of facts.

The novel’s present day story line concerns a young woman called Abby, whose mother and father had each lost their own fathers in the massacre, and had grown up steeped in the story, as her father, David, a pastor, also had. This part of the novel begins at the funeral of Abby’s maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Elliot (a real life figure whose own writings have been instrumental in spreading the story of what happened in the Ecuadorian jungle, and how the Waorani people eventually did convert to Christianity, thereby ensuring that this story of martyrdom ended in triumph and glory). And now Abby has lost her faith, much to the chagrin of her father, and we see the tension between them as she tries to find her own way, which challenges David’s own faith, in many things, including the truth of what he knows about what happened to his father and the story his family continues to tell about it to the world.

More central to the plot are the stories of the wives themselves, however, and their own struggles and challenges, those things they are sure of and that which they doubt. Abby’s grandmother, Betty, for whom missionary work was a vocation, and then Olive, who has followed her husband to Ecuador (and we meet her in the years before her marriage, when she’s attending university and developing independence from her religious family), and Marj, David’s mother, who ran the guesthouse where so many of the missionaries stayed, and her relationship with her sister-in-law, Rachel, the one woman in the group who is nobody’s wife. (“Goodness is more complicated that Marj ever imagined.”

And then Cornell Capa, the photographer from Life Magazine, who took the photographs that showed what happened in the jungle to the world—also a real-life character to whom Thomas grants a fictional inner life. And in the contemporary timeline, a film is being made about the massacre, and so there are lots of opportunities for Thomas to play with and complicate the idea of truth and myth and how stories get told.

The novel is a puzzle, pieces fitting together in surprising ways. The women’s own stories are not told chronologically, and overlap in some aspects and there are gaps in others, and not all the women are as central to the story. There is cultural appeal in this novel about mid-20th century womanhood and wifehood, which Thomas complicates interestingly, in addition to the layer of faith, religion and colonialism which complicates everything even more.

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Pre-Order my New Novel: Out October 27

Book Cover WAITING FOR A STAR TO FALL

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Photo Kerry Clare with her Laptop

My Books

The Doors
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