counter on blogger

Pickle Me This

April 20, 2014

Blood Always Tells by Hilary Davidson

blood-always-tellsI came to crime fiction via Kate Atkinson, so Hilary Davidson is something of a departure. She’s less blurry about genre, more bare-bones, hardboiled. Though not so much that there isn’t a character here who isn’t always spouting literary allusions, this time Marcus Aurelius. And the spouter is Desmond Edgars, a fascinating character, a helicopter pilot who hauled his own good self out of a troubled youth by way of a good education and military service. Though there is a hollowness to him, something broken in his core, and what makes Blood Always Tells different from the other crime novels I’ve read lately is that Desmond’s emotional truth and complexity stays peripheral to a question that refuses to digress, despite Davidson’s plot with its many twists and turns. And the question, of course, is, Who done it?

But who done what? It’s not straightforward. The book opens with Desmond’s half-sister, Dominique, who’s putting a plan in motion to take revenge on her cheating boyfriend, but then the two of them get kidnapped and holed up in a creepy house in the middle of nowhere. It seems like Dominique’s boyfriend has set them both up to get money out of his heartless wife (yes, he’s married. Yes, it’s complicated) or else the wife is out to get them both, and luckily Dominique has better luck getting a cellphone signal than she does getting her bearings. She manages to get through to her brother Desmond who drops everything to come and find her, to come to rescue just like he always did.

Blood Always Tells is a novel steeped in atmosphere, and it took me a while to find my own bearings, partly because Dominique is not well defined, and the story of her boyfriend and his wife is vaguely preposterous. But once Desmond took over the story, I was hooked, his perspective adding a steadying force, which is essential as the story gets wilder and wilder. Suddenly, we’re dealing with stupid cops and hostile cops, drug dealers, glamour models, three different tragic family legacies, and the extraordinary lengths that one sibling will go to protect another.

The final time I sat down with this book, I had just a few pages left, but absolutely no idea how the story would be resolved. The only thing I was expecting was that I would probably be surprised, and I was, even shocked. Hilary Davidson has nerve, in addition to skill, and in this, her first stand-alone novel, she’s made her mark and it’s truly first-rate.

April 13, 2014

Shorts: New books by Doretta Lau and Gillian Wigmore

blade-of-grassI first read Doretta Lau in The Journey Prize Stories with the story from which her first collection takes its title. “How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?” is the story of a group of Chinese-Canadian young people growing up in Vancouver who repurpose racist language and stereotypes for their own devices. It was so smart, daring and surprising, but most of all funny, and I’ve been looking forward to this collection ever since. Revisiting that story underlined my first impression, and I was once again stirred by its powerful conclusion in which the friends raucously paint over a mural depicting colonial scenes, ending up with an expanse of empty beige wall. And it’s as though in her stories, Lau picks up where the vandals left off, portraying the experiences of Asian-Canadians in her story but not in the ways in which we’re familiar with seeing them depicted in Canadian literature–heroic immigrant tales, family sagas.

For there is nothing familiar about Lau’s approach in her best stories, her reader dazzled by the possibilities of her fictional worlds in which the usual rules don’t apply. The rules of language, for one, as in “How does a single blade of grass…?”, and then the rules of physics in “God Damn, How Real Is This?”, in which people begin receiving text messages from their future selves, which sends the order of the world into chaos, or “Two Part Invention,” whose main character’s determination to start dating dead men leads to a relationship with Glenn Gould.

A few of the other stories, usually about lovelorn characters without purpose who live alone in apartments, blurred together a bit, lacking the focus and definition of the strongest stories in the book. But ultimately, this slim collection is impressive, marking the exciting debut of an original voice.

*****

graylingI wasn’t sure I would love Grayling, a novella by poet Gillian Wigmore. It takes place over the course of a canoe trip through Northwestern BC, has just two characters—none of the people and concrete I like best in my books. And yet, from the first sentence I was hooked, Wigmore’s remarkable prose creating an incredible momentum that parallels her character Jay’s journey on the Dease River. On the run after a health crisis, Jay is paddling to get anywhere, rather than to somewhere specific, but he is interrupted in his personal quest by a girl he meets en-route who sweet talks her way into his boat. The two characters’ personalities are often at odds, their company in so remote a place creating a curious intimacy between them. And we get to know them by what they choose to tell one another, knowing them even better too by their mysteries, by what they choose to withhold. The stories they exchange, their questions without answers, serve to add layers of meaning to the immediate action portrayed in the book and cast a kind of spell.

Wigmore’s writing is incredibly sensual, her prose vivid with bodies and their feelings (and their food!). The connection between the two characters is so rich and complex, resisting cliches and ever fresh, and so too is her story, which would earn a place in my hypothetical “Death By Landscape” anthology, even though no one dies exactly, because that too would be too easy, but instead her ending is mysterious and shocking, unsettling and swift.

Grayling was a runner-up for the 1st Search for the Great BC Novel contest, and one can certainly see how it stuck out in the crowd. For a debut novel, this one is remarkably assured, and here’s hoping that the multi-talented Wigmore has more fiction in store for us.

April 6, 2014

My Real Children by Jo Walton

MyRealChildren_Jo-WaltonJo Walton’s previous novel, Among Others, was one of my favourite books of 2012 and won the Hugo and Nebula Awards, which you can’t say about most books that are my favourite books of any year. I appreciate that because of Jo Walton, for me “the Hugo and the Nebula Awards” are now words that flow from my fingers like “Giller” or “Booker” do. Having made her start with fantasy in 2002, Walton’s writing moved in a science fiction direction with her alternate history “Small Change” series (which I can’t wait to read soon), and then proceeded to be altogether genre-busting with Among Others, which, in its unabashed bookishness, was embraced by passionate readers of all stripes. And now she has produced another such genre-busting book with My Real Children, the story of a woman with memory problems who can swear she’s lived two lives.

At first glance, the story recalls the movie Sliding Doors (Gwyneth and a fictional uncoupling, or not–remember?), or Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World—stories about the possibility of two destinies hinging on a single moment. But it also brings to mind Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, the twentieth century told through the experience of a character who gets to live it more than once. But where Walton’s take is particularly compelling and original, as it was with Among Others, is the way her fantastical elements exist in a so-solid reality, leaving it up to the reader to decide where the line between fantasy and reality begins to blur, if it exists at all.

Patricia Cowan is confused, we are told, and some days she’s even “Very Confused”, as the nurses document in their notes on a clipboard at the end of her bed. Is it simply her dementia, or can she remember two lives? Her different children come to visit, there are subtle differences between two care homes where apparently she resides, her different memories. Could this be possible? Is it just senility? Which conclusion is more plausible? And it’s a testament to the spell Walton casts that these questions don’t even matter. To Cowan herself, they certainly don’t.

The “sliding door” moment, that instant in which Patricia Cowan’s life cleaved in two, takes place in 1949 when she agrees to marry Mark. And also when she doesn’t. Up until this point, she’d been swept along in time, losing her brother in WW2, receiving a place at Oxford (because all the men were away, she says, explaining away her success with the tide). She does well at school, finds  a teaching job. But Mark’s less-than-romantic proposal is the definitive moment in which she becomes an agent in her fate. When she says, “Yes,” she finds herself “Tricia”, in a loveless marriage, wed to a tyrant who keeps her powerless and miserable. Saying, “No,” results in Pat, some temporary heartbreak, but then fulfilment found in travel, a writing career, a life partnership with a biologist called Bee.

So which are her real children, Patricia Cowan wonders? The four children she had with Mark? With the son who became a rock star and died young of AIDS? Or the three children she had with Bee, two her biological children and all three fathered by the photographer, Michael? And as the reader is taken through the chronology of these family lives, it becomes clear that Patricia Cowan’s lives took place against political backdrops as different as their domestic ones. As we suspect all along and is confirmed in the book’s final chapter, it’s a butterfly-flapping-its-wings scenario. Is it that Tricia, with a life otherwise devoid of purpose and therefore with time to devote to campaigning for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, is key to the eventual obliteration of such weapons? Whereas Pat lives in a world where nuclear weapons are used more than once, radiation seeping through the atmosphere to disastrous consequences decades later. The Soviets land on the moon. LBJ is implicated in the death of President Kennedy. IRA bombings, Cuban missiles, nuclear exchanges between India and Pakistan, gay marriage made legal in the 1980s, mandatory identity cards, Google in the 1990s, US and Russia aligned against Europe, or American returned to its pre-WW2 isolationist stance. The possibilities are fascinating, how one thing just leads to another. Like a book. Life a life.

As I read this book, I thought less of Kate Atkinson and Sliding Doors and more of Hermione Lee’s Penelope Fitzgerald biography, which I read in December. Not because Walton and Fitzgerald are anything alike in terms of style, but rather that Fitzgerald and Patricia Cowan are near contemporaries with similar experiences–plans and legacies interrupted by wartime, coming of age in an era overseen by a new establishment, Oxbridge educations that culminate in disappointing marriages and women (in the case of Tricia/Trish) who discover their true capabilities later in life. I suppose it says something about Walton’s skill that her novel calls to mind a Hermione Lee biography, that Patricia Cowan’s two lives seem so convincingly lived.

As the bookish Walton undoubtedly knows, one book always leads to another. I mean, she clearly knows this sort of thing because she’s referenced Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes and Margaret Drabble before you even hit page 16. Eventually, as the end of the book drew nearer (and oh, when it finally happened, I was gutted. I might have wished Patricia Cowan had life after life so that I could have gone on forever reading them…), I was thinking about Lauren Groff’s Arcadia, which similarly spans realistic historical periods to end up in a  dystopian future. The atmosphere at the end of My Real Children is much the same, showing lives impacted by huge and sweeping histories but the details of these lives being the narratives that matter, the only constants in a history constructed of flux.

April 2, 2014

After I’m Gone by Laura Lippman

after-i'm-goneIt would be so easy to be absolutely enthralled by Laura Lippman’s latest novel, After I’m Gone, that you might forget to notice that it’s so magnificently structured. Written in alternating chapters between the present day from the perspective of a cold case cop, and the back story from the perspective of a whole cast of characters, it tells the story of Felix Brewer, shady wheeler dealer who goes on the lam in 1976 while facing a prison sentence for fraud. He leaves behind his wife and three daughters, as well as his mistress, Julie, who complicates the story further by disappearing herself almost ten years to the day after Felix vanished, the mystery of her whereabouts solved in 2001 when her body is discovered in a Baltimore ravine. But the mystery of her murder remains wide open, picked up in 2012 by retired homicide detective Sandy Sanchez, who’s trying to keep his mind off his own heartache. Who killed her and why? Where was she during all the years before her body was found? And how does all this connect to Felix Brewer?

Sandy’s chapters take place over a few weeks as the pieces of the case begin to come together, the alternating chapters also in chronological order but with a larger scope, moving from 1959 (when  Felix’s wife first meets him at a dance) to the present day, each one from the point of view of each of his family members. These separate points of view weave together seamlessly, each one filling in more of the background that Sandy Sanchez is after, but also providing each character her own rich back story–these chapters do not just drive the plot forward, but simultaneously add texture to the plot, each character with her own secrets unbeknownst to the other characters and not expected by the reader either. So that by the end of this book, we have this amazing many-sided shape which is the story, a story with so many pieces that fit together so perfectly that you’d think you’ve got the whole thing figured out, but you don’t. I promise.

It’s so rare to find a mystery whose solution and the journey to get to it are equally delicious.

March 30, 2014

In Love With Art by Jeet Heer

in-love-with-art

It’s funny that comics have an aura of exclusivity. They’re so of-the-people, pulpy, low-rent accessible. I grew up reading comics, but then these were Archie comics, which aren’t real comics, and so I’ve lost my footing in this world already. Legendary comics store The Beguiling is around the corner from my house, but I’ve never been there for many of the same reasons I’ve never walked into Prada, just a bit further east on Bloor. But then they opened a sister shop nearby, Little Island Comics for kids, and I have a kid, so we went there, and our family’s comics love has been growing ever since. Harriet and Stuart are currently reading Wonderland by Tommy Kovac and Sonny Liew over and over, I read Jane, the Fox and Me last week, Harriet is obsessed with Wonder Woman and the DC Comics I Can Read books, she adores Binky, we got our first Silly Lilly book a long time ago, and bought Jack and the Box at Little Island just the other day (after this great recommendation by Michael Barclay). Parenthood has been my gateway to the world of comics, and I’m so grateful for that.

Silly Lilly and Jack and the Box are published by TOON Books, a series of stylish, smart, well-designed comics for kids packaged neatly as hardcover books. TOON Books was founded by Francoise Mouly, who is better known (as much as Francoise Mouly is considered “known” at all) as the partner of Art Spiegelman, of Maus fame. Using interviews and archival research, Jeet Heer has written a short biography of Mouly, In Love With Art, in an attempt to bring Mouly out from her husband’s shadow, though it’s actually Mouly of the two whom I know best, from her work as founder and Editorial Director of TOON Books and also by her long-time position as Art Editor of The New Yorker with its iconic covers. I may not have known Francoise Mouly’s name, but it turns out I’ve been paying attention to her work for a long time.

In Love With Art is part of Exploded Views, a new series of short books published by Coach House Books, books that in their immediacy read like extended magazine articles. Heer, with his signature mix of down to earth and erudite (and the world’s best vocabulary—who knew that “shanghai” was a verb?) has created a fascinating, absorbing book that made me grateful for the mild temperatures that allowed to me to continue reading (mitten-less) even after I got off the subway and was walking down the street. It’s a book that fit in my coat pocket and I read it in a day, but kept talking about it after with everyone I ran into. “Francoise Mouly. You think you don’t know her, but you do. You’ve got to read this book.”

It’s a fascinating story of a woman in a man’s world, of her childhood and formative years coming of age in France around 1968. She studied architecture, developing an design aesthetic that she’s applied to every project she’s done since, including low-grade jobs like “colourist”, overriding general consensus that jobs like this don’t matter. Not a comic writer herself, instead she’s a comics editor–who even knew there was such a thing? And part of the reason you’ve never heard of her is because her greatest impact has been in helping well-known artists to create their best work. With Spiegelman, she edited the RAW comics magazine for years, work from which is reproduced in In Love With Art in full colour, alone with her memorable New Yorker covers.

I was as surprised as anyone to discover that I, a woman who grew up reading Archie’s Pals and Gals, was this book’s ideal reader, but then it’s not so surprising after all. Women’s lives, women’s stories, women’s art, women for whom motherhood is a kind of answer—it’s been my thing all along. Consider my view exploded then. In the best way.

March 25, 2014

CanLit Companions: Prairie Ostrich and Jane The Fox and Me

jane-the-fox-and-meAs if Jane, The Fox, and Me needed another endorsement. Winner of a Governor-General’s Award for Illustration, included on many year-end Best Of lists, including The New York Times’. But I walked into Little Island Comics on Saturday to finally buy a copy, and when I asked for it at the counter, the other children in the store starting raving. “It’s the best book ever,” one of them told me, so if I’d ever had any doubt…

The star of this show is the illustrations by Isabelle Arsenault, which recall her gorgeous drawings from Virginia Wolf. The story, by Franny Britt and translated by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou, is about a young girl, Helene, who seeks solace from her tormentors within the pages of a book: Jane Eyre. And here, Arnseault’s images are lush, defined and richly coloured. Whereas, in the panels of her life, lines are rough, darkly shaded, bare-treed and dull. Helene is on the outs with girls who’d once been her friends, as is ever the way, and both the text and images capture her sense of being totally alone. The bullying is unrelenting (an amazingly, so pointedly hurtful and careless and stupid at the exact same time), Helene powerless against it, even more so when she’s made to join her classmates on a trip to a wilderness camp. Things get worse before they get better, but a curious encounter with a fox shifts everything, and then Helene makes a real friends, colour slowly returning to her world.

prairie-ostrichI read it as I was reading Prairie Ostrich by Tamai Kobayashi, whose cover design is so stunning that the book does not seem so far apart from a graphic novel. (Full disclosure! Prairie Ostrich is published by Goose Lane, which also publishes The M Word.) Kobayashi’s Egg is younger than Helene–7 or 8-years-old–but just as alienated from her world. On their ostrich farm in the Alberta Badlands, Egg’s is the only Japanese family on the prairie in the 1970s, her parents’ painful pasts from WW2 refusing to stay buried. But the past has got nothing on the present, in which the family has been torn apart since elder brother Albert’s death under mysterious circumstances a few months before. Her father has taken to sleeping in the barn, her mother seeking solace in booze, and her sister Kathy’s close friendship with another girl is raising eyebrows in their small town. Egg doesn’t understand the disarray she’s witnessing and, like Helene, takes solace in books, though she prefers the dictionary and books of facts over fiction, because fiction is so slippery. She likes the illusion of order which the dictionary offers to the world, and she likes other illusions too, like the alternative ending to The Diary of Anne Frank, which her sister reads to her, in which Anne survives and travels to a new life in America.

Such a young protagonist in an adult novel is a tricky thing, which Kobayashi succeeds at by making Egg quite precocious (though she is very much the opposite in other essential ways, much to her social detriment). Egg is also provided with abundant material to filter through her point of view, small towns being good for such things. There were a few moments in which as a reader, I could glimpse the author above the story, busily pulling on strings, but in general, I was taken with this story, with its pop culture allusions and as a testament to how we bury ourselves in books (and escape recess by hiding in the library—who hasn’t been there?).

Both Prairie Ostrich and Jane, the Fox and Me are books whose appeal extends between age groups, and which offer thoughtful, emphatic perspectives on everybody’s favourite buzzword, bullying. They’re books about the books that save us, about the fictional worlds we so need when we’re young in which we’re free to dream ourselves.

March 23, 2014

The Age by Nancy Lee

the-ageMy review of The Age by Nancy Lee appeared in The Globe and Mail this weekend:

It seems fitting, if sinister, to suggest that something in the air could be responsible for a strange tension emanating lately from the nation’s western edge. The Age – the long-awaited first novel by Nancy Lee, who won acclaim with the short-story collection Dead Girls– joins terrific recent fiction by Zsuzsi Gartner and Caroline Adderson to form a subgenre of Vancouver literature that puts the “domestic” in domestic terrorism. These works explore female characters’ relationships to extremism to complicate notions of home and family.

Lee’s title refers to two pivotal ages, her plot born of their intersection. The first is the age in which her story takes place, 1984, which, thanks to Orwell, was always going to be a storied year, even if Soviet warships hadn’t been gathering in the Atlantic with the Doomsday Clock ticking close to midnight. It would be a peculiar time in which – and here’s the second title reference – to come of age, seemingly on the brink of annihilation, as is the case for Gerry, Lee’s misfit protagonist.

Read the whole thing here.

March 17, 2014

After Alice by Karen Hofmann

after-aliceWhat a pleasure is spending a weekend devouring a book, and for me this weekend, that book was After Alice by Karen Hofmann, which I absolutely adored. It was the most unCanLitty CanLit I’ve encountered in ages, the story instead calling to mind English novelists like Anita Brooker and Daphne DuMaurier, and then Wallace Stegner, Barbara Kingsolver and Joan Didion in its evocation of place. This is a debut novel by Hofmann, whose previous poetry collection was shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay Prize in 2009, but she writes with a touch so rich and deft that there is nothing of the debut about it.

There’s a lot going on here: Sidonie Von Täler has retired from her academic job in Montreal designing computer models for psychology experiments. Sidonie herself is something of a cold-fish, so this seems a job to which she’d be unusually suited. We’re locked into her point of view, and it soon becomes apparent that something is just askew–she is a synesthete, displays some symptoms of Aspergers in her perception of the world. Which is not to say that Sidonie’s point of view is the point of this story, that this is a novel or that she’s a protagonist we’d ever refer to as “quirky” ala Come Thou Tortoise or the Dog in Nighttime, but just that she’s a bit peculiar. Her point of view is fascinating, and her voice is sharply defined.

She’s returned to the Okanagan Valley where she’d fled from years before. In her childhood, her family’s orchard had been one of the biggest in the area, their land defining every circumstance of their existence and their status in the community. Sidonie, ever awkward, had been raised in the shadow of her beautiful sister, Alice, whose tragic later circumstances we’re not made aware of until later in the book. Upon her return, Sidonie gets to know her sister’s sons and their own family’s. She’s also close to her niece, Cynthia, whom she’d raised after Alice’s death, and Cynthia’s son, Justin, though much goes unsaid between all of them, Sidonie choosing to believe that she prefers her independence to the complications and niceties of family ties.

And you can’t blame her–Sidonie is brilliant, accomplished and self-succificent, having left a life rich with culture and a couple of close, rewarding friendships back in Montreal. She’d married well–an architect who built Habitat 67 in Montreal, where they’d lived until their marriage ended. She looked upon her marriage not warmly, but as coolly as she did everything. Some might find her life lonely, but there is no sign that she does. But something has driven her to come home, to a past that refuses to stayed packed away in boxes.

After Alice has mystery at its core, and while its approach is most literary, Hofmann has combined that approach with well-tuned plot that makes this book a page-turner. It is also very much a book about place, though not sentimentally so–Sidonie doesn’t do that–but instead the details of the land and what grows there, what it means to work that land in terms of economics and physical labour. It’s a novel that might take a place on the shelf beside Kingsolver’s Animal Vegetable Miracle or The Hundred Mile Diet in its consideration of the terroir, what the land does to its people. And what times does too, Hofmann weaving past and present together, Sidonie’s family home casting a spell that makes it difficult for her to tell where one of them finishes and the other begins, though it’s really that points like this just don’t happen. 

Hofman’s prose is lyrical and effective, if a little in need of tautness. And her ending is a little bit too tidy and choreographed, though still with its surprises. But these are minor quibbles for a novel so ultimately satisfying, and so I welcome Hofmann’s refreshing voice with this wonderful book, one of the most interesting and exciting that I’ve encountered in ages.

March 11, 2014

Bark by Lorrie Moore

barkI’m still discovering Lorrie Moore, which is a pretty lucky place to be in as a reader. The first book I read of hers was Anagrams, and I just thought it was weird. I really liked The Gate at the Stairs, and then I read Birds of America but I mustn’t have been reading carefully because I don’t even remember it. So when I opened up her latest collection, Bark, I didn’t have the same expectations that her much more devoted readers might have had. I wouldn’t have been able to tell if it was a good Lorrie Moore or a middling Lorrie Moore. As I read it, all I could think was, “So, this is Lorrie Moore,” which was a pretty fantastic revelation.

The stories themselves are many-angled, surprising, full of perfectly articulating revelations. On divorce: “It’s like a trick. It’s like someone puts a rug over a trapdoor and says, ‘Stand here.’ And so you do. Then boom.” Or, “It was like being snowbound with someone’s demented uncle. Should marriage be like that? She wasn’t sure.” And, “A life could rhyme with a life—it could be a jostling close call that one mistook for the thing itself.”

No super-narrative tricks or sleights of hand are going on here. As short story shapes go, these ones are mostly standard, riddled with quirk, but then there is this extra-perspective at play in which characters call out surreality of their situations. “He had never been involved with the mentally ill before…” it is noted of a character in the first story, “Debarking,” a guy who’s dating the bizarre quirky kind of woman who turns up in many a short story, a manic pixie dream girl gone very very wrong. All of these are stories of a world gone askew, and its people definitely know it, however powerless they may be against its forces.

The surrealism and sense of askewness is unsurprising. These are stories of America in the first decade of the twenty-first century, the first story situated sometime in the months after 9/11 and before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The final story begins the day after Michael Jackson died in 2009, and doesn’t offer much hope for the decade to come: “I tried to think positively. ‘Well, at least Whitney Houston didn’t die,’ I said to somebody on the phone.” Foreclosures, banks and big-box bookstores, both. War, fear and Abu Grahib are the backdrop to these smaller stories of domestic disappointment. It got to the point where I was underlining references to decapitation, and there were more than a few. I got the sense that this is a book haunted by the story of Daniel Pearl.

While many of these stories have been published elsewhere, they’ve been collected seamlessly into a curious, fascinating whole that is as much worth remarking on as the stories themselves. The stories are linked by weird decapitation references, and the word “bark” which comes up again and again in a variety of contexts. Trees for one, the bark their protection, as is the case with dogs (which also come up again and again). The question of whether bark is, in fact, worse than bite—just one of many things we’re told that’s patently not true. I wonder if Moore’s bark, our bark, is in fact humour—what saves us from this savage life.

March 9, 2014

For Sure by France Daigle, trans. Robert Majzels

for-sureFor two weeks, I was reading For Sure by France Daigle, a 719 page novel that doesn’t have much of a plot. However plotless though, For Sure is more useful than most novels I encounter—with its help, I taught my daughter to swim. Seriously. And not just that, but for those two weeks as I lived with this book, a giant doorstop, and its people, strange connections were made between the happenings in their lives and the occurrences within my own. Which is precisely what France Daigle wants me to think. She has no truck with characters or their stories staying within the confines of their pages.

Not least of all because this is the fourth book in her series about a group of people who live and work in converted lofts in Moncton, New Brunswick. In its original French, Pour Sur won the Governor General’s Award for French Literatre in 2012. Though it wasn’t French exactly, but instead Chiac, an Acadian-French dialect mixed with English and Aboriginal influences, spoken by Acadian communities in southeast New Brunswick. Which has been translated into English by Majzels as French-accented English with a Newfoundland bent–”fer sure” for “for sure”, a lot of “dat dem dare.” 

The novel is made up of twelve sections, each section broken into fragments, assigned a number code and category. A sense of progression comes from moving through the code rather than the fragments themselves, whose connections are often elusive. (I just mistyped that as “allusive” but I kind of mean that too.) There’s a lot about Scrabble, colours, the names of colours, the colour of letters, attempts to quantify the abstract, apply methodology to slippery things (like novels). An attempt to write the book of Chiac, to put the colloquial down on paper, articulate its rules and laws, but then language is as slippery as a novel after all. And life itself.

There are people here too. At its heart, this is a novel about Terry and Carmen and their small children Etienne and Marianne, and their friends at the lofts where they live, and where Terry works at a bookstore and Carmen co-owns a bar (called Babar). There are little plots, small mysteries, and even a murder (on the periphery). Terry worries about being a good father, they wonder whether their kids might grow up to be gay, they take a holiday, do crosswords, and define their language through acts of every day life. All the characters in the book ponder the mysteries of language and words, and search for meaning in their patterns. Just as the reader of For Sure seeks to put the pieces together in her own right,  connect the dots, come up with a whole.

What is most compelling about these characters is their goodness, their aspirations toward such things. And yet that they’re compelling all the same—this is something. They’re flawed too enough to be real, so much so that when France Daigle herself (so we assume) sits down with these fictional people for a chat, and they discuss their place within her narrative and her control over their fates, the conversation is completely plausible, as is the fictional existence of Daigle herself.

More for plausibility: Terry teaches his son to swim by imploring him to try to drown. The boy tries, finds it’s impossible and begins having faith in his buoyancy after all. Which is the same trick I tried the next day after reading this passage, in the swimming pool with my daughter whose relationship to swimming lately has been of an adversarial nature. And it worked! 30 minutes later, she was swimming without clutching another human body for dear life, which is huge. And to think we owe it all to Terry Thibedeau.

It is worth nothing that in reading this translation, rendered in a made-up dialect, there is an enormous gap between what we’re reading and what Daigle and her novel intended. And yet, I think this gap only underlines the novel’s central thesis, which is that precision of language is something of a fallacy. That anything expressed in language is going to be a muddle, a translation. That in reaching toward precision, the reach instead of the precision is always going to be the point.

Next Page »

The M Word

The M Word Cover

Coming April 2014

The M Word Events
Waterloo: April 14 Indie Lit Night at Starlight Social Club, 8pm (w. Carrie Snyder)
Toronto: April 15 at Ben McNally Books, 6pm
Kingston: April 16 at Novel Idea, 7:30pm
Burlington: April 29 at Different Drummer's Book and Author Series, 9am
Calgary: May 4 at 3pm, Shelf Life, 3pm (w. Susan Olding, Fiona Lam & Myrl Coulter)
Winnipeg: May 6 at McNally Robinson, 7pm
Hamilton: May 7 at Bryan Prince Bookseller, 7pm
Toronto: May 15 at Another Story Book Shop, 7pm
Toronto: June 19 at Parent Books, 7pm
Everywhere Via Twitter Livechat: TBA


The Doors