Tag Archives: Toronto

A Few Bizarre Backlist Reads: McEwan, Michaels & Tremain

I’ve grouped these three prize-winning novels from the late 1980s and 1990s together because they all left me scratching my head, wondering whether they were jumbles of random elements and events or if there was indeed a satisfyingly coherent story. While there were aspects I admired, there were also moments when I thought it indulgent of the authors to pursue poetic prose or plot tangents and not consider the reader’s limited patience. I had to think for ages about how to rate these, but eventually arrived at the same rating for each, reflecting my enjoyment but also my hesitation.

 

The Child in Time by Ian McEwan (1987)

[Whitbread Prize for Fiction (now Costa Novel Award)]

This is the second-earliest of the 13 McEwan books I’ve read. It’s something of a strange muddle (from the protagonist’s hobbies of Arabic and tennis lessons plus drinking onwards), yet everything clusters around the title’s announced themes of children and time.

Stephen Lewis’s three-year-old daughter, Kate, was abducted from a supermarket three years ago. The incident is recalled early in the book, as if the remainder will be about solving the mystery of what happened to Kate. But such is not the case. Her disappearance is an unalterable fact of Stephen’s life that drove him and his wife apart, but apart from one excruciating scene later in the book when he mistakes a little girl on a school playground for Kate and interrogates the principal about her, the missing child is just subtext.

Instead, the tokens of childhood are political and fanciful. Stephen, a writer whose novels accidentally got categorized as children’s books, is on a government committee producing a report on childcare. On a visit to Suffolk, he learns that his publisher, Charles Darke, who later became an MP, has reverted to childhood, wearing shorts and serving lemonade up in a treehouse.

Meanwhile, Charles’s wife, Thelma, is a physicist researching the nature of time. For Charles, returning to childhood is a way of recapturing timelessness. There’s also an odd shared memory that Stephen and his mother had four decades apart. Even tiny details add on to the time theme, like Stephen’s parents meeting when his father returned a defective clock to the department store where his mother worked.

This is McEwan, so you know there’s going to be a contrived but very funny scene. Here that comes in Chapter 5, when Stephen is behind a flipped lorry and goes to help the driver. He agrees to take down a series of (increasingly outrageous) dictated letters but gets exasperated at about the same time it becomes clear the young man is not approaching death. Instead, he helps him out of the cab and they celebrate by drinking two bottles of champagne. This doesn’t seem to have much bearing on the rest of the book, but is the scene I’m most likely to remember.

Other noteworthy elements: Stephen has a couple of run-ins with the Prime Minister; though this is clearly Margaret Thatcher, McEwan takes pains to neither name nor so much as reveal the gender of the PM (in fear of libel claims?). Homeless people and gypsies show up multiple times, making Stephen uncomfortable but also drawing his attention. I assumed this was a political point about Thatcher’s influence, with the homeless serving as additional stand-ins for children in a paternalistic society, representing vulnerability and (misplaced) trust.

This is a book club read for our third monthly Zoom meeting, coming up in the first week of June. While it’s odd and not entirely successful, I think it should give us a lot to talk about: the good and bad aspects of reverting to childhood, whether it matters if Kate ever comes back, the caginess about Thatcher, and so on.

 

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels (1996)

[Orange Prize (now Women’s Prize for Fiction)]

“One can look deeply for meaning or one can invent it.”

Poland, Greece, Canada; geology, poetry, meteorology. At times it felt like Michaels had picked her settings and topics out of a hat and flung them together. Especially in the early pages, the dreamy prose is so close to poetry that I had trouble figuring out what was actually happening, but gradually I was drawn into the story of Jakob Beer, a Jewish boy rescued like a bog body or golem from the ruins of his Polish village. Raised on a Greek island and in Toronto by his adoptive father, a geologist named Athos who’s determined to combat the Nazi falsifying of archaeological history, Jakob becomes a poet and translator. Though he marries twice, he remains a lonely genius haunted by the loss of his whole family – especially his sister, Bella, who played the piano. Survivor’s guilt never goes away. “To survive was to escape fate. But if you escape your fate, whose life do you then step into?”

The final third of the novel, set after Jakob’s death, shifts into another first-person voice. Ben is a student of literature and meteorological history. His parents are concentration camp survivors, so he relates to the themes of loss and longing in Jakob’s poetry. Taking a break from his troubled marriage, Ben offers to go back to the Greek island where Jakob last lived to retrieve his notebooks – which presumably contain all that’s come before. Ben often addresses Jakob directly in the second person, as if to reassure him that he has been remembered. Ultimately, I wasn’t sure what this section was meant to add, but Ben’s narration is more fluent than Jakob’s, so it was at least pleasant to read.

Although this is undoubtedly overwritten in places, too often resorting to weighty one-liners, I found myself entranced by the stylish writing most of the time. I particularly enjoyed the puns, palindromes and rhyming slang that Jakob shares with Athos while learning English, and with his first wife. If I could change one thing, I would boost the presence of the female characters. I was reminded of other books I’ve read about the interpretation of history and memory, Everything Is Illuminated and Moon Tiger, as well as of other works by Canadian women, A Student of Weather and Fall on Your Knees. This won’t be a book for everyone, but if you’ve enjoyed one or more of my readalikes, you might consider giving it a try.

 

Sacred Country by Rose Tremain (1992)

[James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Prix Fémina Etranger]

In 1952, on the day a two-minute silence is held for the dead king, six-year-old Mary Ward has a distinct thought: “I am not Mary. That is a mistake. I am not a girl. I’m a boy.” Growing up on a Suffolk farm with a violent father and a mentally ill mother, Mary asks to be called Martin and binds her breasts with bandages. Kicked out at age 15, she lives with her retired teacher and then starts to pursue a life on her own terms in London. While working for a literary magazine and dating women, she consults a doctor and psychologist to explore the hormonal and surgical options for becoming the man she believes she’s always been.

Meanwhile, a hometown acquaintance with whom she once shared a dentist’s waiting room, Walter Loomis, gives up his family’s butcher shop to pursue his passion for country music. Both he and Mary/Martin are sexually fluid and, dissatisfied with the existence they were born into, resolve to search for something more. The outsiders’ journeys take them to Tennessee, of all places. But when Martin joins Walter there, it’s an anticlimax. You’d expect their new lives to dovetail together, but instead they remain separate strivers.

At a bare summary, this seems like a simple plot, but Tremain complicates it with many minor characters and subplots. The story line stretches to 1980: nearly three decades’ worth of historical and social upheaval. The third person narration shifts perspective often to show a whole breadth of experience in this small English village, while occasional first-person passages from Mary and from her mother, Estelle, who’s in and out of a mental hospital, lend intimacy. Otherwise, the minor characters feel flat, more like symbols or mouthpieces.

To give a flavor of the book’s many random elements, here’s a decoding of the extraordinary cover on the copy I picked up from the free bookshop:

Crimson background and oval shape = female anatomy, menstruation

Central figure in a medieval painting style, with royal blue cloth = Mary

Masculine muscle structure plus yin-yang at top = blended sexuality

Airplane = Estelle’s mother died in a glider accident

Confederate flag = Tennessee

Cards = fate/chance, conjuring tricks Mary learns at school, fortune teller Walter visits

Cleaver = the Loomis butcher shop

Cricket bat = Edward Harker’s woodcraft; he employs and then marries Estelle’s friend Irene

Guitar = Walter’s country music ambitions

Oyster shell with pearl = Irene’s daughter Pearl, whom young Mary loves so much she takes her (then a baby) in to school for show-and-tell

Cutout torso = the search for the title land (both inward and outer), a place beyond duality

Tremain must have been ahead of the times in writing a trans character. She acknowledged that the premise was inspired by Conundrum by Jan Morris (who, born James, knew he was really a girl from the age of five). I recall that Sacred Country turned up often in the footnotes of Tremain’s recent memoir, Rosie, so I expect it has little autobiographical resonances and is a work she’s particularly proud of. I read this in advance of writing a profile of Tremain for Bookmarks magazine. It feels very different from her other books I’ve read; while it’s not as straightforwardly readable as The Road Home, I’d call it my second favorite from her. The writing is somewhat reminiscent of Kate Atkinson, early A.S. Byatt and Shena Mackay, and it’s a memorable exploration of hidden identity and the parts of life that remain a mystery.

#5–6 Short Fiction: Animal Crackers and Barnacle Love

I may have fallen behind on my 20 Books of Summer reading – August is going to have to be jam-packed! – but I have been enjoying the all-animals challenge. One of these two collections of short fiction sustains an animal theme for most of its length, while the other draws on metaphors from a fishing community but isn’t specifically about nature.

 

Animal Crackers by Hannah Tinti (2004)

A zoo, a circus, a turkey farm, a natural history museum, an African hunting expedition: several of the 11 stories are set in locales where human–animal interactions are formalized and exploitative, but all mention an animal at least once. In two cases the animal reference seems incidental and the stories really belong elsewhere – “Home Sweet Home,” which opens with the excellent line “Pat and Clyde were murdered on pot roast night,” appeared in Best American Mystery Stories 2003; “Hit Man of the Year” feels like a trial run for The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley – and in others there are gratuitous animal deaths at the hands of disturbed boys or angry men, which is always a strike against a book for me.

I only found four stand-outs here. “Reasonable Terms” is a playful piece of magic realism in which a zoo’s giraffes get the gorilla to write out a list of demands for their keepers and, when agreement isn’t forthcoming, stage a mass mock suicide. In “How to Revitalize the Snake in Your Life,” a woman takes revenge on her boa constrictor-keeping boyfriend. In “Miss Waldron’s Red Colobus,” which reminded me of Ned Beauman’s madcap style, a boarding school teenager eludes the private detectives her parents have hired to keep tabs on her and makes it all the way to Ghana, where a new species of monkey is named after her. My favorite of all was “Preservation,” in which Mary saves wildlife paintings through her work as an art conservator but can’t save her father from terminal illness.

 

Barnacle Love by Anthony De Sa (2008)

When I plucked this Giller Prize finalist from a secondhand bookshop’s clearance shelf, I assumed it was a novel. The 10 titled chapters are in chronological order and recount the Rebelos’ experiences in Canada between the mid-1950s and the early 1980s, but in that each focuses on a discrete incident from the family’s history, they are more like linked short stories. Manuel, a fisherman from the Azores, is shipwrecked on the coast of Newfoundland and begins a new life in Canada. He’s deliberately gone far from his home village, far from his controlling mother and the priest who abused him: “I knew that if I stayed in our town, on our stifling island, I’d be consumed by what it was you [his mother] hoped and dreamed for me.” He moves from St. John’s to Toronto, brings over a Portuguese wife, and raises two children while hopping from one unsuccessful money-making scheme to another.

The first half of the book reports Manuel’s life in the third person, while the second is in the first person, narrated by his son, Antonio. Through that shift in perspective we come to see Manuel as both a comic and a tragic figure: he insists on speaking English, but his grammar and accent are atrocious; he cultivates proud Canadian traditions, like playing the anthem on repeat on Canada Day and spending Christmas Eve at Niagara Falls, but he’s also a drunk the neighborhood children laugh at. Although the two chapters set back in Portugal were my favorites, Manuel is a compelling, sympathetic character throughout, and I appreciated De Sa’s picture of the immigrant’s contrasting feelings of home and community. Particularly recommended if you’ve enjoyed That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung.


Representative passages:

Manuel’s mother: “My husband used to say that men are all barnacles. A barnacle starts out life swimming freely in the ocean. But, when it matures, it must settle down and choose a home. My dear husband used to say that it chooses to live with other barnacles of the same kind so that they can mate.”

Manuel: “I leave Portugal on fishing boat and I know I not going to come back. I give everything away to follow something new. I no understand what but something inside push me here—to make something of myself in this land. I come to be someone in this world.”

Recent Writing for BookBrowse, Shiny New Books and the TLS

We’re back from a pleasant but whirlwind weekend in France. Even just sticking to one corner of Normandy, there was far too much to see and do and not enough good weather to do it all in. Highlights were the Bayeux tapestry, the gorse-covered rocky cliff above a river at Les Roches de Ham, a delicious three-course meal in a restaurant just outside Bayeux, fresh bread and cake from boulangeries, and the enormous Sunday morning open-air market in Caen. (Low point: being sick on the boat on the way back. I hate sailing.) I finished up The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker, read all of A Breath of French Air by H.E. Bates, and started a few more books.

It was good to have a gripping novel to take my mind off the rocking motion of the ferry on the trip out.


Here are excerpts from and links to some of my recent print or online writing for other places. (No surprise that four out of the five are nonfiction and involve medical or bereavement themes!)

 

BookBrowse

The Unwinding of the Miracle: A Memoir of Life, Death, and Everything That Comes After by Julie Yip-Williams: A lawyer facing late-stage cancer reflects on the happy life she had despite disability and an inauspicious start, and bids farewell to her family. It was miracle enough to have survived her first few years (blindness, a euthanasia attempt, and fleeing Vietnam by boat), but she eventually graduated from Harvard Law School and joined a Wall Street law firm. The author dubs herself “a somewhat ruthless realist.” Early on she vowed she would do nothing desperate or bizarre in her quest for healing, in contravention of what she calls the American “hope industrial complex.” Yet she also left room for spirituality to surprise her. The book resembles a set of journal entries or thematic essays, written at various times over her five years with colon cancer. Some stories are told more than once; an editor might have combined or cut some passages to avoid repetitiveness. Still, this posthumous memoir stands as a testament to a remarkable life of overcoming adversity, asking questions, and appreciating beauty wherever it’s found. (See also my list of other recommended posthumous cancer memoirs.)

 

That Time I Loved You: Stories by Carrianne Leung: The residents of a Toronto suburb cope with growing up amid a spate of surprise suicides in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Leung explores different points of view on the same events and changes that take place in a community over several years. Three of the stories are narrated by June, who is 11 years old at the start. Her parents came over from Hong Kong 15 years ago. Other stories fill in a kaleidoscopic view of the neighborhood, showing how lonely the residents are – and how segregated along ethnic lines. Leung returns to June’s perspective at the beginning, middle, and end of the book, so we see her growing up and learning how the world works. Hard lessons are in store for her: people are sometimes punished for their differences, and the older generation doesn’t have it all figured out. Suburbia gets a bad rap, but it’s where so many of us come from, so it’s heartening to see a writer taking it seriously here. (See also my article on linked short story collections, for which I enlisted lots of blogger help via book Twitter.)

 

Shiny New Books

War Doctor: Surgery on the Front Line by David Nott: Welsh surgeon David Nott combines advanced technical skills with extreme altruism: for weeks of every year he takes unpaid leave to volunteer with a medical charity like Médecins sans Frontières or Syria Relief in war zones or disaster areas around the world. The kinds of procedures he has performed in Sarajevo, Kabul and Darfur are a world away from his normal work as an NHS consultant in London: amputations, treating injuries caused by homemade bombs, and delivering the babies of young rape victims. His memoir is mostly structured by countries and/or time periods. There are gripping moments – such as completing a difficult amputation by following instructions texted to him by a London colleague – but also some less fascinating chronology. The book is slow to start and took me weeks to get through. However, it shines when Nott recalls particular patients who have stood out for him. All told, his is an amazing and inspiring story.


As if you haven’t already heard enough about the Wellcome Book Prize from me (!), I also wrote this article for Shiny about the Prize’s history and the range of books that have won or been nominated over the last 10 years, finishing up with some reflections on this year’s shortlist.

 

Times Literary Supplement

Somehow I seem to have become a TLS regular. The biography editor periodically contacts me with lists of recent memoirs to be reviewed in 400 words for the “In Brief” section, and I’ve been doing about one per month this year.

 

Blood Ties by Ben Crane: Artist Ben Crane has developed a passion for birds of prey, raising hawks and training as a falconer. “I saw that my feelings towards nature, and birds of prey in particular, ran in parallel with my feelings for my son,” he writes. Blood Ties accordingly cuts between the story of rehabilitating a pair of rescued sparrowhawks named Girl and Boy and a parallel story about raising his son as a part-time single father. Together these strands emphasize the common concerns that arise when caring for any creature. Crane’s descriptive language is memorably sharp. Whatever struggles his Asperger’s entails, it seems to heighten his observational skills. Pruning the travel segments would have produced a more focused memoir, but this is a powerful story all the same – of the ties that bind us, both to nature and our own families. (Full review in February 8th issue.)

 

Notes for the Everlost: A Field Guide to Grief by Kate Inglis: Inglis, a Nova Scotian photographer and children’s author, has written this delicate, playful handbook – something between a bereavement memoir and a self-help guide – for people who feel they might disappear into grief for ever. In 2007, Inglis’s identical twin sons were born premature, at twenty-seven weeks. Ben lived but Liam died. Every milestone in Ben’s life would serve as a reminder of the brother who should have been growing up alongside him. The unfairness was particularly keen on the day she returned to hospital for two appointments: Ben’s check-up and a report on Liam’s autopsy. Unable to sustain the eye-popping freshness of the prose in the introduction, Inglis resorts to some clichés in what follows. But this kooky, candid book will be valuable to anyone facing bereavement or supporting a loved one through it. (Full review in March 15th issue.)

 

Would any of these books interest you?

Reviews Roundup, December–January

It’s been a slow period for reviewing; I was mostly focusing on ongoing projects and year-end lists, and didn’t take the time to review a lot of the books I borrowed from libraries while in the States visiting family. Enjoy the respite! And I promise more productivity next month. There’s a rating (below each description) and a taster so you can decide whether to read more.


Fig Tree Books

everymanEveryman by Philip Roth: It has now been about three years since Philip Roth, then 79, famously announced his retirement from fiction writing. In a look back over Roth’s career—spanning half a century and 30 books—Everyman (2006) might fade into the background, especially given the book’s novella length. But to overlook it would be a mistake: This is a near-perfect fable about the life we build through decades of small choices and the death that is always lying in wait, whether we feel ready or not.

(Have a look around at the great work this publisher does in highlighting the American Jewish Experience; for instance, they released Safekeeping by Jessamyn Hope, which I loved this past summer.)

4 star rating


Foreword Reviews

smile at twilightA Smile at Twilight by Robert Loyst and Wayne Yetman: Loyst gives a candid account of the joys and difficulties of helping to care for Poppy, an Alzheimer’s patient he met through a Toronto-based “Seniors Helping Seniors” organization. It’s an appealing “opposites attract”/“odd couple” scenario: Poppy was a perfectionist with a foul mouth and a withering glare of disapproval, while Loyst describes himself as “more of a take-it-as-it-comes type of guy.” Those who have family members or friends struggling with dementia will probably benefit most from the memoir, but readers of Still Alice might enjoy trying a real-life story.

4 star rating


I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads.

 

My Name is Lucy Bartonlucy barton by Elizabeth Strout: Lucy Barton is in the hospital for nine weeks following an appendectomy. The novel zeroes in on the five days her mother comes to stay by her bedside, a pinnacle in their often difficult relationship. For a short book, this packs a lot in: an artist’s development, the course of a marriage, poverty and class distinctions. Lucy grew up in rural Illinois, where words like “cheap” and “trash” could easily have been applied to her family. I read this in one sitting on a plane ride and found it to be a powerful portrayal of the small connections that stand out in a life.

4 star rating

eligibleEligible: A modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld: Pride and Prejudice transplanted to Cincinnati in 2013? That might sound like a stretch, but Sittenfeld pretty much pulls it off. The characters and underlying plot are virtually identical to the original, with just a few tweaks here and there. What Sittenfeld does update are the particular scenes and situations, as well as the cultural norms and sexual practices. My main problem is how slavishly Sittenfeld replicates Austen’s third-person voice and vocabulary. Sittenfeld is the queen of first-person female narration; this is the first time in my memory that she has attempted an omniscient voice. To me it felt like the book was crying out to be told from Lizzy’s perspective. Releases April 19th.

3.5 star rating