Archive for the ‘Canadian Fiction’ Tag
In this Giller Prize winning novel Elizabeth Hay writes a story of love, transition, and – like all classic Canadian fiction – survival.
It’s Yellowknife, 1975, and the enquiry into the McKenzie Valley gas pipeline is highlighting the plight of the aboriginal peoples. At the same time, Harry Boyd returns to the north to manage a small radio station. It is in that setting that the lives of the characters in the novel become intertwined. Boyd becomes entranced by Dido, an exciting, almost exotic announcer who is running from her past. Gwen, the youngest of the group and a passionate collector of sounds, becomes entranced by Boyd. Eleanor, the station receptionist, with her own intriguing past, acts as the wise woman. Together with Ralph, an extremely sensitive photographer, four of them set off to follow the route taken by the Arctic explorer John Hornby who perished in the Barrens in 1927.
I recently had the great pleasure of doing some back country camping in Labrador with Elizabeth Hay’s Late Nights on Air. And, although Labrador is not Yellowknife and I was not as far north as the Arctic, many little things resonated with me. It was either bugs or wind. Forest gave way to rock as we travelled. Moss and bogs grew between the rocks as soft as a down-filled cushion. Flowers grew in the most unlikely places. And the hues in the rocks, flowers, and bogs were amazing. Hay picks up on all of this and more. The bear, the fox, washing hair in the river – all of this was articulated in Hay’s novel as I experienced it in the wild.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough. The characters are intelligent, well-read, thoughtful, and witty. It was a pleasure getting to know them.
Thank you Elizabeth Hay, for a job well done.
Every once in a while I come across a book that I consider a keeper – that is, a book that I know I will return to again and again over the course of my lifetime. Alice Munro’s Runaway is one such book. I read it some time ago and now return to it again. The fact that it is a short story collection makes it the kind of material that is suitable for reading when I am busy with life and need a diversion for an hour or two only. It is a group of stories that look at different ways of defining what a “Runaway” is.
I recently read two of the stories: “Silence” – about a mother waiting to hear from a daughter who has run off to join a commune – and, “Passion” – about a young girl not ready to make a commitment to a young man.
Munro, who won the Giller Prize for this collection, has the ability to get inside the heads of those characters she writes about. She does such a good job of describing their thoughts and actions that she evokes empathy from the reader for each character. It is as if we are there with them and we can feel their anxiety.
“Silence” was especially poignant for me at this stage in my life. As I read it I kept thinking of the pain the mother must be feeling while she waits to hear from her daughter. I wanted to shake her and say, “stop waiting! Go after her! Be proactive!” But I imagine how such an event might affect me in the same manner as it did her if it happened with my child.
Runaway by Alice Munro (2004), Penguin Canada. ISBN # 0-14-305071-0, paperback, 335 pages.
beatrice & virgil by Yann Martel (2010). Toronto: Random House, 197 pgs + appendix. Hard cover, ISBN # 978-0-307-39877-2.
I finished reading Yann Martel’s beatrice & virgil last night and I’ve been thinking about it most of today. I read it through once only. I found some of the descriptions difficult to deal with – graphic and ugly and so like I would imagine the atrocities of the Holocaust. But I would prefer not to think about them. And perhaps that is the point of the novel. We should not forget the things that people do in the name of – in the name of?? I can’t fathom why people do some of the things they do.
Henry is asked on page 15, “What’s your book about?” and that seems to continue to be a question that is difficult to answer. On one level Martel’s story is about a novelist named Henry who meets a taxidermist also named Henry who is writing a play and needs help. But it’s also about so many other things: the Holocaust, representation, memory, trauma, writing as a form of therapy?, madness, the fact that people are animals, filling a gap in the literary record. It is a story about a historical event – historical fiction, if you will, but different. It is not only about the event itself, it is also about the effect of the event on one individual and those who came into contact with him. Or is it?
It is post modern in form. Martel is writing “a flip book” , but not in the sense that it is described by the narrator, in the sense that it turns in upon itself. It is a book about writing. The writing within it is about a horrific event and it ends with a horrific event. But does it end?
Henry, the taxidermist seemed to be re-living his trauma through his writing but also appears to be a perpetrator of the violence. Or is he?
Sometimes I wonder if Martel’s intention wasn’t perhaps that Henry, the taxidermist, isn’t really a representation of the mind of Henry, the writer.
It is a book I will likely return to because of it’s play with form – no chapters – one continuous story about … so many things.
Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes is an important read for anyone wanting to know more about the history of the slave trade. Spanning the years 1745 to 1802, it tells the tale of Aminata Diallo, a woman who was abducted as a child by slave traders from her tribal home in the interior of Africa. Aminata survives the incomprehensible – the madness of individuals who plucked people from their homes, subjected them to treatment not normally accepted for animals, and sold them for financial gain. Through all of this Aminata learned to read and became a scribe, a midwife, and later a storyteller. She is a strong character and a strong voice for freedom.
Perhaps because this book read like a life story, I found it did not keep me rivetted and I often wanted to put it down to take a break from reading about the cruelties that people are capable of inflicting on each other. While reading The Book of Negroes I thought often about Austen Clarke’s The Polished Hoe which was set in Barbados as opposed to Africa, America, and England. It too featured a strong female and ‘discussed’ the slave trade but something about Clarke’s story made it difficult for me to put the book down. I would recommend both of these books to anyone interested in the history of slavery.
Hill’s book includes a valuable list of the resources he used for his research at the back of the book.
Lawson, Mary. Crow Lake. Knopf Canada.
Well written story about four children who lose their parents at a young age and raise themselves. Focuses on relationships, community, small town, and leaving the small town.
Barfoot, Joan. Luck. Carroll & Graf Publishers.
The story of three women who are left after the death of one man. He is husband to one, employer to two, and lover to one of his employees. Well written and enjoyable. Barfoot questions just what Luck is. She has been compared to Carol Shields (I think for her use of simple words that are difficult to define, such as Luck, Love, Unless, etc.). Otherwise her writing isn’t quite up to Shields, but, whose is? Barfoot’s story is a very enjoyable read.
Toews, Miriam. 2005. Swing Low: A Life. Toronto: Random House. ISBN 0-676-97718-9. 228 pgs. Adult Memoir.
Toews writes a loving and respectful memoir of her father’s life. Mel Toews, who suffered from what we now know as bipolar disorder, managed, with his wife, to raise two intelligent and happy children. He also excelled as a teacher and was highly respected by his students. Written in his voice, this story illuminates for the reader, the non-public face of bipolar disorder. It is a must read for anyone who has any type of mental illness in their family and for anyone contemplating the study of psychology.
Gruen, Sara. 2006. Water for Elephants. Toronto: Harper Collins. ISBN 978-0-00-639155-5. 335 pgs. paperback.
Ever wonder what it would be like to run away with the circus? Sara Gruen tells us in this story about Jacob, a young man who does just that. It’s the height of the Great Depression and Jacob is just about to write his final exams to become a veterinarian when disaster strikes and he is left homeless. This adventure/love story is full of interesting characters including one very special elephant. Told from the perspective of an older Jacob. Gruen is masterful with the details.