The North Water by Ian McGuire

thenorthwater Ian McGuire’s The North Water is as transfixing and weighty as a looming iceberg; you know carnage is coming but you can’t look away. 

Longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize,* The North Water is filthy with conflict; there’s man vs. man, man vs. nature, and man vs. beast,** but in this excellent novel, it is often difficult to tell the men from the beasts.

Few characters are unsullied by the taint of shame, greed or corruption and that’s one of the things that makes The North Water such a great read. Above all else, this book is about retaining your humanity when all others about you are losing theirs. (Some — one evil brute in particular — never had any in the first place.)

McGuire uses language to paint vivid watercolours inside your brain. So much so — you hear the wind scream, you feel the frigid sea spray sting your face, and you smell the blood. The prose is as rich and as satisfying as a bowl of homemade soup on a cold wet day. Like all the best books, there are sentences you can savour, reading them again and again and yet there is not a wasted word. The narrative reads like riding a runaway horse. You’d better hang on.

I read this book twice back to back. You should too. It’s worth your time.

* Sadly, The North Water did not make the 2016 Man Booker Prize shortlist. A great shame. 
** Not part of the conflict canon, but The North Water makes a case for man vs. beast as part of an expanded list.

September and October, 2016

Galore by Michael Crummey

galoremichaelcrummeyThe word galore means “in abundance.” In Michael Crummey’s Galore, the only things in abundance are misery, desire, greed, and a compellingly tenacious will to survive.

Galore roams the lives of the families in Paradise Deep, Newfoundland, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The landscape offers little respite. It’s bitterly cold, windy, and wet. It’s a fickle mistress given to cycles of plenty and want, imperilling those who try to eke out an existence by fishing, logging, and sealing. Death by starvation and exposure is ever-present. In living each day, we’re all that much closer to our own deaths — especially the hardscrabble residents of Paradise Deep.

…death wasn’t sudden and complete but took a man out of the world piecemeal, a little at a time.

The characters and the beautiful prose carry Galore through what I feel is an uneven narrative. The book follows mostly several generations of the Devine family. You can’t help but love them for the sheer effort they put into survival and the sacrifices they make to help one another along though a harsh world.

Judah Devine (a variation on Jonah) is adopted into the fold after being rescued from the belly of a beached whale by a woman known only as Devine’s Widow. He’s known for his bright white hair, skin, and a pervasive foul odor that he passes on to his offspring. Judah’s origin and past is a mystery — he never utters a word. He becomes a Devine only after Devine’s Widow arranges a hasty marriage to her granddaughter Mary Tryphena Devine, to save “The Great White” from a mob. The Devines are resourceful and stubborn, two qualities that sustain them over the decades.

Galore and its characters are imaginative — Crummey does a great job chronicling everyone’s longings, desires, conflicts, and losses and you become invested as you follow the burgeoning families. This book has a deep and conflicted soul of its own and I loved it for that. The characters are resolute in their beautiful, pervasive, stoic catechism.

They came finally to the consensus that life was a mystery and a wonder beyond human understanding, a conclusion they were comfortable with though there was little comfort in the thought.

My primary quibbles with Galore are narrative threads raised and dropped and seemingly random time hopping that accelerates the plot. You care about the characters and it’s irritating when they’re suddenly elderly and you’re not privy as a reader to those missing years. Critical characters like Bride Newman simply die offstage and the revelation feels rushed — an afterthought. I would have loved a longer book that followed fewer characters more closely.

Despite these irritations, Crummey is a writer I plan to explore further. In the words of Callum Devine, “what is it you wants?”

I wants me s’more Newfoundland, b’y.

June, 2016

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson


A God in Ruins is about identity, dutiful love, and above all, self sacrifice. This book, a companion to Life After Life, follows mostly Edward Beresford “Teddy” Todd before and after his Second World War experiences.

At first I was irritated with what seemed like a propensity to live a life of quiet desperation, in an unfulfilling marriage with an exasperating child. I realized that I was looking at Teddy’s life through the lens of the present, where flaky is the norm and commitment is rare.

Teddy’s generation had no choice — his own identity is indelibly scorched in the crucible of the war. Defying death against nearly impossible odds at the controls of a Halifax bomber is the only time he feels truly alive, yet this imbues him with a duty-bound stoicism. His life is a series of sacrifices; first for the war effort, then for his wife, and finally his grandchildren. (Teddy is the only steadying force they have in their lives and they love him for it.)

I enjoyed this book. It’s layered, nuanced, and complex. There’s plenty to explore here — it’s meaty with references to poetry that I have to admit were somewhat lost on me. Duty, honor, and love are compelling themes and it got me thinking about what sort of life is a good life — what it is that etches your life with meaning? Is forsaking your own happiness and well being for country, spouse, children, and grandchildren the key to a life well lived? For Teddy, it seems so — if only for the reason that a whole life can be erased in the instant.

He had believed once that he would be framed by the architecture of the war, but now he realized, he had been erased by it.
–A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

April — May, 2016

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

lifeafterlifePractice makes perfect.

If you could go back in life and get a do-over, would you take that chance and change the course of history? Kate Atkinson’s brilliant novel, Life After Life tackles this intriguing question.

Ursula Beresford Todd, human palimpsest, gets the chance to live life after life, each time altering the future based on the sometimes not so fun events of the past. Life After Life reminded me of how the superposition principle of quantum physics plays out in Ruth Ozeki’s marvelous book, A Tale for the Time Being. Ursula’s life path has a bevy of possibilities — the array that collapses as you, the observer, follow her story.

I don’t want to say much about the plot to avoid spoilers, though Life After Life is everything I feel a great book should be. It’s a period piece, set in 20th century Europe. The characters are exceptionally deep, fully-flawed, and interesting. I loved that you get to see and experience each vivid character from many different viewpoints — their best and worst sides included — which makes for terrific, rich reading.

You’re never quite sure where Atkinson is going to take you via Ursula and you’re on tenterhooks until the very last page wondering how this imaginative book will end.

Should you read this book? In the words of Ursula’s mom Sylvie, needs must (necessity compels).

Special thanks to my friend Michelle for putting this book, and its sequel, A God in Ruins on my reading radar.

–April, 2016

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

fingersmithDo you think me good?

Maud Lilly, a central character, asks this question of herself and others in Sarah Waters’ novel, Fingersmith. It’s a question I continue to ask myself of the book after having finished it.

I wanted to love this book. It’s a historical crime novel, set in England. It’s filled with rogues and criminals and intrigue.  Raised in a den of toughs and “sharpers,” Sue Trinder’s a human secret — a pawn in a long game meant to extract a fortune.

Do you think me good?

Considering every character except the hapless yet pivotal knife boy, every single character is, at one point or another, given to ugly brutality. What bothered me most is the constant abject cruelty on the part of many of the characters.

Old man Lilly abuses his “niece” Maud, making her read pornography aloud to “gentlemen” visitors to Briar — a house aptly named as a container full of orneries adept at perpetrating human suffering. In turn, Maud physically and mentally abuses her ladies’ maid. Later, Maud allows Gentleman to disabuse the maid of her virtue. Lesser character John Vroom thinks nothing of decorating his girlfriend Dainty in blues and purples with regular beatings. He sports a coat of many dog pelts constructed from the skin of stolen pets. Mrs. Sucksby, the grand dame of perps, is the epicentre of the whole seething vortex of evil.

Art imitates life, yes and every single human is capable of ugly brutality, but I couldn’t help but long for someone truly good, who I could get behind and root for, above all others. Sue Trinder’s who you’ve got your money on as a reader and even she abuses the pathetic knife boy near to death.

Do you think me good?

A great portion of the novel is told twice, first from Sue’s point of view and then from Maud’s. The major plot twist aside, the pacing of the repetition is hard to plow through because it was clear to me how the book was to end. I’ll repeat myself. I really wanted to love this book. But if I were to answer Maud’s question, I’d have to say no, this book wasn’t for me.

–March, 2016

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

theheartgoeslastThe Heart Goes Last is a dystopian American horror story taken to a farcical extreme, complete with a bevy of Elvis impersonators and robot sex toys.

As part of a financial crisis, Stan and Charmaine are forced to live in their car, outrunning roving gangs and other hostiles in the streets as society disintegrates. To escape poverty, they willingly sign up for a twin city prison program designed to offer employment and housing for all, where citizens rotate through prison and regular life one month at a time. Much like Hotel California, you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

I found the characters flat and wooden — Stan is an unsatisfied lust bucket with a single-track mind and Charmaine — the prison’s Stepford wife angel of death — is vapid and empty as a soap bubble. The plot devolves far past satire into farce. Without any characters to root for, this book wasn’t for me.

— February, 2016

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

houseofthespirits The full force of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits didn’t hit me until the Epilogue, when Alba, the youngest member of the Trueba family, realizes that to go forward, she must reject the generational cycle of violence and revenge and choose love.

The prose is vivid and evocative. The narrative rolls out like kite string in a windstorm. The characters are deep, quirky, and endearingly flawed. Some, like the ethereal and otherworldly Clara, have only a tentative foothold in this world. How cool is that?

Formerly powerful Esteban Trueba, human hurricane, longtime congressman of the deposed establishment right, serial rapist, oppressor general of basically anyone who comes into contact with him, is unable to save the only thing left in the world that he loves — his granddaughter Alba  — after she is disappeared post-coup by the military regime. It’s not until he entreats Tránsito Soto, a whore-turned madam, that Alba is returned. Raped and broken in body but healing, she vows to “break that terrible chain” of violence, oppression, and vengeance.

It would be very difficult for me to avenge all those who should be avenged, because my revenge would be just another part of the same inexorable rite. I have to break that terrible chain.

Pride, vengeance, family, loyalty, and survival all figure heavily in this amazing novel that I’ll probably be unpacking for as long as I live. I want to thank Lori McLeese for putting her beloved Isabel Allende on my radar.

January, 2016


A Jest of God by Margaret Laurence

ajestofgodRachel Cameron is a spinster. She’s only 34-years old, but the school teacher from the fictional town of Manawaka, Manitoba, is almost as childlike as her grade twos.

She’s virginal and anxiety-laden. Her inner monologue is a cacophony of second guesses.  She agonizes over what others might think of her; she analyzes exchanges with her overbearing, manipulative mother. Her first instinct is to apologize to anyone for anything — to her mother, school principal Siddley, her friend Calla, and summer fling Nick — but she’s not without some self-awareness:

Something must be the matter with my way of viewing things. I have no middle view. Either I fix on a detail and see it as though it were magnified — a leaf with all its veins perceived, the fine hairs on the back of a man’s hands — or else the world recedes and becomes blurred, artificial, indefinite, an abstract painting of a word.

Along comes Nick Kazlik, a grade 11 teacher home for the summer holidays to spend time with his aging parents on their dairy farm. Nick is Rachel’s key to a delayed, condensed, and frenzied adolescence on her way to adulthood.

A slang-slinging smooth talker, Nick’s only interested in one thing. Rachel — despite the potential for a pregnancy that would induce apoplectic levels of shame for her and her mother in their backward little prairie town — can’t resist his Slavic charms.

Laurence does a great job depicting sexual politics in early 1960s rural Canada, a place where women were in charge of acquiring birth control because (according to men) “it’s better like that” and “fixing themselves” after sex despite zero access to contraceptives.

Rachel can’t win. Everyone in town knows she’s unmarried. Asking her long-time family doctor for birth control would annihilate her reputation; it’s out of the question. Having the baby would induce immutable shame for Rachel, her mother, and especially the child, who as a bastard would be marked in Manawaka, doomed by whispered innuendo its entire life.

Manawaka is a place where an unwanted pregnancy means considering ways to flee the problem (leaving town, abortion, suicide).  It’s a place where men say things like:

Sh, sh, darling. It’s all right. I won’t go off in you.

Only to be quickly followed by:

“Oh hell, darling,” he says, “I meant to get out before that happened, but I –“

You can’t help but root for Rachel who finally  wrests control of her life from her mother — a cloying, pill-dependent, weak-hearted guilt machine — by leaving Manawaka behind for an adult life on the coast infused with possibility, a place where:

Anything may happen, where I’m going.

Such a beautiful and stark novel, much like the prairie on which it’s set.

— December, 2015

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence

thestoneangelA fitting alternate title for The Stone Angel might have been Pride and Prejudice, but of course, by the time Margaret Laurence’s magnificent novel came out in 1964, that title was already long taken.

I’d read and loved this book as required reading in high school. Over two decades later, I’d long forgotten the beautiful prose and central plot. With several (excellent) fantasy novels in my recent reading, I longed for something closer to home. The Stone Angel, grounded in simple dirt and sweat, heavy with imagery and metaphors only a harsh prairie climate can offer, delivers — over 50 years post-publication.

The stone angel — the massive, expensive, sightless marble statue in the Manawaka cemetery — is monument to “her who relinquished her feeble ghost as I gained my stubborn one,” says Hagar Shipley, reflecting on her life at age 90, referencing her mother in the opening lines of the book.

Pitted from snow and wind and eventually toppled by random vandals — the stone angel symbolizes Hagar: her inability to love, and her tenuous grip on a civilized and respectable life.

Satin and silver and true, everlasting happiness are forever out of Hagar’s grasp — not derailed by coarse, underachieving men — but by Hagar herself. A woman who realizes all too late in life — at the very last second in fact — that she is incapable of humility, she’s forever finding fault, hung up on superficial flaws of character,  behaviour, and appearance.

Hagar is blind to that which should bring her happiness — her children, her husband Bram Shipley — the handsome man who blows his nose with his fingers, his massive winter coat pockets bursting with “scraps of frayed binder twine, a bag of sticky peppermints bearded with bits of fluff. Never of course, a handkerchief.”

Always worried about appearances, Hagar cannot relax enough to love her husband, her children, or herself. There is always the fear that others may observe and find her wanting:

I would have wished it. This knowing comes upon me so forcefully, so shatteringly, and with such a bitterness as I have never felt before. I must have always have wanted that — simply to rejoice. How is it I never could? I know. I know. Or have I always known, in some far crevice of my heart, some care too deeply buried, too concealed? Every good joy I might have held, in my man or any child of mine or even the plain light of morning, of walking the earth, all were forced to a standstill by brake of proper appearances — oh proper to whom? When did I ever speak the heart’s truth?

Hagar, (Hebrew for “flight” or “stranger”) is drought in human form. Devoid of love, warmth, acceptance, humility, and forgiveness, those around her wither and die like tall grass under a relentless prairie sun:

Pride was my wilderness and the demon that led me there was fear. I was alone, never anything else, and never free, for I carried my chains with me, and they spread out from me and shackled all I touched.

This book is about expectations dashed, about self-imposed shame, and the realization that you can’t take it all back. When it comes to human feelings, there is no do-over.  “Nothing can take away those years” and the damage they’ve wrought.

The prose is exceptionally beautiful. Despite the heavy themes, this book holds hope as heady as the smell of fresh cut grass and blooming lilac bushes in a Manitoba June. The Stone Angel is worth your time.

December, 2015

Visible and physical dependence

“You can see it, can’t you. Hasta’akala: to be made like sta’aka. To be made visibly and physically dependent on someone stronger. He offered us hasta’akala. He took me to the garden and showed me the ivy and I didn’t make the connection. I thought he was offering Marc and me his protection and hospitality. I thought I could trust him. He asked my consent and I gave it. And I thanked him.”

Father Sandoz willingly gives up his dignity.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell