Friday, October 28, 2011

THE SENSE OF AN ENDING by Julian Barnes (2011) Random House of Canada, 150 pages

After reading an excerpt from this year's Man Booker Prize winner in my Grade 12 Writer's Craft class a week ago, one of the boys bought a copy, read it in a gulp or two and loaned it to me yesterday. Like him, I flipped through this little tome on my travels to the International Festival of Authors here in Toronto last night and finished it on my commute to work today.

Before school this morning we had a little conversation about our sense of the ending, which neither of us had anticipated, in its soap opera-ish reveal. Like the protagonist Tony Webster, both Ben and I felt our outsider status because we "didn't quite get it"--entirely Barnes' point, I venture to guess. It took the kindness of a stranger in Tony's life to set him (and us, by extension) straight about the mutable facts of his past.

THE SENSE OF AN ENDING explores the unreliability of memory, its essential fickleness. And, although, I didn't really love this novel, Barnes has me flipping back through the pages, as if it were a mystery to be solved from clues I clearly missed.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

MIDSUMMER NIGHT IN THE WORKHOUSE by Diana Athill (2011) House of Anansi Press, 196 pages

In her preface to this collection of previously published stories, 93-year-old Diana Athill writes about "being hit" by her first story "one January morning in 1958." And, that in terms of her writing process, "I did not think about them in advance: a feeling would brew up, a first sentence would occur to me, and then the story would come, as though it had been there all the time." Consider the first sentence in "The Real Thing:" "I went to the dance with Thomas Toofat." Already you know something about the narrator and her attitudes. Or the one from "The Return" where she begins, "'Is bombs from the mountain. Not good,' said the man Christos, scraggy at the table over his plate of beans and oil, and wiped his fist across his mouth." It was this story that won a 500-pound prize from The Observer and woke her up to the fact that she "could write and had become happy."

The seductive quality of Athill's stories makes them feel contemporary, even though most of them were scribbled into existence 40-50 years ago. I knew she was a woman ahead of her time from reading her memoirs STET and SOMEWHERE TOWARDS THE END, so I should have expected the same progressive attitudes from characters in the stories collected here in MIDSUMMER NIGHT IN THE WORKHOUSE. She writes so convincingly about the distances between men and women and with a wry sense of humour. Take, for example, Cecilia's observation about Charles in the titular tale: "He went straight over to take off the record, assuming that she would prefer him to music." Or, the way she boldly teases him by suggesting, "Please do not sleep with the maids. It can cause pregnancy."

The stories are also rife with ordinary moments that stop your heart as in "For Rain It Hath a Friendly Sound" when Kate returns with her lover David for a last drink and "halfway up the stairs, he turned in the middle of a sentence to kiss her cheek...almost too natural to notice." Later, in "An Unavoidable Delay" Rose decides that "to go on with this architect would be worse than full skirts, flowered cotton and flat sandals, it would be too banal, not to be thought of."

Diana Athill is a wonder. Find your way to these stories. You will be charmed.

THE ANTAGONIST by Lynn Coady (2011) House of Anansi Press, 337 pages

"There will be time to murder and create." ~T.S. Eliot

Any writer who has the balls to begin their narrative with a T.S. Eliot reference has my attention. Unsurprisingly, Lynn Coady's protagonist Gordon "Rank" Rankin is a scrapper by nature and avocation when he's on the ice, a hockey enforcer, a beloved goon. Just like his old man, Gordon Senior, he's quick to flare. Until tragedy swipes by, that is, and makes a meal of Rank. It changes everything as Rank tries to disappear from university life and the hope of his east coast town.

Twenty years later Rank discovers that Adam, one of his closest university friends, has used the details of Rank's life to write a novel and THE ANTAGONIST forms Rank's impassioned response to that book in a series of emails in which he deconstructs their shared past as well as comes to terms with the sadness in his own.

Rank's voice is confident, clear and convincingly male. And, by the time you've made his journey with him, peering pruriently over his shoulder, you'll understand his apparently paradoxical apology/accusation at the end:

"And thank you for not putting it in your book.
And fuck you for not putting it in your book.
Your friend,
Gordon Rankin

Lynn Coady is a real talent, one whose words I'll be watching for eagerly.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

THE VIRGIN CURE by Ami McKay (2011) From the A.A. Knopf Canada ARC, 351 pages

Ami McKay's debut novel THE BIRTH HOUSE was a national bestseller and longlisted for the Dublin IMPAC Literary Award. Her second book THE VIRGIN CURE has been eagerly anticipated, and with good reason.

Set in the 1870s in Manhattan, McKay unravels the tale of Moth Fenwick--the daughter of a Gypsy fortune-teller who sells her into service to the sadistic Mrs. Wentworth when she's only twelve. Before then Moth runs through tenements with local hooligans, whose "names were made from body parts and scars, bragging rights and bad luck." In order to escape to a better life beyond the abusive walls of the posh Wentworth home, Moth forges an allegiance with the butler, Nestor, who offers a kindness that "would require everything I had to give."

Moth does escape, but ends up being lured into an altogether different form of service as a whore in a brothel run by Miss Everett, who provides girls who might offer her incurable and tainted gentleman clients not only companionship, but also "the virgin cure." The one good piece of luck that befalls Moth at "The Infant School" is meeting Dr. Sadie, a progressive physician who has a social conscience and tends to the prostitutes and the poor in the Bowery. Dr. Sadie is the moral heart of the novel and based on McKay's own great-great-grandmother who wrote her graduating thesis on syphilis and the deadly myth that a gentleman with the disease could cleanse his blood by deflowering a virgin.

Interspersed with diary entries, advertisements, newspaper articles and period quotations (from songs, books and poems) that lend an enhanced authenticity to the narrative, THE VIRGIN CURE is a rapturous tale told from the perspective of a survivor who makes an indelible impression in your heart.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

GLASS BOYS by Nicole Lundrigan (2011) Douglas &McIntyre

Douglas & McIntyre, the little west-coast publisher that could, does not shy away from tough topics. Earlier this year they published Margaux Fragoso's harrowing memoir TIGER, TIGER, where she chronicles her relationship with a pedophile and through her exquisite pain gives that life full resonant voice in the telling. Nicole Lundrigan's novel GLASS BOYS is calibrated with similar intensity and rendered tenable through unflinching visceral prose.

All families have secrets, hidden away in dark places. None, however, are perhaps as upsetting as the one coveted by eleven-year-old Garrett Glass. When Garrett's stepfather Eli Fagan discovers the contents of his prized pickle jar, he flies into a blind rage, burning the evidence in a backyard fire-barrel.

At the same time, the Trench brothers, Roy and Lewis stumble drunkenly into Fagan's yard and their misstep ends up costing Roy his life. Faced with his own guilt at not being able to save or protect his brother as you would expect a local cop to do, Lewis stokes a life-long hatred against Fagan, the man he holds responsible for Roy's unexpected death. For a time Lewis hopes for a different, more loving future in a life that he builds with Wilda Burry and their two sons. However, when previous darknesses begin to haunt his family and cleave them apart, Lewis realizes that the past is not past. And, all roads, both literal and symbolic, lead back to Eli Fagan's place.

Nicole Lundrigan's GLASS BOYS is paradoxically dark and illuminating. Her strong prose reminds me of Michael Helm's, especially in CITIES OF REFUGE and IN THE PLACE OF LAST THINGS: the way they both unravel a tale about flawed characters is utterly riveting.