Winner of the 2005 Governor General’s Award for Fiction
Longlisted for the 2007 IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize
David Gilmour’s Governor General’s Award winning novel A Perfect Night to Go to China brought him to the bookshelves of a lot of people who have never heard of him. He was the well known host of Gilmour on the Arts on CBC for many years. This novel is really the masterpiece of Gilmour’s career to date. The book focuses on a father, Roman, who makes the very poor decision to go for a drink at a bar one night while his young son is home alone in bed; upon returning he sees his son is gone and the downward spiral begins. The book abstract or synopsis would lead you to believe that the book focuses on the search of his son and events surrounding the disappearance. This is not the case. A Perfect Night to Go to China is about a man coping with his own poor decisions and the ensuing chaos and personal sabotage that ensues.
The actual writing of the book is very beautiful. It is clear, concise, it reads very fast, and after completing the book you sit back and realize that yes, David Gilmour is a lot smarter than you are but he doesn’t rub it into your face with over used or cryptic metaphors and similes. The book is not without it’s flaws though; one thing that really struck me about the book was a complete disregard for any kind of psychological realism. One of the key tools the book uses is dream sequences, which the reader is led to believe is Roman’s visions of the afterlife. With his mother as a guide, he communicates with his son and continually asks for his forgiveness. Albeit that Roman’s life does unravel, he indulges in reckless drug use, assaulting people, and robbery, there is very little realistic reaction to the situation that he is facing, and, in the end, ultimately responsible for. Most people would agree that if you are having visions of your child in the afterlife you would likely also have other more disturbing visions of how your child arrived at this point.
The ending of the book is very vague and ambiguous; likely done so intentionally. I have the feeling that when Gilmour reached his target word count he didn’t how to end the story. It is obvious that our protagonist does attempt suicide but what follows is really anyone’s guess. SPOILER ALERT! One thing I will give kudos to Mr. Gilmour for is that he does not reveal what happened to Roman’s son Simon. I think this would have cheapened the novel. Simon’s disappearance is not the key event in the book; instead it is the precipitating event in Roman’s emotional collapse. Simon’s disappearance is a symbol, nothing more.
Would I recommend this book to a friend? Yes. Do I think it deserved to win the 2005 Governor-General’s Award over Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road or Golda Fried’s Nellcott is My Darling? I don’t know if I could say yes; I could definitely give all kinds of reasons why not though.
Winner of the 1997 Giller Prize
Winner of the 1998 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour
Winner of the 1998 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (Canada & Caribbean region)
Winner of the 1998 QSpell Award
Winner of the 1998 Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Award
Shortlisted for 1997 Roger’s Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize
Selected for Canada Reads 2004
Well, here it is, my first review on the new Blog! It has been at least 8 months since I had sat down to read a “real” book. I stood looking at my book case and decided that it was time to rekindle my love of CanLit. I had read recently that a film adaptation of Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler staring Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman was due to be released this summer; so remembering this, then after reading the inside flap, and seeing the original “1997 Winner: The Giller Prize” sticker on the cover of my first edition copy I decided to crack this volume open and get sucked into the lives of another one of Richler’s anti-epics.
Sitting my computer right now I feel I would not be doing this book justice unless I was sipping on a snifter of cognac while putting down my thoughts. One of this first things that struck me about this book was that it is written in the first person, Richler’s first novel to use this point-of-view. Barney Panofsky is a hot tempered, wickedly witted, alcoholic, caring, shrewdly intelligent, and complicated wretch of an old man. It is very hard to avoid seeing autobiographical elements in fiction, especially first-person fiction, and even more so in the writings of Mr. Richler, and of course this book is no different. Barney, like Richler himself, is nearing the end of his life (Richler died 4 years after the publication of this, his last, novel), his health is failing, he has a love of Montecristo cigars and Macallan Scotch, and internally struggles with what it means to be a post-Holocaust Jew, if anything.
Barney’s Version, in the way it is written and in the themes that emerge, is very similar to Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel (I actually re-watched the film adaptation just to reaffirm my opinion). The story is told through flashbacks and interconnected vignettes. The book is written as though it is Barney Panofsky’s memoirs with his son Mike adding footnotes and penning an afterword to wrap the story up. There are multiple climaxes in the story, 4 in my opinion, one at the end of each marriage and then one at the end of the book. Barney really is a pathetic man but he has his redeeming qualities. The 417 pages contained in this novel take you on a roller coaster of feelings towards him, one minute you will despise this drunk wife-beater but 20 pages later you adore his dry wicked charm as he woos his next wife. Barney’s Version is about memory; and what happens to a man when his memories outweigh his future and then what that man becomes when those memories fade.
In the final chapter with one sentence Mike Panofsky describes his father with pinpoint accuracy; “Before his brain began to shrink, Barney Panofsky clung to two cherished beliefs: Life was absurd, and nobody ever truly understood anybody else” (417). I think that anyone would be very hard pressed to convince me that either of these two ideas are false. Through his incredible satire Richler has once again crafted a masterpiece on the human condition. When Barney is being tested by a psychiatrist for Alzheimer’s disease he gets agitated and lets him know that the great writers of world better understand what it means to be human than any doctor could. I agree. Richler’s final novel is a great and fitting end to a Canadian literary legend.
Welcome to my new book review blog on Canadian Literature. As the Canadian radio legend Jian Ghomeshi put it a few years ago, as Canadians we “love our beer, we love our hockey, and we love our arts.” It can be argued that literature is at the forefront of Canada’s artistic scene. Over the last 50 years there has been a great proliferation of Canadian literature (aka CanLit); I attribute this to two things. First, the emergence of the great triumvirate of contemporary CanLit: Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and Michael Ondaatje; and secondly, and more recently, CBC Radio’s annual Canada Reads debates on the book that every Canadian should read.
Canadian writing can be traced back to the mid-late 1700s and narrative tales from the likes of Saukamapee, David Thompson, and Samuel Hearne and story writers like John Richardson and Frances Brooke. These visionaries planted the seeds for people like Catherine Parr Trail and Susanna Moodie who in turn planted the seeds for everyone from Sir Charles G.D. Roberts through Marina Endicott. Literature, like any other art, evolves, sometimes violently, but deep in its core CanLit has remained the same; themes of survival and isolation prevail. The detractors of Atwood and Frye will be up in arms with this assertion but I challenge you to name one piece of Canadian writing that these themes do not apply.
One of the biggest things I love about great writing is how small it makes you feel. When you read someone like Mordecai Richler or Leonard Cohen there is one thing, among many, you should feel, that’s jealousy. When I put down a great piece I feel jealous of the talent these men and women have that I will never posses. This is one of the most humbling yet inspiring feelings I have felt, and its what keeps me reaching for that next title on my bookshelf.
As some of you may know my previous blog, at http://www.thebookblog.net, focused on Canadian literature with the periodic interruption by an international piece, this review will be no different. I encourage you to read the books I review and comment on here or write to me; tell me what you think, I encourage you to disagree with me. So sit back and enjoy the ride.