Monthly Archives: July, 2010

The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews

Winner of the 2008 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize

Finalist for the 2008 Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction

Shortlisted for the 2009 Orange Prize

Finalist for the 2008 McNally Robinson Book of the Year

A Globe and Mail Best Book – 2008

Miriam Toews is without a doubt one of Canada’s brightest active literary stars. The Flying Troutmans is Toews follow-up to the immensely successful A Complicated Kindness, winner of the Governor-General’s Award, Canada Reads, and a display case full of other prizes. When a book reaches that level of success there is always a lot of apprehension on both the writer’s and reader’s side about whether the next piece can possibly measure up. The Flying Troutmans does just that; this novel is yet another perfectly penned piece of 21st century Canadian fiction.

This novel centers around three characters: Hattie, who starts the novel living the life of an artist in Paris; Hattie’s 11 year old precocious and talkative niece Thebes; and 15 year old nephew Logan who talks very little but loves to shoot hoops and has an ingrained talent for lyrical poetry. Hattie returns to Manitoba after receiving a phone call from Thebes explaining that her mother, Hattie’s sister, Min, has had another breakdown. Once Min is admitted to the hospital to deal with her latest psychotic episode the story really gets rolling.

The Flying Troutmans is a classic road story in the same tradition as Jack Kerouac’s legendary tales. The novel moves along at a great pace that would hold the attention of even the most casual readers. The Troutmans hit the road in search of the kids’ estranged father Cherkis. Along the way they stop in a variety of little ‘burbs, greasy-spoons, dive motels, and meet a number of memorable characters while intertwining a number of sharp vignettes. The action is primarily driven through the dialogue; whether it is between characters or internal. Hattie and the children learn a lot about themselves, each other, and life in general while trying their best to deal with this impossible situation they have been handed. Toews makes a great effort to show the readers what being human and being alive is all about and succeeds masterfully at it.

This novel can be given many labels; it is a road story, it is a story about mental illness, it is a story of survival, and ultimately it is a story of hope. Like her previous works the author finds a seamless way to blend humour and serious issues; she recognizes that sometimes life is funny, sometimes tragic, but in the end it is what it is. One of the reasons I am such a huge fan of Miriam Toews is the way she understands how to write young characters. In recent memory there have been other novels with young people as the central characters enter the CanLit world, Pandora by Sylvia Fraser and Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill come to mind, while I do love these books their young characters lack a certain authenticity. The youth of Toews stories, especially the Troutman children, are so well written and described that it defies belief. I am certain that 30 years from now when we are looking at the CanLit canon, Miriam Toews will be in the same category as Laurence, Ondaatje, Wiseman or Engel. As I did after I finished A Complicated Kindness I now eagerly await her next brilliant exploration.

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Testament by Nino Ricci

Co-Winner of the 2002 Trillium Award

Shortlisted for the 2002 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize

Shortlisted for the 2002 Commonwealth Prize, Canada and Caribbean Region

A Vancouver Sun Book of the Year ~ 2002

A Booklist Choice for Top Ten Historical Novels of the Year ~ 2002

A Times Literary Supplement Book of the Year ~ 2002

This is the third time I have read Testament and each time I always notice something new and amazing. Nino Ricci’s fourth novel, Testament, tells the story of Jesus Christ but with a twist; Jesus, or Yeshua as he is known through most of the book, is simply a very charismatic ordinary human being who’s legacy has been skewed and mystified. The story is told through four different narrators in four different “books” (seeing a connection?): Yihuda of Qiryat, Miryam of Migdal, Miryam his Mother, and Simon of Gergesa. To add a bit of humanism of the character of Jesus, Ricci, in the first three books, choses to use the ancient Aramaic names that would have been used in the historical time frame. The reader is challenged on several different points in the gospel narrative and some very inventive explanations on how the stories evolved into what we know today.

Much like the Gospels, there is a lot of overlap in Ricci’s four books with each giving their own piece of the puzzle. Some of the traditional ideas that Testament turns around includes the Virgin Birth, in which is explained by Miryam his Mother being raped by a Roman soldier and impregnating her; Judas’s (Yihuda’s) betrayal and that is was not against Yeshua but his group of Judean rebels; the healing powers and miracles of Jesus; and finally, or course, the resurrection. When you read this book you will be thinking one of two things (or two if you are good critical reader), you will either think that Ricci is a genius for possibly decoding how the story of the historical Jesus came to be; on the other side of the coin you may think that this book is a complete work of blasphemy.

But that being said, while you are reading this book you have to remember one thing, this is a novel, a work of fiction. Nino Ricci is not trying to turn anyone against their faith of discredit one of the most important historical figures in Western Civilization. This book is ultimately about our perceptions and how our interpretations of any event or person can be swayed or skewed by our perception. On one side of the coin you have the narrator of the fourth book, the pagan Simon of Gergesa, who has heard many fantastic stories about the man he knows as Jesus and witnesses what he believes to be Jesus raising someone from the dead when in fact it is very obvious that this was just an example of great medical treatment. You are left thinking that Simon really does believe in the preternatural abilities of this man. But as the book opens, Yihuda has seen the man he knows as Yeshua as a tortured ordinary man who is a great orator and conciliator; Yihuda has a great deal of inner turmoil caused by his relationship with Yeshua but from my reading of the story I do not see him at any point believing that Yeshua is divine in anyway. In his eyes Yeshua is a charismatic and strong man who simply wants to make his part of the world a better place for anyone who believes in the one true God.

Nino Ricci is without a doubt one of Canada’s newest rising literary stars. With only five novels he has won two Governor General’s Awards, a Trillium prize, been shortlist and longlisted for the Giller Prize, and the list goes on. Testament has long been on of my favorite novels. The language that Ricci uses to put the reader back into the ancient world of 2000 years ago is simply poetic and mesmerizing. This is a very long book. I have the fairly large first edition hardcover and it is over 450 pages; but that being said it is almost like reading 4 books in one because of the shifting narrators, perspectives, and style. This book deserves to be listed amongst the worlds greatest biblical meta-fiction. If you read this book and enjoyed it I would strongly recommend you also check out The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis; this is another narrative about the life of Jesus but with its own unique perspective.

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