Tag Archives: Commonwealth Prize

Room by Emma Donoghue

RoomEmmaDonoghue690_f

Winner of the 2010 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize
Winner of the 20111 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book, Canada and Caribbean Region
Winner of the 2010 Salon Book Award
Winner of the 2011 Alex Award
Winner of the 2010 Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year Award
Winner of the 2011 Indies Choice Book Award
Winner of the 2011 WH Smith Paperback of the Year, Galaxy National Book Awards
Shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize
Shortlisted for the 2010 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction
Shortlisted for the 2011 Orange Prize
Longlisted for the 2012 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
Amazon.ca Best Book – 2010
New York Times Notable Book of the Year – 2010
ALA Notable Book – 2011

Room by Irish-Canadian novelist Emma Donoghue was one of the hit novels to come out of the CanLit scene in 2010. As seen above, it was nominated for numerous awards and was on countless “Best Book” lists. For those hiding under a rock, Room tells the story of a five year old boy, Jack, and his mother, known only as Ma, who are held captive in an 11′ x 11′ garden shed and their subsequent escape and rehabilitation. The story is told in the first-person voice of Jack, who despite never knowing anything outside what he affectionately calls Room, is very sharp and observant.

I had high expectations when I started this book; reviews were mostly positive, its award pedigree was impressive, and its concept sounded interesting. The idea of a woman being held captive is hardly an original idea – it is a common story that can been seen at least once a month on Criminal Minds or Law & Order: SVU, but Donoghue takes a novel approach to the story. The story unfolds in what is basically a three act structure – from Jack’s 5th birthday in Room up to and including his escape, Jack’s and Ma’s time in the psychiatric hospital, and finally the time Jack spends alone with his grandparents after his mother tries to commit suicide. Each part has it’s own climax, so structurally the story flows quite quickly and seamlessly and is reminiscent of the style of late modernist CanLit writers like Margaret Laurence.

Room‘s most fascinating element was the narration by the precocious and literal thinking Jack. I often have trepidations about reading fiction narrated by a young child. It is very difficult to capture everything the author is going for without making the child seem like some kind of super genius. Donoghue managed to avoid this for the most part, particularly by making the novel dialogue heavy; while Jack relays the dialogue to us as readers, it is clear he doesn’t understand what is going on in many instances. This is very cleverly done and really adds to Jack’s character development and keeps that psychological forward momentum going.

Thematically, Room is very complex. The element of this novel that seems to get the most attention is the resilience of Jack and this notion of the toughness of children. But there is so much more going on. During the first half of the novel before they escape, I was fascinated by the dichotomy of the pure innocence of Jack juxtaposed with the pure evil of Old Nick and how Ma manages to act as a buffer between the two and avoid any contamination of Jack’s purity. Later in the novel, I was quite taken by the parasitic nature of the news media and the pressure on Ma to tell her story – this reminded me of the interviews of the women held captive by Ariel Castro in Cleveland. An argument is often made that Room is itself a larger metaphor for parenthood itself – the sense of isolation, captivity, dependence, etc – but I don’t like this; I find it too simplistic of an analysis of a very complex novel.

Overall, I liked this book. There were a few points that I had difficulty accepting, most notably Ma’s attempted suicide, but overall I was satisfied by Room. The characters are well developed and realistic, the dialogue is effective and well-written, the portrayal of Jack is incredibly effective, there is no over-writing or extraneous detail, and Donoghue focuses on the parts of this family’s story that should be the focus instead of simply novelizing an episode of Law & Order.

As a post-script, apparently a film adaptation of Room is in the works with the screenplay written by Emma Donoghue herself. I am pessimistic about how well a piece of highly psychological fiction that relies so heavily on a 5 year old’s stream-of-conscious  narration will translate to a visual medium. We’ll just have to wait until it’s released to know I suppose.

Advertisements

Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott

Winner of the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book, Canada and Caribbean Region

Shortlisted for the 2008 Giller Prize

Selected for Canada Reads 2010

A Globe and Mail Best Book – 2008

When the shortlist came out for the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize I had only heard of one title, Cockroach by Rawi Hage; I set out to discover a little bit about each of the other shortlisted books and was instantly interested in Marina Endicott’s first novel, Good to a Fault. The accolades continued to pile up including a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, a spot on the Globe and Mail Best Book list, and recently a spot on Canada Reads. The story is simple enough: a single, fairly well-off insurance salesperson, runs into a car carrying a homeless family. The mother ends up being diagnosed with lymphoma and lives in the hospital; the father, who is one of the most interesting characters of the book, runs out on the bunch of them; and Clara, the driver at fault, takes in the children and the cantankerous old grandmother, Mrs. Pell, into her large empty home, eventually taking it over. This book certainly met my expectations; I found it read very slow, even for me, a self-admitted slow reader, and was very densely written. This is not a criticism, more so a surprise. This book is not driven by constant action; being a dramatist by trade, Endicott instead drives the novel with a theatrical blend of quiet honesty and subtle human interactions.

One topic that came up in the debate for Canada Reads 2010 was the “Canadian-ness” of the novels; many of the panelists said that they view this book as one of the “least Canadian.” While I was reading it I saw the exact opposite. In the opening few chapters the idea of fault is examined: Clara is an insurance agent, who’s job it is to asses fault. This opening irony is one of the key themes of the books. As the novel progresses you see Clara thrown into motherhood head first; she is in charge of 2 active children and a young baby with Mrs. Pell constantly over her shoulder. This is where the previously mentioned “Canadian-ness” comes into play. What is more Canadian that helping those in need, strangers, with no obligation, simply because you feel it is your job as a fellow human, albeit guilt may have played a significant role in this decision. Without giving too much away of the plot and ending, this theme constantly roars its head at each turn in the novel.

The writing style  is interesting. It is written in the third-person with constantly changing perspectives. This shifting is one of the reasons I found this book a somewhat slow and dense read, but this is also part of the book’s charm. The first few chapters were told almost solely from Clara’s point-of-view; for the first 50 to 75 pages one thought that was persistent in me was that this novel should have been written from a first person perspective. As the narration started switching to more and more characters I came around to Ms. Endicott’s reasoning. The interior monologues and musings make this story what it is. This is ultimately a story about ordinary people in an extraordinary situation with lots of time to contemplate their circumstances. If it wasn’t for the internal dialog this would be a pretty dull story: it would be about 35 pages long and would often talk about people “thinking intently.”

Moral of this review: pick up this book and read it. This novel could be seen, at first glance, as an overly didactic tale written to make you a better person, this could not be farther from the truth. This is the very pragmatic story of two women, 3 kids, and a universe of supporting characters just trying to make it through life one day at a time, just like most people. 2008 was a great year for Canadian novels; had this been released a couple years earlier or later, I really believe it would have cleaned up the major awards. Good to a Fault has the qualities that are typical of a piece that will last way beyond its writer’s time; it is universal; it is not specifically of any particular time, by that I mean there is nothing in here that would seem alien to people 50 years from now; and it has characters that could be anyone of us. Great novel; I am looking forward to reading Marina Endicott’s other book of fiction and her great works that will, no doubt, appear in the future.

The Gunny Sack by M.G. Vassanji

Winner of the 1990 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Book, Africa Region

M.G. Vassanji, like Michael Ondaatje and Rohinton Mistry, is one of Canada’s most prolific immigrant writers. Being of Indian descent, born in Kenya, raised in Tanzania, educated in the US, and eventually ending up in Canada, Vassanji has a vast array of cultural influences to draw from. Perhaps being best known as either the inaugural Giller winner or the first two-time Giller winner, he has produced success after success after success. Arguably his most well-known books are his Giller winners The Book of Secrets and The In-Between World of Vikram Lall but Vassanji has continuously received both critical and popular acclaim. His long list of hit titles began in 1989 with his debut novel The Gunny Sack. This novel deals with the same settings and themes as his later works, but in my opinion, with far less finesse.

The nuts and bolts of this story is that the protagonist, Salim Juma, inherits his great aunt’s gunny sack. In the first few pages while looking through the sack he begins to reminisce about growing up in eastern Africa. We are taken through many generations and many historical events in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, most notably the Mau Mau uprising and Idi Amin’s rise to power. On a fundamental level this book is about how your memory can play an important role in your interpretation of history.

If you have ever studied post-Civil War American literature than you should be very familiar with what the naturalist movement was. If not, basically this was a style used by writers like Stephen Crane, Kate Chopin, and Edith Wharton where the story was told as if it the characters where part of a scientific experiment. The story is narrated with the utmost detail with no “editorializing.” This novel is narrated in that style; this makes for a very slow and very dull read. The Gunny Sack is at least 100 pages too long. The narration is given with such minute detail that you lose track of the action of the story frequently. 60 pages into the novel I honestly still had no idea what was going on. Perhaps this is because Vassanji is a physicist by trade.

This novel as well has more characters than a soap opera. Each section of the novel centers around one particular person in the Salim Juma’s life. Right off the bat you are inundated with almost a dozen characters in the immediate family. This is very difficult to keep track of. Part of the difficulty of this novel is the excessive use of the Swahili language. This is a technique that is used in his other novels but to nowhere near the extent of this. There is a glossary at the end of the book but this really gets in the way and the enjoyment of reading.

So,as  you can probably guess, I was not a big fan of this book. I was very disappointed as The In-Between World of Vikram Lall is one of my favorite books. This novel reads like an African history text. So in short, read one of Vassanji’s many other great works; if you have a great interest in East African history than The Gunny Sack is for your.

Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler

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.

%d bloggers like this: