Winner of the 2010 B.C. National Book Award for Non-Fiction
Winner of the 2010 Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Award
Winner of the 2010 CBA Libris Award for Non-Fiction
A Globe & Mail Best Book ~ 2010
A Quill & Quire Best Book ~ 2010
Selected for Canada Reads 2012
The 2012 edition of Canada Reads switched gears a bit and focused on non-fiction titles for the first time. I remember thinking then that The Tiger by John Vaillant stuck out a bit from the others. It was the only book that didn’t have a Canadian connection, other than the author’s nationality, and it was the only history narrative, while the other four were all memoirs. As such, this title got a rough ride on the show. But, more than most of the other titles that year, this one caught my interest. I planned on reading the book while listening to shows, and it only took me over 3 years to actually get to it. Who wouldn’t be interested in a classic man-versus-nature story of a man-eating tiger? There is a certain primitiveness to this idea. A challenge to Man’s rank in the natural pecking order. What Vaillant has delivered in The Tiger, is an interesting mix of history, nature writing, political science, and psychology.
I’m going to give The Tiger a solid “ok.” Certain aspects of the book were very interesting. Vaillant’s digressions into the biology, ecology, evolution and biogeography of tigers were the highlight of the book; additionally, he went into great depth in exploring the current conservation status and the sharp decline in tiger numbers. During these chapters, I felt strong overtones of one of my favorite nature titles, Song of the Dodo. Another strong point of this book was the correlations Vaillant drew between perestroika – the opening of the Soviet economy in the late 80s – and the desperate poverty in this remote region of Russia forcing people to resort to things like poaching. It was through this particular lens that the central players in the story were most interesting and developed.
This book was a bit of a slog though. The actual forward motion of the narrative component was a little slow and at some points came to grinding halt. The Tiger could have easily shed 50 to 75 pages. But, oddly enough, during the third and final section, “Trush”, the narrative took off with the pace that I was hoping for and, ultimately, you as the reader do feel satisfied with the conclusion.
With all of that being said, one thing that definitely stands out is the amount of primary research that the author must have done to complete this book. Other than one documentary film and the contemporaneous news stories, there would be very little available in terms of first-hand accounts of these incidents. For the author, I imagine striking out into the backwoods of isolated eastern Russia must have been like entering a different planet.
That’s all I’ve got. This is a rather short review, but I just don’t have much to say. I find I always have lots to say on books that I either really liked or really didn’t like, but books like The Tiger where I am just kinda “meh, it’s alright,” just don’t elicit enough excitement in me either way to write a lengthy response.
Winner of the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize
A Globe and Mail Top 100 Book ~ 2012
I’ve been aware of Will Ferguson for many years but I’ve never read his work. He’s won several Leacock Medals and authored two well-received humorous novels, HappinessTM and Spanish Fly. But, when his novel 419 was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, I was surprised that he had written a dramatic novel, let alone a thriller. It didn’t seem to fit with what I knew of his style and subjects. Ferguson’s Giller-Prize winning novel tells the story of a daughter, Laura, dealing with the death of her father after he falls for a 419 scam. (A 419 scam is something along the line of one of those classic emails from the Prince of Nigeria saying you won the lottery, etc. Everyone has gotten dozens of these; some lucky souls, like me, get them at work every day). I bought this novel because I collect Giller winners, and I decided to read it because of an interesting extended interview Ferguson did with Shelagh Rogers about 419. The book sounded fascinating and exciting. An inside look at the Nigerian underbelly and those 419ers trying to bilk trusting/greedy Westerners out of their cash. I really wanted to like this book. For the most part though, it was a something of a letdown.
I’d like to start with the positives though, because no book is without some kind of enjoyment. There are two very strong points in this novel: Ferguson’s descriptions of Nigeria and his portrayal of the email exchanges between Laura’s father and the scammer. At his heart, Will Ferguson is a travel writer. These talents really shined when he was describing the countryside of Nigeria and the urban decay of Lagos Island. These chapters hit all five senses and capture both the beauty and danger of this part of the world. The landscape passages were punctuated with examples of how the Nigerian people survive in this environment. To my second point, the actual 419 scam itself was gripping. As you read the emails exchanged between Henry Curtis and Winston, in his many guises, your stomach just cringes. It’s that classic dramatic irony you learn in Intro to Lit…you know something bad is going down but the poor rube in the story has no clue. This was the most enjoyable part of the book for me. Unfortunately, past about page 75 the story has moved on from the actual scam that was the catalyst for the primary plot.
Now for the fairly large problems that cost 419 a couple stars on Goodreads. There are too many unnecessarily detailed plot lines, the vast majority of characters are very one-dimensional and undeveloped, and the dénouement is frustratingly bad. I’m only going to get into the plot line problem; undeveloped characters are a pretty straightforward problem and I don’t want to spoil the ending.
Ferguson has several independent story lines going throughout the novel: Laura’s discovery and investigation of her father’s misfortune, the scammer Winston’s rise in the Nigerian criminal underworld, Amina’s story – a pregnant Muslim woman roaming the Nigerian countryside for some unexplained reason, and Nnamdi’s – a village boy who finds success in the oil patch and then falls unwillingly into the grip of Nigerian organized crime. The four plots eventually come together. Amina’s story comes out of nowhere and is frustratingly slow. Had this storyline came earlier, I likely wouldn’t have finished the novel. Nnamdi’s story is more gripping and he is the most developed character in book. My big problem is that the interaction between Amina, Nnamdi and the central character Laura is, while very important, rather miniscule. I felt like their story could have been told in a 5 page digression rather than taking almost 60% of the book.
This is a relatively heavy book, 400 pages with medium sized print. After finishing it and mentally marinating in it for a few days, I think I have my issue with 419 figured out. Will Ferguson took a great concept for a short story and inflated it into a novel. The title, the description on the back, and all the promo around the time the book was released and at the Giller ceremony led me to believe this was a story about a man being duped by financial predators. 419ing only took up maybe a third of the book. This is part story of an internet scam, part story of life in Nigeria. I can understand Ferguson’s motivation in telling the story this way; I could see his desire to give an accurate description of life in Nigeria beyond the 419ers and how a life of crime seems somewhat inevitable for the country’s down trodden. But instead we got a bit of a mish mash and a frustrated reader saying “get on with it.” I’ve read a few other titles from the Giller shortlist that 419 beat and I’m surprised this took the title. 419 by Will Ferguson was one of the few novels I’ve read in the last year or two that has been a disappointment.
Shortlisted for the 2012 Trillium Book Award
A Globe and Mail Top 100 Book ~ 2011
A National Post Best Book ~ 2011
A Toronto Star Favorite Book ~ 2011
David Gilmour has to be one of the most underrated novelists in contemporary Canadian literature. Other than his 2005 Governor General’s Award win for The Perfect Night to go to China, he generally doesn’t receive a lot of attention from award juries or even the general reading public. People who follow CanLit closely would be familiar with him and his frequent contributions to The Globe and Mail and his interviews on CBC’s The Next Chapter. His books tend to be short, punchy, direct, and, frankly, they’re usually quite depressing. His 2011 novel The Perfect Order of Things was his first work of fiction since his GG win and his first book since his well received 2007 memoir The Film Club. This was an interesting little book and an enjoyable choice for my last novel of 2014.
This short novel is an exposition on two general themes: living life through the arts – the unnamed narrator reflects on Tolstoy, film, The Beatles and their collective effect on his character; and coping with the end of romantic relationships. The second theme, in my reading, is by far the most prevalent in the book. The narrator is a really unlikeable guy; he’s arrogant – borderline narcissistic, he has a taste for prescription pills, and he collects ex-lovers like young boys collect comic books. In the end though, you find yourself hoping for him to pull through, and I can’t put my finger on why (thanks English degree). My one theory in reflection is the connection you build with Gilmour’s conversational first-person storytelling. The narrator, in the immediate current time of narration, is in his sixties and has had time to marinate in the sometimes baffling decisions he has made over the decades, but because of that, he approaches his sordid life with a wisdom that would be absent had the narration been in the present tense rather than in its reflective form. Looking back, he knows he’s a different person now than he was. That being said though, a lot of the chapters in this book are really goddamn depressing.
The big question that seems to surround this book in amateur reviews is the idea of form, i.e. novel versus memoir. I don’t doubt that, for the most part, this is a work of fiction; David Gilmour is after all know in general as an autobiographical writer. But, there are numerous plot points that are inarguably taken directly from David Gilmour’s life: he worked at the CBC, he was involved with the Toronto Film Festival (although his wife took this role in the novel), he is an extreme admirer of Tolstoy, he’s now an academic, he’s had three wives and has two kids (a boy and a girl), and wrote a book called The Film Club about exactly what was described in this novel. The Perfect Order of Things is a textbook example of autobiographical fiction. This is a novel. Gilmour simply used his life as a template for a fictional story, with some elements being more transparent than others.
This was a very satisfying read. The chapters were very well delineated to the point that many could stand alone. The prose is punchy, efficient, and direct. And Gilmour continues to develop his highly intellectual style of writing; he manages to fuse very sophisticated and polished language with the conversational. The Perfect Order of Things further cements my hope that Gilmour’s writing will grow in popularity and that he will be recognized as one of the best writers of his generation.
Winner of the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize
Shortlisted for the 2013 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize
An Amazon.ca Best Book ~ 2013
A Globe and Mail Best Book ~ 2013
A book of short fiction is an interesting experience. There are several universes and characters that you start to love and then you almost instantly have to abandon them. I had a severe aversion to short stories when I first began my post-secondary study of English literature well over a decade ago. I can’t put my finger on why, but I just wasn’t a fan. Even reading classic stories like “A Clean, Well Lighted Place”, “A Rose for Emily”, or “Bartleby, the Scrivener” didn’t thrill me. Over the years though, I’ve developed a fondness for the genre. Canada is incredibly fortunate to have such talented writers of short stories – Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Alistair MacLeod, Mavis Gallant, and of course Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro. That being said though, I have real difficult reviewing collections of stories. I don’t like writing up a bit on each story and it’s sometimes hard to find thematic threads to pull on that run through the whole book. After I finish a book of short fiction I always ask myself if I even want to bother writing a blog post. But, with a book as good as this one was, I felt I had no choice.
Lynn Coady has been steadily rising as one of the most prominent literary writers in Canada. The Nova Scotia-born author has been shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award, two Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize nominations, four Globe and Mail Best Book mentions, and two Giller Prize nominations with the win going her way in 2013. Coady is known for her sharp prose – beautiful yet not flowery or even poetic, her razor-sharp witty humour, and being merciless with her characters. The Giller winner Hellgoing is Coady’s second book of short stories and sixth book overall. I have to be honest, while I’ve owned this book since its Giller win, I read this book now because of Jian Ghomeshi’s mention of it in his now infamous Facebook post after CBC fired him.
This book was fantastic. Coady’s book was very reminiscent of collections by Munro and Atwood in that, while the stories are in no way linked by plot, character, or specific setting, they are bound together thematically. While character types, writing styles, and points-of-view all change, there are various common themes throughout the whole volume – most notably that linear personal influence of past to present self. But, what really made this book for me were the characters. Like a lot of literary short fiction, the stories of Hellgoing are very character driven as opposed to plot driven, so Coady made sure that her nine main characters were highly developed and very three-dimensional. The protagonists were a venerable motley crew of mostly women; a mix of the pathetic, misanthropic, pitiful, hopeful, and mysterious and were, quite often, ironically unlikable.
The quality of writing in the nine stories was absolutely above reproach. While not poetic, the prose was elevated and very literary. In a way, Coady’s writing was a throwback to older modernist authors with solid, punchy lines. In most of the stories, she integrated the dialogue into the general narration to increase the staccato effect. If I had to guess, the writing style was what tipped the Giller Jury over the top in awarding the prize to this book. Short Story volumes do not often win this award – only three previous collections have won, two of them were by Alice Munro and one was a highly connected cycle of stories that could be read as a novel.
“Dogs in Clothes”, “Clear Skies”, “The Natural Elements”, and “Body Condom” were my favorite stories while “Wireless” and “Mr. Hope” were my least favorite. This was a very emotional collection with very memorable characters and accessible themes. One of the best books of 2013, Hellgoing is a very literary volume best suited to the advanced and discerning reader.
Winner of the 2008 Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction
Shortlisted for the 2008 Giller Prize
Shortlisted for the 2008 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize
Shortlisted for the 2008 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction
Selected for Canada Reads 2014
Longlisted for the 2010 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
A Globe and Mail Best Book ~ 2008
Rawi Hage himself is an interesting character; he’s a Lebanese immigrant to Canada, suffered through his home country’s civil war, he’s lived in New York, is an accomplished photographer, drove a cab, and somehow managed to end up and settle in Montreal in 1992. In addition to all of this, he has a dark brooding look that just oozes intensity. He seemed to explode out of nowhere onto the Canadian literary scene in 2006 with the now contemporary classic De Niro’s Game. Hage’s first novel was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, the Governor-General’s Award and won the 2008 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award – one of the world’s richest literary prizes and at the time, one of the only worldwide English language awards. Hage published novel number two, Cockroach, in 2008. The accolades and nominations quickly rolled in further cementing his place in 21st Century Canadian literary culture.
This was my first introduction to Rawi Hage. I haven’t yet read De Niro’s Game or his third novel Carnival. Cockroach is the story of an unnamed narrator making his way through a cold Montreal winter in an unspecified time. The narrator is an Arabian immigrant who lives in utter poverty. He recently tried to kill himself and is forced to have regular sessions with a therapist where he delves into his shady and pragmatic past growing up in his home country. In Montreal, he befriends and falls for Shohreh, a member of the Iranian diaspora into which he has been adopted. All the while, the narrator has recurring fantasies and hallucinations of himself becoming a cockroach, slithering and crawling his way through the underworld and into the homes and lives of those he admires and despises. This unnamed narrator is very gritty and dark but at the same time is very “real.” His pragmatism and survival instincts trump all else – including his better judgment.
This novel is equal parts psychological, psychedelic and Kafkaesque. Frankly, other than the flashbacks during the therapy sessions, very little happens in terms of plot in this novel. We are taken on a journey through the narrator’s exploration of the mundane and every word of it is riveting. We see the plight of the impoverished immigrant, the closed-in nature of the a diaspora in a large city, the baggage that a newcomer brings with him from his homeland, and just how far someone can go to survive and how the very definition of “survival” is entirely subjective. We join our storyteller as he collects welfare cheques, works as a busboy, smokes hash and snorts coke with his Iranian friends, and talks out his past with his therapist; we then join him through kaleidoscopic fantasies and delusions of becoming the cockroach.
The highlight of Cockroach was the quality of the writing. Rawi Hage uses a poetic language that is free of pretension that is so hard to find in contemporary fiction; it exudes elevated prose but doesn’t reek of MFA syndrome. He uses highly imaginative metaphors and spares no graphic detail.
Rawi Hage is at the forefront and very representative of the current generation of future CanLit icons: born outside our borders, a working class background (i.e. he’s not an English professor), highly original stories that are rooted in literary tradition, and willing to take risks in his writing. That being said, Cockroach is a masterpiece of psychological fiction. This is a novel for anyone that wants to delve into the dark nether-regions of the human soul with the possibility of never coming out.
Shortlisted for the 2011 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing
Globe and Mail Top 100 Book – 2011
The Last Act by Ron Graham is from Penguin’s new History of Canada series. When I first saw this series in the bookstore, with titles exploring the legendary 1891 federal election, the now mythic Plains of Abraham battle, Expo 67, and the German U-boat battles in the St. Lawrence, I almost had a stroke induced by excitement. A quality series of books, by very reputable writers, digging into events that are known at at least in a general way by the Canadian citizenry is something to be celebrated. I immediately grabbed a pile of these titles and headed to the cash. Since I just finished Donald Creighton’s pair of histories on Canada, I figured this book would be a good follow-up.
Two great things happened to Canada in 1982: I was born and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was passed. Ron Graham’s The Last Act: Pierre Trudeau, the Gang of Eight, and the Fight for Canada is an account of the November 1981 conference that resulted in severing one of the last lingering remnants of colonialism. (Eventually we will sever the last and get rid of that anachronistic monarchy that is still technically our Head-of-State). This meeting brought about constitutional patriation, the Charter, an amending formula, and set into motion the wheels of the Quebec sovereignty movement that culminated in the 1995 referendum. While the book focuses on the events of November 4 and 5, there is a great prologue giving historical context and a fantastic epilogue discussing Mulroney’s failed Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords. Ron Graham has written a masterpiece of Canadian political history; it is highly readable and accessible, but also very thoroughly researched and scrupulously cited with a huge bibliography. In years to come, The Last Act will be looked at as an authoritative text on the 1981 constitutional debate.
Something that is interesting about Graham’s writing style is, with the exception of his epilogue, the utter neutrality he takes towards the people involved, especially Rene Levesque whom he tries to portray in as sympathetic manner as possible. As a reader though, depending on your ideological tendencies, you will definitely end up taking sides and developing strong dislikes of certain players (for instance I would have liked to beat Peter Lougheed and Sterling Lyon with a rubber hose).
This book could have become bogged down in philosophical notions of federalism, the role of the courts, and constitutionalism. These ideas are present, but they come out in the words of the players themselves through interviews, quotes, and their general actions. After reading Creighton’s The Road to Canada and learning about how opposed the Fathers of Confederation were to the concept of “provincial rights” and their destructive nature, I was fascinated by the importance of it in the negotiations.
I have always been a huge admirer of Pierre Trudeau, and this book did nothing but deepen that admiration. Trudeau took the long view. By introducing the Charter, he ensured fundamental freedoms for all Canadians. The political scientist in me firmly believes that for a liberal-democracy to function in the interests of its citizens, checks-and-balances need to be in place. The Charter provides this; important changes in Canada’s social fabric were brought about because of the Charter, changes that politicians would be terrified to touch (reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, safe-injection sites, and soon hopefully, assisted suicide). Trudeau was a Canadian visionary, but above all, he was a shrewd political mind, and love him or hate him, in November 1981, he was definitely the smartest guy in the room.
Winner of the 2010 Independent Literary Awards
Winner of the 2011 Thomas Head Raddall Award
Shortlisted for the 2010 Giller Prize
Shorlisted for the 2010 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize
Shortlisted for the 2010 Governor General’s Award for Fiction
Shorlisted for the 2011 OLA Evergreen Award
Shorlisted for the 2010 Amazon.ca First Novel Award
Selected for Canada Reads 2014
Longlisted for the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction
Shortlisted for the 2011 Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award
Quill & Quire Books of the Year ~ 2010
Globe and Mail Best Book ~ 2010
Amazon.ca Best Books of the Year ~ 2010
Vancouver Sun Top 10 Canadian Books of the Year ~ 2010
New York Times Editors’ Choice ~ 2011
As I am sure you can see from the above list, Annabel, the debut novel from Kathleen Winter, already has had its fair share of praise; after finishing the novel I have decided to heap some more praise upon the book. This novel is the story of Wayne Blake, a hermaphrodite born in the late 60s in rural Labrador to a family of modest means. Wayne’s story is heart-wrenching. As the novel progresses over the course of several decades, we are taken through Wayne’s struggles with the female identity inside of him known as Annabel. The poetic quality of the prose, the well developed characters, and the specific and intricate detail make this a very special novel. I can count on one hand the number of other books that would be in the same class as Annabel.
The characters are the heart of this book. In addition to the magical protagonist Wayne, Annabel has an incredible supporting cast that help turn this book into more than just a story but a glimpse in one incredible person’s world. We follow Wayne right from the moment of his birth to his 20s. As we go along there are so many beautiful and surreal episodes in his life. His parents, Treadway and Jacinta, are very interesting characters. At different points through the book I had a variety of opinions about both of them; at certain points I adored them and at certain points I had genuine disdain for them. All of the characters, even the minor ones outside of the immediate Blake family were also well done. Wally’s childhood friends, Wally and Gracie specifically, both had important roles in Wayne’s life. Thomasina, Jacinta’s friend who was one of the few who knew Wayne’s secret and planted the name Annabel in his head, was another interesting character; her role in Wayne’s life is very complicated.
One thing that is very evident when reading Annabel is just how complex this novel is thematically. This complexity could keep literary scholars writing for decades. Primarily we have themes of identity and isolation. Identity is obviously important with Wayne but it is also important with several other characters. Wally struggles with her identity as a singer, Jacinta as a mother and wife, Treadway as a father and husband, and Thomasina struggling and searching for her place in the world. Isolation affects most of the same characters in a variety of ways, including physical isolation (rural versus urban towards the end) and psychological isolation, specifically with Wayne. While the themes are important, prevalent, and numerous, they do not in anyway get in the way of the story or the rich lives that we are experiencing throughout the story. At no time does the story feel like a didactic or “moral” tale.
If you were to look at some of the cornerstones of Canadian literature, Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners; Mordecai Richler’s Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz; Marian Engel’s Bear; or Adele Wiseman’s Crackpot for example, you have a character who is trying to find their place in the world despite external obstacles and circumstances beyond their control (neatly summed up in Northrop Frye’s “Garrison Mentality” thesis). Kathleen Winter has created a completely original story with unique and deep characters while also joining a great tradition of CanLit protagonists finding their way through life, whether by design or accident I am not sure. Annabel is a great gift to the world of literature. I have no hesitation in saying that this novel is one of the best books of the 21st century in all of English literature, not just Canadian.
Winner of the 2008 Winterset Award
Winner of the 2009 E.J. Pratt Poetry Prize
Winner of the 2010 Kobzar Literary Award
Shortlisted for the 2009 Heritage and History Book Award
Longlisted for the 2009 Relit Award for Poetry
A Globe and Mail Best Book ~ 2008
I need to start this review off by prefacing it with the confession that I am not a hockey fan; it is not that I dislike hockey, I am just not a follower and really know very little about it. So, that being said, I was surprised how interested and excited I was to read Night Work and I was even more amazed by how much I enjoyed it. Even being the hockey ignoramus that I am I still had somewhat of an idea of who Terry Sawchuk was and his stature in the sport. This collection joins a Canadian tradition of poetic historical revision; Randall Maggs has taken a historical figure and molded this person into one of the great literary characters of the last 20 years, much the same way Michael Ondaatje transformed Billy the Kid decades ago. This book is a masterpiece. Period.
The star hockey player in our contemporary setting has a bit of the rock star personae. Maggs closely examines what life was like day-in and day-out for these gritty workhorses; the title says it all, Night Work. Sawchuk’s life as portrayed in this book felt like an unrealistic marathon. The punishment both physically and psychologically that hockey professionals of this generation took is just mind boggling. One scene in particular that I loved was when Sawchuk’s coach was arguing with him about how detrimental goaltenders wearing masks would be. Most of the poems in this collection are told from “characters” with personal and intimate knowledge of Sawchuk, as opposed to being told from Sawchuk’s; I really like this technique, it helps maintain that sense of the goalie being an unknowable legend, it keeps that sense of detachment yet provides insight into the man in an almost intense fashion.
This collection of poetry read like a novel. There were very defined characters and they developed in much the same way they would be in a great piece of fiction. I also felt there was a very defined story arc as well. The poems were all highly narrative and detailed in the style of Al Purdy. Through Maggs’ examination of Terry Sawchuk we also get something else, Night Work is a chronicle of hockey in general during this period, its role in the public consciousness, and ultimately its importance in the culture of Canada and the northern US.
Supplemented by beautiful original photography of Sawchuk’s time and prefaced by an excerpt from his autopsy report, Randall Maggs has truly captured one great man’s short life in this fitting poetic tribute. Night Work is still one of the most recognizable books of poetry on the shelves of Canadian book stores two years after initial publication. This book is complex, detailed, beautiful, well researched, and a must read for all Canadians. Below is a short clip of a game from the 1964 Stanley Cup finals where Sawchuk played goal for Detroit so you can see a tiny bit of his on-ice genius.
Shortlisted for the 2010 Giller Prize
Shortlisted for the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book Canada and Caribbean Region
Longlisted for the 2010 Frank O’Connor Award
A Globe and Mail Best Book ~ 2010
When this book was longlisted for the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize it immediately caught my attention; a debut collection of stories published by Thomas Allen, the same folks who brought us A Perfect Night to go to China and The Polished Hoe, This Cake is for the Party was definitely a worthy contender. Many of the ten stories are very memorable; they can range from heartwarming to haunting. Is this a perfect book? no, absolutely not; there are some serious flaws with it, but, that being said, I did really enjoy most of the stories and I do believe that Sarah Selecky, along with her Giller co-nominee Alexander MacLeod, is going to be one of the major voices of the new wave of Canadian short fiction.
These stories took me back to the writing style of Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant early in their careers. Each story is very episodic, representing a snapshot in a character’s life. A lot of the pieces have very little forward momentum; the conflicts and resolutions in these stories come from average people dealing with whatever fate has been dealt to them. What I really liked about this book is that each story contains some of the mundane and somewhat more dull details that many writers simply ignore; Selecky understands how important these small details are in life’s daily battles. This book looks at relationships, marriage, and family dynamics in great depth. Issues of infidelity, parenthood, the decision to have children, depression and mental illness and it’s effect on a relationship, and friendship, among others, are examined through a microscopic lens.
This book is not without it’s flaws. The first two stories in the book reeked of what I call “MFA disorder”. These stories, while technically perfect, lacked heart and passion. They had the overwritten pretension of someone taking a first year creative writing course. This has become a trend in American literature and has been celebrated by many critics south of the border. Writers like Annie Proulx and Michael Chabon are perfect examples. Had this not been the only book I brought along with me on my Christmas vacation travels I would have likely put it down after the second story. While the collection doesn’t completely shake the MFA feeling, as the book progressed the stories got better, with the final one, “One Thousand Wax Buddhas”, being my hands-down favorite.
Collections of short fiction are published less and less. I think this is more so a business issue rather than a talent issue. Publishing a book is very expensive and companies want to make sure they make money on their product; the fact is short stories do not sell well. This has always amazed me. I think that stories are one of the greatest literary genres in existence today. A 20 page story examines the human condition in such a unique way; it combines the brevity of poetry with the thematic complexities of a novel. This Cake is for the Party is a great debut collection and I will not be surprised if we hear the name Sarah Selecky attached to many other notable books.
Co-Winner of the 2000 Giller Prize
Shortlisted for the 2000 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction
Shortlisted for the 2000 Trillium Book Award
Selected for Canada Reads 2009
A Globe and Mail Best Book – 2000
An Ottawa Citizen Best Book – 2000
I have two things to say to start out: first, this was an incredible book; second, there will be spoilers in this review. I feel that I cannot express what I want to express without giving away key plot points and the ending of the book; I do not feel bad about this as this novel is ten years old, a multiple award winner, a former Canada Reads selection, and a national bestseller during its time. So that being said, let’s get down to it. I am a big fan of David Adams Richards. I like the gritty and detailed style he uses to really dig into the hearts and souls of his characters. Mercy Among the Children is Richards’ masterpiece. Epic in proportion but local in narrative, this story would crack even the stoniest reader. Set in the rural Miramichi area of New Brunswick, this novel explores the bondages that people are born into and suffer through: namely family circumstances and reputations, poverty, low standing in regards to societal class, faith, and general surroundings.
This novel looks at three generations of the Henderson family: grandfather and patriarch Roy Henderson, Sydney Henderson – central character through most of the novel, and his son, Lyle Henderson. Richards weaves a rich tapestry of characters that are truly representative of rural Maritime life: the mill workers, the rich businessman with little education, the self-educated outcast, and many many others. Having grown up and spent most of my life in the Maritimes, with much of this time being spent in rural areas of Nova Scotia and PEI, I believe this is a novel that only someone from this part of the country could write this well. I have met someone almost identical to all of these characters at some point; Mercy Among the Children is a novel that because of its locality, is universal in message and theme.
Ninety-five percent of the novel is told from the first person point-of-view of third generation Lyle Henderson; the narration is his relation of the events to a police officer in Saint John that he feels needs to hear his story. As the novel progresses the innocence that is so admiral about the members of the Henderson family erodes away. From almost the first chapter we see how the sins of the father transfer to the son. Roy Henderson, wrongfully accused of setting Leo McVicar’s mill ablaze, goes to prison and seals his family’s fate. His father, a self-educated amateur philosopher, is a pariah in the community because of both his family lineage and relentless pacifistic existence; as a result of this he is consistently taken advantage of by people in his community and used as a scapegoat for their own personal illicit gains, resulting in the untimely death of many innocent people, including Sydney himself.
One character I love in the book is the antagonist, Matthew Pit. A seemingly psychopathic monster, he will stop at nothing to influence and control those around him and free himself from his own bondage at the expense of anyone, especially Sydney. As the book progresses Matthew manipulates everyone around him, including Lyle after his father’s death. At the end of the novel, in a very symbolic moment, the Pit and Henderson families are eternally united through death and a life-giving gift.
Sydney Henderson has three children, Lyle, Autumn – an albino, and Percy. These three children represent the three options that people who are born into this type of situation usually have: First: death, as is the case of young Percy; second: you break free of these shackles and live your own life, as Autumn does with her successful novel and family; or third, you live your life exactly like the parents you so despised, as Lyle does. What really interests me is the fact that Lyle, as the novel comes to a close, ends up being a multimillionaire through an interesting turn of events with Leo McVicar’s family ties, yet he is still as miserable and angry as he was when he was an alcoholic young adult who committed physical acts of contrition to punish himself. Lyle never breaks free from the sins of his father or grandfather, even after everyone, including McVicar and Matthew Pit forgive them.
Mercy Among the Children is not a happy novel. It does not have a happy ending and everything isn’t tied up in a nice little package. In this way it is very realistic, when is life ever wrapped up neatly? This is a book that will haunt you. Despite being a very long book, 420 pages in my edition, I could read no more than 20 pages in a sitting simply because of the emotional toll the story has on you. A co-winner of the Giller Prize in 2000, the only year the prize was split, this novel will definitely endure past its authors time. The novel was perfectly paced, the climaxes were subtle and effective, and the characters believable. I strongly believe that David Adams Richards should be looked at in the same light as the other great writers of his generation like Michael Ondaatje, Guy Vanderhaeghe, and Timothy Findley.