Tag Archives: historical fiction

The Iron Bridge by Anton Piatigorsky

My two great loves in life, and my academic interests, are Canadian literature and political history. When I saw The Iron Bridge by Anton Piatigorsky in Goose Lane’s fall catalog I knew this was a book I had to read. A collection of six short stories, Piatigorsky fictionalizes the youth of six of the world’s most notoriously brutal despotic tyrants: Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Mao Tse-Tung, Josef Stalin, Rafael Trujillo, and Adolf Hitler. Each and every one of these stories are masterful examples of historic fiction that, while reading, produces conflicted and confusing feelings.

What is most fascinating about Piatigorsky’s stories is that they humanize these evil men who were responsible for a over 100 million combined deaths. With some of these future dictators, Mao Tse-Tung in particular, the author actually crafts a very sympathetic character. This is done in part by Piatigorsky using the characters’ native language names (e.g. Ioseb Besarionis Jughashvili rather than Josef Stalin) so you form a bond with the protagonist before you are completely certain who he is.

Something that I was initially worried about with this book was that the author would try to pinpoint the moment that these men were driven mad. He didn’t. All of these stories are very episodic; they delve into potentially important moments, but not necessarily tipping-point moments. I am not 100% certain of the historical veracity of these stories,  but the acknowledgements seem to indicate this book was extremely well researched.

The biggest strength in Anton Piatigorsky’s writing is his dialogue. This is not surprising since he is a highly decorated playwright. His characters’ idioms and speech patterns closely resemble what one sees in recordings of their public speeches. Stalin’s dialogue is full of reserved anger, Mao’s is full of hyperbole, and Hitler’s is full of lengthy and lofty rhetoric.

The Iron Bridge lived up to my expectations; it is complex, highly readable, the characters are three-dimensional, and the stories are all long enough to allow for real depth but not so long that they can’t be completed in one sitting. Also worth mentioning is the cover image. This is probably the most provocative and eye catching cover of any work of fiction released in the last number years. The Iron Bridge is available September 14; details about ordering and the author are available from Goose Lane Editions.

Tide Road by Valerie Compton

This book first caught my eye because of the author’s last name, Anne Compton being the author of the award winning poetry collection Processional. After I read the synopsis though I knew this was a novel I had to read. Goose Lane has a history of putting out really good historical fiction and I am always especially interested in this genre when it is set in Atlantic Canada. Tide Road, Valerie Compton’s first novel, takes place over the course more than 60 years, mostly in rural eastern Prince Edward Island. This story really captures a time in Maritime life when things seemed to be much simpler. Compton has created a memorable cast of characters that indiscreetly grow on the reader.

This novel’s style and tone would probably be best described as subtle. The author uses punchy sentences, short chapters, and a non-linear timeline in her writing. Details are worked in so smoothly and the narration is so quiet that before you know it, the story of this tormented family is exposed and branded into your mind.

Tide Road revolves around Sonia, the matriarch of a large family. We accompany Sonia through her time as a lighthouse keeper, a new mother, a widow, and beyond. Sonia’s life is shrouded by the disappearance of her oldest daughter Stella and this underlies most of the narrative. Sonia is a tortured soul. Whether it is at the hands of her family, herself, or her past, Sonia seems to be confronted with some psychological trauma around every turn. She is a tough character but also very sympathetic.

This was the first historical novel set in PEI that I have read. Valerie Compton definitely knew her way around rural Island life during this period when she sat down to write this. The detail she gives on managing the lighthouse is really interesting. As a resident of this province, there was something very familiar in this book; yes, the times and technologies have changed but ultimately the relationships that people share in this type of place hasn’t really changed at all. Tide Road was a great read and Sonia will haunt you long after you put the book down. It comes out March 4 and you can pre-order here.

The Birth House by Ami McKay

Winner of the 2007 Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Fiction Book of the Year

Winner of the 2007 Evergreen Award

Winner of the 2007 Atlantic Book Awards Bookseller’s Choice Award

Longlisted for the 2008 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award

Selected for Canada Reads 2011

I managed to finish the last Canada Reads 2011 book just in time to get a review up before the show starts on Monday. I left The Birth House to the end of my reading simply because it was the only book which I had not formed a pre-reading opinion on yet (although 2 of these opinions ended up being very wrong). Ami McKay’s book, which is carrying the banner for us proud Atlantic Canadians this year, is  a historical novel about a young woman and her journey from a young midwife’s apprentice to a mature woman rights advocate. I had no idea what to think of this book as I opened it up, my one fear was that, like Unless, it would be a overwritten diatribe on women’s issues and the feminist fight. The Birth House was nothing of the sort. The story looks at a time in society where, for women especially, everyone’s lives were on the precipice of monumental change. Issues of reproductive and birthing rights are examined, modern medicine, at least what was considered modern at the time, was at odds with tradition holistic and faith-based healing, the dawn of electricity in rural Nova Scotia opened up a whole new world to people, The Great War and it’s effect on the wifes left behind, and the effects of other historical events like the Halifax Explosion and the Spanish Influenza pandemic. This book is a gift to the world and was much better than what I expected. I have already recommended this to most of my friends and co-workers.

One thing that made this a great book, instead of just a good piece of historical fiction, was the style in which it was written. The story is told with a combination of first-person narration, journal entries, newspaper clippings, visual additions, and correspondence between characters. With a lot of historical fiction, even the really good pieces, it often feels like you are slogging through it as the research and details become more important that the characters or forward movement. This was not the case in Ami McKay’s novel; she has weaved the historical accuracies seamlessly into the lives of Dora and her inner circle.

There are so many memorable scenes in this novel: one of the best descriptions of the Halifax Explosion I have read since Barometer Rising, the journal entries of Dora’s new medical device to help with her hysteria, and, one of my favorite parts, her explorations of the “big-city” of Boston. In her notes at the end of the book, Ami McKay says “[…]I wanted to arrange my words[…]by making a literary scrapbook out of Dora’s days”; that is exactly what she has done. Any of the scenes I just mentioned would easily stand alone as an engaging piece of writing; put them together and tie in such important themes, you get a piece of fiction that will be read by the general public for years and no doubt make it’s way onto High School and University reading lists.

Historical fiction has become a staple in Canadian literature, but I think that it has become a somewhat stale genre. We need more books like The Birth House taking this traditional type of book and injecting it with some new and creative style. I think Ami McKay is lucky to have Debbie Travis championing her book. This is someone who is very comfortable in front of a camera and is respected by literally millions of people. Even if it doesn’t result in a win for the author I am sure Ms. Travis’ support will at least result in lots of new exposure (and therefore a few more digits on the next royalty cheque.) As the Canada Reads show gets rolling tomorrow I wish Ms. McKay and all of her fellow authors the best of luck.

Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway

Finalist for the 1998 Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Fiction Book of the Year

Finalist for the 1998 Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award

Tomson Highway is one of Canada’s best known playwrites, most notably the author of The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, both of which are Dora and Chalmer’s Award winning plays. Published in 1998, Kiss of the Fur Queen is Highway’s first and only novel; containing many autobiographical points, this book takes on a lot of issues. In North American Native literature there has been a trend of authors either being too hard on their own culture or glossing over the harsher realities of Native life. Highway, a Cree from northern Manitoba, walks a fine line between these two extremes with his writing. This novel takes place over the course of around 35 years; looking at how Natives were treated in Catholic residential schools, sexuality, art, and family.

The story focuses on a pair of brothers, Jeremiah and Gabriel Okimasis, and their journey from birth to young adulthood; in each of the six parts of the book, a different stage of the brothers lives are narrated. As you start to read this it takes a few chapters to really get into the book and get used to the language. Canadian Native lit is often written with the same style as the oral narrative, which is an important piece of their culture; if you were to read a few pages out loud this will be very apparent. The dialog is as beautiful as would be expected from a playwrite of this caliber.

The topics and themes of this story are very serious subjects and are, at several points in the novel, very difficult to get through, mainly because of Highway’s vivid writing. The Okimasis brothers are representative of the Native community as a whole in the early fifties; they are being pulled away from their Cree culture and thrust into the world of Catholicism and the indoctrination that would come with attending a residential school. There are horrifying scenes of abuse and molestation as well as heartbreaking scenes of torment directed towards the only two Natives at this school. As the story progresses the focus turns to Gabriel’s sexuality. As he confronts his homosexuality, in a time when this was not overly accepted, he descends into promiscuity and prostitution with constant flashbacks of the abuse he suffered at the hands of the priests. This part of the novel is so beautifully written but so hard to endure. There is so much pain in Gabriel’s life and past that he really doesn’t stand a chance to live a so-called “normal” existence.

My one criticism of this book, and it is not exactly a flaw of the writing, likely more so a flaw with this reader, the details used when Highway is writing about dancing and music are so detailed, with so much technical terminology, it is sometimes difficult to understand what exactly is being said. Jeremiah and Gabriel, eventually become a world-class musician/playwrite and dancer respectively. These details though certainly give the story a level of depth and believability when looking at the brothers passion for their arts.

This is a very sad book; at points there seems to be very little hope for the characters, and even at the end of the novel, it could be argued there is still none. In a short review it is impossible to touch on everything this book looks at. This is the type of novel academics could spend years and countless articles looking at. A beautiful novel, a moving novel, and an eye opening novel, I think Kiss of the Fur Queen will definitely be looked at as one of the great Native novels of its time along side Three Day Road and Green Grass, Running Water.

La Guerre, Yes Sir! by Roch Carrier

Translated by Sheila Fischman

Without even realizing it, every Canadian has had a piece of Roch Carrier’s writing in their hands: an excerpt from his well known conte “The Hockey Sweater” is reprinted on the back of the five dollar bill. The former National Librarian of Canada has built a reputation as one of the great observers of French-English tensions in Quebec. One of Carrier’s early novels, La Guerre, Yes Sir!, released in its original French in 1968 and translated in 1970, looks at these tensions through the lens of a small Quebec village during World War II. Quebec fiction typically has a few common structural points that are worth mentioning for those who are not familiar with les livres Quebecois. These works are often filled to the saturation point with characters. This particular novel is just over 100 pages but there are at least 15 characters that the story is told through. Also, perhaps as a result of the large number of characters or vice versa, Quebec novels are often told through a number of vignettes from the point of view of several different characters. The result is often times a rich mosaic filled with memorable dialog and sharp wit. Carrier, Tremblay, Beauchemin, Godbout, and Aquin all fit this mold. This novel is funny, heartbreaking, violent, shocking, and an all around great read that has aged very well; 42 years after its first publication, this book is still as relevant as the day it was written.

With conscription as the backdrop for the story, La Guerre, Yes Sir! centers on a family who’s son has just been killed in the war; a troupe of English soldiers, or the maudits Anglais as they are referred to, bring the body to the parents’ kitchen for the wake, making this young man the first war casualty of the village to be repatriated. What ensues is a mix of a tears, laughs. fists, tourtiere, and cider. As I mentioned previously, dialog is the driver of this novel, but there is one scene in particular that I believe demonstrates the linguistic and cultural divide better than any other: Arsène, the local gravedigger and butcher is enjoying the wake as much as everyone else but has been making very strong comments against the men in uniform. Bérubé, a soldier who recently returned home with the body of the casualty, takes great issue and brutally assaults Arsène to show him what being a soldier is truly like. The other guests of the Corriveau home make no comment and many barely even take notice, but the Anglais who delivered the casket take great offence with this, decide the party is over, and evict the well-wishers. This is a great insult to the French villagers, and without giving too much detail that will spoil the book, does not go unpunished. The idea that English soldiers dare interfere with the grieving village’s customs is an insult of the highest order. With all of this in mind, it will come as no surprise that the overall tone of the novel is decidedly anti-war. We have characters who are deserters, characters dodging conscription, and characters who will do whatever it takes to be disqualified from conscription; take this example from page 1:

Joseph spread the five fingers of his left hand on the log.

[…]

His other fingers, his other hand, seized the axe. It crashed down between the wrist and the hand, which leapt into the snow and was slowly drowned in his blood.

Renowned translator Sheila Fischman did a superb job on this book. Fischman has a keen eye to translate sentences or phrases that could be considered untranslatable. One technique that is used in this novel is leaving some of the French writing as is. One obvious example is the title. La Guerre, Yes Sir! was the original title; it is meant to highlight the linguistic divide, and to change this would be to take away part of the fundamental raison d’etre of the novel. Much of the profanity, and there is a lot of it, is also preserved in the original French. For those who are not familiar with how to swear in French, it is mostly taken from words that are religious in nature, i.e. hostie, tabernacle, or vierge; whereas English profanity is taken from words that were originally sexual in nature. This is very effective because if Fischman were to simply transliterate this it would be senseless. The book reads like it could have been written by an Englishman from Quebec;  the language is rich and the translated  idioms and speech patterns fit the class of character that Carrier is portraying.

This book is a fine read. It is definitely a must for anyone interested in any facet of Quebec culture. This is also a must for anyone who is interested in the effects of World War II on small town Quebec, or really any small town. Or, if you would simply like a funny book, this is pretty good choice.

 

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.

Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje

Co-Winner of the 1976 Books in Canada First Novel Award

Michael Ondaatje is without a doubt one of Canada’s leading writers. He is tied for the record for the most Governor-General Awards with five, two for poetry and three for fiction, a Giller Prize, and countless others. Most notably Ondaatje’s The English Patient was the first Canadian book awarded the Man Booker Prize. This book was later adapted into the Oscar Winning film of the same name. Michael Ondaatje is, in my opinion, the leader of the powerful movement of immigrant Canadian literature. His first book, The Dainty Monsters, was released in 1967; 30 years later other New Canadian voices started to emerge, most notably M.G. Vassanji and Rohinton Mistry. Michael Ondaatje led this wave.

For about the first ten years of his career, Michael Ondaatje was known primarily as a poet. He won the 1970 GG for his ground breaking collection The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. In 1976 he released his first novel, another ground breaking book, Coming Through Slaughter. This book falls into two general categories: it is both a jazz novel and piece of historiographic metafiction. Coming Through Slaughter is a fictionalized account of the last few years of the legendary jazz musician Buddy Bolden in New Orleans during the years between the turn of the century and shortly before World War II. Bolden was known as one of the best cornet players of his time but there is very little record of his life. Towards the end of his time he went mad, disappeared, and was eventually institutionalized. This narrative pieces together the story through a variety of vignettes from different characters and different times.

You cannot discuss this novel without discussing the style that it is written in. In 1976 post-modernism was in full swing, the bar being set in 1963 with Leonard Cohen’s novel Beautiful Losers, and many of Canada’s leading writers were putting their own stamp on this movement. The narration is done is a sharp and staccato style of prose. With every line you see Ondaatje’s prowess as a poet coming through; every word is deliberately chosen and every sentence is intricately weaved within each paragraph. Now that being said, this book is sometimes difficult to follow. The narrator and point-of-view changes frequently and sometimes does so mid-chapter. You often have to reread a page or paragraph once you realize who the narrator is. Dialog is often incorporated right into paragraphs without any indication that someone is speaking. Occasionally a poem or brief interview or song is thrown in to add to the story. Ultimately the style is very beautiful; you just need to be patient and read slowly.

The writer’s skill as a poet again is evident when you are looking at the character development and physical settings. You get a sense that you are right in downtown New Orleans, in the brothels, in the gambling houses, in a night club listening to this new sensation they call jazz. The web of characters that is weaved is as diverse as it is entertaining. For the bulk of the story, the central character is a police officer named Webb who is on the hunt for the missing Bolden. Through the natural course of the narration we meet Bolden’s wife, lover, children, a photographer who took a picture of him, and various prostitutes, gamblers, and musicians. The snippets of Buddy Bolden are just a preview of the true character that is revealed once Webb finally finds his man.

Michael Ondaatje has done a masterful job on his apprentice novel. He has blended fact and fiction using a style that is completely his own. Every one of his novels has won at least one major Canadian literary award; Coming Through Slaughter won the inaugural Books in Canada First Novel Award. Ondaatje has never released another novel written in this same style. I would group this with books of his like Running in the Family and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid instead of his better known novels like The English Patient, Anil’s Ghost, or In the Skin of a Lion. This novel breaks down the walls between the real and the story; this novel breaks down genres. This is a short novel well worth reading.

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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