At the beginning of March, I was determined to keep my nose in a stack of backlisted books. Books like these are the kind that to keep my focus on my own shelves in this reading year.
Chad Pelley’s Every Little Thing (2013)
“Every day, every hour, really, it was a new name and a new suite of scenarios that could’ve gone differently, so he could’ve been a hundred places other than prison.”
But Cohen Davies is not in those hundred other places and readers have to wait to learn how that happened. In the meantime, as readers will expect if they have read Chad Pelley’s first novel, Away from Everywhere, a romantic relationship is explored in detail (a Journey Prize anthology is read aloud in their courtship !) and many other significant relationships are credibly developed alongside. Mental health issues surface and the reality of the intertwined relationship between love and loss simmers beneath every character’s experiences. And, yet, the novel’s tone is consistently engaging: the subject is not a natural page-turner, but the novelist’s style roots the story in that territory, primarily through the use of reflection and memory. Cohen is on the other side of the dramatic events and readers are keen to imagine the view from that promontory, catching the odd glimpse as he pans across years to fill in the blanks. The language is straightforward and more often used to propel readers than to add sensory detail to a scene, although Cohen’s work with birds results in some aviary metaphors and add a degree of complexity to the language, as do some elements of the story which are also rooted in his workplace. A surprisingly gripping tale.
Gabrielle Roy’s Where Nests the Water Hen (1951)
“Deep within the Canadian province of Manitoba, remote in its melancholy region of lakes and wild waterfowl, there lies a tiny village barely noticeable amidst its skimpy fir trees.”
Roy’s second novel opens with this description as though to inform readers immediately that, despite any ensuing attachments to particular characters, Where Nests the Water Hen is about Portage des Prés, Water Hen country. But readers likely will become attached to the Tousignant family, its seemingly endless flow of children — enough to convince the government of the need of a school on their land – followed by a succession of school teachers. (The author was the youngest in a family of eleven children.) And, so, it’s a little disorienting, after spending the bulk of the narrative in their company, to find oneself spending time with the Capuchin priest Father Joseph-Marie, in the novel’s final third. Nonetheless, the novel has clearly stated from title through opening that it is about a community and in many ways that was also true of Gabrielle Roy’s first novel, The Tin Flute, which explored the St. Henri neighbourhood of Montreal so evocatively. Water Hen country is described with tremendous fondness; the people and their relationships to the land are depicted with attention to detail and authenticity, and readers will be sorry to leave it behind. The stately tone of Gabrielle Roy’s prose is enduring and although the novel was written more than half a century ago, the story of Manitoba-past retains a certain charm.
Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family (1982)
“I can leave this table, walk ten yards out of the house, and be surrounded by versions of green. The most regal green being the tea bush which is regal also in its symmetrical efficient planting. Such precision would be jungle in five years if left alone. In the distance the tea pickers move, in another silence, like an army. The roads weave and whorl away — bright yellow under the grey sky. The sun, invisible, struggles up somewhere. This is the colour of landscape, this is the silence, that surrounded my parents’ marriage.”
When the author returns to Sri Lanka, to all that was there before he dreamed of marrying, having children and writing (paraphrasing), readers are tugged along in a personal exploration and journey. There is no formal itinerary and the description of a single room might require pages while the formal names for some places might reside only on the map at the beginning of the volume. Those readers seeking either a traditional travelogue or memoir will not be satisfied. And yet the sensory detail can immediately bring the experience of the landscape off the page for readers (I, for one, was completely smitten by the idea of polecats, who make an inconsequential appearance in the narrative but encouraged an online search) for this is not only a writer’s journey but a poet’s journey. In some ways, the volume reads in a fragmentary way, emphasized by the inclusion of several actual poems, but there is a broader reaching narrative arc — of return and departure and some early allusions (for instance, to his grandmother’s death by natural causes – flooding) — which makes for a more encompassing reading experience. Although an earlier work, and a work of non-fiction, readers who have enjoyed Michael Ondaatje’s later novels will recognize his delicate practice of darting towards and retreating from story, the circuitous knitting of characterization and setting alongside.
Sawako Ariyoshi’s The Doctor’s Wife (1966) Trans. Wakako Hironaka and Ann Siller Kostant (1984)
“Otsugi’s gay laughter at her apology made Kae laugh as well. Then Otsugi spoke more softly. ‘I am called ‘Mother’ by you though you are not really my child. Yet I feel you are as dear to me as my own daughters. Our relationship has deep roots. It was probably decreed by fate.”
Readers are introduced to Kae when she is a young girl, who admires the beauty and grace of the neighbour woman, Otsugi, who is the doctor’s wife. At the heart of Sawako Ariyoshi’s novel, however, are two doctors’ wives, and much of the readers’ engagement with the story is rooted in these women’s changing relationship over time. The prose is formal and measured with several short chapters devoted to the history between families/characters, developments which reverberate in their present day. Although there are some potentially emotive elements to the story as one doctor experiments with anesthetizing substances which will ultimately afford the opportunity to operate on women with breast cancer, the author’s style is clean and delicate; even when an overwhelmingly sorrowful event transpires, there is a veil between the reader and the story which serves to distance from what must have been an excruciating process. Yet there is no question that the emotions exist and the understated tone magnifies the intensity of the losses endured. In her other novels, too, Sawako Ariyoshi focuses on the voices of those who are often unjustly silenced; the female characters in The Doctor’s Wife present themselves dutifully and artfully but they certainly have a great deal to say.
But, having said that, it’s June, and I am indulging in a stack of new books, which currently sits alongside my stack of old familiars. More about these in the days to come.
First, how about you? Any of these in your stacks or on your shelves? What trends are holding sway in your reading life?