Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Joni Murphy’s Double Teenage (2016)

Celine and Julie are negotating the borders of girlhood, wandering back and forth across dotted lines and territories both more and less available to them as the years pass.

Joni Murphy Double TeenageThey trade L.M. Montgomery’s girlhood classics for “Law and Order” and Our Bodies, Ourselves, while readers follow in their footsteps in narratives which alternately focus on one girl, then the other.

Double Teenage is divided into four parts (delightful wordplay in their naming, alluding to some of the novel’s themes and motifs), the first three presented chronologically and the last restarting the numbering and taking a more objective view.

It’s as though the final section of the work is taking measurements and performing calculations based on some of the sensory and cultural details shared in the narratives of the girls’ growing years, studies and analyses taking over where the imagery and emotions left off.  (There are some lovely bits early on, like, “I carry you around in my mind like it’s a pocket.”)

In the novel’s early pages, readers have an eye on the girls’ experiences, which Joni Murphy presents in such a way that, even if readers have not grown up in a small town, near the U.S./Mexico border, some aspects are familiar (for instance, classic novels, and TV shows with hundreds of episodes).

“The books were classic girl fiction: Alice in Wonderland and Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon and all the Little House books and Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. As if she had been there, Celine’s mother spoke about prairie fires and scarlet fevers, initiation rituals and torrential downpours, family betrayals and corset-induced fainting spells. Her voice moved like a wagon. It moved like feet in leather moccasins padding through dust and starvation. Her voice lost children to fever.”

Celine’s mother reads aloud, often stories that she thinks might ease her daughter’s passage through girlhood. But other than the Little House books, which are clearly tales of survival against the elements (filled with natural disasters and the trials of pioneer life), these stories feature girls who learn that care-giving is the ultimate achievement.

The men and boys they meet? On the page and in the world? Their stories are epic, only pretending to hold little substance; they are inherently worthwhile. “He told the myth of his family like a flat but colorful film.”

Not until they are older, starring in their own features, do Celine and Julie begin to tell stories in their own voices. “At eighteen they finally felt like performers rather than audience.”

Not until they are older, do they recognize that the risks they face are an integral part of the narratives they inhabit, the stories told about their kind.

“They modeled new lives. Both Celine and Julie put deserts behind them, convincing themselves it was just a corrupted cowboy land – a myth world cast in violet light – which they were now safely out of. The real world felt brutal, yes, but also so beautifully visible, and they were finally in it.”

Double Teenage considers the desire to consume stories, to transform experiences into types, dreams into expectations. “The people in the auditorium, classmates and teachers, trafficked in this material. They refined, packaged, traded, cut, and consumed these kind of ideas.”

It’s not only material which is treated in this matter-of-fact manner. What else is refined, packaged, traded, cut, and consumed?

Celine and Julie have so many questions, seemingly endless questions when they are girls, when they expect to feel aswim, and later even more questions, but the potential to give voice to them is diminished. It’s as though these questions should not be asked, as though the asking of them violates a code.

“Who do dead bodies belong to? Who do women’s bodies belong to? Are women beings or objects? Is there something between?”

Joni Murphy’s narrative straddles the line between a character-driven story and a treatise to be discussed, something living and breathing and something only understood from afar. There is more than one way to look at it, more than one valid formula.

“What grips their insides is knowledge of their value, their worthlessness. They flee because, in their world, existence hinges on a litany of imperatives. Be pretty, charm, adapt to threat. The lessons might be summarizde as Be good or else.”

What happens when “or else” is the only answer?


Domnica Radulescu’s Country of Red Azaleas (2016)

In the middle of her long, incense-soaked wedding ceremony, Lara Kulicz amuses herself by creating a philosopher’s alphabet, assigning a name to each letter of the alphabet, identifying X for Xenophon just when the priest declares the couple “man and wife”.

In much the same way, Domnia Radulescu incorporates light-hearted elements and subplots which offer readers relief from the novel’s central theme – the devastating effects of the 1982 Bosnian War.

As with Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, a friendship is a key component of the novel, and this is a friendship viewed from a distance too. Their friendship – like every other aspect of their lives – is fundamentally shaped by the genocidal war surrounding them, and readers are preoccupied more with the absences of the women in each other’s lives than their presences, more with their feelings of separation and alienation than union and intimacy.

Radulescu Country of Red Azaleas

Twelve – Hachette, 2016

Katja Rudolph’s Little Bastards in Springtime would make a great reading companion, exploring the aftermath of this conflict from the perspective of a young man, Jevrem, who also survives the conflict, but is forced to draw and redraw his own borders in the aftermath.

“We call ourselves The Bastards of Yugoslavia, as a joke. We like the word bastard. It’s got a ring to it, and has a lot of different meanings. It’s what the nationalists who took over our country called us, the offspring of women in mixed marriages. They meant it as an insult, but we feel proud. It’s why we’re here, together, in this flat, endless city next to an abnormally large lake. They didn’t want us back home, not really, in all their new separate little cleaned-up countries, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, Macedonia. And Bosnia, split completely in half, Croats and Muslims on one side, Serbs on the other. Where were we beautiful mongrels meant to fit?”

There are many Bastards of Yugoslavia, beautiful mongrels, whose stories have not been told, but Domnica Radulescu’s Country of Red Azaleas brings forth one such story.

Both Lara and Marija are untethered. One of them is ostensibly more protected, able to ruminate on this sense of dislocation: “We spoke Serbian again and the many consonants of my native language soothed my burning mouth, my parched throat, my devastated soul. I need a break from English, from America, from idiomatic expressions and mannerisms.” The other is more overtly vulnerable, in the thick of the conflict: “But a boot kicking you in your stomach is always real and you can’t mistake it for not real. And you can’t mistake the dead bodies strewn next to you for the images flickering on the walls of a cave.”

The settings are significant as representations of the characters’ choices (and reactions, for there are not always true choices): Belgrade and Washington DC. From the Ferhadja Mosque to the Hirshhorn Sculpture, the details matter; but the symbolic importance of the point of confluence, in Belgrade, where the Danube and Sava rivers meet, is perhaps most important of all.

Domnica Radulescu’s style is spare and her language uncomplicated, perhaps deliberately, in light of the horrific details which underpin the story, from the Srebrenica massacres to the mass rapes and NATO bombings.

These devastating events play out alongside other losses (e.g. divorce, custody, adultery), tragedies broad and narrow, rooted in a “shiny web of lies and a second life of illicit encounters”. This particular conflict perfectly reflects the reality of broader identities resulting in intimate betrayals, “lives of halves”, a “missed heartbeat”.

Occasionally there is an emotive burst (Sarajevo described as a “delicious secret” and an experience as a “volcano of sorrow”) but the language is simple. The structure is chronological, with half the book covering a broader swath of time (1980 – 2003) and the second half covering only 2003 and 2004. The narrative voice is first-person, consistent and direct.

Ultimately the novel’s success lies in characterization, but this is a difficult connection to forge because of the element of distance inherent in the key relationships. Domnica Radulescu uses the motif of audience and performance to allow the reader to settle into a seat from which they can view at a distance.

Lara is named for the heroine of Doctor Zhivago, a story better known via the film version than the book, an American interpretation better known than the Russian original.

She imposes the perspective she learned from Hollywood on everyone she encounters, one man her Marlboro Man and another a mix of Clark Gable and Omar Sharif. She recognizes the tilt of a woman’s chin to be the same angle as Ingrid Bergman’s in the final scene of “Casablanca”.

Both these references include strong relational plots but ultimately their stories are shaped by war, just as in Country of Red Azaleas.

Nadia Bozak’s Thirteen Shells (2016)

It’s with a subtle touch, but Nadia Bozak solidly roots the reader in time and place.

House of Anansi, 2016

House of Anansi, 2016

This is not an easy task, because Shell only grows to the age of seventeen in Thirteen Shells — across thirteen stories, and childhood is inherently rootless.

So the details noted must be those within a child’s reach, displayed without context, but generously, so that readers can inflate their understanding. Her use of language is most often straight-forward, only occasionally poetic (like snow with “wet, melty flakes the size of teabags”).

Consider this observation in “Please Don’t Pass Me By”: “Dad and Kremski shake their heads and talk a lot about the USA. The words they use are long and sticky: fundamentalist, hegemony, ideology. ‘Imagine if Ronald Reagan actually gets in?'”

Key concepts are undefined, vague and amorphous, and readers are left to imagine a time in which that election’s outcome was still unthinkable for left-wing voters (who are now asking the same question about Donald Tr*mp).

A political awareness simmers beneath Thirteen Shells, primarily via Shell’s parents, but the bulk of the narrative is preoccupied with a young girl’s everyday life (parents moving closer to the periphery as the years pass and pages turn).

In “Snow Tire”, Shell observes different details as an older girl (fashion and other consumer goods) and although she hasn’t yet begun to make some of the value judgements that an adult observer might make, sometimes there is room for readers to peek between the lines:

“Vicki’s mum starts doing things like raking the leaves and walking slowly up to the store to get small bags of chips, or she picks Vicki up from school and walks back with her and Shell. She goes from the white jeans to a new pair of stonewash that don’t show her underwear lines and she cuts her hair so it’s feathery like Princess Di’s. And then, more and more, when Clarke is at work, a black Trans Am is parked in the drive.”

Often, Nadia Bozak simply captures Shell’s childish misunderstandings, but she leaves them untouched and unexplained, so that readers can reach for another understanding, if so inclined.

“Shell should learn to be Muslim: gentle and polite and pleasing to adults. Girl Muslims must be super pretty if Marmoon is and he’s a boy, and they probably don’t lie or steal or dig holes in the backyard with their dads. Shell checked, but none of the makeup in her shoebox would turn her skin darker, so instead she lies out in the sun and brushes her teeth extra hard so they look white against her deepening tan.” (“Fair Trade”)

Shell’s growth can be charted by birthdays and other marks on the wall/page, but also by the kinds of details which take on a new prominence in the stories, like her appreciation of Patti Smith, The Clash, Talking Heads, and Sonic Youth in “Hole in the Wall”.

“It’s good to be in the immensity of Sam’s and with a sense of purpose. She heads for Rock and fills her arms with so many tapes she might not have enough money to pay for them.”

So, here she is old enough to want to go to Sam the Record Man, but not old enough to recognize the restrictions of an adult’s entertainment budget, but sometimes her growth is more deliberately indicated:

“Suddenly Shell’s eyes surge with tears. Because she loves Mum so much and Dad and even Valery, with her chocolate chicken and caramel eyes, and she loves Maček too – of course she does! – but with those words she knows she’ll have to leave here – the cool bed sheets that smell like Nivea and the rap of Maček’s sturdy, steady hammer. She’ll have to go someplace where the library has more books and the essays she writes can be longer and harder and so beautiful and in a way Somerset can’t ever understand. And she’ll have to go soon. A world lives out there. She’s already seventeen.” (“New Roof”)

Bozak El NinoSimilarly, sometimes the passage of time is more deliberately charted, as when particular elements in earlier stories reappear in later ones, with a fresh outlook and new level of comprehension.

Gaps in the story are handed deftly, so that readers can fill in the spaces which remained unexplained for the children who were unmoored by dramatic changes.

Her friend Vicki articulates one of the work’s central themes: home (which also surfaces in Nadia Bozak’s prior works, like Orphan Love and El Nino) Vicki says: “I miss you, Shell. And when I have a dream that’s set in a house, it’s always yours.”

A conversation with her friend Wendy not only reveals aspects the girls’ personalities, but also a plot development which occurred off-stage (I’m not saying which story this comes from, to avoid a spoiler about when Wendy might have an occasion to wonder about this).

“When they’re checking out library books, Shell says to Wendy, ‘Oh, you like Judy Blume. You ever read Tiger Eyes?”
But all Wendy wants to know about is how Shell’s dad doesn’t live with her anymore. Is it true strangers pay rent to live in Shell’s old bedroom while Shell sleeps in the basement like a hobbit?

Relationships are at the heart of Thirteen Shells. Her parents are vivid and multi-dimensional characters (whose identities become increasingly coloured as time passes), and her friendships undergo many changes as well.

But Shell also has important relationships with books, from Judy Blume to Noam Chomsky: her reading taste changes as she grows. “Sometimes she walks and reads at the same time, or reads in class, a paperback hidden inside her textbook.”

See, if you didn’t already like Shell, now you do, right? You want to get to know her, don’t you?

Ian Colford’s Perfect World (2016)

Ian Colford’s work has been shortlisted for the Journey Prize, and his first published work was a collection of stories. It’s no surprise that he can write succinctly and put a short form to work.

Colford Perfect World

Freehand Books, 2016

In 2012, he published his first novel, The Crimes of Hector Tomás, which honed his skill with building tension and transforming the ordinary events of a life into elements of extraordinary importance in a work more than 400 pages long.

His novella, Perfect World, seems to combine the strengths of his earlier works, with spare prose and snapshot glimpses of a life presented in such a way that readers are more compelled to turn the pages even as the main character’s company becomes harder to bear.

“There is, however, an expression in his father’s eyes when he speaks of his mother that Tom doesn’t like, that he wants to challenge and wipe out – a mournful, canine acceptance of yet one more thing that is beyond comprehension.”

Tom Brackett is thirteen years old when readers meet him, a resident of Black River, comprised of 50 families and 6 churches along the highway. In short order, an event both commonplace and disturbing, results in his being sent to live with his grandmother, outside Liverpool on the South Shore.

From there, readers follow his experience as the years pass, his “warped vision of what passes for normal”, both from within and without.

As a youngster, Tom is most keenly aware of the pressures from without, his realisation that “…this is his family. He can’t escape them. Even if he got on a bus this afternoon and didn’t get off for a week, or a month, or a year. Each moment he would be reminded, simply by the act of running, of what he was running from.”

Characters from inside and outside the family are tightly drawn, as Tom grows from boyhood into “marriage, mortgaged, a father”. Often the characterization settles in simple details, like the way someone drives, or the way in which clothing hangs from (or clings to) someone’s body.

This is deft handling, but it is the way in which time and motion are negotiated in the book which is truly remarkable.

The passage of time and its relationship with memory is even more complex in narrative than it is in life.

Even while Tom is a teenager and recognising his grandmother’s neurological decline — first, laughing with her about her temporary confusion about his identity, then moving beyond laughter into something darker — he is aware that his own confusion lurks beneath the surface of his consciousness.

Not even Tom can “be sure if the images that come to mind are the product of memory or imagination.” But Perfect World is Tom’s story, and readers experience it alongside him, affirming and allowing his confusion to pass for normal, whether memories or fantasies.

Partly because this basic distinction is unreliable for Tom, his experience of time is altered as well (and, hence, the reader’s experience of time).

Some chapters are very short but manage to feel lengthy and heavy; others are longer, but more scenic in nature, and sometimes “Tom imagines them frozen forever in these expectant poses”.

The reader tiptoes and darts through the glimpses into Tom’s life, moments frozen and thawed, sometimes observing that the “almost ceremonial caution with which he navigates his way around the stones littering the lawn resembles the slow progress of a man wading through deep water”.

Other times, the tempo contrasts. “As he draws near to her his heart lurches to a stop, then stutters back into motion like some wounded engine.”

In some chapters, time is elastic and, in others, taut: “Having her with him is what he’s referring to, the mingling of past and present to create something that is neither.

Frequently there is a rhythm to the events, but one which the reader feels second-hand, slightly discomfited though solidly invested inTom’s experience.

“What he wants is distraction, an end to the questions. He leads her upstairs to the bedroom, but even as he buries himself in her, he cannot erase from his mind the face in the mirror, nor shut his ears to the beating of wings.”

Tom is forever in motion, seeking a balance which seems just out of reach, even when he brushes against stability and comfort.

“Part of him doesn’t care, part of him cares deeply. Both are dangerous. How will he ever learn to steer between the two?”

This kind of steering is prominent in the world of Canadian letters, from classics like Timothy Findley’s Headhunter to contemporary works like Lauren B. Davis’ The Stubborn Season and Barry Dempster’s Outside World ( as well as international bestsellers like Jacquelyn Mitchard’s Now You See Her, Joanne Greenberg’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, and Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True). 

Ian Colford’s vision is deliberate and focussed, Tom’s unravelling all-the-more compelling against the backdrop of exacting and meticulous construction.

On Everything Everything and Everything Feels like the Movies

Everything: isn’t that what readers look for in a book? Many authors think so.

Yoon Everything Everything

PRH – Doubleday Canada, 2015

One suggests that Everything Leads to You. Another insists that Everything Was Goodbye. (Nina LaCour and Gurjinder Basran)

One begs Tell Me Everything, while another is concerned with Everything I Never Told You. (Sarah Salway and Celeste Ng)

One announces that They Left Us Everything, which is perfect for the one who thinks that All We Want Is Everything. (Plum Johnson and Andrew E. Sullivan)

Two recent YA novels confront “everything” head on: Raziel Reid’s When Everything Feels Like the Movies and Nicola Yoon’s Everything Everything.

These are novels about everything: life and death, love and loss, friendship and betrayal, desire and disappointment.

When Everything Feels Like the Movies is saturated with Jude’s voice: direct and sassy, smart and provocative.

Jude draws a heart in the steam on the mirror after his shower and wears red lipstick so he is always ready for his close-up. Everyday he stars in a movie in his mind, because reality is harsh and unforgiving. (In some ways, Raziel Reid’s novel is quintessential CanLit.)

“I’m going to end up the next Matthew Shepard!”
“You wish you were that famous.”

When the novel dips into more philosophical territory, it creates a space for readers with a variety of reasons for reading. “And I loved lies because, when you’re a lie, you’re anything, you’re everything.”

One could envision a brightly coloured poster, the sort that might be stuck to a guidance counsellor’s office wall. “When you have nothing, you have dreams.”

Or, one could delve into a serious discussion of the role of celebrity and fantasy in the lives of everyday teenagers in this millennium.

It is a novel of extremes, which is partly rooted in Jude’s point-of-view and partly a nod to an adolescent audience. Jude’s observations about the world are dramatic, but they are born from the truth of his experiences.

It is this contradictory style, both in-your-face and chameleon-like, which invites a wide variety of readers into Jude’s story.

A solitary narrator’s perspective, the lens focussed on a single person and a single voice, can leave readers feeling claustrophobic or like intimate friends.

When Everything Feels Like the Movies is the director’s cut of Jude’s life and Everything Everything is all about Maddy.

Raziel Reid Everything MoviesBoth Raziel Reid and Nicola Yoon capitalize on their narrators – and both beckon seductively to readers – but their approaches differ stylistically.

Maddy’s narrative is comprised partly from observations made in her own voice and partly from diary entries and other supplementary text and images, from online chats to screenshots. (Nicola Yoon’s husband contributed the drawings in the book and they reveal Maddy’s playful side.)

She, like Jude, is animated and clever, observant and funny. Her review of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies reads as follows: “Boys are savages.”

Maddy, too, is struggling with a number of issues surrounding her identity. She experiences isolation and loneliness in a very concrete way because she hasn’t left her house in seventeen years.

Ironically, she lives under her mother’s care for a medical condition which could put her life at risk, and this situation creates the same kind of alienation that Jude experiences, even though he is out in the very world which Maddy longs for.

In both novels, the question of wanting and the taut thread of desire dominate, in both concrete and metaphysical forms, whether it manifests as a raw yearning or a silent ache.

Maddy and Jude long for a kind of intimacy which is denied to them in their everyday lives. They are solitary figures, viewing the objects of their desire from a distance, forced to imagine what it would be like to have everything.

The epigraph to Nicola Yoon’s debut is drawn from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince: “Here is my secret. It’s quite simple: One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”

Anything and everything: regardless of age, many readers respond to a fundamental exploration of identity, a sudden and disturbing realization that the essential is undeniable.

Even if the specific details which reside in these characters’ hearts do not resonate with readers’ personal experiences, the underlying questions (love and longing and everything) invite readers to relate. And urgently too: both Raziel Reid and Nicola Yoon have paid attention to their novels’ pacing and structure: When Everything Feels Like the Movies and Everything Everything are hard to put aside (even after reading).

“A week later, something startles me awake. I sit up. My head is foggy with sleep but my heart is awake and racing. It knows something that my head doesn’t yet know.”

Maybe Life Is About Losing Everything (Lynn Crosbie).

Or maybe Everybody Has Everything (Katrina Onstad).

But When Everything Feels like the Movies, then Everything Everything matters: readers’ hearts and minds want to know.

Stories: they mean everything.

Kingdoms of the Dead

Lynda Barry says a “happy ending is hardly important, though we may be glad it’s there”.

But there’s more to it, she says: “The real joy is knowing that if you felt the trouble in the story, your kingdom isn’t dead.”*

Nino Ricci Sleep

Doubleday Canada, 2015

If one reads a lot of literary fiction, ambiguity in an ending begins to look like optimism; if one were to adopt Lynda Barry’s perspective, knowing that the kingdom isn’t dead could be a sombre story’s silver lining.

The cover of Nino Ricci’s Sleep offers readers a dramatic warning: a sedate and controlled colour palette and scene is not what it seems (Alex Colville’s “Pacific”, 1967).

Immediately we wonder if this established Canadian author will follow Chekov’s advice and have the gun fire, shattering the stillness captured in the cover image.

It seems inevitable, but the use of the word ‘trigger’ on the novel’s first page is not relating to a firearm but to the onset of a medical episode.

So, if the weapon is not concrete, then perhaps the threat of death is something else as well.

“What he was afraid of, when Marcus was born, was himself. Not Julia’s deadness but his own, the sense of having been stumbling forward like a sleepwalker, wandering deeper and deeper into country he hadn’t the vaguest notion how to find his way through.”

David’s story is preoccupied with layers of awareness: the “secret lives” of one’s waking self, the “unholy zeitgeist triumvirate” of drugs, the “death-in-life” of a failing marriage, and that moment when a thing is “just pure possibility”. Wife Julia and son Marcus float in the miasma of David’s life, the story truly David-soaked.

The pace of Nino Ricci’s novel is relentless, David’s experiences disconcerting and off-putting. The trouble in the story keeps readers off-kilter throughout.

Although not on the cover, a gun makes an appearance in the early pages of Libby Creelman’s Split too. It is drawn in the wild, surrounded by cranberry bogs, in a scene involving twin sisters with their parents and a man who has been working as a doctor in a rural community in 1960s Massachusetts.

There is a split in the family and it is unclear where the division falls and whether the gun is fired. The narrative slips across time, so that readers only gradually come to understand the circumstances which preceded and followed that scene.

One of the twins, sixteen years old in 1975 in that opening scene, remains at the core of the story in 2008; Pilgrim has journeyed back to the community, where her mother is suffering from dementia, and is compelled to wander in memory too.

Libby Creelman Split

Goose Lane Editions, 2015

“Mom had always been able to tell us apart, even when she couldn’t see us. She could identify us by our voices, our cries, our smell, our footsteps. ‘Just any little thing,’ she would say.
Unlike our father, who often remarked that listening to us chattering away in another room was like listening to one girl questioning and answering herself.”

Sisters are not split where one might expect. Countries are split in ways one might not expect. Watergate and the Civil Rights movement expose alignments and fragments, unions and tears which mimic the cohesion and destruction of a family and a community.
The lives of every individual in that clearing will split on that day. “On that day, I popped open like a jack-in-the-box. Like I had never before felt curiosity or anticipation or attention to anything new.”

In both Sleep and Split, individual family members do not find the connections which they hoped to find at home. Meaning is something which characters either only glimpse from a distance or struggle to reassemble in the wake of tragedy. Sleep feels like an irreversible trajectory, Split feels like a set of deliberately orchestrated detours: both are stories saturated in painful memories and realities.

If there is no happy ending for those who dwell in kingdoms of unconsciousness and backwood realms, none awaits the residents of Kate Walbert’s The Sunken Cathedral either.

All three novels pleat their narratives, characters’ consciousness slipping in and out of focus, so that any intimacy between them and their readers is largely constructed by the readers’ investment. (Pilgrim pulls readers closest, although one could say that readers become all-too-close to David, so suddenly and overwhelmingly that retreat is the natural response to his spiral into darkness.)

Kate Walbert’s characters remain at a distance, partly due to the structure of The Sunken Cathedral, named for the Debussy prelude (La cathedral engloutie) which was inspired by an ancient Breton myth. It is delicately arranged as a series of echoes, inherently embodying the power of art to stir our hearts, expansively, wholly.

Those who gathered to hear Debussy’s program piece could imagine the mythical city swallowed by the ocean, while listening to the sound of bells and instruments. Readers of Kate Walbert’s novel can imagine the organ music and the chimes, while reading about the lifelong friendship between Simone and Marie, two elderly women struggling to keep their heads above water in New York City after their husbands have died.

Walbert Sunken Cathedral

Scribner, 2015

“The people on the screen fade in and out, disintegrating, reappearing: a crowd jostling and pushing their way onto a boat only slightly less shaky than the boat they’re already on; it’s a turbulent, black-and-white sea. A few slip and bob in the waves – who is there to save them?”

Brake lights pulse in the darkness, television reception clears and fuzzes, memories surge and fade: The Sunken Cathedral is filled with stops and starts, including structural interruptions (or embellishments, depending upon one’s perspective) in the form of footnotes, some of which are so long that readers could mistake them for the narrative proper.

“Does everyone else have a composed life? Is everyone else sure of how things should be? The choices they’ve made?”

The lives of Kate Walbert’s characters cannot be confined to a conventional narrative; there are truths and observations which insist on making an appearance below, below the surface of the narrative in a note. Sometimes these bits feel like the most important part of the story, even though the act of stepping outside the chapter to read the additional material does introduce an element of distance, as though readers must remain on the shore, peering below.

The characters in Perrine Leblanc’s The Lake (2014; Translated by Lazer Lederhendler 2015) are not so much below the surface as floating around the more substantive events.

The core of this narrative is the loss which resounds in the wake of a deliberate and brutal death (there is more than one death, but to avoid spoilers, let’s leave it at that).

This Quebecois scene is not unlike the setting of Louise Penny’s Gamache mysteries: a cozy (stifling) community, neighbours who are engaged (interfering), in a sedate (sterile) environment. But Leblanc’s style is spare and deliberate (her nomination for the Françoise Sagan Prize was appropriate, as there are some stylistic and thematic similarities between some of Sagan’s novels and The Lake); you could fit three or four of The Lake into a Three Pines crime novel.

But Perrine Leblanc does play detective, as she examines the dangers to which vulnerable young girls can fall prey. Whether in the woods or between four walls: there is a menacing force which lurks beneath this stark prose.

Perrine Leblanc The Lake

House of Anansi, 2015

“Her steps were in time with the incessant throb of blood against her temples. She stopped halfway and leaned against a tree planted by the founders of Malabourg that was marked with a commemorative plaque. A stitch in her side was slowing her own, and she drove her thumb into her flesh to dislodge the pain. Then she doubled over and vomited the raspberry juice that she’d gulped down before going out. She had been falling since she’d entered the woods.”

The Lake is divided into three parts, which take place between 2007 and 2012, but despite the seemingly chronological structure, there is a sense of suspension in the story, as various players bob to the surface and offer another perspective on the tragic events which have unfolded in Malabourg.

Marie is correct in The Sunken Cathedral: there is nothing composed about a life, although other people’s lives can seem more orderly than our own. But ordering is the stuff of writers, the delicate arrangement into story which invites readers into curated compositions.

Nino Ricci, Libby Creelman, Kate Walbert and Perrine Leblanc create credible and detailed kingdoms and populate them with the near-living; readers can take pleasure in the telling, despite the trouble in the stories which they have told.

These readers’ kingdoms are not dead.

*Lynda Barry’s What It Is Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2008.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible (2016)

Curtis Sittenfeld EligibleRead it? I hadn’t even heard of it. Despite having read all of Curtis Sittenfeld’s other books.

Ah, well, it all made sense when I recognized that it was a retelling of Pride and Prejudice.

See, not REALLY a Curtis Sittenfeld novel. Merely Curtis Sittenfeld in Jane Austen’s clothing.

But, then, this first sentence: “Well before his arrival in Cincinnati, everyone knew that Chip Bingley was looking for a wife.”

Cincinnati? Really? Now, that’s fun, I thought, smiling. Not suspecting, yet, that I would be smiling through much of the 400+ pages to follow, and laughing out loud (LOUD) on several occasions.

Eligible became my go-to read. In a stack of exceptional reading, this is the one which I saved until last, the one I wanted to fall asleep afterwards, the one I wanted to sneak a few pages of in the mornings.

Above and beyond, the funnest part is the way Curtis Sittenfeld has updated both style and story. Austen’s novels are comedies of manners but meticulous records of the social sciences too.

Eligible is, of course, preoccupied by matters of class.

“Mrs. Bennet shook her head. ‘When people adopt, God only knows what’s in those genes.’
‘God only knows what’s in any of our genes,’ Liz said, and Mrs. Bennet drew herself up into a haughty posture.
‘I beg your pardon,’ she said. ‘Your father and I both come from very distinguished families.’”

But just as Jane Austen’s Bennet family no longer comfortably inhabits their customary position of privilege, Curtis Sittenfeld’s Bennets are slipping as well.

The family Tudor home is a suitable symbol of ths decline (and the reference to health issues highly appropriate, given that it’s Mr. Bennet’s heart condition which has called his daughters home again).

“It occurred to Liz one day, as she waited on hold for an estimate from a yard service, that her parents’ home was like an extremely obese person who could no longer see, touch, or maintain jurisdiction over all of his body; there was simply too much of it, and he – they – had grown weary and inflexible.”

These subtle details are what makes Eligible such a success. Simply drawing a parallel, having all the Bennet sisters sitting at home in the twenty-first century, wouldn’t be credible. In this updated story, the two oldest sisters have successfully established themselves in New York City and return to Cincinnati to fulfill family obligations.

“‘In New York, I play the wholesome-midwesterner card, but when I’m back here, I consider myself to be a chic outsider.’ Even before Willie replied, Liz felt the loneliness of having confided something true in a person who didn’t care.”

Liz is still the star, the one with whom readers are meant to identify, though she is as gently flawed in this retelling as in the original.

“Mr. Bennet reached out his arm and patted Liz’s knee. In an uncharacteristically serious tone, he said, ‘Lizzy, you’ve been a voice of reason amid a cacophony of foolishness. It was very good of you to come home this summer.’”

Her relationship with her father is close, but the situation with her mother is strained. Liz is not the kind of daughter Mrs. Bennet has yearned for, and although she is not overtly malicious, she is obliviously unkind.

“While gazing at herself in the mirror, Mrs. Bennet added, ‘I hope Lydia’s not making a mistake moving in with Ham. You know what they say about when men get the milk for free.’
‘Except that he’s supporting her. She hasn’t even tried to get a job.’
Liz’s comments seemed to please Mrs. Bennet. ‘Lydia’s such a pretty girl,’ she said approvingly.”

There are no longer servants on the scene, but there are references to the hired help, smatterings as in the original.

“How rare it was, Liz thought, to be surprised in a good way by the members of her family.
‘Did you and Dad go to Mervetta’s funeral?’ Liz asked.
Kitty still hadn’t looked up. ‘Of course,’ she said.”

And Mr. Bennet is as often a source of amusement, just as critical and ornery, bumbling and seemingly-well-intentioned (but ultimately just as frustrating as Mrs. Bennet) as ever. But he has some of the best lines (as is true in Austen’s original too).

“‘They didn’t get married to spite you guys. They’re in love.’
Mr. Bennet smiled wryly. ‘I suppose they are,’ he said. ‘But that’s a condition that’s acute, not chronic.’”

In short, this truly feels like an homage to Jane Austen. As though Curtis Sittenfeld has truly eaten, drunk and slept in the skin of this 1813 story, then awoke in 2013 and stretched that skin to a perfect fit.

I hope you’ll read it, because there are a dozen sentences which all begin with “Wasn’t it just perfect that she made…?” that I’m itching to say.

Because somehow it manages to be a REAL Curtis Sittenfeld novel after all, which conspires to make Eligible all-the-right-kinds-of-pretty.

Curtis Sittenfeld in Interview (2016)

Browsing with a bookish friend in Type Books the other day, I literally gasped when she gestured to Eligible; I had missed the news that Curtis Sittenfeld had something new on the shelves.

Curtis Sittenfeld Eligible

Random House, 2016

There aren’t that many authors who’ll make me gasp (but it also happened when I saw the new Alissa York, which I’d thought was a fall book), and it’s a good feeling. One which was extended unexpectedly when I discovered that the author would be at the Appel Salon a few days later.

The audience was predominantly female, which seemed to suit Eligible, a contemporary retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. And there was quite a range of ages in attendance, on a temperate May evening, which I would also have guessed. (There is no single ‘type’ of person who appreciates Jane Austen, Sittenfeld would later observe.)

What I did not anticipate was the catty comment made by the 60-something woman to my left, her cherry-red handbag perfectly matched to her thick-heeled pumps, when she saw the slide for that evening’s event slip past on the screen, which also advertised other upcoming literary events in the salon.

The photo of Curtis Sittenfeld was drawn from the jacket of Eligible and the woman asks her friend, staring intently at her image: “Could she look any more unattractive?”

She pauses for a moment, but not to soften her judgement. “I mean,” the woman continues to look straight at the screen, “she must have worked at it.”

More to the point, Curtis Sittenfeld worked very hard at writing Eligible, the fourth book in the Austen Project (with Joanne Trollope’s retelling of Sense and Sensibility, Alexander McCall Smith’s retelling of Emma, and Val McDermid’s retelling of Northanger Abbey).

Ironically, the novel reads effortlessly (more about that tomorrow), but that’s exactly how one can tell that there’s a lot of work behind it. The author considers it an act of admiration, and believes that this approach is part of what gave her the confidence to write Eligible.

One might say that the work began when Curtis Sittenfeld was sixteen years old, at a Massachusetts boarding school, when she first read Pride and Prejudice, and she thought “I can’t believe this counts as homework.” Later, a male classmate compared her to Lizzie Bennett, and that was memorable as well; she always identified with and aspired to be Lizzie Bennett.

There was no hesitation on her part in accepting her role in the project, as outlined to her in December 2011. After rereading Pride and Prejudice over the winter holidays, she had plenty of ideas right off and accepted the offer. Once her work on Sisterland was finished in 2013, she began to work on Eligible.

The themes of the novel are still relevant today: financial stability, true love, and one’s oh-so-annoying family. But she certainly is not seeking to improve the original, which is “perfect”.

Nonetheless, the project offered an enticing combination of restraint and freedom, and the process of reverse engineering provoked a new respect for Jane Austen’s crafting.

To ensure that the retelling would resonate with readers, she focussed on the emotions behind the plot points rather than the circumstances of the novel.

Random House, 2005

Random House, 2005

It’s a “light-hearted feminist retelling”, she agrees with the interviewer (Chatelaine’s Lianne George, who seems slightly nervous but enthusiastic and sincerely interested in the author’s answers).

“Feminism is having such an interesting moment,” Curtis Sittenfeld observes. But, women have a lot more choices now than they did two hundred years ago, so she did want to allow some of the female characters to enjoy themselves a little bit more.

Her mother expressed reservations that the uber-detail-oriented Curtis Sittenfeld might be too explicit about the sexuality which smoulders beneath the surface of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice — “She’s subtle, Curtis.” And saying it once wasn’t enough. Nonetheless, she had already determined to handle these scenes with discretion and a light-touch. “There are a few sentences that I coudl have written, and I didn’t.”

When asked what she looks for in a female protagonist, the author replies that she is smart and observant, with some mistaken beliefs about her own life. She might be conflicted, even self-sabotaging. Fiction allows scope for how complex people’s lives are, more so than non-fiction (this, in relationship to her third novel, based on the life of Laura Bush, American Wife).

“It’s very possible to be an intelligent person acting against your own best interests in life,” she states. And, in that statement, I realize that is exactly what I have so admired about her characterization in Prep, The Man of My Dreams, American Wife, and Sisterland.

On the surface, some of these stories seem simple but, in fact, they are deeply complex. (In the case of Sisterland, one doesn’t even realize until the final couple of chapters, exactly what has been building throughout.) I don’t know what exactly inspired the editors to approach Curtis Sittenfeld for this project (she suggests that it was her treatment of some similar themes in other novels along with their desire to include an American writer in their efforts), but surely this quality is also evident in Jane Austen’s writing.

It’s all very ordinary. But not.

-Notes taken from the interview in the Bram and Bluma Appel Salon on the evening of May 18, 2016

Péter Gárdos’ Fever at Dawn (2010; 2016)

Fever at Dawn by Péter Gárdos began with a box of letters, or, more accurately, the letter-writers, who would become his parents.

Gardos Fever at Dawn

House of Anansi, 2016

“But for fifty years I did not know that their letters still existed. In the midst of political unheaval and the chaos of moving to new apartments, my parents had carted them around without ever talking about them. They were preserved by being invisible.” (This quote is from the epilogue.)

The novel is translated from the Hungarian by Elizabeth Szász, the language straight-forward, the cadence uncomplicated, and the tone ever-so-slightly formal.

Sometimes a metaphor shines forth. (Here’s a gem: “The occasional Swedish nurse, with her braided hair, crisply starched cloak and bonnet, was squeezed in between them [200 soldiers] like a raisin in a bun.”)

Mostly, however, the emphasis is on the broader story, and even though the two letter-writers are at the heart of it, they are not necessarily presented clearly to readers. (In some ways, they, too, are preserved by being invisible.)

Consider this description of Miklós, who has decided that he will send a photograph to Lili, even though he is not satisfied with his appearance.

  “Tibor Hirsch, electronic radio technician and photographer’s assistant, hesitated. But Miklós was his friend, and was giving him begging looks, so he put aside his professional pride.
Within five minutes he had worked out how to take a photograph in which my father would be more or less recognisable. He posed Harry in the foreground. In half-profile, at the most flattering angle. A watery sun came out for the briefest moment. Hirsch positioned them with backlight for an artistic feel. He instructed Miklós to run up and down a few metres behind Harry.”

Miklós is caught in the image, in a blur, behind his friend. This is highly appropriate, as readers are really only catching a glimpse of him as well, between the lines of letters that he wrote.

But somehow it also captures an aspect of a playful but shy, honest but off-beat man, who, while recovering from the horrors of WWII, in a Swedish hospital, wrote letters to many women seeking companionship, romance even.

When his doctor realises how serious Miklós is taking his pursuit, Dr.Lindholm is not impressed.

“’Last time I tell you, say good bye to her, remember? But even if you were healthy, and you are not, I don’t allow female visitor to male hospital. As a reading man you must understand this.’
‘What should I understand?’
‘You once mentioned The Magic Mountain? Sensuality is…how I put it…unsettling. Is dangerous.'”

But Miklós is determined: unstoppable and unflappable. He has a poet’s heart, and he has something to say.

“The poem soared above the noise of the wheels. Miklós, like a cross between a troubadour and train conductor, marched the length of the carriages. He left half-empty compartments behind him without regret. He had no intention of sitting down. Instead he wanted to form some sort of bond with his fellow travellers, / strangers who were staring in astonishment or sympathy at this passenger holding forth in an unfamiliar language. Maybe some of them could sense in him the lovesick ministreal. Maybe some thought he was a harmless madan. Miklós didn’t give a damn; he walked on, reciting his poem.”

Unlike his, Lili’s photograph is straight-forward, but her story takes some unexpected turns as well. (Her experience in another Swedish hospital bears some similarities to Miklós’ but the relationships between her and her friends are drawn in greater detail, and her prognosis is not determined to be fatal.)

In the wake of a genocidal war, there are deep and devastating themes at work here: freedom and recovery, faith and mortality, loneliness and devotion.

But these ideas are explored in a broader context, so that readers can explore the layers at will.

Rather like Lili’s father’s suitcase: “Every Monday at dawn Lili’s father, Sándor Reich, trudged down Hernád Street in Budapest carrying two huge Vulkan cabin trunks. In each one, like the layers of an onion, dozens of smaller and smaller cases and bags lay one inside the other.”

Fever at Dawn is a simple and short story, but its reverberations cross generations and will attract a wide variety of readers.

Janet Ellis’ The Butcher’s Hook (2016)

It’s clear from the beginning: one might long for escape from this narrative, might opt for a bloody end rather than endure more misery.

Ellis Butchers Hook

House of Anansi, 2016

“No one but a fool could look so happy in a miserable house, could they? The mice here probably throw themselves on the traps for a quicker end.”

But Anne Jaccob’s life in 1763 London is sketched with external details designed to assemble interior worlds, dark and uncomfortable places.

We are meant to understand something elementary about our heroine, when Janet Ellis determines to spend more time describing the butcher’s shop than many other locales in the novel.

“Creatures that could never in life have shared the same field, for they would have fought or cowered, have had no choice but to jostle close together in sullen deathly silence. The smell is so strong that it is almost visible, a great sour reek, pricked with a sharp rang. Gobbets of blood stick to the sawdust on the floor; they look solid enough to thread on a ribbon like beads.”

In the beginning, substantial narrative is devoted to characterization, backstory and atmosphere, but the novel’s second half is more scenic and plot-driven.

Less of this: “I am describing the passage of some two years, I suppose, but there were few anniversaries to punctuate the passing months.”

And more long reflective passages like this: “‘Do not let Fub love that girl,’ I say to my plaster companions, those several saints. ‘How can she be to him what I am? Her button mouth would not open wide and take in his bone to suck at it for the marrow. She would not let his finger go inside her or his tongue either. She would be as solid and smooth below as china.’

This excerpt illustrates the use of direct language which feels more contemporary than many works of fiction set in Georgian England (there is also, for instance, much talk of menstruation, which fits with the bloody themes).

There is a wickedly playful note to the tale. “We sound playful. We are not playing.” There is something vicious about it, too. “He must intend Onions to be my wedding present. He would make an oddly-shaped parcel. I should not be able to keep from shrieking in horror when I undid the ribbons and discovered him inside.”

Some themes feel remarkably modern. Like the approval of a parent: “It is the moat of my father’s constant disapproval that I try and avoid, for it wets so much and stinks when it dries.” Or first love (first lust): “He has said my name. I wish it had more syllables to keep it in his mouth for longer.”

But all the overt parallels with the lives of modern readers only serve to emphasize Anne Jaccob’s unpleasantness. “Sudden as a lightning strike, I have the thought that if they all died, together, I would not mourn. My father, Evelyn, even my mother, every last one of them, I would see them set sail in a ship that I knew would sink or watch them fall into a hold that droped them down to the earth’s molten core and not mind. A plague could ravage or a stampede of mad bulls flatten them, it would be all the same to me. I wait for guilt to nibble at these thoughts and make me regret them, but it does not come.”

And the story, too, is uncomfortable: The Butcher’s Hook depends upon misunderstandings and misrepresentations. “How strangely easy it is to lie. Like a parasite on its host, my falsehoods take their nourishment from being believed and gain more strength.”

Anne is not the only dissatisfied woman in the tale.

“Love grows where it will and as it wants.”
“If you feed it, it does. It’ll latch on like a parasite and be all the more difficult to remove.” Jane sounds so sour that I have to look at her to make sure she is not replaced by an imposter. “I’ve said enough,” she says. “You know the truth of what I say.”

Parasites and imposters, sour reeks and sharp rangs, hooks and blades: these accumulate throughout the pages of The Butcher’s Hook but ultimately Janet Ellis is aiming to leave readers with a particular taste in their mouths.

“Artists lie about our last moments, painting them decorous and noble. The daintily speared leak only drops of blood and the elderly drift into a peaceful sleep. It is no wonder that they depict it thus, the truth is so much uglier. From what I’ve seen, Death come with suppuration, protestation and no grace. It makes a great deal of noise, too, and this man’s last breaths are loud, sputtering coughs and squeaks. There is a strange odour coming off him: he is already rotting.”

Though drenched in the visceral, Anne’s story feels like a bloody romp a good deal of the time, although the swell of sensory detail as the novel progresses might nudge some readers into abandonment.

I hear there is a quicker end if one but throws herself upon the trap. (See: we were warned.)