Yesterday, I chatted about one of my favourites from this year’s Giller Prize longlist. Tomorrow, I’ll be chatting about the most talked-about from this year’s longlist, Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, as part of #MARM Margaret Atwood Reading Month. So, today, the other books on the longlist, the ones I haven’t talked about yet, are on my mind: Michael Christie’s Greenwood and Adam Foulds’ Dream Sequence.
[One other longlisted title, previously discussed here, is André Alexis’ Days by Moonlight. My review of Zalika Reid-Benta’s Frying Plantain will be published by Prism international next month. And my reviews of the shortlisted titles are here: David Bezmozgis’ Immigrant City, Megan Gail Coles’ Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, Michael Crummey’s The Innocents, Alix Ohlin’s Dual Citizens, Stephen Price’s Lampedusa, and Ian Williams’ Reproduction. Other Giller links are here.]
What Greenwood and Dream Sequence have in common is a focus on characters who long for what they do not have. But whereas Greenwood sprawls, across a few generations and a few hundred pages, Dream Sequence is one of those tidy little publications that you could slip into an oversized pocket. I read the latter in an afternoon, the former claimed many hours. They’re a terrific – if unlikely – pair.
If you choose to, you can read Dream Sequence as a short realist novel. You can step briefly into Henry and Kristen’s lives and spend a couple of hours in their company and move along. “What Henry wanted was to be someone on screen, not performing someone in the theatre with its vocal projection and the strain of transformation.” And “Kristin had expected more from Buckingham Palace. Broad, blank, set back behind its black gates, it had nothing of the castle about it, no towers or turrets.”
There’s some interesting commentary about public identity and fulfillment, about social disconnect and privilege. And enough characterization to take hold. (And, possibly, identify with their dissatisfaction.)
But you also might take this passage into account: “On the corner at a cross street the wind whisked up the surface snow and spun it in a little tornado and stopped and did it again. The wind must always spin like that, Kristin suddenly understood, only now it was visible. The snow illustrated the wind and Kristin, noticing, had a little bit more of the secrets of the world revealed to her, things you can’t see but are as true as true. The world is a magical place.”
There’s another way to read this: a way in which ordinary details can suddenly become “visible”, in which you look for “secrets” in this narrative, for things that are “as true as true”. This makes it a more complicated – and more satisfying – story.
In this vein, two characters observing a painting in the London gallery are not only looking at a work of art (a painting by Velázquez, depicting Jesus Christ after the whipping, in which a child, as the “Christian Soul” looks on). It’s a direct comment on one of the observers: “And this coercion of the child, I feel it in my childhood. That is very dark…” and an indirect comment on the other (although the connection isn’t drawn clearly until near the end of the novel).
Slightly strange and disorienting, there is a dream-like feel to Foulds’ prose throughout. That could also be said of Michael Christie’s Greenwood. But for more immediately apparent reasons: it opens more than a decade into the future, with a dystopic setting.
As with many of the characters in Michael Christie’s debut collection of stories, The Beggar’s Garden (2011), which was also nominated for the Giller Prize, the opening narrative is presented from the perspective of a character who lacks power and agency in a profoundly damaged world. In this world, it is after The Withering has taken hold, and very few trees remain.
A double-spread illustration reveals that the narratives are to be visualized like rings in the trunk of a tree: there are gaps of time between them, and Greenwood presents a cross-section view, so as you move through the story from the outside of the “tree”, you move back in time, until you reach the centre, and, then, as you continue to move towards the opposite side, you move forward in time, intersecting with each ring just once more.
Moving across more than one hundred years, there are connections between the narratives and timelines and, if not answers, at least possibilities. Certainly patterns. Consider this passage, in the second segment:
“She wonders about her father and if he also drank and whether that’s what made him ‘troubled’. If he did, Jake already forgives him. Maybe she drinks because of his genes. Or because of his absence. Or maybe his genes created his absence, which created her drinking. Or maybe he felt just as unwelcome in the world as she does now, and drinking was the only thing that allowed him any reprieve. Or maybe her roots are all too tangled, and there’s no single story to be told about any of it.”
Part of the fun of Greenwood lies in unearthing connections and experiencing the leaps between events and characters, so I’m keen to avoid even general spoilers. This passage doesn’t give away many specifics, although it’s true that absence is as important as presence (i.e. the gaps are intended to be as much fun to explore as the content). This passage is a great indicator of the kind of questions that preoccupy the novel’s characters.
For my taste, Christie answers just a few more questions than I would have preferred but not so many that I feel the stitching is too tight. There’s a lot of room for imagination (but not enough to make this a puzzle novel, which I would have adored).
There are also some moving and tender relationships as well as a couple of haunting/magical scenes. And an occasional lyric line, like the way texts could “keep his phone buzzing as constantly as a pair of barber’s clippers”. And here’s another, with a glimpse of how plotty the story can be too, how a bullet might enter a man’s “back, slipping between the ribs of his left side, but it also came through the cabin’s cedar siding, so it lacked the power to exit him and now rattles around in his lung like a pick lost in the body of a guitar”.
And as a finishing touch, there is a full page at the end of the novel which outlines the efforts that publisher Penguin Random House made, so this book’s production less environmentally devastating than the average printed book. One of the questions in the narrative is this: “Why is it that people are engineered to live just long enough to pile up a lifetime of mistakes, but not long enough to fix them?” Throughout my reading of the book, I was floored by the irony of this book about the value of trees being printed on their backs: it’s heartening to see this unusual effort made towards more sustainable practices for this particular story.