Much of September and October were occupied by reading books which appeared on prizelists and a few which I thought might appear there.
Most of these I’ve already discussed (a quick way to locate them is through my Autumn 2018 Prizelists and Events page, which collects the relevant posts in one location) but I’ve still get something to say about these:
- Lauren B. Davis’ The Grimoire of Kensington Market,
- Craig Davidson’s The Saturday Night Ghost Club,
- Kathy Page’s Dear Evelyn,
- and Dionne Brand’s Theory.
In fact, I had so much more to say about Lauren B. Davis’ The Grimoire of Kensington Market that there is a full-length and exhaustive review of it published in Issue Five of The Temz Review.
If you like stories about bookstores and fairy tale retellings, and if you have respect for the fantastical and for tropes being subverted (girls can be rescuers, the dog can survive), you’ll appreciate this novel as much as I did.
Writing this review also gave me an excuse to read the last novel of hers which I had overlooked, The Radiant City (2005), which might even be my favourite (but I’m refusing to choose).
(Pssst. If you’re new to Lauren B. Davis, you might want to read up on some of her earlier novels as well, like the Giller-nominated Our Daily Bread (2011), The Empty Room (2013) and Against a Darkening Sky (2015)).
Craig Davidson’s The Saturday Night Ghost Club is delightfully packaged for a Stand-By-Me kind of story in which a grown man reflects upon his boyhood experiences. Specifically times shared with an uncle who still believed in things which many other adults had abandoned their belief in, like ghosts for instance.
Uncle Cal has a good reason for believing and it won’t take you long to reach an understanding of that because the book reads quickly and easily. The story is heavy on atmosphere and emotion, but the pacing is taut, and the characters are credible.
My favourite part, however, are the oh-so-familiar descriptions of south-western Ontario summers:
July wore into the dog days of August. The heat fell like a guillotine blade at first light. By noon you felt as if you were breathing through boiled wool.
The kids of Cataract City took to their basements – most of them unfinished, with bare cement walls weeping moisture. We did what Canadian kids do on unbearably hot summer days: watched reruns of The Beachcombers and Danger Bay on the CBC, played endless games of clue, Monopoly and Stratego, chucked darts at old corkboards, read Archie comics on sofas that had been displaced from the living room to dodder out their days as basement relics.
Both Davidson’s novel and Kathy Page’s Dear Evelyn were nominated for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award, but they are very different stories.
Dear Evelyn recalls Carol Shields description of the novels which she most enjoyed, which were not heavily plotted in a traditional manner, but were simple and quiet stories about ordinary lives. The arc of a human life is enough of a plot for Carol Shields and it’s enough for Kathy Page and for me too.
Scenes are vividly sketched, dialogue is realistic, the tension in a relationship is fairly and credibly built and distributed, all of which makes this novel a joy to read.
But I truly loved the early scenes, in which Evelyn and Harry meet and get acquainted. Here is Evelyn, closing a copy of Rebecca and heading outside (that’s where it will happen, on the steps):
She closed the book and made her way down the flights of red marble steps to the terrazzo floor and out through the reference library, which she liked for its coat of arms with the golden bees, and the clock and the curved glass ceiling that made it seem like a railway station – as if everyone studying in that room, their heads wearily bent over school or trade textbooks was actually going somewhere else: Monte Carlo, perhaps.
Reading Dionne Brand’s Theory is a completely different reading experience. Our narrator is an academic, more accustomed to studying and analyzing than to life-off-the-printed-page.
Because Brand is also a poet, her academic narrator does have an elevated style about her, but the prose is also spare and clean, so the text-book style is not overwhelming. (There are a couple of footnotes which demonstrate just how convoluted and jargon-rich a not-poet academic narrator’s tone might have been.)
Plus, she is aware of the limitations of her “cul-de-sac of perceptions” and her “small room in the world” outside which “the dreck piles up and I do nothing about it but think”. So when she is looking back at the trail of intimate relationships (which don’t really seem all that intimate), readers feel distanced from her but not severed.
Readers likely will want to challenge her, as do other people in her life, but we still want her to find some kind of peace with her restlessness:
Where was I born, how did I justify being an academic, who did I sleep with, did I ever question my left-wing politics, my gender assignment, my comfortable life while good people were starving, my obvious class allegiances, et cetera, et cetera. And did I intend to make a living off studying people as if they were bacteria?