First of all, I’m not disappointed in the way that Canada Reads 2010 turned out: I thought Nicolas Dickner’s Nikolski was terrific and, as much as I loved both The Jade Peony and Good to a Fault, I am glad to see that such a unique story which really does demand a lot of its readers, has held sway and won the title.
Good on it and good on Michel Vézina, whose defense I whole-book-heartedly enjoyed. But I’ve already done a fair bit of talking about it because I really expected that it would get eliminated from Canada Reads with yesterday’s vote, so today my book-thoughts are elsewhere.
One of the things that the eliminated books had in common was sadness. Sure, there are moments of sadness in Nikolski as well (one character sorting through the belongings of their mother after she has died, for instance) but they are mostly at-a-distance-sorrows and the pervasive mood is one of promise and anticipation.
Does that say something about what the majority of readers look for in a book that they have voted for a relatively uplifting read for the title of Canada Reads 2010? Is there enough sadness in the world that the idea of facing more of it between the pages of a book is just too much?
I do think that a lot of readers would rather not sniffle and moan through a book. (Whereupon I have to say that the kind of sniffling and moaning that readers of Generation X would do is a little different: not world-class-sorrow-bawl-your-eyes-out-over-the-tragedy-of-it-all sadness, but more a quiet, proliferating, steady unhappiness.)
Otherwise, the remaining books (Good to a Fault, The Jade Peony, Fall on Your Knees) all have some tragic elements that were hard to read about, losses that pinched your heart.
Early on more than one panelist commented on the bleakness, the darkness, of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s novel Fall on Your Knees, even whilst acknowledging the brilliance of her writing.
Poverty and cancer, historic injustice and systemic racism, abuse and exploitation: they make for hard reading. I have to “work up to” reading a book that I think has a heavy emotional price-tag (even though often times those are my favourite books).
I still haven’t worked up the nerve to re-read Where the Red Fern Grows (which I first read in the ninth grade). It took me more than twenty years to gather the gumption for Watership Down. And it doesn’t really matter how many people tell me that I have to make time for Rawi Hage and Joseph Boyden’s novels; I’m sure they’re wonderful. But it’s going to take me some time to work my head around the idea of reading them. [Edited to add: I did.]
Nah, it’s not actually about my head, is it? Rationally, I know these writers have talent and I know that books that have sad aspects to them are often the most affecting and meaningful reads (think Alissa York’s Effigy and Li’s The Vagrants: just amazing). It’s not my reader’s brain that is backing away from tough stories, it’s my reader’s heart. And I’m not alone in that. (If I were, would that make mine a tragic story?)
Here are two quotes, inspired by past Canada Reads books, first from Helen Humphreys’, whose novel The Lost Garden (nominated for Canada Reads in 2003) is absolutely beautiful but, yes, it’s about loss too. “Every story is a story about death. But perhaps, if we are lucky, our story about death is also a story about love.”
(That actually fits beautifully with Perdita Felicien’s defense of Fall on Your Knees: she reminded listeners that there was a lot of talk about the sadness in the novel, but not enough talk about the love in it. And I’d have to agree with that.)
And another, final, quote from Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, which was nominated for Canada Reads in 2002, and which is filled with so many tragic events that one reading friend of mine said she actually started laughing at them because it became so incredible that so much sadness could be contained in one book (which, by the way, is one of my ATF reads).
“Memories were permanent. Sorrowful ones remained sad even with the passage of time, yet happy ones could never be recreated – not with the same joy. Remembering bred its own peculiar sorrow. It seemed so unfair: that time should render both sadness and happiness into a source of pain.”
Now, how tragic is that: even happy bits are transformed into painful bits.
I read most of the Canada Reads books through January and February, and I really didn’t find the sadness as overwhelming as some of the panelists did, but I do feel like my reading has been inordinately filled with sadness and loneliness of late.
With one of my recent reads (and I can’t say which one: that would be spoiling it) I actually burst into a sob with the final paragraph as though it had been gathering for chapter after chapter, and I’ve been immersed in novels about WWI the past few days (‘nuf said on that score, for now).
Do you avoid sad books? Are you relieved when a prize/award that you follow goes to a book that doesn’t squeeze your reader’s heart so hard?