Conflicted: that describes my first impressions after meeting Pillow in Andrew Battershill’s Giller-nominated novel of the same name,and it also describes his perspective on the world.

battershill-pillowIt’s hard to be Pillow, to see all the angles which converge and diverge simultaneously on any single thought he has. For instance: “Pillow was of the mind that going to the zoo was just about the best thing a person could do with a day.” But, also, the zoo is “evil”, “a jail for animals who committed no crimes”.Pillow loves it anyway. And it plays an integral role in his life as a drug dealer, with the picnic area behind the Giraffe Park serving as the exchange site every third Wednesday.

He doesn’t actually have friends, only friendly acquaintances, and I count myself – as reader – as one of those. But it’s a challenge  being in Pillow’s brain.  “The centaurs jaunting around all proud, doing math equations while they galloped. It was the kind of reverie that Pillow often distracted himself with in the long hours he was supposed to be paying attention to dangerous details in the real world.”

But as Pillow’s boss observes: “A full half of this life is a test, the other half a game.” And Pillow’s perspective on things brings this to the forefront of my reading mind: he tests my patience, but he also makes me smile and even when the dangerous details surface, I find myself having a good time in Pillow‘s company.

irani-parcelMadhu, in Anosh Irani’s The Parcel, is also difficult company. Madhu’s job is to prepare the young girls who have been sold into prostitution. Her newest ten-year-old “parcel” is neither more nor less of a challenge than the rest. Madhu has been doing this for more than twenty years; she has acquired considerable expertise. “The parcel needed to be packaged in such a way that it looked like it belonged in Kamathipura. And who better than a hijra to undertake the task of transformation?”

Madhu belongs to the hijra community, a third gender which is neither wholly male nor wholly female and recognised in parts of South Asia. She found a sense of belonging in this community which she could not have had with her family, who sold her for 300 rupees. But this is damaging, devastating work.

“In Kamathipura, a parcel died twice. The first death was the breaking in. The second, more painful, death happened when the parcel realized that she had been discarded by her own family. That was when survival lost all meaning, and compliance became a sensible option.” Madhu has been a parcel and now tends to other parcels: how many deaths has she curated?

“It might be too late for Madhu, but she would teach this parcel how to separate herself from her body. She would teach the parcel how to forget that she was human. The body was the enemy. The more you loved it, the more you thought of it as a part of you, the more it blackmailed you.”

perly-death-valleyThis is a very difficult story, even beyond the complexities of the narrator, who is motivated by something-like-compassion in a system which is devoid of compassion (one which, in fact, depends upon its absence). But Anoshi Irani’s prose is often breathtakingly beautiful. And although one could not say this is a hopeful story, there is something-like-hope, there in the darkness.

Susan Perly’s novel, Death Valley, landed on my stack because of her appearance at this year’s IFOA. Then, it was longlisted for the Giller Prize. Readers are first introduced to the character Vivienne Pink, who is a war photographer. She is spirited and ambitious, determined and intelligent, but sometimes her concern with getting the shot she desires will outweigh all other matters.

She is not as solitary a figure as either Pillow or Madhu. She has a husband, who also has a brother, and she has a friend who is a spy and he understands the compromises that Vivienne makes for the “greater good”. (For instance, sometimes she also has a lover, if that’s what it takes to get the perfect shot.)

Nonetheless, although her character is not as difficult as some, her circumstances are dangerous indeed. “Before there was Chernobyl wind, before there was Three Mile Island rain, there were the Nevada Nagasakis, there were the Nevada Hiroshimas. This was the nuclear valley inside the nuclear ranges. And the iodine waited for your neck, that radiation magnet. The wind sought even the birds of flight.” (If you think you know the extent of the military testing in Nevada, you are likely mistaken.)

george-elliott-clarke-george-and-rueDeath Valley unfolds in the “high-res desert”, “a still-reverberating concussion”, the “cold empire of wonder”. You might read it for the poetry. Or the feminism. Or the hard-hitting reality of what one wishes were fantasy. ““You see,’ the White Rabbit continued, ‘buying insurance for the nuclear plants encourages the growth of fear. We prefer to grow an economy, right, Alice?’”

George and Rue is also poetic and fervent. And just as Anosh Irani’s tale was inspired by his years growing up next to the Red Light district, George Elliott Clarke’s novel was inspired by his home turf: the historical figures of George and Rue are actually part of his family.

“Though repelled by the Hamiltons’ crime, I embrace them as my kin. They were born where I was born—in the Africadian settlement of Three Mile Plains, Nova Scotia—and George Hamilton and I were named for the same gentleman, his grandfather and my great-grandfather, George Johnson. (In naming me as she did, my mother salvaged the memory of that perished cousin—and recuperated the regal name of her grandfather.) Too, the Hamiltons were—like so many of us from Three Mile Plains, Five Mile Plains, Windsor Plains (all the same community, really)—part Mi’kmaq and part African.”

Their crime was brutal, but Clarke’s retelling is lyrical and poignant, so while the layers of eviseration and cruelty are almost overwhelming, readers can sometimes lose themselves in the delights of word selection and imagery. “Then he had to sidestep stringy cats who streaked from shadows to bat about and maul and chew the struggling, gut-splattered rats. He turned and saw a mutt sitting under the Ford’s trunk, lapping at the suddenly brothy snow.”

This is deliberately and undeniably difficult territory. “The dreadfullest sounds was heard in the penal colony on holidays: coughs and cries followed by choking and gurgling. Tears sliding down like falling stars. Suicides by hanging, or by slashing wrists with homemade shivs, razors. Prison made Hell look good.” This is not the prison of Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed. Nor is it Madhu’s kind of prison. Each is flinch-worthy in its own way.

findley-piano-mans-daughterIt is a different kind of prison again in Timothy Findley’s The Piano Man’s Daughter. “Do not misunderstand me when I speak of running and escaping. There were places Lily could hide without lifting her feet from the ground. The problem was that when she faded into her illness – the most complete of all her hiding places – it left me out in the open where everyone else could see me. Being a child, I had no defence against this scrutiny. It was hard to bear – and sometimes I hated her for it.”

Lily is not so much a difficult character as she was a difficult mother for the narrator of Findley’s classic novel. And that, it’s true, is laid to rest at the challenging circumstances she herself faced.

Stop! But he didn’t.
Don’t! But he did.
Nothing. Not one word.”

Overall, Lily is a sympathetic character, ensnared by tragic circumstances. “She had lost, I think, her eagerness to evade whatever restrictions had chased her through those early years – and had given in to their persistence. She was someone’s captive, it seemed – or the captive of a circumstance she could not resist.” Timothy Findley explores many themes familiar to his readers (memory, history, madness, absent parents, romantic disappointment, unrequited love, loneliness) and he affords his narrator the opportunity to rebuild.

And just as Lily’s mother “extrapolated hope from hopeless situations”, we readers face difficulties in fiction in hopes of finding new hope in those hopeless situations. Is it hard? Sometimes. But all we have to do is turn the pages. The stories behind the stories are so much harder to bear, than the act of bearing witness ever is .

How about you: what difficult stories have you been reading?