March 9, 2015 § Leave a comment
There’s something about a power cut, or any other interruption to our otherwise on-tap services like water or heat, that makes us recall the intense fragility of civilisation, makes us contemplate that we are only a switch or two away from needing those emergency preparedness kits the Canadian government is always encouraging us to create.
Obviously when the apocalypse/earthquake/ice storm/financial meltdown comes I will wish I had taken it seriously and prepared like any sensible person, but it seems like too much effort to make this kit, not to mention all the perfectly good food I would let expire. (The government, keen not to be seen to promote food waste, very practically recommends eating the food in your kit before its use-by date and then replacing it with a new batch.) Plus, where would you keep these supplies, and what are the chances both of being at home when disaster strikes and of not having any other food? In any case, wouldn’t creating an emergency kit be tantamount to admitting that we don’t really trust this rickety thing called civilisation, which any fool can see is not even skin deep? I think that’s really behind my aversion to the idea. If I’m going to admit that much, then surely I’m only one step away from becoming a prepper and stockpiling tinfoil and tampons for when the shtf.
Anyway, one evening before Christmas we had a power cut. In the dark I came across this package I’d forgotten to open earlier. I pulled out a bundle of hard, lumpy things wrapped in a scrap of brown material and tied with jute twine. I was amused, then, to find in the bundle some candles, a tin of Spam, a few lists of emergency supplies and a ball of twine. Also, most importantly, a box of very good quality matches.
This package was all part of an excellent marketing strategy for Claire Fuller’s debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days. Peggy Hillcoat is from a well-off family living in London. In 1976, when Peggy is eight, her father—a man who has long been planning his retreat from civilisation—takes her away to a forest to live. Their shelter is “die Hütte”; beyond the trees and the mountains there is, he tells Peggy, nothing. Peggy believes that her mother and everyone else in the world is now dead.
Peggy and her father live for an astonishing nine years in the forest, hunting and growing their own food, surviving the winters, and never seeing a single other person. This narrative is interleaved with the story of Peggy’s return to civilisation—her mother, a nine-year-old brother she’s never met, some friends who haven’t aged in her mind since she saw them last. It’s not easy, coming home, especially when you’ve had the experiences Peggy has lived through.
This novel took quite some time to get going. For almost the entire first half, the survival sections were too slow, too full of “I” sentences. The forest scene had to be well set up in order for us to believe in the continued existence of Peggy and her father, but it drags–and I say that as someone interested in how a person might live entirely self-sufficiently. The problem is compounded by a first-person narrative that mediates every sensation with “I heard” or “I felt.” What kept me reading through these slow parts was Peggy’s re-entry into society. She’s surprisingly sullen about the whole thing, and her relationship with her mother is—oddly yet fittingly—marked by a typical teenage “you don’t understand anything about me or my life” attitude, which works well here. Even in these sections, though, I felt I was waiting a little too long for payoff in the first half.
As Peggy gets older, tension in the forest mounts and both writing and structure improve. When Peggy starts to wander further, she meets the elusive Reuben and begins to realise that perhaps her father has been lying to her all this time. There’s no single clear moment when she decides to rebel, but things come to a head when her father, increasingly deranged, decides that it’s all too difficult, and that it’s time for them both to die. She promises to go with him, and for a time believes that it’s a promise she must keep, watching fatalistically from a distance as he hunts for poisonous mushrooms. She changes her mind just in time, but this decision has significant consequences both for her immediate situation and for the rest of her life.
There are some faults with this novel—the characters, even Peggy, are a bit thin and shadowy, and it could have been more forcefully edited to great effect. There’s also a musical theme throughout (Peggy’s mother is a concert pianist but has never taught Peggy to play the piano; she learns from a single sheet of music her father brought with them, and plays for hours on a soundless “piano” that her father constructs) that I found annoying but very typical of contemporary upmarket mainstream novels. These themes are never load-bearing; rather, they could be knocked out without affecting the overall construction, but giving a sense of spaciousness instead of fussiness. Overall, though, Our Endless Numbered Days is an interesting story that deals with a great many aspects of inter-human relationships, and it finishes up with a very well executed slow reveal about the nature of mind and memory under intense stress.
January 26, 2015 § Leave a comment
My review of Emma Hooper’s Etta and Otto and Russell and James appeared in the National Post last week. Read it here.
January 23, 2015 § Leave a comment
Born in Amsterdam to Jewish parents, Oberski was just a year old when World War Two broke out. He published this slim autobiographical novel in 1978, almost forty years after the events in it, and it is a truly astonishing accomplishment.
The novel opens in Bergen-Belsen, with the four-year-old narrator being reassured by his mother:
There’s been a mistake, but everything will be all right. We’ve gone away for a few days with a lot of other people, but we’ll be going home soon and Daddy will be there too. They’ve made a mistake, so we’ll have to stay here for a few days, visiting the way we visited with Trude a while ago.
The mother’s words seem to be setting up the most terrible kind of dramatic irony. We are sure we know how this ends, and it certainly isn’t with them going home. But somehow, mysteriously, a week later they do go home. “A few other people went,” writes the boy, “but most stayed.” This matter-of-fact reporting of the situation is one of the most astounding features of Childhood. Somehow Oberski has managed to capture a wonderful and realistic child’s voice, rooted firmly in the moment and barely concerned, even at such a time, with events that will have an enormous impact on his life. Or perhaps he didn’t have to try; perhaps what happened was seared into Oberski’s memory so deeply that these memories were unable to be later tainted by adult knowledge, hindsight and the desire to ponder what-ifs. Either way, this technique is used here flawlessly and successfully.
After the mistaken trip to the camp, short chapters describe how the narrator celebrates a birthday, experiences an instance of bullying because he is Jewish, is taken by his parents on a trip on the ferry, during which he is allowed to drive for a brief moment, and goes to work one day with his father, where the boss helps him use the typewriter. These give us a rapid, blinkered view of the narrator’s world, and furnish details about the time period and the family’s life. The birthday celebration excepted, each of these instances shows the reader how hyper-aware Jews had to constantly be of their position in society. First there’s the grocer’s son who stamps on the boy’s mud pies and taunts him, and when his father goes to complain, the grocer tells him in a telling non-sequitur that “it couldn’t have been his son; he said he’d always sold us everything we wanted, which had got him into plenty of trouble.” Then there’s the ferryman, who merely compliments the boy’s grasp of Dutch without rudeness or hostility. The recognition of difference is there, creating suspense, but nothing happens. And finally, the day the narrator goes to the office with his father, he mentions that “My mother had sewn a yellow star on my coat. She said, ‘Look, now you’ve got a pretty star, just like Daddy.’ I thought the star was pretty, but I’d rather have gone without.” He then moves seamlessly onto something of more pressing concern: “We had a long way to go. Luckily my father lifted me up on his shoulders now and then.”
I give all these examples to try to show all the different currents moving around the boy, who remains largely unaware and seemingly uninterested. His parents, devoted to him, are trying to protect him from the worst, trying to build up his self-esteem (for example with the star) in situations where other people are intending to destroy it (even when the grocer’s son stamps on his pies, the worry that lingers is the loss of the mould to build them).
Throughout the novel he’s resolutely just a boy growing up. His perspective is narrow, short-sighted and short-term; he does not try to think things through or come to terms with his situation or with other people’s inhuman cruelty. Things happen, but he does not become precociously wise or develop feelings of inferiority. There is no need to reflect on his own self because he is still too immature to understand that the world doesn’t revolve around him, even while he seems resigned to the fact that in his world he is in control of nothing. Others take advantage of his innocence, even in the camp, when he and his parents are permanently interned after their brief reprieve: a group of older children egg him on to thumb his nose at a guard, and later encourage him to sneak into the morgue. When children take it in turns to clean the cooking pots, he doesn’t understand that this is a way of sneaking them extra food. It’s potato peelings, not dinner, and in any case, he doesn’t have a spoon.
Despite the lack of analysis, or inserted reflection on what his parents must have been feeling and enduring, this is a stark yet deeply profound book. The reader is drawn in by the skilful contrast of what’s important to the boy and what we know—from history and from the context of the novel—he should be worried about. And that should is an interesting word. Should he be worried about anything? Is it better that he is cocooned from the true understanding that so many people wish him deliberate and dreadful harm? Or is this refusal to understand, almost but never quite disingenuous, a mechanism to protect himself? The narrator certainly does not flinch at reporting how his own selfishness at times puts his family in grave danger.
Childhood provokes a great many interesting questions. It’s a book about the Second World War, something familiar to us from so many films, novels, first-hand accounts and so on. But this child’s perspective, at once determinedly unself-conscious, detached, and heartbreaking, is worth reading.
Other reviews of Childhood:
January 6, 2015 § Leave a comment
My short review of Universal Bureau of Copyrights by Bertrand Laverdure was published in the TLS towards the end of last year. You can read it here as long as you have a subscription….
January 5, 2015 § 2 Comments
What separates a good book from a mediocre one? For me, it’s always the writing, the individual sentences. Caroline Adderson recently remarked, in a Globe and Mail interview, that the best literary advice she’s ever received is that “character is more important than plot,” but I suspect if she were giving the advice it would be more along the lines of an answer she gives later in the interview to the question “What question do you wish people would ask about your work (that they don’t ask)?” Adderson replies, “Nobody has ever asked, ‘Is the moment when you transform a mediocre sentence into a better, truer one the absolute best moment of your day?’” And I suspect for Adderson it really is the best moment of her day.
I read a lot of novels that make my heart sink, and usually it’s simply because they are not finished—because they need hours and weeks and months (and if they’ve already had it, they need more) of concentrated attention to nothing but words and sentences. Ellen in Pieces, Adderson’s fourth novel, uses language so skilfully, so lightly and yet fully, that it is wonderful yet somehow invisible. It dances along the line between good writing and over-writing, but what keeps it good, in other words controlled, is that any exuberance, any flourish, is always perfectly in keeping with the character.
The novel’s protagonist, Ellen McGinty, is impulsive, a little self-obsessed to the point of occasional obtuseness regarding other people and their inner lives and emotions, and mostly doing the best she can with what she’s been given. Her relationship with her ex-husband is hardly any less charged than it was the day they met, and its history unspools tensely through the book. When Ellen’s world is thrown into crisis, this relationship undergoes yet another evolution.
The book is in pieces, as Ellen is too (both because of the crisis but also because of the way she is shown in different contexts and different relationships) each one a separate incident in Ellen’s life, broadly chronological but with some flashbacks and twists. It opens with a story that will be familiar to readers of Eighteen Bridges: “I Feel Lousy,” in which Ellen learns that her younger daughter—the promising one studying to be a doctor—is pregnant after a one-night stand she had mainly for the sake of experience.
Towards the end of the book we start to see Ellen from the perspective of the other characters, which are less vibrant, more tentative than Ellen, with all her anger and raw emotion. In some ways I missed Ellen, because these insertions felt more like separate short stories—related, but sometimes not even about Ellen and instead about that particular character’s life away from her. At times I wondered if this was more a lesson for Ellen than for the reader, as Ellen is accused by her friends (and I confess I didn’t always agree with them) of lacking a developed theory of mind (I paraphrase). The novel is about Ellen, after all; surely she’s allowed some leeway in terms of self-centredness.
This is the first book of Adderson’s I’ve read, and an author of whom the phrase “deserves to be better known” seems highly appropriate. Ellen in Pieces is one of the best Canadian novels I read in 2014.
July 21, 2014 § Leave a comment
Possibly the most surprising thing a woman with no children can learn from a woman with children is that the ambivalence never leaves. The childless (or child-free) woman must therefore re-evaluate her conception of her own position as nuanced and that of the mother (or child-encumbered woman) as necessarily simplistic. From purely anecdotal evidence it seems to me that far from disappearing on the birth of a baby, ambivalence might well be the defining feature of parenthood, and of motherhood in particular (fathers in general still having fewer compartments of their life that are affected by the fact of having children).
Children or art? It seems like a tough choice. Having it all is reserved for people who have “real” jobs, not the kind of vocation in which paying for daycare to allow the writing of an as yet financially uncompensated book can seem like expensive vanity. Many of the essays in The M Word, a collection by established and emerging writers edited by Kerry Clare, address the intersection of motherhood and writing, which might also be described as the intersection of motherhood and selfhood.
Several essays deal with this forked road, “children” signposted one way and “writing career” signposted the other. I would have liked—no, I would like very much in a further volume of this extremely interesting book—to see whether this ambivalence and hesitation is widespread across society. What about women who start their own businesses in non-creative industries: selling clothes, party-planning, inventing useful products that fill needs, and are patronisingly labelled mompreneurs? Is it a question of time-management/time-insufficiency as a freelancer or self-employed person? Or do doctors and lawyers (or should we call them momdocs or momyers?) feel the same professional panic too, whether related or not to mat leave–induced career-flatlining? What about teachers, secretaries, shop owners, farmers, civil servants, hairdressers? Is the shock of motherhood a double blow to a writer because her career/vocation is so entangled with the self in a way that doesn’t happen if you have a job you go to at set hours? Does religion make a difference—if you have always believed your role as a woman is to nurture children, is the transition easier? And indeed the experience of men: do they notice or experience such a binary split between parents and non-parents?
Some of the writers in this collection have more reason than others to feel stationed far outside maternity’s central zone, as Kerry Clare’s introduction puts it: women who become stepmothers without having had children of their own; women who either by design or circumstance raise and bear children alone; women who either by design or circumstance have no children; women raising children with a female partner. Then there are the women who have had abortions, or had their babies adopted, or had their children (yes, plural) die. These open-hearted essays are all fascinating and absorbing, and sometimes heartbreaking. Ultimately these writers are speaking, as they take care to point out, for no one but themselves, and they do it tremendously well.
The main message I took away from The M Word is that being a mother can be desperately awful and pretty wonderful. Also that not being a mother can be desperately awful and pretty wonderful. The ratio of awfulness to wonderfulness is often but not always related to the strength of your original desire to reproduce or to remain childless, and to whether your ultimate fate aligns with this. Motherhood–many different, dark, unspoken aspects of it–is no fairytale even when it does have a happy ending. Ambivalence climbs the intertwined helical strands of maternal feeling and artistic ambition like a voracious vine, clinging, powerful. Being a mother heightens emotional extremes (despair to joy and back again dozens of times a day) while muting actual life extremes (possibility of adventure, spontaneity, freedom from responsibility).
Having read all these essays, it was fascinating to turn immediately to Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation. Described as a portrait of a marriage by some blurbs, it seemed, given my recent immersion in stories of parenthood, more a portrait of how having a child changes everything: minds, relationships, careers, people.
I’m not going to write about the book here, but there were so many brilliant quotes that I want to share just a couple, because Offill manages to convey the most painful of truths in the most exquisite ways.
‘A boy who is pure of heart comes over for dinner. One of the women who is dabbling with being young again brings him. He holds himself stiffly and permits himself only the smallest of smiles at our jokes. He is ten years younger than we are, alert to any sign of compromise or dead-ending within us. “You are not allowed to compare your imagined accomplishments to our actual ones,” someone says after the boy who is pure of heart leaves.’
‘My Very Educated Mother Just Serves Us Noodles. This is the mnemonic they give [my daughter] to remember the names of the planets.’
‘How has she become one of those people who wears yoga pants all day? She used to make fun of those people. With their happiness maps and their gratitude journals and their bags made out of recycled tire treads. But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.’
Dept of Speculation is a wonderful novel about getting older and losing that brief and mostly illusory freedom that children believe all adults enjoy. I’ve seen several bloggers suggest it for the Booker longlist; I do hope it will be there.
July 3, 2014 § Leave a comment
Also featured are Kerry Clare on Miriam Toews and a very interesting analysis of the Giller Prize by Alex Good. Buy yourself a print copy and admire the glossy Seth cover.