Category Archives: Canadian authors
How long can a series endure before it runs out of steam?
Louise Penny’s crime series set in Quebec has long been one of my favourite crime writers. Her central character, Armand Gamache, chief of police, is a superbly conceived character; he’s surrounded by some equally well-executed personalities among his friends and family and he lives in the delightful (fictional) village of Three Pines. Penny’s
When we reached book ten of this series however I did wonder how much further Penny could go with this set up. She settled all my doubts with book eleven A Great Reckoning (my review is here).
But she’s just published book number 14 and it saddens me to say that my earlier doubts have resurfaced. I so wish that wasn’t the case because the fact that Kingdom of the Blind was written at all is a testament to Penny’s resilience and courage.
Penny’s husband Michael, who was the inspiration for Armand Gamache, died in September 2016. In the introduction to Kingdom of the Blind, Louise Penny says she didn’t feel she could write again after his death. “How could I go on when half of me was missing? I could barely get out of bed,” she said.
But one day she found herself at the dining table where she always did her writing. The first day she wrote just two words — the name of her protagonist. The next day the word count trebled and kept on increasing day by day.
Kingdom of the Blind was begun. Not with sadness. Not because I had to but with joy. … Even as I wrote about some very dark themes, it was with gladness. With relief. That I get to keep doing this.
The darkness she mentions relates to one of the two major plots in the novel.
A new ultra powerful, ultra dangerous, opioid drug is about to hit the streets of Montreal. The finger of blame is pointed at Gamache who allowed a large cache of the drug to escape seizure during a major drugs raid. As a result he’s been suspended from his role as Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté du Québec, pending an internal investigation. Then one of his proteges at the police academy, the rebellious cadet Amelia Choquet, is discovered with drugs in her possession.
Against this background Gamache receives a letter summoning him to a dilapidated house in a small rural village. There he discovers he is one of three people named as executors in the will of a woman who called herself The Baroness. Gamache has never met her, has no idea why she should have entrusted her last wishes to him, a retired psychologist (his friend Myrna Landers from Three Pines) and a young accident-prone builder from Montreal. It’s not long before a body is found and Gamache’s suspicions are aroused.
Penny hasn’t lost her gift for evoking the spirit of the Quebec countryside and its fierce winters. Early in the novel a winter storm descends upon Gamache and the village of Three Pines; a metaphor for the turmoil that threatens to engulf the police chief. But these villagers take the weather in their stride; it’s just an excuse to indulge in their favourite foods (a word of warning – reading this book will get you salivating for tarte tatin and cafe au lait) or to head to the village bistro for a gossip. All the usual people are in evidence in Kingdom of the Blind: Gamache’s wife Reine-Marie, his son-in-law and assistant Jean-Guy Beaulieu, the artist Clara Morrow, bistro owners Gabri Dubeau and the poet Ruth Zardo.
Gamache is more introspective in this novel than in all the previous titles. He’s always been conscious of his failings, following a code of conduct based on the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. He advises his junior officers to take on board four statements: I don’t know. I need help. I was wrong. I’m sorry.
In Kingdom of the Blind he seems more vulnerable, more weighed down by ghosts from the past.
… he remembered … all the raids, the assaults, the arrests. The investigations over the yers. The victims. All the sightless, staring eyes. Of men, women, children whose murder he’d investigated. Over the years. Whose murderers he’d hunted down. All the agents he’d sent, often led, into the gun smoke.
There’s a sense in Gamache’s mood — which is reflected in some scenes at the end of the book — that he is facing significant changes in his life and his career. Without giving the game away for people who have yet to read this book, the nature of those changes make me wonder how it’s going to be feasible for Penny to continue this series. The inheritance plot of Kingdom of the Blind wasn’t one of her best, another indication for me that the series is reaching a natural conclusion. Even so it is still superior to many of the crime novels currently in circulation.
I could be wrong. Louise Penny surprised me once before. She could do it again.
I usually ignore reinterpretations and retellings of classic novels but the premise of Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed was so enticing I set aside my normal cynicism. It’s part of the Hogarth Shakespeare initiative from Vintage which has so far seen 6 titles including Howard Jacobson’s take on The Merchant of Venice with Shylock Is My Name and Edward St Aubyn tackling King Lear in Dunbar.
Atwood brings us a version of The Tempest in which her Prospero is Felix, a jaded theatre director who ends up leading a prison drama programme when he falls victim to the machinations of his protegé.
For years Felix has been the artistic director of a Canadian theatre festival, delivering ever more fantastical and ambitious productions as each year passes. All his attention is focused on “the things that really mattered, such as his perceptive script notes and his cutting-edge lighting schemes and the exact timing of the showers of glitter confetti of which he has made such genius use.”
His commitment to directorial excellence is such that it leaves him no time to smooch with the festival board members and calm their nervousness at his ever wilder productions (His version of Pericles involves extraterrestrials while his Macbeth requires chain saws). He’s more than delighted he can leave all that humdrum kind of stuff to a very helpful, super-efficient factotum called Tony.
Tony manoeuvres behind the scene to step into the director’s shoes and soon Felix is out on his ear mid way through rehearsals for what would have been his greatest ever creation: a version of The Tempest.
His Ariel, he’d decided, would be played by a transvestite on stilts who’d transform into a giant firefly at significant moments. His Caliban would be a scabby street person – black or maybe Native – and a paraplegic as well, pushing himself around the stage on an oversized skateboard.
Cast out from his kingdom Felix takes himself off to a shack in the wilderness to lick his wounds and plot his revenge. His years pass in solitude with Felix living off his savings and retirement package. Obsessed with revenge, he watches Tony’s star rise, enabling him to become Minister for Heritage. When he decides he’s taken solitude too far he gets a job, using a fake identity, as an acting tutor in the Literacy Through Literature run at Fletcher Correctional, staging one of Shakespeare’s plays every year using the inmates as actors.
It takes 12 years before the opportunity comes to get his own back on Tony.
Felix chooses The Tempest as the next production for the inmates and embarks on his standard rehearsal process. The first task for aspiring cast members is to comb the text for ‘curse words’ they will use as replacements for the regular oaths which are banned during rehearsals. “Hag-seed” and “Scurvy monster” are deemed OK.
Then they have to delve deep into the characters’ minds before Felix will decide who gets which part. All his students want to play the monstrous Caliban, “We get him,” they say. “Everyone kicks him around but he don’t let it break him.” But none of them are willing to play Ariel— until Felix persuades them they are seeing the character completel wrong. Ariel is not a ‘fairy’ but a cool alien, a non-human being with superpowers who controls the special effects. At which point everyone decides he wants to be Ariel.
Felix is a hard taskmaster. He insists on complete dedication from his cast as he takes them through a detailed analysis of the play, its themes and its characters before they begin rehearsal.
There are some new developments this time: he brings in an outsider in the form of the actress he intended to play Miranda in his original version. And instead of the usual audience of prison officials, prisoners and guards, he invites some high-ups in the government to watch the recorded performance (for security reasons no live performances are allowed) in a bid to extra financial support for the programme. It just so happens that one of these officials is Tony in his role as Heritage Minister As he prepares for the visit Felix proves himself just as much an expert in manipulation and subterfuge as his arch-enemy, conjuring his actors to bewitch, drug, and humiliate them, exposing their treachery.
Felix was the undoubted star of the novel for me. He’s completely bonkers and often rather unpleasant yet Atwood made me warm to him and cheer him on in his revenge quest.
This is a man who is suffering. Like Prospero, he has lost his wife. But at least Prospero had his young daughter Miranda to keep him company in exile. Felix however lost his Miranda when she was three years old and his struggles to deal with this loss lie at the heart of Atwood’s novel. It drives Felix’s obssesiveness and fuels his creativity. “Didn’t the best art have desperation at its core?” he reflects. By the time the novel finishes just as Prospero frees Ariel, so Felix knows he must free Miranda whose ghostly presence sustained him for years.
It’s a poignant moment in a novel that is written with verve and mischief. Atwood seems to take great delight in caricaturing the liberals found in certain sections of the arts but she also reflects contemporary trends by using rap for one of the more boring parts of the Tempest script. Out of necessity (I couldn’t take my library edition on my travels) I had to switch to an audio version of Hag-seed but it proved to be a smart move. I doubt any rap artist would rate Atwood’s attempts very highly since some of the rhymes are, shall we say, a little obvious, but they do work better in audio than on the page.
Hag-seed is a novel that is touching and hilarious with a brilliantly imaginative climax. It works well as a story in its own right but as a reworking of the play it will delight people who are familiar with the original and will enjoy spotting the parallels and connections with Shakespeare’s version.
Atwood picks up well on the themes of imprisonment and power from the original play. This is a play about prisons, Felix tells his aspiring cast members, and he has them scrutinise the text line by line to determine just how many forms of prison they can identify. The parallel with their own lives is obvious but it also speaks to Felix’s own situation – he too has lived in a form of prison for years and has acted, like Prospero as a form of dictator. The difference is that of course he can walk out a free man at the end of the play, while his cast are left to serve out their time. He is however a changed man.
Hag-Seed is an inventive tale that was a delightful experience in itself but also had me scurrying back to the original to remind myself of its excellence. Now if only Atwood could be commissioned to write all the Hogarth Shakespeare versions I’d likely buy the entire set. (I doubt the bosses at Hogarth read this blog but maybe someone more influential can have a word in their ear?)
It’s taken months to get here but we know at last that the Man Booker prize for 2016 has gone for the first time to an American author, Paul Beatty. His novel The Sellout, his fourth is a satire that explores race relations in America. It was, apparently a unanimous choice, though a surprise one – the bookie’s favourite was Madelein Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing while popular opinion among book bloggers and Goodreads members was tending towards Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk.
A clearly emotional Beatty told the audience at the London award ceremony that it was a hard book to write and he knows it’s been hard for some people to read. He didn’t mean the language was dense or complex but that the subject is a painful one for many readers.
I’ve not read The Sellout but today a signed copy came through the letterbox courtesy of a Goodreads contact who happened to have a duplicate copy and met up with Beatty on the eve of the awards. How about that for luck!
In case you don’t know anything about The Sellout, it is set in a rundown Los Angeles suburb called Dickens, where the residents include the last survivor of the Little Rascals and the book’s narrator, Bonbon, an African American man on trial at the U.S. Supreme Court for attempting to reinstate slavery and racial segregation. It’s an audacious premise and one that has had some readers.
“The truth is rarely pretty, and this is a book that nails the reader to the cross with cheerful abandon,” Amanda Foreman, chairman of the judging panel. The judges considered it as a “novel of our times … that takes aim at racial and political taboos with wit, verve and a snarl”, presumably a reference to recent clashes between police and black Americans – the book partly deals with the consequences of unjust shooting at the hands of the police.
I’m delighted for Paul Beatty for whom this clearly meant a tremendous amount and was a surprise. I bet he can expect to see a long line of students wanting to sign up for his classes at Columbia University in the near future. Its good news too for independent publishers Oneworld – their second win in the Bookers in successive years ( the first was in 2015 with Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings). The choice of winner seems to have been well received with critics in The Guardian: and The Telegraph seeing it as a bold choice that could take the Booker in a new direction.
The Guardian commented: “The Man Booker prize has not historically been known for its sense of humour…… But Beatty has achieved the rare feat of writing a novel that is recklessly, scabrously funny, politically of-the-moment and hugely erudite in its frame of reference and its playful invocation of both literary and popular culture.”
The Telegraph called it an act of mischief: ” The Sellout was one of the most instantly readable books on the six-strong shortlist. You can well imagine how the judges fell upon its opening pages with relief amid the mammoth task of ploughing through some 150 novels in six months. But after a flying start it runs out of steam. … Crowning this high-wire act as a Booker winner has an air of mischief – as if the judges couldn’t resist the chance to shake things up and seize a place in history.
It will be interesting to see if this is the beginning of a trend for the judges to pick novels seen as most relevant to today’s society……
I’m disappointed though that they couldn’t have also given the prize to Madeliene Thien for Do Not Say We Have Nothing. (click the title to read my review) Still she has the consolation of just having won the Governor-General’s Literary Award in Canada where she has made her home.
Other works by Paul Beatty
The White Boy Shuffle, his debut in 1996 which is a satire on gang culture in LA. It seems to have been translated from French but I’m not absolutely certain.
Tuff, a 2001 novel about “Tuffy” Foshay, an East Harlem denizen who breaks jaws and shoots dogs and dreams of making his fortune with an idea for film starting Danny de Vito In the meantime he decides to run for in the City Council.
Slumberland: 2008 novel about a disaffected Los Angeles DJ who travels to post-Wall Berlin in search of his transatlantic doppelgänger. As he stumbles through the city’s dreamy streets he ruminates on race, sex, love, and Teutonic gods.
Heron Fleet, published 2013. Set in the future, Francesca is an apprentice in the idyllic, agrarian community of Heron Fleet. She loves her impetuous partner Anya and the community acts as mother and father to her, as its founders intended. But outside Heron Fleet, the world is violent. Only a remnant of city populations, organised into violent despotic scavenger gangs, cling on by combing through rubble in search of food. They are the survivors of an ecological disaster.
He has also published two books of poetry, Big Bank Take Little Bank and Joker, Joker, Deuce and in 2006 edited an anthology of African-American humour – Hokum.
Louise Penny has for a few years now been one of my favourite crime writers with her series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, Head of Homicide at the Sûreté du Québec. When we got to book number 10 I was worried she was about to bring the series to an end since this saw the denouement of a long running theme of the Chief’s battle against the forces of evil that lay at the heart of the judicial and political establishment. But in book 11, The Long Way Home, she came up with a plot to keep him occupied in his retirement to the delightful small village of Three Pines, where so many of his investigations had led. As nifty as a device this was, it had limited scope I thought – this is a village so small it doesn’t even appear on a map so it would stretch credulity too far to keep conjuring up crime incidents for Gamache to investigate. I needn’t have been concerned however for Penny has devised a far more credible new role for the Chief in her newest episode in the series A Great Reckoning.
This novel sees Gamache start a new job as head of the Sûreté academy, the body that trains new officers for the force. Gamache is determined to clean up some of its less desirable practices which have resulted in a bunch of new recruits who are overly aggressive and below the standards Gamache expects from Sûreté officers. His clean-up campaign will see him go head to head with some of the established leaders of the academy who are none too pleased with the changes. It also re-unites him with one of his oldest friends, a now-disgraced former head of the Sûreté, a man who has good reason to dislike Gamache as the man who brought about his demise. When one of the Professors at the Academy is found murdered, the spotlight turns on several of the staff, including Gamache. Questions are raised about just how far would he go to eradicate corruption and what exactly is his relationship with Amelia Choquet, one of the new cadets who with her tattooed limbs and pierced nostrils and lips looks more like one of the people a Sûreté officer would question as a suspect than recruit to their ranks.
There is another mystery that requires Gamache’s attention. An intricate old map is found hidden in the walls of the bistro in Three Pines. The villagers become more and more intrigued by this artefact. Who was the mapmaker and what was the purpose? Why did the mapmaker include a pyramid, a snowman and a cow and why was does the stained glass window in he village church feature the a soldier carrying the map? Challenges and questions Gamache gives to four of the cadets as an exercise in the investigation skills they will require once on active duty. Along the way he gives them an object lesson in how to be a skilled – and compassionate investigator, quoting from Jonathan Swift and Marcus Aurelius in what seems to be one of the tenets guiding his own life:
The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane
And thats one of the things I admire most about the Gamache series. The plots are generally good (the one in he Great Reckoning isn’t as compelling as previous titles but is still executed flawlessly) and the characterisation superb. But what lifts this above the ordinary crime novel is the investment made to show Gamache as a rounded man capable of great depth of understanding, humanity and humility. Qualities which he tries to pass onto his family, friends and those under his wing as he does in his end of year address to the Academy staff and students:
We are all of us marred and scarred and imperfect. We make mistakes. We do things we deeply regret. We are tempted and sometimes we give into that temptation. Not because we are bad or weak but because we are human. We are a crowd of faults. But know this… There is always a road back. If we have the courage to look for it and to take it.
Wise words from a man who is often accused of arrogance, of thinking he knows better than anyone else what to do in a crisis situation. But essentially he is a man who recognises he makes mistakes in his quest to root out wrong doing and isn’t afraid to admit it to others when the time is right.
You could do worse than read The Great Reckoning not just as an example of quality, thoughtful crime fiction but as a study in humanity and true leadership. The extra good news is that towards the end of the book there is a hint he is going to move on to a new role. My guess he will become head honcho of the Quebec Sûreté but Louise Penny could have another surprise up her sleeve.
Author: The Great Reckoning is book 11 in the series by Louise Penny
Published: 2016 by Little, Brown Book Group UK
Length: 400 pages
My copy: Provided by the publishers via NetGalley in return for an honest review.
I’m surprised there hasn’t been much on line chatter about Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien. Amidst the chatter about the contenders for the 2016 Man Booker Prize she seems to have been overlooked and yet this is one novel that deserves to be read more widely.
This is a novel about what happens when a political regime flex its ideological muscles and dictate how individuals should live their lives. The regime in question is the Communist Party of China under the direction of Chairman Mao and his successors. If you’ve read Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang, you’ll already have a good grounding in the history of the People’s Republic of China and the disastrous consequences of projects like The Great Leap Forward.
Thien’s novel covers some of the same historical period as Chang’s account but is more contemporary since it includes the build up to the Tianenman Square massacre of 1989. This is the background against which she sets her story of three talented musicians whose lives are turned upside down when the government decides their music is not appropriate to the new order.
This is an astonishingly ambitious novel not only because of the vast swathe of history that Thien covers but because of the large number of characters she introduces and the blend of fact and fiction. Her characters are people who are who leap off the page and in whose company you delight. – from the wonderfully named Big Mother Knife and Swirl to the unassuming Sparrow (one of the musicians) and his talented daughter Zhuli. They have to manoeuvre every subtle change in ideology, trying to make sense of their world and all the time longing to keep hold of the western music they revere.
The only life that matters is in your mind. The only truth is the one that lives invisibly, that waits even after you close the book. Silence, too, is a kind of music. Silence will last.
I know some bloggers thought some sections the book dragged but that wasn’t my experience. It’s definitely a book that you have to read with full attention because of its dual time narrative which switches between and the vast array of ideas woven into the text. Thien seems to have constructed her narrative along musical principles. She introduces a motif or a theme; explores it, expands it and then lets it fade away only to return to it at a later stage though in a slightly different note. So compellingly does she write about the music adored by Sparrow, his daughter and his mentee that I felt compelled to get a copy of some of the key pieces – especially Bach’s Goldberg Variations whose recordings by Glenn Gould with whom the trio feel a particular affinity.
There is another musical reference which I didn’t discover until reading a few other reviews of the novel. The title is an adaptation from the Chinese translation of the L’Internationale, the 19th century song adopted by socialist and worker groups worldwide. “Do not say that we have nothing, / We shall be the masters of the world!”
Author: Do Not Say we Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
Published: 2016 by Granta Books.
Length: 473 pages
My copy: Provided by Shiny News Books for whom I wrote a more detailed review
I can pretend no longer. The tinges of red on bushes in my garden and the rate at which our copper beech is shedding leaves tells me that summer is over. Time for the season of mists and intermittent sunshine.
I know many readers who change their reading habits once the seasons evolve and start to think of slightly darker, or more cosy books once the nights begin drawing in. I don’t consciously do that – as far as I can tell I read pretty much the same things all year round. It’s rather a coincidence therefore that the two books I have on the go at the start of October are rather dark.
One is the latest in the Chief Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny that I’m reviewing for NetGalley. Penny has found a clever way of dealing with the problem that two books earlier she made her protagonist retire from his job as head of homicide for the Quebec region after a dramatic showdown with the corruptive elements in the force. The last novel saw him retire to the quiet community of Three Pines with this wife, but even then he found a crime to solve. But of course she can’t go on creating crimes in Three Pines given it is such a small community. The latest novel A Great Reckoning sees him take up a new role at the helm of the police training academy, determined on a root and branch review and a cull of the less desirable influences which of course sets him firmly on course to antagonise his colleagues. One of them get murdered and Gamache is in the frame as a potential murder. As with all of Penny’s novels we get a reasonably good plot but a lot of thoughtful commentary about the state of the world as seen by Gamache.
It’s all rather different from my second novel which is Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights – the first in his trilogy. I read it a few years ago and wasn’t all that enamoured with it – it features a talking bear and some fantastical creatures called daemons that you carry with you as a reflection of your soul. Reading it a second time for my study module on children’s literature I can appreciate more the way Pullman plays with the typical elements of fantasy and quest fiction, of mythology and Paradise Lost to create a tale of other worlds that asks searching questions about religion and the role of the Church. Still wish he hadn’t included talking bears though….
I do seem to be on a run of darker material since I only just finished Do Not Say We Have Nothing by the Canadian author Madeline Thien. It’s shortlisted for both the Booker prize and the Scotiabank Giller Prize. It covers a vast swathe of Chinese history from the era of Mao and the devastation he brought to the nation not to mention the untold number of deaths, right up to the massacre at Tiananmen Square. Some of the history is familiar from my reading of Wild Swans (one of my favourite non fiction books) but Thien looks at this through the lens of three highly respected and talented musicians and how political upheaval affects their ability to learn, play and enjoy music. It’s an ambitious novel and really tough to review for Shiny New Books for their upcoming edition.
A lot of other children’s novels await my attention in coming months. Next in order will be Treasure Island which I love and Little Women which I loathe…. In between I hope to get to some of the books I mentioned in a recent post about books on the Autumn reading plan but like most of my plans its likely to go astray. German literature month beckons as does the 1947 club and then there’s the Classics Club prize which I have sadly neglected this year and the Booker project and my world literature project. Plenty to occupy me for sure.
I don’t read a lot of crime fiction but now and again I get a hankering for something in that line. I am clearly not destined to be a detective however because I invariably pick the wrong person as the perpetrator and miss the significant clues along the way to their exposure. It doesn’t really matter as long as the writing is of a good standard and the plot doesn’t stretch credulity too much. What appeals to me about these books is they give me a chance to turn the dial down on the brain for a while. I’m not yearning for cosiness or the kind of book where it goes in one eye and out the other without touching the sides but I definitely want to be entertained.
All three of the crime novels I’ve read this year have had something about them that lifted them above the ordinary though their styles couldn’t be more different.
My love affair with Chief Inspector Gamache continues unabated. A Fatal Grace is book number two in the series by Louise Penny but the fourth I’ve read (I’ve not been reading in order).
She takes us back to the Three Pines village, a Canadian community so small it can barely be found on the map. It’s a close knit community but there’s one person that the village has never taken to their heart: CC de Poitiers. This is a woman who alienated everyone from her husband and her sad, cowed daughter to her lover so there are not many tears shed when she is electrocuted during the annual curling event. But Armand Gamache is a man full of compassion and an understanding of human nature, skills which ably equip him to understand the undercurrents as he searches for the truth. A well written novel which kept me guessing (almost) to the end and entertained with its wonderful scenes set in the village’s cosy bistro. I admire the way Penny has developed these characters, giving them little quirks and tics but never descending to the level of caricature. She has also cleverly set up a storyline that is expanded in later novels about a threat from unknown forces to our beloved Chief Inspector. If you’ve not been introduced to Gamache, I recommend you remedy that soon.
It’s taken me long enough to get around to reading The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the first novel to be published by Agatha Christie. It’s the novel that introduces Hercule Poirot to the world as a man with eccentric habits and a razor sharp mind.
The story of The Mysterious Affair at Styles is rather simple by contemporary standards – just one death and that happens off stage so sparing us any ghoulish details. But it’s the way the novel evokes a particular time and place that I found more interesting. It’s written in 1916 when the world of the Edwardian landed family seems to be in its last stages. The multi-generational family living at the country house of Styles try to keep up their old way of life but the reality of World War 1 with its talk of war work, rumours of spies and shortages of essentials impinge on their comforts. Poirot himself has been displaced by the war raging in his native Belgium, finding refuge with a few of his countryman in a house owned by Emily Inglethorp, the matriarch of Styles manor house. It puts him in pole position when his benefactor is found dead inside her locked bedroom. Not a book that lovers of highbrow literary fiction will enjoy very much it was interesting to see where the legend of Poirot began.
Both Penny and Christie give us professional detectives who possess an extraordinary ability to understand the forces that drive people to murder, maim and prey on the weak and defenceless. It’s often not the crime itself that intrigues them, but the character that lies behind it.
The protagonist in my third novel isn’t a detective nor does he have any interest in the criminal mind. He doesn’t easily understand emotions in fact because Asperger’s Syndrome severely limits his emotional response to situations and makes it difficult for him to interpret other people’s behaviour. Patrick Fort is however fascinated by death, a fascination triggered when as a young boy he witnessed his father’s sudden demise in a road accident. His obsessive desire to know why someone dies takes him to a university anatomy course in Cardiff where he he looks for answers by dissecting cadavers donated in the interests of furthering medical understanding. After weeks of working on Corpse 19, the body of a middle-aged man, he is convinced the diagnosis given on the death certificate is incorrect. Few believe his claim that Corpse 19 did not die naturally but was murdered in a hospital high-dependency ward for coma patients.
The introduction of a ‘detective’ with Asperger’s Syndrome has of course obvious parallels with Mark Haddon’s hugely successful The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night Time. Rubbernecker uses a similarly emotionally disconnected voice but was rather more successful for me than Haddon’s protagonist. There are times when Patrick Fort’s lack of social skills result in some unintentionally funny scenes but we also empathise with his mother whose patience at her son’s behaviour has been tested to despair.
There is a lot to appreciate in this novel though Bauer’s ambition seems to have led her to intersperse the narrative of Patrick’s quest with several other strands which don’t work as well. The most prominent is the narrative of a middle-aged car accident victim man who is trying to recover his voice and the use of his body after lying in a coma for many years. Then there is a story line of a nurse working in the same coma unit who sets out to snare the wealthy husband of a patient. The connection between these strands does eventually come together though it makes for some confusing reading initially. I’ll give credit to Bauer however for attempting to break new ground in the realm of psychological crime fiction. The shame is that we won’t get another chance to meet Patrick in any further novels.
This is a novel whose plot revolves on a habit which is fast disappearing. In an age of instant communications via phone, text messages, social media and emails, few people it seems write letters to each other any longer.
Montreal postman Bilodo mourns their demise and not simply because this is a trend that threatens his job (he would after all have plenty of marketing leaflets still to deliver). His sadness stems from the fact he believes “ real letters” are more thoughtful and show more of human character. Letter writers to him are people who prefer ” the sensual act of writing by hand, the delightfully languorous anticipation of the reply, to the reptilian coldness of the keyboard and instantaneity of the Internet – people for whom the act of writing was a deliberate choice and in some cases, one sensed, a matter of principle, a stand taken in favour of a lifestyle not quite so determined by the race against time and the obligation to perform.”
So keen is he on this form of correspondence this shy and unassuming man has got into the habit of steaming open letters he intercepts during his shift. Of all the letters he looks forward to reading, he reserves particular affection for those in the form of poems from Ségolène, a young teacher living in Guadeloupe. Since Bilodo has access only to Ségolène’s side of the conversation he has to imagine how the recipient, a Montreal academic called to Gaston Grandpré would respond. At first he doesn’t understand their poems but as he learns how they are written in the Japanese form of Haiku, his appreciation deepens. He finds himself falling in love not simply with the poems but with Ségolène herself.
In a twist of fate Grandpré is run over while attempting to post his latest haiku and dies at Bilodo’s feet. Rather than lose all contact with Ségolène, Bilodo decides to take on the dead man’s identity and to become a poet himself to ensure the long-distance relationship continues. As his poetic skills blossom, the haikus become more personal and bring a new sense of purpose to Bilodo’s life. Will Bilodo find happiness with a woman he has never seen or will his fraud be revealed and his world crash about his ears? Denis Thériault cleverly sends his readers down a few garden paths before springing a surprise surreal ending.
At first I thought I would find the story rather too playful but that all changed after Grandpre’s death where the narrative took on more of a disturbing quality. What starts as a tale of a lonely man’s search for love becomes more of a fable about the dangers of losing your sense of who you really are. Some critics have compared Thériault’s work to that of Murakami and Julian Barnes. I am not familiar enough with either of these authors to judge. But it’s clear from this little novella that Thériault can pack a lot into a small space.
Well worth reading.
The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Thériault was published in French as Facteur émotif in 2005
Translation by Liedewy Hawke
Published in UK by Hesperus Press 2014
At the start of this year I joined the Triple Dare Challenge @ James Reads Books. (actually I renamed this as a project since I know I don’t do well with challenges). I wanted to clear a little space in my bookshelves that I can then fill up with new purchases. James has made it super easy. We just read from our existing library until end of April. We can buy any amount of new books (and believe me I am sure to be top of the class at following that rule). We just can’t read them until May.
I’ve done well so far having read eight books from the real bookshelves and the e-reader since January. The shelves are still stuffed due to some rather over-enthusiastic purchases of Pereine Press editions last month. But at least I have space to move things around now and see what’s lurking in the darker recesses.
But I confess I fell off the wagon last week. I was packing for my flight back to UK from Michigan later that day. It was going to be a long overnight flight so my choice of reading matter had to be spot on. I had The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis (part of my Booker Prize list) with me and I’d already started it. But at the last minute it got ditched in favour of The Fatal Grace by Louise Penny which I’d bought only the previous night. My sole reason for this eleventh hour change of plan was that Penny’s novel is set in winter time in a Canadian village; I was close to the border with Canada and the view outside my hotel room was equally wintry. I think you’ll agree that’s rather a tenuous connection.
But my lapse has been fleeting. I’m home now and back on the wagon. Amis going to have to wait a little while because I have an invitation to a party with Mrs Dalloway. And then it will time to dig around the shelves for an Irish author as part of Cathy’s Reading Ireland Month. I’m thinking of taking Molly Keane with me to that party.
Yann Martel would be a good person to have on your side if you ever have to play one of those true/false party games. On the strength of his 2002 Booker prize winning novel Life of Pi, he would be able to spin a tale that would keep people guessing and keep a convincingly straight face in the telling.
All I knew about Yann Martel’s third novel Life of Pi before I opened it was that it involved a shipwreck and animals (an element in novels that usually has me shuddering) and relied upon magical realism (a style that doesn’t light my fire). To say therefore that I wasn’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of reading it, would be an understatement. But it was on my list of Booker novels yet to be experienced and I was about to take a trip on a boat so bizarrely thought the book’s setting made it an appropriate reading companion.
What a delightful surprise to find it was a huge shaggy dog story; one that borders on implausibility but never completely tips over the edge and leaves you with a big question mark at the end.
The novel tells the story of Pi Patel, a 16-year-old Indian boy who is shipwrecked in the Pacific. The sole human survivor, he has to share his lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra, an orang-utan and a seasick Bengal tiger. It seems impossible that he can survive but Pi is a resourceful and determined boy: “I will turn miracle into routine. The amazing will be seen every day.”
Martel cleverly makes this a plausible scenario by establishing Pi’s character well before we get to the shipwreck. For the first hundred pages of the book we’re introduced to Pi and his zookeeping family, the origin of his odd name (he was initially named Piscine to reflect his grandfather’s love of swimming pools but shortened it to the mathematical symbol Pi to stop school mates calling him “pissing” ); and his early conversion to three faiths. We learn a lot about animal behaviour, the hierarchy between different species and the predator-prey relationships which will become part of Pi’s survival tactics while at sea. He has to recreate within the confines of the boat, the atmosphere and rituals of the zoo, convincing the tiger that he is the master by marking out his territory with urine and fierce stares and alternating punishments with treats. The relationship begins as one of control and the exertion of authority but shifts to one of interdependency and ultimately to love and respect as Pi comes to view the tiger not as an enemy but as a companion that he cherishes and whose continued presence is necessary to his survival.
Martel’s novel can be read purely as an adventure story, one that is well seasoned with the typical elements of storms and emergencies, of the ship that doesn’t spot the boat, of the ingenuity required to find food, collect and purify water and to shelter from the fierce sun or torrential rain.
However, there is much more to the novel than pure adventure. Ultimately this is a story about identity and faith. During Pi’s 227 days at sea he undergoes a radical change in his nature, abandoning his vegetarian habits in favour of eating raw fish and turtle, gaining confidence enough to tame the tiger and adopting some of the behaviours of an animal. The previously devout disciple of three religions grapples with his faith in God before concluding that it is his faith not his reason that enables him to survive.
I was alone and orphaned in the middle of the Pacific hanging onto an oar, an adult tiger in front of me, sharks beneath me, a storm raging about me. Had I considered my prospects in the light of reason, I surely would have given up and let go of the oar, hoping that I might drown before being eaten.
Pi’s refusal to consider his predicament “in the light of reason” enables his faith to flourish, and ultimately to help him overcome his fear.
The novel also explores a very different meaning of faith by testing our ability as readers to believe what seems unbelievable, to suspend our disbelief. It would be astonishing enough that a young boy could survive 227 at sea alone, that he does so in the confined space of a lifeboat occupied by a tiger and then is beached at floating island of carnivorous algae stretches at the borders of credulity. Martel plays on this at the very end of the novel where Pi, having been rescued, is interviewed by investigators who want to determine what caused the ship to sink. They refuse to believe his story, so Pi offers them an alternative version “…that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. ” And having done so, offers them a choice of which is the better story, pointing out that neither can be proven. Their choice is thus not based on reason, but on belief.
It was this ending that sealed my view that Life of Pi is an extraordinary novel. Concluding a novel in a way that leaves readers to make their own decision between reason and faith was audacious. I instantly forgave Martel for all the times he had strayed into details about how to drink the blood of turtles or to catch flying fish. And I immediately turned to page 1 and read the opening all over again.
Life of Pi was the dark horse choice for the 2002 Man Booker award given the competition included Carol Shields, Tim Winton and Rohinton Mistry. Not everyone was as fulsome in praising it as the Booker judges. The Daily Telegraph praised it as being ” full of clever tricks, amusing asides and grand originality” but felt overall that “it never really comes alive in the emotional sense”. Critics in the USA were more positive however. Publishers Weekly said it was “a fabulous romp through an imagination by turns ecstatic, cunning, despairing and resilient.” The New York Times concluded it “could renew your faith in the ability of novelists to invest even the most outrageous scenario with plausible life.”
Something I learned while doing some research on Martel is that between 2007 and 2011 he sent the Canadian prime minister a book with an accompanying explanatory note. In total he sent 100 notes. All the selections and correspondence were turned into a book What is Stephen Harper Reading?