Category Archives: Canadian authors

Washington Black Travels To Freedom [BookReview]

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Did you love adventure stories as a child?

Washington Black, the Booker shortlisted novel by Esi Edugyan, is very much in the mould of the adventure novel although written with an adult reader in mind. It has many of the elements of the adventure tale: a courageous character who goes on a perilous quest to a far-flung location; high octane escapades in the form of a balloon flight and storms; and an ogre who shadows the protagonist wherever he goes.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

But to label it simply as an adventure novel would be a gross injustice because this is a multi-layered, hybrid novel in which excitement and thrills are married with thoughtful exploration. It’s a novel crafted with panache that uses thrills, coincidences and twists of fate to explore the nature of enslavement and freedom.

Washington Black opens on a cotton plantation in 19th-century Barbados where her eponymous hero, George Washington (“Wash”) Black, is a young orphan slave. Christopher “Titch” Wilde, brother of the plantation owner, picks Wash to be his personal assistant in an attempt to build a hot air balloon.

Flight To Freedom

The child proves to be a quick learner with a sharp mind and a latent talent as an illustrator.  As Titch and Wash form a bond through their joint endeavour, fate thrusts them even closer. The pair literally take flight from the Caribbean to protect Wash from accusations of murder and almost certain execution. A nomadic existence ensues, taking the boy to the Arctic, Nova Scotia, London, Amsterdam, and, finally, Morocco.

It’s a clever device that enables Esi Edugyan to greatly expand her scope. The early chapters which describe the physical brutality and emotional pain of slavery are vivid and memorable. But it’s when Wash is removed from the daily cruelty of slavery that the breadth and ambition of Washington Black become evident.

How Does It Feel To Be Free?

Edugyan’s interest is no less than the nature of freedom itself. Though her protagonist is no longer a plantation slave as Wash roams the world he carries with him the physical marks of his former servitude. A brand on his chest can be hidden but the fascial disfigurement caused by a failed experiment is all too evident. It makes him easy prey for the bounty hunter who stalks him from continent to continent years after slavery is abolished.

As a child Wash had asked a slave woman who befriended him, how it felt to be free. It was, she said, the ability to “go wherever it is you wanting.” But now he has this long desired free movement, he becomes terrified by that freedom. It is, he thinks, like “the terrible bottomless nature of the open world, where one belongs nowhere, and to no one.

He can never entirely separate his new self from his old. Even when he has become an accomplished, though unacknowledged, marine scientist he still thinks of himself as a “disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind and a talent on canvas, running, always running, from the dimmest of shadows.”

Journey To Understanding

The countries he visits become allegories of his journey to understand who he really is, and just as significantly, what he means to Titch. He had thought Titch was his friend but then the two became estranged in what Wash sees as an act of betrayal.

For years afterwards, Wash is in turmoil, constantly questioning whether Titch had valued him for as a person, or as a useful pair of hands or an abject creature in need of rescue. In an emotionally charged scene he finally gets to confront Titch.

I was nothing to you. You never saw me as your equal. You were more concerned that slavery should be a moral stain upon white men than by the actual damage it wreaks on black men.

That yearning for truth and for recognition haunts Washington Black. The boy who escaped bondage and eluded a slave catcher has grown up through the course of the novel. But as a young man he is still questioning the past and until he finds the answers, we sense that he will never be happy. Whether he does so by the time we reach the final page is still in doubt since Esi Edugyan leaves us with the kind of ending that is open to more than one interpretation.

What is clear however is that this is a fascinating novel that ranges far and wide geographically but never strays from the central idea about freedom as a state of mind as well as a physical entity.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan: Fast Facts

Esi Edugyan

Esi Edugyan was raised in Alberta, Canada after her parents immigrated from Ghana. Despite favourable reviews for her debut novel  The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, she struggled to find a publisher for her next work. she abandoned that to write Half-Blood Blues, about a young mixed-race jazz musician, for which she won the Giller Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2011.

Washington Black, her third novel, was published in September 2018. It won the Giller Prize that year making Edugyan only the third writer to win the award twice. Washington Black was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the 2019 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.

Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny #bookreview

Kingdom of the BlindHow 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.

 

 

 

 

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

hag-seedI 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.

Big mistake.

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?)

First American writer wins #ManBooker 2016: reactions

paulbeatty 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.

paul-beatty
the-selloutI’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.

A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny #crimefiction

great-reckoningLouise 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.

Footnotes

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.

 

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien #Bookerprize

madeleinetheinI’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!”

 

Footnotes

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 

 

 

 

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