Tag Archives: Canada

A Tale for the Time Being (2013) – Ruth OZEKI

For those who don’t know, this is Murakami bingo. It’s a humerous take on the fact that every Murakami novel is exactly the same. In his defence, the ratio of elements is occasionally changed—some have more cats, others more weird sex with young girls. Seriously, the day that man wins the Nobel Prize will be a sad day for literature.

My point is that Murakami has (indirectly) been responsible for what people consider Japanese literature to be. As such, people wanting to write about Japan are judged to either be Murakami-esque or not. I haven’t read any of Ruth Ozeki’s other novels, but if they’re anything like A Tale for the Time Being, it would be safe to label her Murakami-esque.

Fortunately, Ozeki manages to rise above the superficial similarities between her and Murakami by actually placing themes and ideas underneath them. Her interrogation of the stress placed on certain kinds of people in contemporary Japan seems more real than any of Murakami’s disenfranchised protagonists.

The symbol of the run-down salaryman as a stand-in for all the oppression in modern Japan was tired ten years ago. Nao represents a much more modern problem: that of the kikoku shijo (帰国子女). These kids are the offspring of enterprising Japanese parents who were brave enough to move overseas and put their kids into a non-Japanese school. For various reasons, when these kids eventually return to school in Japan, they are bullied mercilessly for the simple fact that they left Japan. Nao’s treatment at the hands of her classmates and teachers is horrific, and the fact that she considers suicide as an option should come as no surprise.

Competing against this tale of Japan is the tale of Ruth Ozeki, a Canadian author who finds Nao’s diary washed up on the beach of the island she and her husband live on. She is explicitly made the reader of Nao’s diary, which opens with a direct invitation to be her reader. It’s an interesting way to construct a novel. There’s a nice sense of immediacy when Nao uses the second-person to talk directly to the reader of her diary, a sense that is lost immediately when that reader is Ruth, and not us. I’m not sure it’s strictly necessary, and personally, I would have been just as happy to have a novel half the size, with Nao talking directly to me.

Having said all that, it is easy to understand why Ozeki included this parallel story. Various interviews with her suggest that she, too, was struggling to start another story after finishing her previous novel several years ago. And so Ruth the writer becomes Ruth the character, and in the spirit of the Japanese form, the 私小説 (watakushishōsetsu)—a form that is named in Time Being—Ozeki writes about her own life in a fictionalised, stylised version.

My final point, and this is a small one, is that I found the hundreds of footnotes wildly intrusive. But that was because I actually speak Japanese, so didn’t need the glosses. I did like the occasional forays into script in the body text, though. It’s probably the only time a book with Japanese script in it is going be shortlisted for the Booker.

For sheer novelty factor alone, A Tale for the Time Being should be a strong contender for this year’s Booker. But behind the novelty of having what is essentially a Japanese novel on the shortlist is a novel that actually tries to dissect a whole load of things, from contemporary Japanese society to small-town Canadian culture, from weird animals to bullish teenage girls.

Finally, I don’t know how Text managed to do it, but the Australian cover is about a thousand times better than any other region’s.

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Ru (2009) – Kim THÚY

This novel caught my eye a while ago for a variety of reasons. A Vietnamese-Canadian writer, Kim Thúy originally wrote this novel in French in 2009, though it was translated into English in 2011. It was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2012. I’m a big fan of postcolonial writings, and a short novel on the immigrant experience in Canada struck me as something perhaps something similar to that in Australia.

Nguyen An Tinh was a boat person. Escaping persecution in Communist Vietnam, her family escapes to Canada where they try to build a new life, one they never thought they would lead. But An Tinh finds herself floating through life, unable to put down roots, despite having grown up in Canada, and having two young sons. This is her story, the story of a refugee coming to the West, of a young child growing up, of a mother coming to terms with the realities of being a parent.

I read this short novel in under three hours. It’s easy to read, not just because of how it is set out (Many of the sections are less than a page, more memory fragments or musings about life than true ‘chapters’), but because Thúy constructs a tale that is engaging and well-written, stopping short of over-wrought writing. She sprinkles Vietnamese words and text throughout the novel to create that sense of foreignness that seems to be key to writing an “authentic” immigrant experience. Unrelated to the novel itself – my edition had some weird typographical stuff going on, and I’m not sure the publishers are used to using Vietnamese script in their work, because there were some iffy

Plot is not something this novel has in spades. Or at all, really. Instead, it is a series of jumbled up fragments, things that come to the protagonist as she remembers them. She wants to tell her story, but she finds herself sidetracked by other memories – from both before and after her move to Canada – that are at least as interesting as the glimpses of a privileged life in Canada. It’s an interesting point of view to take—so often, refugees are portrayed as the persecuted poor, but in actual fact, here, the protagonist’s family is the bourgeoisie class in Vietnamese society that was so hated by the Communist regime that took power in 1975. Her life is one of privilege—her mother has never had to lift a finger to do any work in her life, but she teachers her children to do some, perhaps because she is aware that the political situation is fragile.

The journey between this life in Vietnam and her adult life is the least developed section of An Tinh’s life. We get glimpses of the perilous boat trip her family took, as well as her eventual, if gradual, integration into Canadian society. There are scenes of An Tinh finding her feet in school, despite not understanding a word of French; of her teacher calling her parents to make sure she wasn’t eating rice and noodles for breakfast, even though this is a standard Vietnamese breakfast. There are hints of past relationships, of her coming to understand what it means to love and be loved.

What strikes me most of all about her character, though, is her intense isolation from the rest of the world. She is no longer Vietnamese, but does not feel Canadian. She is just as happy sleeping in a hotel bed as she is her own. If she didn’t have children, she wouldn’t be afraid of dying. These thoughts highlight her dislocation and disconnect from the world of the everyday. Thúy equates this isolation with the life An Tinh has lived, with the constant movement she has found herself undertaking, both voluntary and involuntary.

The other story that comes out of this novel is An Tinh’s life now. In many ways, it seems to be defined by her relationship with her two sons, Pascal and Henri. The younger of the two has autism, and in many ways, there is a link drawn between An Tinh’s early inability to understand Canadian society as a foreigner with his inability to read and understand social situations. Both are outsiders, and An Tinh finds herself perhaps more protective of him because she understand what it is like to be shunned by the rest of the mainstream.

By the end of the novel, Thúy has found herself in a rhythm that I wish she had adopted the entire way through: one section talks about her life in Canada, while the next subverts this happy image with an flashback to Vietnam on a similar theme. I like the idea of juxtaposing these two lives, each with its own highs and lows, each complimenting the other in terms of happiness and sadness. I don’t have a problem with the tiny, fragmented narrative, but it jumps all over the place thematically, and if she had started doing this earlier, it would have given the novel a much needed sense of cohesion.

The use of first-person lends an air of intimacy and realism to this autobiographical novel, and Thúy has mentioned that this is a form of fictionalised memoir, based on her own experiences of coming to Canada as an immigrant. It’s a story that maybe isn’t heard often enough—the exodus to the West from Vietnam was a formative experience for the countries that embraced these refugees as much as it was for the refugees themselves. There’s an interesting tale to be told here, and Thúy adds to the narrative with her own tale.

It’s deeply unfair of me to compare this work to another, but I couldn’t help but be struck by how similar this is to Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, another short novel detailing the immigrant story to North America, told in short, alternating chapters. I love that novel, and sadly, Ru didn’t quite reach the heights Otsuka’s work did. While Otsuka manages to tell the story of an entire generation with heart and with depth, Thúy’s novel just falls short of packing the emotional punch a story like this deserves. But, then, perhaps that’s the point—the life contained in Ru suggests a deeper emotional pain than could ever be described.

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The Sisters Brothers (2011) – Patrick deWITT

The Sisters Brothers stood out on this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist this year for me mainly because it is published by Granta. I’ve only just properly started reading their rather excellent magazine, and it’s nice to see smaller publishers getting attention with prizes like these. I also read very little (read: no) Canadian literature, and while I’m aware this novel probably isn’t indicative of all Canadian literature, it is by a Canadian. And that’s all that matters, right?

Eli and Charlie Sisters (get it?) are on the move. Their boss, the Commodore, has sent them from Oregon Territory to San Francisco, to assassinate Hermann Warm, a man with something the Commodore wants. But their man in San Francisco, Morris, has gone AWOL, and when they discover what he has done, their plans begin to change. Dreams they thought were out of reach suddenly become tangible, though, as the brothers discover, every dream comes at a terrible price.

How far can an author go, pushing the boundaries of his (or her) readers’ desire to connect with characters, no matter how bad they are? This is the question, I suspect, Patrick deWitt sat down and asked himself before writing The Sisters Brothers. I love Dexter – I truly think it’s one of the best TV shows I’ve ever seen – so I have some history with sympathising with serial killers. But deWitt makes it look even easier. Partially, I think, because there are two serial killers here, and you are encouraged to sympathise with the lesser of two evils. It is clear Charlie Sisters is a psychopath, and I mean that in the most literal sense of the word. He kills with almost no thought, and seems to genuinely enjoy it.

Eli, on the other hand, seems as though he has simply resigned himself to this life, as though he would leave it if he could. Of course, he is our narrator, so no doubt he is bending the truth somewhat, and his own acts of violence (of which there are many) are somewhat skipped over, in favour of his telling us he sometimes has trouble controlling his temper, as though that is an excuse. He also seems to fall for every lady he meets, constructing himself as something of a loveably hopeless romantic. The language, too, makes us want to believe in him – rather than taking the True History of the Kelly Gang path of an uneducated narrator, Eli is erudite to the point of formality, and polite to the point of being overbearing.

It also helps that The Sisters Brothers is also hilarious, particularly in the first two thirds or so. Eli’s attempts to chat women up are awkward and painful to read, in a Fawlty Towers kind of way. The brothers’ relationships with their horses cracked me up, too. Hands down, my favourite character is Tub. The horse. Never has an animal character provided me with so man reasons to laugh, and so many reasons to cry. He is also the character I felt least guilty about liking. Eli also has to visit a dentist early on in the novel, and receives this magical new invention called a toothbrush. I didn’t think oral hygiene jokes could be made, but deWitt, to his credit, has provided many. The wonder with which everyone approaches this marvellous tool is, quite frankly, one of the best running gags in all of literature.

The setting is also important, and I think it’s easy to forget that this is set during San Francisco’s gold rush. This was a moment in time when people were moving west in the hope of striking it rich. In many ways, it was the original, and ultimate, get rich quick scheme, and no one seems to be immune from it. The men and women the brothers’ meet on their travels are, with almost no exception, a little unhinged, the promise of golden riches having sent them over the edge. Of course, the question of whether the brothers will also succumb to this desire is the question that takes us into the third act (see, I have learnt something in my English degree), and the results are at once touching and disturbing.

The Sisters Brothers is a clever novel. Patrick deWitt is clearly an author with a great gift, and the amount of time he has spent ensuring his audience sympathises with his frankly criminal main characters is a testament to his abilities. I don’t know whether the rest of the novel is as strong as this central conceit, though not enough to make me not recommend it. This is a fun novel, and marks Patrick deWitt as a talent to watch in the future.

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Half Blood Blues (2011) – Esi EDUGYAN

With the announcement of the 2011 Man Booker Prize looming, I’m still trying to work my way through the novels on the longlist that interest me. My sure-fire bet, The Stranger’s Child, didn’t even make the shortlist, which just goes to prove that the judges and I never see eye to eye. That’s fine – I’m not complaining – because even if I can never pick the winner, the longlisting of books I’ve never heard of before means I find new and exciting authors.

Sid Griffiths, Chip Jones, and Hiero Falk – three young black jazz musicians living in Berlin – have fled to Paris to escape the Third Reich, with the help of Delilah, a young American woman. As tends to be the case, however, her presence upsets the fine balance between the three young men, and when Hiero is disappeared from the streets one night, Sid realises he finally may have gone too far.

It is easy, I think, to forget that the Jews were not the only people hunted down and exterminated by the Nazi Party during their reign. Gypsies, disabled people, jazz musicians, gay people, black people – these groups were also rounded up and put into horrible concentration camps. Of course, the setting of the novel is not really the point – if you are looking for a deep and meaningful insight into what living black in Nazi Germany was like, this is not the place. Indeed, Sid and Chip are both American citizens, and Sid, able to pass as white, freely admits he and Chip have less trouble than Hiero, who is a half-black German citizen, a Mischling.

Betrayal and guilt are the overriding themes. Edugyan begins her story in 1939, and we are then yanked into 1992, where someone has invited Sid and Chip to talk about their memories of Hiero for a film. Sid has never mentioned what he did in Paris, and when accusations begin to fly at the screening of the documentary from Chip, he is at first angry, and feels betrayed. It is not until he confronts Chip about the ordeal, and agrees to journey to Poland to meet up with Hiero again for the first time in sixty years, that he begins to think that he shouldn’t be the one who feels upset about any kind of betrayal.

Betrayal is also at the heart of Sid’s relationship with Delilah. Her easy-breezy attitude to life, to music, and to her friendship with Louis Armstrong, has an instant affect on Sid, whose own insecurities about his musical abilities are a stumbling block to his initiating any kind of relationship. Eventually, though, he manages to overcome these, and the two sleep together. It soon becomes clear, though, that Hiero is also deeply enamoured with Delilah, and Sid’s already strong dislike of the kid grows and mutates into a kind of self-destructive jealously. Needless to say, this doesn’t go down very well with Delilah.

Sid is a deeply flawed, and therefore deeply believable, character. Never as good a musician as his two friends, he finds himself surrounded by people who mean well, but never give him the chance to fit into the jazz world. He knows his own limitations, too, and this influences his own growing resentment of  Hiero in particular, who is a kid wonder on the trumpet. Add to this the jealously he feels over Delilah’s actions towards Hiero, and Sid becomes almost unlikeable. And while he does become unlikeable, I also found him sympathetic, too. To a certain point, though. There are some things, particularly in Vichy France, that are unforgivable.

The closing scenes with Hiero and Sid ring true. Hiero, despite having lived through many, many horrors, still has a glimmer of the enthusiastic over-grown puppy feeling he had at the age of twenty. As Sid breaks the news to him, tells him that everything that happened is his fault, he simply cannot believe it. These two old men, separated for sixty years, nearing the end of their lives, have a very brief conversation about the past, and while Sid attempts to atone for his past sins, whether Hiero will let him is another matter.

Half Blood Blues uses its temporal and physical setting to great effect. By essentially locking her characters in an abandoned club for half the novel, Edugyan proves her worthiness to be on this year’s shortlist. This is a story about the relationships between men and women, about jazz, and about the decisions we make when under pressure, and the repercussions of these unwise decisions.

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The Shipping News (1993) – Annie PROULX

A lot of people have read The Shipping News not out of choice, but because it was on the HSC list. So when I tell people I want to read it, people either groan at the memories of discussing how The Shipping News relates to people ‘Retreating from the Global’, or mild interest about an old Pulitzer Prize winner. I just found it in a second hand bookstore – this is edition is so old, Proulx is still credited as E. Annie Proulx.

After Quoyle’s abusive wife dies, he moves back to his hometown in country Newfoundland with his two young daughters, and aunt. Wanting to start anew, his life as a rubbish journalist is not over, however, as he takes up a position at the local newspaper. The staff at the newspaper both help and hinder him in his quest to rebuild his life in small town Canada. Slowly, he learns to love again – love his children, love his life, and even love another woman.

Proulx’s writing style is something of a shock to the system. More than any author I’ve read in a long time, she has clearly and deliberately set out to create a unique writing style. The only other thing of Proulx’s I’ve read is Brokeback Mountain, and having just checked, the styles are completely different. The Shipping News has short, sharp sentences. Just like that one. It’s also very choppy – they don’t quite flow one after another. This is going to sound really pretentious, but it’s kind of like how I’d imagine a cubist would write – small strokes, each highlighting a different angle of the same scene. Does that even make any sense?

Once you get used to the style, this is quite a good novel. Proulx does an excellent job of evoking Killick-Claw, the town to which Quoyle. As someone’s who’s never been anywhere near Canada, I feel like I might be able to picture the town, and just how freaking cold it gets. Seriously, if I know nothing else from this novel, it’s that the weather in Newfoundland’s terrible. And cold. And rainy. It does not sound like a pleasant place to live, to be honest. And Proulx captures that really well – the struggle of all of these ordinary people to live in a place that, really, people shouldn’t be anywhere near. Just as Tim Winton captures the spirit of Australia’s coast, so too does Proulx recreate Canada’s coast with alarming clarity. I assume.

Abuse plays quite heavily into the story, though it’s done quite subtly. I love that Proulx reverses the expectations of having a battered wife deeply in love with her abusive husband, and that Quoyle is the one that is being abused – emotionally more than anything else. And his inability, or perhaps simply refusal, to see what he is putting himself – and his daughters – through actually makes him come off a little pathetic. Of course, it’s not just this part of his life where he comes off as less than ideal – he’s chubby, unhealthy, and is pretty terrible at his job. In fact, the only thing he seems to be really good at is being a father, which he does wonderfully. Too wonderfully, even, as he can’t bear to tell his daughters that their mother is dead, only sleeping for a long, long time.

Of course, once his wife dies, everything changes. A move to another country – to a rather chilly part of Canada, at that – and Quoyle slowly comes out of his shell. It turns out that he has a gift for writing about boats (though not being on actual boats) – and in a port town, his columns about the shipping news are well received. The politics of the newspaper is something of a microcosm of that whole idea of being accepted into a small community as an outsider – though, since Quoyle’s family once lived in Killick-Claw, it’s not quite the usual refrain.

More than anything else, this novel is an exercise in evocation. Evocation of a certain place, and certain people. The plot’s pretty arbitrary, though the overarching theme – that healing and redemption can be found in small town coastal Canada – is used to good effect to create some pretty broken characters who slowly become whole again. Probably not the greatest novel I’ve ever read, The Shipping News nevertheless is a really good read, and (though I actually know absolutely nothing about tuhe subject) an excellent starting point for Canadian fiction. Maybe.

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Beatrice and Virgil (2010) – Yann MARTEL

Finally, I’m getting around to reviewing this novel. It’s been a long time since I’ve read it – probably the longest gap since starting this site – so you’ll have to forgive me if some of the details are a little sketchy. I picked this up, more than anything else, to make sure I was up to date with new stuff. I quite liked Life of Pi, but thought the ending was a giant cop-out. So I was hoping Martel wasn’t going to pull another stupid thing like that again.

Henry is a famous author, who is riding on the success of a famous novel, and is fishing around, trying to find something new to talk about. He has grand plans for a flip book about the Holocaust, but this constantly frustrates him. At the same time, though, his wife gives birth to a child, and his family life begins to take precedence. Until, that is, he meets a strange taxidermist (also named Henry) who wants Henry to read his play, and nothing will be the same again.

Anyone who knows anything about Yann Martel – and even those of us who don’t – should soon realise that Henry is basically Martel in disguise. Indeed, Martel’s original plans for a book after Pi were indeed a flip book about the Holocaust. It is clear, though, that this didn’t work out, because we have this instead. There are some gentle jibes at marketers and publishers in scenes where Henry tries to pitch his new work to his agents, but even he realises the futility of his own undertaking.

Once again, Martel had used animals in a way that is at once both subversive and relatable. The titular Beatrice and Virgil are actually a donkey and a howler monkey, respectively, who are the two characters in the taxidermist’s play, which slowly becomes more significant as the novel goes on. The Taxidermist Henry is a man who has used these animals in his play because of his close relationship with the animal world. As a taxidermist, he has a fascination and obsession with preserving and idolising the animals he stuffs and preserves, and so animals are the only way he can get his message across in fiction. The juxtaposition of the two Henrys becomes more and more important as the novel goes on, with one man simply trying to write about the experiences of the animals, while the other wants to preserve the animals as they are, in memorium eternal.

Maybe I’m just thick, but it took me a while to connect the dots of what was actually going on in this novel – I was probably about halfway though when I realised that the gratuitous amounts of signposting about the Holocaust set up in the first act actually related to the play inside the novel, and the conversations the animals are having. The animals are, in fact, talking about the Holocaust, though they only ever refer to it as an event called ‘The Horrors’, the actuality being too horrible to think about. But just as Life of Pi reveled in its own ambiguity, Martel seems to be in no rush for us to make this connecting – he does not force the reader to instantly understand this metaphor, instead preferring to subtly hint several times. Granted, some may understand faster than I did, but there you go.

Ok, I have a confession to make. I can’t actually remember what happens at the end, though I remember it being good. And appropriate. And violent.

There’s a lot going on in Beatrice and Virgil, but alas, since I read it almost two months ago, I can remember very little of it. I remember wanting to talk about it, though, in a uni class, or with some intelligent people, because there is a lot going on. Martel piles on the metaphors and images, but not in a way that seems forced or pretentious. This truly is a novel that manages to talk about the Holocaust in a new way – one that does not feel forced to resort to an overwrought historical novel and no sentimental flashbacks. This is a Holocaust novel for the twenty-first century, if such a thing can exist.

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The Year of the Flood (2009) – Margaret ATWOOD

The name Margaret Atwood strikes terror into the hearts of many science fiction fans. Her adamant statements that she does not write science fiction, basically because she thinks it’s a bit rubbish, has given her many enemies. Which is a shame, because she does write excellent science fiction. Or speculative fiction. Or whatever you want to call it.

Two women are struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic future. Toby, an older woman, is surviving in a spa for the rich, where she worked before the virus came and killed everyone. Ren is a young girl trying desperately to survive the streets. And as these two womens’ stores unfold, their past and futures intertwine, and a world in pain is slowly brought into focus.

While this is not a direct sequel to Oryx and Crake, it is a spiritual one. The two novels are actually happening contemporaneously, so while the two women of Flood are trying to sort their lives out, Jimmy and Glen from Oryx are also messing around. I hadn’t read Oryx and Crake for a long time, so I had to brush up on what was going. Not that this was needed at all, since the two novels can be read in isolation, but I do think they work better as one big work, with similar themes and ideas. Obviously.

And what of those themes? It’s weird to see the combination of science and religion that has been mashed up to create the beliefs of the God’s Gardeners, though as the novel progresses, it seems to make more and more sense. Going back to the roots of Christianity, I suppose, and taking creationism to such a level that one believes the sciences of the natural world can be married with a divine being. Not my bag, alas, but it’s a fascinating concept.

Also interesting is this positioning of the group outside the mainstream – we see and hear of so many doomsday cults, to have this one as a fringe group is interesting. Obviously, at some level, we should identify with this group – they are the ones who are trying to get back to the natural world, away from the hustle and bustle of the modern world. This trope has been done to death in post-apocalyptic fiction, but by having these people as a fringe group – a group that eventually resorts to terrorism – is a nice twist. Speaking of this future, it’s good to see Atwood not repeating herself too much in her descriptions of this post-apocalyptic future. It was done in Oryx and Crake (and, if we’re honest, every other post-apocalyptic novel in existence), so there was no need for her to go into any great depth. Which she doesn’t.

Having two main characters gives us two different perspectives of this weird group. Toby, having been introduced to the group later in life, is far more cynical and wary of the group’s actions, and though it takes a while for her to find true faith with these people, eventually, she comes to terms with the life she is now leading. Ren, on the other hand, was a Gardener from an early age, and it wasn’t until later that she left the group, as many teenagers are want to do.

Once again, Atwood’s world building is top-notch. Creating a world where meat seems to carry so much weight (and other over-processed food products, too) is not easy to do, but Atwood manages to make eating meat seem gross, and a little unnatural. Granted, the meat in this novel is very unnatural, and not at all what we might enjoy, but to convince a lover of steak like myself that meat is bad is no mean feat. Ren’s life also gives us insight into things like the class structure of this society, with teenage gangs running amok through the city with seemingly little control. We also are allowed a glimpse into one of the privileged Compounds, where rich people live. To see the differences between these two kinds of worlds is interesting, and Atwood does not disappoint. There are a lot of details in this novel, allowing us to see the bigger picture.

Is Margaret Atwood a good writer? Yes. Is she a good science fiction writer? Yes. Her background in “real” literature allows her to create characters and situations which are unique to the science fiction world, and allows a more mainstream audience a glimpse into the genre. Which is a good thing, particularly since Atwood does what all good science fiction writers do – show us a world that may seem unfamiliar, but still tell us something about the human condition. And while Atwood’s environmental message may seem heavyhanded at times, it’s still good to hear.

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The Penelopiad (2005) – Margaret ATWOOD

When I read Salley Vickers’ entry into the Myths series, I was expecting some kind of topsy turvy postmodern reconstruction of old tales. I was disappointed. So when I picked up The Penelopiad, I wasn’t sure what to expect. And it’s been a long time since I’ve read any Atwood, so I had no idea what might happen as I started reading.

Penelope – Odysseus’ wife – is dead. But she lives on in the underworld, and wants to tell us her story. The story of what she did while her husband went to fight the Trojan War, and took a twenty year detour to get home. This is the story of a young girls trying to grow up quickly as the world around her becomes nothing. More than that, though, it is the story of those twelve maids who are killed as soon as Odysseus returns from his rather extended holiday.

It’s a very postmodern thing, this filling in the gaps of famous stories – looking for gaps in the grand narratives, and trying to fill them up with smaller mini narratives that tell stories of those people to whom history did not give a voice. And what a voice Penelope has been given. She is unbelievably average, and I think that’s her weakness. She is the everywoman, the best kind of narrator, because we feel for her. Her cousin, Helen, is not necessarily unlikeable, but she certainly is annoyingly beautiful, and the somewhat sarcastic tone Penelope takes with her is quite funny, particularly since Helen causes no small amount of trouble in her life.

Also important, though, are the twelve voices of the maids. I must confess, I haven’t read The Odyssey, but I do know what happens (who doesn’t?). But I didn’t know about the maids – when Odysseus finally comes home, after killing all the suitors banging on Penelope’s door, he also kills twelve of her closest, and youngest, maids. This is never explained by Homer, but here, Atwood goes out of her way to give these maids a voice. They become the chorus of this Greek tragedy, interrupting the flow of Penelope’s story with their own songs and skits, some of which are excellent. I particularly like the court scene, which is their last aside – with a modern judge trying to rule over a courthouse full of Greek gods and mythical creatures, Penelope trying to give her evidence. It’s funny, but more than that, it’s wickedly good satire.

Is this a feminist novel? Atwood herself has claimed that it is not, citing the only reason people label it feminist is the fact that a woman is the protagonist. And I think in many ways she is correct. This is not a tale of a strong, independent woman in charge of everything around her, but of a woman who is constantly being attacked emotionally from every angle – and she does spend a fair amount of time crying. Not that strong women don’t cry, but, you know.

But if we define feminism as a framework for highlighting the stories of women in history – no matter what they are – then we can definitely take The Penelopiad as a feminist text. Because that is almost all this novel focuses on. Instead of the manly battles of ancient Greece to which we have become accustomed, Atwood gives us the stories of Penelope, of Helen, of Anticlea, of Eurycleia – these sidelined women of history that do have stories to tell.

Even here, Atwood’s penchant for science fiction-ish ideas does not go unassauged. Penelope is telling us this story from beyond the grave, in the underworld of Greek myth. And it’s not much, but it is nicely done, with her meeting people who are already dead, including Helen, and Eurycleia, and even manages some interaction with the present time.

There is quite a lot going on here, and in some ways that works to Atwood’s advantage. But the time shifting that takes place means that you can’t settle into one period for very long, and the whole thing moves along at something of a breakneck speed – particularly the beginning, which doesn’t help set up the growth of Penelope into a young woman, from the timid girl she once was. But this is my only complaint, which I think stems from my wanting more. Because this is a short novel, but it left me wanting much more. If there were more, though, I feel it might drag. So there’s a conundrum for you.

Actually, interestingly enough, there is almost no plot to speak of here. Everyone already knows the conditions under which this story is to take place, so all Atwood has to do is colour by numbers. It’s the way she does it – with such verve, such sympathy for Penelope – that makes this an excellent retelling of The Odyssey, and a good novel in its own right.

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The Cellist of Sarajevo (2008) – Steven GALLOWAY

Sorry for my prolonged absence here. Even though it’s uni holidays, I’ve gone off reading a bit lately. But have no fear (for those who were worried), it is coming back to me. And so this book has been sitting on my shelf for a while, and I needed something with a hook. And luckily enough, this one has a hook that has (fingers crossed) broken my dry spell.

Sarajevo in the early 1990s is not a happy place. Besieged on all sides, the residents of the city are forced to scamper around the streets, in constant fear that you will be shot by a sniper. In all this, though, one musician offers hope. His music will inspire three people to think about the way they think about what is going on around them. Three people for whom living in this city has become not just become a way of life, but a fight for survival every day.

It’s interesting that a Canadian writer should write this, and not a Bosnian. There is such evocation of the city of Sarajevo, that you really feel engrossed in a city under siege. Galloway has a slight tendency to show off his local knowledge, with constant listing of streets and intersections, but for the most part, his portrayal of Sarajevo itself is perfectly done. What makes this even more impressive, also, is his evocation of a city at war with itself. There’s a lot of description of the actions of war itself – from how a sniper chooses her target, to how one can hear a shell coming towards you – and the effect of this is a little disturbing, to be honest. The Cellist of Sarajevo is not a pleasant novel to read. It’s actually quite confronting to think of these people as real, and there are one or two passages that really hit home, and terrify you as a reader. Trying to empathise with these three characters is difficult – you want to, because their situation is so dire, but if you do, you face the risk of feeling thoroughly sad for the next little while. That, and I think most of us have no idea what it is to live in a war zone.

Who are these characters, then, that fill us with sympathy and dread at the same time? There is a sniper, who goes by the name Arrow. Her journey is most unique in this novel – she is called in to protect the cellist, the musician who is bringing hope to the city. Kenan is a man simply trying to get some water for his family to survive, and Dragan is going to work in a bakery. The latter two narrative strands read almost as short stories broken up into small pieces, and while there are certain similarities, there are enough differences between the two journeys, and indeed characters, to realise they both offer something different. Kenan’s young family is still living in Sarajevo, and they are tired. Tired of the war, tired of the fighting, tired of living. Dragan’s family has escaped into Italy, but he has stayed, for reasons not even he can understand. These two people are nothing special, but their job as everyman in the novel forces home the novel’s mission – to bring war to the people, to show us the way people live and change in war. It’s very, very well done.

I don’t read a lot of war novels, I don’t think. But this one is a little bit fantastic.  By not having the cellist as the main character or focus, but simply by having him as a set point in time and space, there is more room for Galloway to breathe. He doesn’t have to provide the cellist with a reason for doing this (very smart), and he can create three characters who react to him. Very sensible, that. There’s such a sense of resignation, of despair that runs through the whole thing, and yet, the end provides hope. And it is the cellist who provides it – something that not even the characters believe can happen. Perhaps, then, this is not a war novel. Perhaps this is a novel about music.

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Certainty (2007) – Madeleine THIEN

I needed a break from conservative satirists, and this book was on the sale table at work. Mmm, cheap books that didn’t sell the first time we had them. You’d think that would be an incentive for people not read them, and yet, we still sell a whole load of cheap old stock.

The death of a loved one is usually a time to reflect on your time with them, and their life. For the family of Gail Lim, however, it is a time to reflect upon other losses, about countries far away from the chilly winters of Canada, and the atrocities of the Second World War. Each member of the family has a story to tell, and the death of their daughter, of their partner, has triggered this recollection.

I kind of like these stories within a story novels. Some of them work really well – probably why I like David Mitchell so much. But this one kind of felt a bit weak. Each of the stories were good by themselves, but they didn’t really add up to anything very substantive. Granted, I now know a lot more about Indonesian and Dutch relations, but that’s about it. Many other authors have talked about the Japanese occupation of South-East Asia and, to be honest, done it better. I kept thinking of Tan Twan Eng’s excellent debut, The Gift of Rain, while I was reading the parts set in Asia, and thinking how much better it was. Which is not a good sign. The descriptions just seem a bit weak. I think that if you’re going to write a novel like this, that spans a lot of ground, you really need a stronger prose style to support everything that’s going. Not that the style isn’t good – I really enjoyed reading all the turns of phrase and the such – but I still think that is doesn’t quite suit what this book tries to do.

The characters themselves are also nothing to write home about. Each one is there, and you kind of know what they’re about, but the story lets you fill in the blanks, and you have to assume a lot of what is going on in the present day, which is fine, I suppose. If you like that kind of thing. Again, it’s this kind of ‘flowery’ prose that drags down the concept and characters.

The only other complaint I have to make is that I’m not sure how well researched the bits in Australia are. For a start, it does not snow in Melbourne on a regular basis, and if you live in the centre of the city, you are unlikely to find a small herd of kangaroos jumping majestically across the landscape. Just throwing it out there.

Ultimately, this book is ok. And that’s about it. It didn’t blow me away, and I didn’t hate reading it. I still think the big thing is the prose – it’s good, but it really doesn’t suit what Thien is trying to do in this novel. It needs to be longer, bolder, brasher. Instead, it’s a little bit weak and understated, but not in a good way. And she needs to learn what Australia is really like.

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