Iris Murdoch, The Black Prince (Penguin, 1973)
Purely by accident I have recently read three books published in 1973, two by Murdoch (she was quite prolific) and one by Gordimer (see entries for November 2012). All three novels are strongly shaped by the politics of their time, in Murdoch’s case the politics of gender relations, and in Gordimer’s the politics of African independence. I found The Black Prince to be comic despite its subject matter of death and rejection because the central character is one of the most appalling men created in modern fiction. Bradley Pearson is unbelievably self-absorbed and incapable of understanding the needs and desires of others, especially of women. He is divorced (not surprisingly), treats his sister in the most despicable manner, and manages to disrupt the lives of two other women without ever really connecting with either. Yet, as is always the case with Murdoch, Pearson is no caricature. In fact, by the end of the book, you may feel that you don’t know Pearson at all.
Meaghan Delahunt, In the Blue House (Bloomsbury, 2001)
This book is magical, and I found it gripping. The now-standard feminist insight that “the personal is political” is given voice in this beautiful work. Ranging from the cold Kremlin bedroom of a brutal Stalin to the warm courtyard of Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s Blue House in Mexico, the spaces of this novel are profoundly interior and public at the same time. The narrative is shaped by Leon Trotsky’s exile and his relationships with his wife, friends, accusers and would-be assassins. An imagined history, the novel is full of psychological insight and political intrigue. No-one escapes from the strictures of ideology and no-one’s love triumphs.
Gao Xingjiang, Soul Mountain (Harper Perennial, 2004)
Gao was the first Chinese author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, although he did so from exile in France. After the publication of a work dealing in part with the massacre at Tiananmen Square, all his writings were banned in China. In awarding him the Nobel, the Committee referred to his “œuvre of universal validity, bitter insights and linguistic ingenuity,” and that description is particularly apt for Soul Mountain. The work was first published in Taiwan in 1990, and it is a partly autobiographical account of a solitary trip down the Yangtze River. Gao had been misdiagnosed with cancer in 1986, and began a trek tinged with bitterness and a sense of endings. He uses a mixture of genres, fictionalizing his own experience among minority populations. The experience of alienation, of being an outsider, is powerful, blending personal sensibility with the lives of people struggling to maintain unique identities at the margins of the dominant Han civilization. A difficult, but profound, reading experience.
Arturo Pérez-Reverte, The Flanders Panel (HarperCollins, 1994)
I recently discovered this Spanish writer of devilishly clever literary mysteries. The characters are well-drawn, and the mystery revolves around a Flemish painting and the intricacies of chess. Wonderfully paced, and urgently compelling, this is a great read on a long plane ride, or at the cabin.
Kim Thúy, Ru (Vintage Canada, 2012)
Winner of last year’s Governor-General’s award for fiction, Ru is a lyrical account of a young woman’s journey from the elite of South Vietnam to boat person to immigrant in the cold of Quebec’s Eastern Townships. Variously gentle, sensual and brutal, the story is told in short chapters that are close to blank verse, such is the poetic use of language (originally in French, and translated by the brilliant Sheila Fischman). Tiny character sketches are memorable, as is the prevailing sense of sad struggle. Some reviewers have called Ru a “meditation,” a description I find appropriate.
Nadine Gordimer, A Guest of Honour (Penguin, 1973)
Gordimer’s writing is simply brilliant, but her stories always leave me with a profound sense of sadness. Winner of the Nobel Prize in 1991, Gordimer is closely associated with the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. But she is no naïve optimist! A Guest of Honour is the story of a colonial-era British civil servant, Colonel Bray, who leaves his post in an unnamed African country because he gets too close to the political opposition, the freedom-fighters striving for independence. Once independence is gained, Bray is invited back by the new President, an old friend, to report on how to improve the system of education. At first, the novel is suffused with a sense of hope and excitement, but as Bray’s personal life becomes more complicated, so too does the political life of the new country. Soon, in Chinua Achebe’s words, “things fall apart.” Those who seemed honourable and good reveal themselves to be craven and hard. The culmination of the story is shocking. A fabulous exploration of a “liberal” sensibility confronting the harsh games of political struggle and megalomania. Sad but beautiful.
David Mitchell, Black Swan Green (Vintage Canada, 2007)
Mitchell is probably best known for Cloud Atlas, now, as they say, “a major motion picture.” I thought that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010) was fabulous. Mitchell’s diversity of subject matter and style is remarkable. In Black Swan Green he writes in the voice of thirteen-year-old Jason Tyler, who lives in a seemingly boring village in rural England circa 1982. Jason’s world is falling apart, and he is the subject of cruel taunts and thwarted love. Comparisons to Catcher in the Rye are inevitable, but the protagonist here is a budding artist who seems to me less angry and more wistful than Holden Caulfield. There is a strange sense of nostalgia pervading the book, even though Jason is deeply frustrated. The writing is moving and fresh, with wonderful comic touches.
Tim Winton, Dirt Music ( Scribner, 2001)
I discovered this book browsing in a New York bookstore. Winton is a youngish Australian whose novels have twice been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. Dirt Music is the story of a couple of outcasts who find each other, lose each other, and against pretty remarkable odds, connect again. I have rarely read any work that more evocatively captures landscapes – in this case the wilds of Western Australia. A real page-turner, the novel is both a deep character study of the central actors and a gripping narrative. I am purposely not saying much about the plot because to do so would be to give too much away. I found myself carried along for four-fifths of the book, but must admit to being a bit disappointed in the conclusion which struck me as just too comfortable given everything that had gone before.
Iris Murdoch, The Bell (Vintage, 1999; first published in 1973)
I first began to read Murdoch when I was studying in England in the 1980s and was drawn to her complex characters; no-one is ever good or bad, everyone is an amalgam. The Bell is no exception, for here we have a religious community of deeply confused people struggling to find a way to live together. Two outsiders arrive, and they disrupt everything – but that is probably for the best, for the community was always fundamentally unstable. Murdoch was, of course, a distinguished philosopher as well as being an important novelist, and her books are marked by serious explorations of morality, especially sexual morality. In some ways, the characters here are a little dated – revelations of homosexual encounters certainly don’t “shock” as they might have in 1973 – but the underlying concerns of how to lead an honest life and how to be fair to people around us still matter.
Esi Edugyan, Half Blood Blues (Thomas Allen, 2011)
Winner of the 2011 Giller Prize, this ambitious novel is set principally in the months leading up to the German occupation of Paris during the Second World War. Moving back and forth in time, and spanning settings in Baltimore, Berlin and Paris, the narrative focusses upon a jazz combo of African-American and German musicians. They are given the opportunity to meet and impress Louis Armstrong who is visiting Paris. But, given the increasing pressure upon Parisians as the Germans invade, that opportunity results only in one recorded track that features the prodigious talent of Hiero, a black German trumpeter who is almost immediately seized by the Nazis, and who disappears. The narrator is Sid Griffiths, a journeyman American bass player, who it turns out resented Hiero, and who may have betrayed the brilliant youngster. Some reviewers have commended the strange German-inflected American black dialogue. I found it stilted and unconvincing. The plot struck me as similarly contrived, especially the crucial role played by the Montreal-based singer, Delilah, who serves as the catalyst for much of the action but who seems primarily designed to create some explicit Canadian content.
Kathleen Winter, Annabel (Anansi, 2010)
An extraordinarily lyrical novel set in Labrador, St John’s and Boston, the book traces the early life experience of Wayne Blake, a person born with the sexual organs of both man and woman. Marked by a generosity of spirit, and an openness to the complexities of identity, the story follows Wayne’s father as he tries to ensure that his child will be given an easy time in life (by choosing one sex – male), and Wayne’s mother as she longs for the daughter that she knows is present to be allowed to express herself. Wayne comes to see himself as a duality, Wayne-Annabel, the latter part of him-her named after the deceased daughter of one of his mother’s best friends, and a person who tries to help Wayne, with disturbing consequences. Described this way, the plot sounds a tad baroque, but I was moved by the willingness of all the characters to question their assumptions, and by Wayne’s bravery. At times the writing becomes a tad precious, especially in the descriptions of the Labrador wilderness, but the novel is strikingly original, and reveals a promising new talent.
Olivia Manning, School for Love (Arrow, 2001)
First published in 1951, this novel is by one of Britain’s important mid-twentieth century writers, who is best known for The Balkan Trilogy, a compelling account of life in Cold War Bucharest. School for Love is set in Jerusalem, and traces the growing into adult sensibility of the teen-age orphan, Felix. He has led a cosseted life with a kind, but possibly silly mother. Now he finds himself at the mercy of a true comic horror, his landlady, Miss Bohun. She leads a millenarian religious group, the Ever Readies, and always seems to find a way to profit from others as she declares her own pure and generous intentions. Felix falls into puppy love with a mysterious young war widow who also finds uncomfortable refuge with Miss Bohun, but learns that his own desires and those of the people around him are not always congruent. Fine spare writing and acute observation are softened by the author’s essential sympathy for her sad, struggling characters.
Douglas Coupland, Marshall McLuhan (Penguin Canada, 2009)
Part of a series on “extraordinary Canadians,” I was drawn to this brief biography because it coincided with the 100th anniversary of McLuhan’s birth, and because I thought it a stroke of genius to ask Coupland to write on McLuhan. The result is a fresh, insightful and at times psychedelic exploration of the McLuhan era. Coupland makes a convincing case for the brilliance, and continuing relevance, of McLuhan without ever descending into hagiography. All the essential biographical facts are present, and the author does not shy away from describing failures as well as triumphs. The McLuhan who emerges is one who challenged the safety and comfort of early 1960′s Canada, and who made a true intellectual mark on the world, while making a few enemies along the way – mostly stuffed shirts from U of T common rooms. Coupland also manages to link McLuhan to the emergence of “new information technologies” and the world of Facebook and Twitter, revealing how much he would have HATED it. Rollicking good fun!
Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table (McClelland & Stewart, 2011)
Both autobiographical and fully imagined, this charming novel is Ondaatje at his most playful. Set on a ship travelling from Ceylon to England in the 1950s, the story is told by a writer who is now famous but who was once a passenger on a similar vessel, as a small boy, largely overlooked by those around him. For meals he was seated at the least desirable table in the dining room: the cat’s table, but that table is populated by fascinating characters who begin to reveal to the boy, Mynah (whose real name is Michael), the complexities of adult life. With two fast friends, other boys who sit at the same table, Mynah has free rein of the ship. The autobiography is not contained in details of the author’s life, but in a more subtle and fascinating exploration of how one learns to be a writer. Mynah’s powers of observation grow as he catches glimpses of stories unfolding on the ship and he discovers layers of character in his fellow passengers.
Alan Hollinghurst, A Stranger’s Child (Picador, 2011)
Hollinghurst burst onto the literary scene with a pair of acutely observed novels, The Swimming Pool Library and The Line of Beauty, the latter winning the Man Booker Prize in 2004. Both captured the oddly mixed flavour of excess and despair that marked late-twentieth century British society, and both contained much more graphic depictions of sex, in this case gay sex, than is typical for “serious” fiction. A Stranger’s Child is a gentler novel, but one that continues to explore the sexual mores of British society with great incisiveness. Spanning four generations in two families that are intertwined because of a simple visit by a college friend just before the First World War, the novel is also a clever exploration of how literary reputations are built and destroyed, and a chastening account of how biography can so easily get things fundamentally wrong. The UK book trade named Hollinghurst its “author of the year” for The Stranger’s Child.
Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness (Harcourt Inc., 2005)
A powerful and lyrical memoir by one of Israel and the world’s great novelists. Probably best known for My Michael and Black Box, Oz tells a story of growing up in the 1940s and 50s in Jerusalem. One experiences a sense of both claustrophobic rigidity and utter liberation. His silent father was also a great linguist and voracious reader. His mother a highly intelligent but deeply lonely person whose suicide changed the course of Oz’s life. He was only twelve at the time. Although the book focuses on his family history, Oz’s setting is the panorama of middle east conflict, and the birth of Israel. The writing is witty at times, but tuned by tragedy, and the resulting work is part Bildungsroman, part political and social history, and part journal of a gifted writer.
Patrick O’Brian, Master and Commander (Harper Collins, 2002)
O’Brian is often described as the greatest of historical novelists, mostly because of his superb research and encyclopedic knowledge of the Royal Navy of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Although he can sometimes descend into excruciating detail (especially about the sails on a square-rigged ship!), what marks O’Brian’s greatness is his gift for rich and complex characters. Although there is lots of adventure on the high seas, some of the most interesting scenes of this, the first in his series of “Aubrey-Maturin” novels, take place onshore amidst the petty politics and personal intrigues of navy commanders. Captain Aubrey is a brilliantly drawn figure of a man where fundamental decency and deep ambition war within. And if you get hooked, there are 19 more novels in the series!
Ian Buruma, Murder in Amsterdam (Penguin Books, 2006)
One of the most difficult and troubling books I have ever read. Buruma grew up in Holland, but is half-British and has spent much of his recent years in the USA. He returns to Holland in 2004 to investigate the reasons that may have prompted the murder of controversial Dutch filmmaker, Theo Van Gogh. Van Gogh was a cultural critic of European Islam, filming in parallel to the writings of Somali immigrant, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who focused her critiques on the role of women in Muslim expatriate culture. Buruma tries to understand Hirsi Ali’s experience, Van Gogh’s sources of anger, and his murderer’s unpredictable and complex motivations. Although the book is subtle and deeply humane, it left me unsatisfied; “understanding” does not seem to lead to any suggested way forward for European societies increasingly marked by cultural conflict.
Saul Bellow, The Dean’s December (Penguin Books, 1982)
Born in Lachine, Quebec, Bellow became the great chronicler of mid-twentieth century American (especially Chicago) life. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976, his later writing becomes elegiac, and strongly focused on intimations of mortality. The Dean’s December, published in 1982, tells the story of a dyspeptic but relatively happily married dean of journalism at a small Chicago college who accompanies his wife back to Romania where her mother is dying. Just before leaving, the Dean (as he is usually called in the book) has published an excoriating critique of contemporary Chicago life and politics, which has threatened to make him persona non grata at home. But the alienation he experiences in Ceausescu-era Romania causes him to feel utterly outside any society. December in Bucharest is marked by “winter skies, gray pigeons, pollarded tress, squalid orange-rusty trams hissing under trolley cables.” But Chicago is the site of racial hatred, family dislocation, crumbling buildings, and utterly corrupt politics. The book ends with a glimpse of cold stars through a giant telescope. Not exactly fun, but worth the read for brilliant writing and superb characterizations.
Dave Eggers, Zeitoun (Vintage Canada, 2010)
I was first introduced to Eggers through his zany family memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, one of the funniest books I have read. Zeitoun is the history of another family, tested beyond all reason by circumstance and bad public policy. The title character is a Syrian-American, married to a “white” Muslim convert. Together they are raising a family in New Orleans while running a very successful construction contracting business. Zeitoun is a deeply proud American, but is closely connected to his Syrian family in different parts of the world. He is also a proud, but not particularly religious Muslim. First the family is torn apart by the fury of hurricane Katrina, when Zeitoun decides to try to stay in New Orleans to help with rescue efforts. Then he disappears for a time as he is arrested on suspicions of terrorism. The book chronicles the interaction of two of the greatest failures of Bush-era US policy and implementation, the post-Katrina disasters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the abuses of the so-called War on Terror. A chilling but important read.
Edmund de Waal, The Hare With Amber Eyes (Chatto & Windus, 2010)
The most exquisite memoire I have ever read. Mr. de Waal, a distinguished English potter, traces his family history by exploring the movement of a collection of Japanese netsuke from late 19th century Paris, to Vienna at the Anschluss, to Tokyo, to London. The collection is first bought by Charles Ephrussi, the model for Proust’s Swann, and de Waal’s great-grandfather. It is transferred to the Vienna branch of the Ephrussi clan, bankers at one time comparable to the Rothchilds, only to be rescued from dispersal during the Second World War. The details are remarkable, the characters vivid, and the historical settings fascinating and sometimes chilling. Could be read as a history of late-nineteenth and twentieth century barbarity, but is redeemed by the gorgeous esthetic sensibility. The tactile realizations are astonishing.
Kate Grenville, The Lieutenant (Harper Collins, 2008)
An exploration of the possibilities and impossibilities of cross cultural communication. Set at the moment of first contact between English naval officers and aborigines in Australia (1788), this beautiful novel is at once a bildungsroman, an adventure story, and a lyrical reflection on language. The relationship that evolves between Lieutenant Daniel Rooke and the child Tagaran is heartbreaking.
Anne Michaels, The Winter Vault (McClelland & Stewart, 2009)
Canada’s and one of the world’s great stylists of language, Michaels is best known for the deeply moving Fugitive Pieces. The breadth of this book is remarkable, moving as it does between the flooding towns of the Saint Lawrence as the Seaway is built, to Montreal to Toronto to Egypt’s Valley of the Kings as the Aswan High Dam is constructed. The writing is so strong that it overwhelms the characters, who seem more concerned to express themselves with poetic richness than in living their lives.
Kim Eichen, The Disappeared (Penguin Canada, 2009)
A lyrical exploration of family relationships created and undone in war. Searching for the ‘truth’ about one’s closest friends turns out to be heart-wrenching. Set convincingly in both Montreal and Cambodia, this is a delicate and moving portrayal of connection and loss.
Cynthia Ozick, Foreign Bodies (houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010)
In a clever thematic inversion of James’s The Ambassadors, Ozick describes escaping children, a controlling father, and a bewildered aunt commisioned – much against her will – to sort out family troubles. All of the characters are deeply selfish, which makes it hard to feel much empathy, but the story holds intriguing, sometimes tragic, twists.
Benjamin Perrin, Invisible Chains: Canada’s Underground World of Human Traffickng (Viking Canada, 2010)
A personal journey of civic engagement. A study of Canadians’ horrible contributions to human trafficking at home and abroad. A plea for concerted national and international action. Although the media tends to focus on trafficking for sexual exploitation, the even wider issue of forced labour should cause us equal concern. Gripping.
Paul Harding, Tinkers (Harper Collins, 2009)
As he lies dying, surrounded by his family, an amateur clock-repairer hallucinates about his own father who was largely absent. Astonishing writing that conjures up rural Maine in the 19th century, in all its harsh beauty. The characters are vivid, the central theme compelling: none of us can quite grasp the entirety of who we are and where we came from; our insights are fleeting and shifting. A stunning debut novel that won the Pulitzer Prize.
David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Random House, 2010)
Interweaving the history of the Dutch East India Company, Japan of the Shoguns and the mysteries of a Buddhist monastery, Mitchell tells a moving story of unrequited love. The upright and humourless clerk, Jacob de Zoet, is drawn into intrigue and corruption, and strives to find a way to escape while helping a fascinating women he hardly knows. The best novel I have read in a decade; a deep and challenging exploration of cultural difference and attempted communication.
Paul Scott, The Jewel in the Crown (Heinemann, 1966)
An honest effort to grapple with the harsh complexities of India, and a sympathetic account of people struggling to cope with, and some to overcome, cultural difference. The characters of the British Raj are drawn with sensitivity and compassion, and the story is utterly gripping. A variety of narrative voices give the novel extraordinary range and depth. Worth another look if your memory is clouded by the television adaptation which was beautiful but more of a potboiler than a thoughtful attempt to deal with relationships of power and privilege.
Zadie Smith, On Beauty (Hamish Hamilton, 2005)
A romp through the politics of race and academic life. Brilliant riffs on affirmative action, fundamentalist Christianity and English usage, through explorations of the increasingly intertwined lives of two families where the fathers, two professors who work in the same area, detest one another. An hilarious and sad confrontation scene in a faculty meeting. Shortlisted for the Booker, and winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction.
Joseph Boyden, Three Day Road (Penguin Canada, 2005)
A remarkable story, the first part in a planned trilogy, that draws us into generations of the Bird and Whiskeyjack families. Two young Cree snipers, Xavier Bird and Elijah Weesageechak (called Whiskeyjack by his white soldier buddies) are formed and deformed by the horrors of the First World War. One tries to find redemption in the teachings of his aunt, a solitary figure who lives off the land and is gifted with dreams and visions. A fascinating dual narrator structure that sometimes feels contrived, but that delivers powerful emotions. Can a psyche haunted by violence find peace?
Joseph Boyden, Through Black Spruce (Penguin Canada, 2008)
Xavier Bird’s son, Will, and grand-niece, Annie, struggle to find a way out of the violence that threatens to destroy their lives. A missing sister. Alcohol addiction. Drug dealing. Brutal assaults. But amidst it all, the promise that family and traditional learning can bring redemption. Striking portrays of life in the bush and in the demimonde of New York City nightclubs. Here the dual narrator structure really soars, with two unique voices that make you care deeply about what will happen and who will survive. The Scotiabank Giller Prize winner in 2008.
Yann Martel, Beatrice and Virgil (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010)
A taxidermist is writing a play about human attacks on animal biodiversity, using the Holocaust as an allegory. Can any author, no matter how gifted, deal creatively with the hardest and cruelest moments of twentieth-century history? One thing is certain: Martel is courageous.
Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice (Harvard University Press, 2009)
Building on John Rawls enormously influential explanation of justice, the Nobel prize-winning economist undertakes to remove justice from the realm of the ideal and to place it in the real life of societies trying to develop and to provide better lives for millions of people. Challenging and brilliant.
Ian Stewart, Why Beauty Is Truth (Basic Books, 2007)
A distinguished mathematician explains the fundamental concept of symmetry by tracing the history of mathematical thought through the lives of key theorists from Babylonian to modern times. Some difficult equations, but Stewart makes the story lively and he does not expect much background knowledge. A surprisingly good read.