Review Archives

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Cat's Table

The Cat's Table, by Michael Ondaatje (McClelland & Stewart 2011)

The Cat's Table is the story of eleven-year-old "Mynah's" voyage from Ceylon to England aboard the passenger liner, Oronsay, in the early 1950s. It is Ondaatje's sixth novel.  However, while it may share many things that readers have come to expect from an Ondaatje story -- marginal characters  and quasi-mythical histories -- it does not begin with the same attention to language, or the same initimate intensity.  In fact, in the beginning, it is much more reminiscent of the author's memoir, Running In the Family.

That being said, Cat's Table most certainly holds the reader's interest through an episodic, haphazard plot, reflective of the fact that it is the excavation of a child's memory (albeit told in retrospect by an adult).

Halfway through the novel, however, Cat's Table undergoes a transformation.  Mynah's child-like observations give way to the far more introspective "Michael" -- Mynah's adult incarnation (as fate would have it, a famous author). "Ramadhin's Heart" is a brilliant, touching episode which demonstrates the author's narractive strengths.  It is here that the reader realizes just how attached he has become to the disparate characters, through their random misadventures. 

In addition, forgotten threads of story find their way back into the weft hereafter, and tighten their grip on the reader.  Previously dropped stitches seem suddenly purposeful, and out of thin air, a mystery beings to unfold. 

While it would be difficult to argue that Cat's Table is Ondaatje's best artistry to date, it is certainly his most accessible. Diehard fans of Ondaatje the prose stylist, may be disappointed here; however, the author will win over new audiences with this stripped down tale.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Garcia's Heart

Garcia’s Heart by Liam Durcan (McClelland & Stewart 2007)

With the publication of Garcia’s Heart by Liam Durcan, yet another Canadian doctor throws his hat into the ring. Who knew there were so many with literary aspirations?

In this debut novel, Durcan dances across the corpus callosum, proving that the combination of medicine and literature – the left and right brain – make for good fiction. Garcia’s Heart tackles difficult moral conundrums, like the nature of good and evil, innocence and culpability. It also, to a lesser extent, delves into the responsibility of the individual in an increasingly amoral corporate world. Durcan serves up these meditations in a topical exploration of the vagaries of the World Court, and not without a smattering of mystery.

Patrick Lazerenko, an expat Canadian living and working in Boston, learns that his former boss and mentor, Hernan Garcia, is to stand trial in Den Haag for crimes against humanity. He is accused of aiding and abetting the torture of political dissidents in his homeland of Honduras during the turbulent 1980s. Patrick leaves his job – a company he founded – during a critical juncture in order to attend the trial and discern the truth about the man he so well respected.

Complicating matters is the possibility the Patrick might be subpoenaed by either side of the case. The defence wishes to employ his unique expertise as a neuroscientist to discuss Hernan’s ability to judge right from wrong, while the prosecution suspects Patrick withholds damning testimony.

Ah, yes. Did I mention that Hernan’s daughter, Celia, is Patrick’s former lover?

The plot requires much telling to unravel the truth. But it is sufficiently compelling to keep the reader interested. The character of Patrick is also a well-crafted invention, vacillating, pondering, and loving unrequitedly in a very believable fashion.

However, when dealing with highly technical and specialized fields such as neuroscience and law – let alone juggling both in a single novel – an author runs the risk of losing his reader in the minutiae. As affirmed by the novel’s protagonist, "any interesting job could be reduced to a series of bureaucratic functions." Garcia’s Heart stumbles in and out of this mire on a few occasions.

The diction and sentence structure here can also reflect the cumbersome topics. Appositives, subliminal interjections, multiple clauses, and dense vocabulary can combine to create some tricky prose from time to time:

"He was also, despite his designation as protege, miserable in the office where his recent arrival and prepubescent appearance combined with the insecurity of the business-types to bleed credibility from him...with a bit of supportive psychotherapy and an implied challenge to his intelligence – motivational tactics Patrick had mastered as a thesis supervisor – he agreed to stay."

Ultimately, these are small quibbles. Garcia’s Heart is a confident debut novel that will leave you wondering "what had to happen for a life to double in on itself, for separate trajectories to form and diverge, and if living this lie took as great a toll as another having to discover it."

Wednesday, January 9, 2008


October by Richard B. Wright (Harper Collins 2007)

I am always surprised by how much I enjoy Richard B. Wright’s work. It all seems so simple and straight-forward in the telling. October is no exception. The plot is uncomplicated; the language, unadorned. And yet the story resonates long after you put it down.

While travelling in England to visit his cancer-stricken daughter, retired professor James Hillyer chances upon an acquaintance whom he has not encountered in more than sixty years. Gabriel Fontaine, once a sixteen-year-old boy befriended by James during a summer vacation, is now aged and infirm – just as close to death’s door as his own daughter. Friendless, but for a hired nurse, Gabriel requests of James something so intimate and bizarre that it would tax even the thickest of friendships. However, as it stands, the two men were never more than acquaintances of proximity who could little more than tolerate each other’s company at times. And James finds that even now, sixty years after the fact, he is still jealous and bitter over the young woman Gabriel won from him that fateful summer.

Nonetheless, compassion carries the day, and less than forty-eight hours later, James finds himself on a flight to Switzerland in the company Gabriel and his young nurse.
Part love story, and part meditation on mortality, October shifts back and forth between the present and the past, from England and Switzerland to the summer of 1944 in the coastal village of Perce, Quebec.

The secret to Wright’s success in this novel is his economy of language, and the concision with which he is able to sketch the most believable and psychologically complex characters at that exact moment in their lives when they are grappling with humanity’s most important mysteries. In October, Wright demonstrates a keen grasp of the complicated emotions within any relationship, and he uses this understanding to weave a story that is not only believable, but, in fact, inevitable.

October is a case of all the right words in all the right places.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Stormy Weather

Stormy Weather by Paulette Jiles (Harper Collins 2007)

Stormy Weather is the follow-up novel to Paulette Jiles’ wildly popular and critically acclaimed first novel, Enemy Women. With it, she proves, without a doubt, that her writing has staying power.

Stormy Weather is the story of Jeanine Stoddard, her sisters, and their mother. Deserted and humiliated by their mercurial father and husband, Jack Stoddard, the women must negotiate the uncharted world of East and Central Texas during the Great Depression.

Jeanine, the middle-child, skinny and fierce, leads her mother and sisters out of the oil fields and back to the abandoned Tolliver farm of her mother’s childhood. There, they struggle to survive drought, dust storms, back taxes, injury, and the stigma of poverty.

But while the Great Depression and its hardships are common fodder for fiction, Jiles’ story of rough and tumble East Texas, its oil fields, its illegal horse racing, and its unforgettable characters is fresh enough.

Her prose, too, is vital, sweeping over vast distances in time and space at one moment, and honing into focus on a single scene the next. It is difficult to shake certain images in this book, such as the blind man who helps Jeanine load her drunken father into the family jalopy. Or the moment she catches her neck-scarf in the gearbox of an ancient tractor. The scene with Jeanine’s sister Bea at the well is transfixing, and the night Jeanine last speaks to her father in the family shed is also haunting.

The one problem with this novel might be the end. It cannot be said that Jeanine and her family do not undergo hardship in this story; however, I am wary of stories that end too well. They seem unlikely. And while Jiles does try to temper this fortune, it still smacks a little of Hollywood.
Nonetheless, Stormy Weather will lead you by the nose. A great read.

The Bone Sharps

The Bone Sharps by Tim Bowling (Gaspereau Press 2007)

Tim Bowling is best known as a poet, perhaps even one of the country’s greatest. And those talents are in evidence in The Bone Sharps, his third novel.

There are essentially three stories operating within this volume, concentrating on three different characters and several different time periods. We meet Charles Sternberg in 1876 at the outset of his career as a palaeontologist, scouring the chalk lands of Montana for fossils. We track his progress into 1896, through the death of his only daughter, and that of his benefactor and mentor Professor Cope. And we see him again in 1916, still bent over the badlands, searching – this time in Alberta – haunted by his past and grievously ill.

We also follow the story of Scott, Sternberg’s one-time protégé – now locked in the trenches of Europe burrowing for survival rather than discovery – and Lily, labouring with Sternberg in 1916, writing to Scott and loving him from a distance. We also follow Lily toward the end of her own life in 1975, on a strange personal journey.

Few writers can wield language with the facility and acuity of Bowling. With him, even the most mundane and trivial become surprising and new. In Banff, the "mountains were black, inlaid with blue-green, and surrounded the town like the sides of a tea-cup." Sitting in a restaurant, Lily thinks "the men’s voices buzzed like flies, and she waved quickly at her ears to rid herself of the sound."

The landscapes, whether they be the blasted, incandescent badlands of Alberta, or the muddy, treacherous trenches of France come to life here.

However, this same power of observation can work to Bowling’s detriment as well. Certain passages carry the weight of their descriptions. Paragraphs stretch on ponderously for several pages. As well, the reader cannot help but feel that Bowling is balancing a little too much in this novel. Timelines become confusing, stories bleed into one another.

Oddly, Bowling may even have wanted this effect, for surely one of the novel’s themes is the palimpsest – how the same landscapes are worked and reworked and the past is never far from the surface.

To be sure, The Bone Sharps requires your full attention, but is, in the end, a rewarding read.


Helpless by Barbara Gowdy (Harper Collins 2007)

Barbara Gowdy rarely disappoints. Her novels appear on bestseller lists around the world, and she no doubt has a loyal fan base. Helpless, Gowdy’s sixth book, contains everything her readers have come to expect from her work – intelligence, sympathy, perception, and solid writing.

Helpless details the abduction of Rachel, the nine-year-old daughter of Celia Fox. The young girl – considered an uncommon beauty by everyone that meets her – becomes the object of one man’s dark obsession, which in many ways is simply a grosser extension of the way the rest of the male world has come to regard her. Rachel and her mother, for instance, are stopped in the street one afternoon, out-of-the-blue, by a modelling agent promising riches.

The abduction by Ron, a pedophile in denial, occurs during a massive city-wide power outage, understandably plunging the lives of those around the girl into chaos. The novel balances the story of Rachel and her captors with that of Celia, her frantic mother. There is a brief flirtation with the Stockholm Syndrome, and an uncomfortable rapprochement between Rachel and Ron.
The strength of this novel is clearly in the character of Ron, and to a lesser extent, Jenny – Ron’s mislead and frantic accomplice. The rest of the novel’s myriad contributors pale in comparison. Even Celia, the novel’s supposed protagonist appears two-dimensional in Ron’s shadow. Rather than portray him as a dark unknown entity, Gowdy skirts the dangerous territory of creating sympathy – if not acceptance – for a man struggling with his own monstrous desires, not wishing to do harm but deluding himself and those closest to him.
That being said, Helpless smolders with anticipation, but never truly ignites. It dallies with the dark undercurrents of pedophilia but pulls away to safety before anyone gets burned. The plot and language are competent but without risk. The character of Ron is fascinating in his sickness, but it is difficult to believe that Rachel’s life and welfare are ever indeed at risk.
Helpless offers its readers a glimpse of possible evil, but then allows them to retreat, and ultimately sleep soundly.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Culprits

The Culprits by Robert Hough (Random House Canada 2007)

I want to say that this book was entertaining, because I could hardly set it down – but I fear that this description might only belittle Hough’s accomplishment. A book can be measured in many ways: its craft (how the story is told), and its purpose (what is being told), are chief among them. But sometimes there is also an unidentifiable quality derived from the perfect combination of these other elements. This is the case with The Culprits.

Hank Wallins, a former merchant sailor cum lonely computer operator, lives through a near-death experience. Does his life flash before his eyes? Does he realize the futility of his existence? Does this realization send him packing to the Himalayas to tackle Everest? To the Amazon? No. But he does begin searching hoping against all odds to find that certain special someone to fill the perceived hole in his life gaping.

When he discovers Anna Verkoskova née Mikhailovna, a near-pretty student from St. Petersburg with a wandering eye, Hank is hooked. The resulting story draws both he and "Anya" into a baffling and complicated tale of love, loss, and ... international terrorism.

Woven by one of the most ingenious and fascinating narrators in recent history, this novel juggles the madcap with the sober, the tragic with the comic. It flirts with the melodramatic as often as it plays with the improbable, without ever actually crossing either line. Its humour and wit give weight to its eventual calamity, and its voice – full of the sing-song qualities of Slavic constructions – is as endearing as a Dr. Seuss fable. In short, it is a fine balance.

"Life is a deception," we are told in the novel’s opening paragraph. "If we could scrub away the lichen and peer at life with clear vision ...its entirety would overwhelm us." Indeed, we are almost overwhelmed by the lives and events in The Culprits. However, with Hough, we are in good hands. After leading us through the fray by the nose, he delivers us safely on the other side where "there are watermelons, everywhere....juicy and sweet and through black soil sprouting."