Thursday, December 27, 2007

The End of the Alphabet

The End of the Alphabet by CS Richardson (Doubleday Canada 2007)

This first novel by book designer CS Richardson is really little more than a novella. But it is a gem. Simple and direct in the telling, The End of the Alphabet is an adult fable with a bittersweet ending.

Ambrose Zephyr, the creative mind behind a London advertising agency, learns that he has an illness of "inexplicable origin," and, as a result, little more than a month to live – "give or take a day." He is married to Zappora Ashkenazi, though childless, and still very much in love. In short, he is not ready to leave this world. His wife is not ready to have him leave her.

His plan is straightforward, if a little eccentric. As a boy Ambrose wrote away to embassies and consulates for travel brochures. He collected news about the world. He was also enamoured with alphabets and typefaces. He combined these two loves in a series of illuminated lists. "D is for a beach in the Dutch Antilles, E is for the windy coast of Elba..." Now, in his desperation, he digs out these long-forgotten lists as a guidebook for his final days on earth – a journey both geographical and spiritual.

If this sounds gimmicky, it is. But the novel’s opening sentence tells us "this story is unlikely."

The characters are revealed rather than developed to any great extent, and the author uses broad strokes to reflect on mortality, art, history, and the idea of home. Still, the resulting text is poignant in its restraint. The prose is spare. The humour wry.

It is short enough to be digested of an evening, and potent enough to remain with you afterward.

The Outlander

The Outlander by Gil Adamson (House of Anansi 2007)

Gil Adamson’s first novel is a yarn well-spun, full of improbable, implausible, and near-mythical events. It is the stuff of legend, with one foot planted firmly in accurate history, and one foot treading the ether-sphere of picaresque adventure.

Mary Boulton is a murderess, plain and simple. One may argue that she is the victim of postpartum depression, or overwhelming grief at the death of her child; she may even be insane with jealousy over her husband’s indiscretions. But no matter which way you slice it, Mary pulled the trigger that blew a hole in her husband’s thigh "so the bone came out the back...[and] a pink mist suffused the air." Then she "sat down to wait" as he bled out on the floor of their isolated cabin. "Eventually, she took up her sewing."

On the lam, Mary scrambles half-crazed into the Crowsnest Pass and through the rocky mountains, pursued at first by dogs, and later by something more sinister – her late-husband’s brothers. Mary is taken in, befriended, apprenticed, and loved by a host of eccentric characters throughout her flight. She bears witness and survives the Frank Landslide at Turtle Mountain where "for a full minute, the mountain seemed to billow, then slowly collapse, floating downward." But always and relentlessly, she is hunted by "red-headed brothers with rifles across their backs...and fine black boots."

Adamson recreates turn-of-the-century Canada and its vast tracks of wilderness in assiduous detail. Her language is poetic and elevating, so that even the harsh savagery of the land and its inhabitants take on an otherworldliness, a sweeping cinematic beauty.

Conversely, however, the novel’s history can hijack the story. Each character Mary encounters or rubs up against during her adventures opens a new world to be explored and plumbed by the author. This can take wind from the novel’s sails. Fortunately, we have the brothers to get us back on track.

All in all, it is an engrossing tale. One may well have to suspend disbelief while reading The Outlander, but Adamson does well to remind us that books still have the power to transport us beyond the mundane.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Bottle Rocket Hearts

Bottle Rocket Hearts by Zoe Whittall (Cormorant Books 2007)

Zoe Whittall’s first novel is a simple story. Girl meets girl. Girl loses girl. Girl wins girl back again. Girl realizes aforementioned girl was no good for her in the first place. Girl leaves girl, once and for all.

Essentially, Bottle Rocket Hearts is a coming of age story set in Montreal in the mid-nineties, complicated by the sexuality of its protagonist. Eve’s in love for the first time with the wrong girl and she gets her heart broken. After a brief, precarious rapprochement, she patches it up again and moves on, "soft and furious."

There’s a lot of clubbing, drinking, some drugs, some more drugs, a little more clubbing. The plot itself is not overly compelling. Told from the first person, in a more than convincing late adolescent voice, the story of Eve’s heartbreak can sometimes be a little claustrophobic, like watching someone pick at a scab.

The narrative does, however, scratch the surface of several deeper issues, such as senseless violence against women/homosexuals, or the ravage of AIDS amongst the queer community. There’s a brief comparison of Quebec’s search for identity with Eve’s own personal quest. But these threads run close to the surface. Ultimately, they are the backdrop to failed love.

Whittall is a talented writer. And that talent is most evident in the minutiae – thumbnail sketches of iridescent detail, like photographs taken in harsh light. Her writing has teeth. It bites. Hard. Upon finding her girlfriend in bed with someone else, Eve feels "a quick incision between her seventh and eighth ribs ... then several quick kisses with a staple gun to [her] gum-line...a sock in the teeth for good measure."

On another occasion Eve stops by a strip-club for the first time to meet a friend. Once inside, she feels "like a raggedy kindergarten teacher with finger paint on her face. Totally asexual. Like a houseplant."

There is also a brief funeral scene which, more than any other episode in the novel, captures what it means to be young and gay and struggling for identity. "There is a rift between family and friends in the church, a weirdness that comes when your closest family has no idea who your closest friends are. Two camps that loved the same person separately, like there were two funerals happening at once."

The author’s insight and acuity in these situations bode well for the future. Bottle Rocket Hearts is an intriguing debut.