Friday, April 27, 2012

The Heart Does Not Bend by Makeda Silvera

Some books are good because they are difficult. Not difficult to understand, but difficult to come to terms with. The characters in The Heart Does Not Bend are so real and flawed, it is one of those wonderfully written but difficult books.

The novel follows some of the life of Maria Galloway - or Mama as she is universally known - through the eyes of her granddaughter Molly. It starts in Kingston, Jamaica, where Mama is in her element in her house at the end of a dead-end street, raising Molly and baking treats to sell to the local restaurant. Halfway through the novel, Mama decides to go to "foreign" - Toronto, in this case - and she takes Molly with her. The book remarkably covers six generations of women (if you count Maria's mother, Mammy) as they struggle with their relationships with each other and with Mama, the matriarch.

Mama is a remarkable character. Sometimes I sympathized with her: she took in whoever came along, but didn't take any guff from men; she tried very hard to raise Molly well; she was an enterprising and independent woman who built a family and a home over and over. But there are times in the book when she is just so frustrating. Her refusal to accept her son Mikey's homosexuality, and her downright harassment of Molly and her female partner; the way she spoils her great-grandson Vittorio and turns a blind eye to his thieving; her utter stubbornness and refusal to be considerate. 

Mama is lovable, frustrating, generous and backwards. She is written so well, I began to feel like she was my own mother; certainly as the daughter of a strong-willed, loving and obstinate woman I could relate to many of the feelings Molly and her mother, Glory, express. The world of the book is populated with very believable but wonderfully unique characters, but Mama really steals the show. 

There are a lot of interesting themes in the story, most notably the idea of "good men" and what different characteristics of masculinity are valued by people of Mama's generation and upbringing, and how that is starting to change in Molly's time. Mama loves her dear son Freddie, who is an inconsiderate jerk and a woman beater; she relies on Peppie, but rewards his helpfulness and loyalty by taking advantage of his hospitality and acting horribly to his wife; she adores Mikey until she figures out what the situation is with him and his "friend" Frank, then she moves to another country and refuses to write to him. She even briefly takes back her abusive ex-husband. 

Then of course there is the fascinating phenomenon of what begins to seem like a genetic predisposition to teen pregnancy. Four generations of Galloway women - Mama, her daughter Glory, Molly and her daughter Ciboney - all have babies at fifteen years old. Of course the men are absent, and it seems the mothers are powerless to prevent a repeat of the situation for their own daughters.

I know I'm making it seem heavy, but the book had a lot of fun moments and funny characters. I love the great-aunts, super-religious Ruth and super-fashionable Joyce. I loved some of the stylistic choices the author made: despite all the pregnancies, there is never a description of heterosexual sex, but there are several descriptive paragraphs of Molly and her female lover, Rose, having sex. 

Toronto as a backdrop isn't very distinctive; there were a few place names, but really the "foreign" action could have happened in any North American city. Still, it was nice to read about Jamaican immigrants and about women, after all the white dudes I seem to have been reading lately.

I loved this book, by the way. It was rich and lovely and character-driven. I give it four CN Towers out of five.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


If you are registered or care to sign up on 49th Shelf (which is a great resource if you're looking for Canadian books), they are having a contest; you just have to review one of the books in their huge list of e-books and you could win a Kobo e-reader. So, you know, get over there and support Can Lit.

And now back to regularly scheduled reviews.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Fauna by Alissa York

Is any novel not about redemption? Or is it just the ones I'm reading lately? Anyway, this story is about six people and their relationships with each other and with animals. Which is pretty much the simplest way you could put it, but it really does the book no justice.

The majority of the novel is set at a small house in a junkyard on Toronto's east side. Guy lives there and runs the company, which is vaguely related to fixing cars, or towing them or something. Stephen is his live-in employee who is suffering from PTSD after returning from a six-month tour in Afghanistan. They have attracted a young runaway, Lily, who camps out in the Don Valley with her big Newfoundland cross, Billy, and marks her days of freedom with notches she cuts into her arm. She rescues birds who have flown into the big glass buildings of the city and buries the dead ones in Guy's backyard.

There's Edal, a federal wildlife officer on stress leave after one too many animals suffocates while being smuggled through customs; Kate, a physiotherapist for dogs who is coping with the loss of her partner; and Darius, a disturbed young man hell-bent on ridding the Don Valley of coyotes. 

The novel is really a collection of origin stories; nothing much actually happens in real time. It's a pretty interesting look at how our past shapes us, of what families are made of, and of the old wisdom of being able to take the measure of a person based on how they treat those who can't fight back. Guy takes them all in, this extended family of weirdos with their baggage and quirks. It's very sweet.

I was worried when I first started reading that there would be a lot of heartbreaking animal deaths in this book. Animals getting hurt is a big trigger for me, even fictional animals. But apart from some descriptions of the smuggling early on, and some later talk about killing coyotes in cruel ways, it was relatively painless. It is really about the human drama, although there are some intervals where we see things from an animal's point of view, which is kind of cool.

I thought the author made great use of Toronto as a backdrop - the semi-wild Don Valley is a nice contrast to the usual Toronto stories set in the hustle and bustle of downtown. It also introduces the theme of living alongside the wilderness in modern times very well. As Canadians, our collective subconscious remembers our history as fur traders, the wild frontiers and the winter hardship. There were shades of that here, of how much more like these animals we are than we would like to believe.

The book is beautifully written. It tells some very sweet, very sad stories, and the tone doesn't really become hopeful until probably the last page (maybe even the last sentence?). It builds nicely though, and the characters are easy to sympathize with. I wished there was more to it - I wanted more actual action, more conversation even. I felt like a lot of things could have been edited down to make room for the development of that hopeful tone, to emphasize the point where things started to turn around, and to build more of the link between the characters.

That said, I did like it and it was an engaging read. Four towers out of five.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Writing Toronto Workshop

Time out from reviews to let you know that the Toronto Public Library is hosting an event this Thursday on writing stories set in Toronto, called Writing Toronto: Creating a Powerful, Believable Sense of Place in Your Stories.

The workshop is being led by Elizabeth Ruth, and will be held at the North York Central Library. Details here.

Carry on!