Friday, September 28, 2012

Barnacle Love by Anthony De Sa

This is one of the books I was most excited to read for this project, as it is set in Portugal Village, which is where I live. I was disappointed, then, when the majority of the book didn't take place in Toronto at all - but still it gave it a certain heightened realism to finish reading it as I rode the streetcar home through streets of excited, flag-clad Portugese folks watched the Euro Cup. 

The story mentions a few Toronto landmarks - St. Michael's Hospital figures prominently - but mostly it is a Toronto story; it is set within the spirit of the city. The more Toronto literature I read, the more I find immigrant stories pervade the genre, and why not? This is a city of immigrants in a country of immigrants. So much of Toronto's struggle for a distinct identity is wrapped up in that delicate and uneasy tension of multiculturalism. 

The story follows three characters: first Manuel, a young Portugese man who longs to escape his stifling small town, his overbearing mother, and a very painful and tortured history with the Church. He takes a job on a fishing boat and finds a new home in Canada, first washing ashore in Newfoundland and eventually travelling across the whole country as a railroad worker, before settling in Toronto. Secondly, there is a brief interlude where we hear the story of Georgina, Manuel's wife, who married him despite the (literally) violent objections of his mother, who thought she could keep her favourite son in Portugal by having him marry a girl she chose. And then the latter part of the novel follows Antonio, Manuel's son, who grows up a delicate soul in Toronto, torn between the love and the resentment he feels for his father.

For a short book, there are a lot of heavy themes: sexual abuse, alcoholism, racism, domestic violence, and the constant intergenerational struggle between parents and children that is only exacerbated by the perceived need to adhere to cultural traditions in a new world. However, it is gentle and light at times, and the story is kept afloat by the determination and persistence of the characters surrounding Manuel - his strong and uncompromising wife and daughter, and his sensitive and intelligent son. The characters are compelling although they did sometimes delve into stereotypes (particularly Manuel's mother), but I imagine this is a function of the author attempting to create composites of people and types of people he has probably encountered in his own life in the Portugese community.

This is a story of real life and dreams and how they so often get in each other's way. I enjoyed reading it a great deal, and it's beautifully and evocatively written; the story from which the title is derived left me with mental images I will not forget. It reads very quickly. I highly recommend it as a summer read - light and hopeful but with some substance, and a vague, bittersweet ending. 

Four CN Towers out of five.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Cities of Refuge by Michael Helm

This novel was a new one for me in terms of this project, because of the way it used Toronto as a setting not by name-checking buildings or intersections, or tapping into the general vibe of the city, but by setting the story in Toronto by virtue of it being the home of so many refugees, undocumented people, and desperate outsiders. The main theme is taking refuge from one's past, claiming a safe space to avoid facing judgement and punishment for crimes of varying - and arguable - severity.

The title comes from the Bible, where the cities of refuge were places where killers could claim asylum. The novel's protagonist, Kim, volunteers at an organization called GROUND that helps refugees with more desperate cases who were refused by government agencies. Some of these people have violent backgrounds, complicated by the political situations of their countries of origin. Some of them are dangerous people, although Kim clearly believes passionately in the work and doesn't see it as a dangerous place for her to be.

The novel starts with a violent attack; Kim is followed, attacked, and nearly killed. She is understandably haunted by the incident, and takes refuge (!) from the world while the people around her struggle to deal with the implications of the attack. Her estranged father believes that it was one of her clients at GROUND, someone who they could not help and who decided to take revenge; or perhaps who was just a dangerous person who missed the taste of blood. Kim reads xenophobia and paranoia into her father's theory, but as it turns out, (somewhat spoiler alert!) this book is really about Harold (the father), and the crime in his past from which he is seeking asylum.

The thing about the cities of refuge is that their protection can only ever be temporary, and the attack serves as a trigger for Kim to begin to unravel her father's past, while he struggles desperately to find her attacker, I guess to redeem himself? Or possibly protect himself? It's...complicated.

First of all, the story here is great. I love this underused and gritty way of looking at Toronto. I really loved the characters, particularly Kim, Harold, and Kim's mother Marian - they are all complicated, flawed and introspective people and we spend a lot of time inside their heads. The plot is clever and uses all those wonderful literary conventions to great effect. But.

Holy shit is it flowery. The language is like poetry - it's lovely, but page after page with just abstract interpretations and nearly incomprehensible philosophical tangents really wears you down. I would have adored this book if it was just the story, written well. And Helm is a good writer. I just feel like - if you want to write poetry, write poetry. This is a novel. Not a poem.

I don't have an issue with poetic writing - see my review of the amazing Consolation - but there's a line that needs to be drawn, and reading this book made me feel exhausted. I just wanted to put it down and scream "Just say what you mean!!". I know some people will enjoy the writing style and to them I highly recommend it. But I don't think I can read another book of his, which for me is the deciding factor: would I look for this author's work again?

Unfortunately, I would not. This is another one of those "good book, not my thing" situations, so I'm going to give it three CN Towers out of five.