Friday, October 26, 2012

Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden

Now this one is cheating a bit, because it's not actually set in Toronto. There are a couple chapters that happen in the city, to be sure, but if you're looking for novels that capture the essence of Toronto, keep walking. This is not that book. So why review it here? Well, I read it thinking it was going to be set in Toronto (I found it on a list of books that are), so why waste the opportunity to recommend a good book?

And it was good. Truly lovely. There are two stories being told, each with a first person narration. The first is the story of Will, a Cree bush pilot from Moose Factory who spends the story in a coma in a hospital bed. His story is about how he got to that point. The second is Annie, Will's niece, who visits him every day, sitting by his bedside and telling him her story, how she got to where she is. The stories intertwine repeatedly - if not always in the events they describe, then certainly in theme - and revolve around Suzanne, Annie's younger sister who has disappeared "down south" with a troubled boy. The chapters alternate between the two narratives.

Will's story deals mainly with loss. Through his alcoholism and indiscretions Will has lost a lot of things, and a lot of people. He develops a strange friendship with an aging bear. He struggles with the aftermath of Suzanne's disappearance, the implication of biker involvement, and Marius Netmaker - Suzanne's boyfriend's brother - and his accusations that Will is a police informant.

Annie's story follows her to Toronto, where she searches for Suzanne and meets Gordon, a mute man and her protector. I liked that she meets him at Queen and Bathurst - anyone familiar with that corner will find this scene plays out clearly. Annie's search takes her to Montreal, and then New York, and a brief career as a catalogue model, before she returns home with Gordon to Moose Factory.

I can't even explain how evocative the writing is. The sounds of the geese, the snowmobiles, the crackling fire - you will hear them as you read. The vast, empty expanses of land and water fill this book. I've never been up north but I can imagine clearly the James Bay, hunting on Akimiski Island, shopping at the Northern Store. It is beautiful writing that pulls you utterly into that world.

There are a lot of strong themes in the novel: isolation, loyalty, what it means to make your way through the world as a good person. What I took from the book was the message that people are the same all over. Annie tells a story of her grandfather showing her the stars, and saying "They are the same stars you see anywhere you go in the world[...]My own auntie told me that, but I didn't lean it until I travelled far away." I believe some people - like Annie - know that people are the same all over, but they just have to go see it for themselves.

All in all this was a beautiful story. I highly recommend it - even though it's not set in Toronto.

Four CN Towers out of five

Friday, October 12, 2012

Up Up Up by Julie Booker

You will probably not see a lot of reviews for short stories on this blog, because I have not (yet) found many collections of short stories whose central theme (or at least link) is Toronto. Even this collection is not totally set in Toronto, but most of the protagonists seem to have some connection to the city.

This is not an uplifting group of stories - at least I didn't find it so - but it is not actively depressing, like Katherine Govier's Brunswick Avenue collection. I would say the central theme of Up Up Up seems to be disappointment. The opening story is about two fat women - friends or lovers I am not sure - who travel to Alaska for a camping/kayaking trip. The main character is underwhelmed, and scared, of the glaciers, wanting to steer clear of the falling pieces while her friend/partner longs to get closer and is delighted to see them fall away. Many of the stories deal with women's feelings of inadequacy, sometimes directly expressed through disordered eating/body image issues, and often through unhealthy or questionable friendships.

Each story seems as though it could be a chapter in a much bigger tale. Quite a few of them made me wish it was a book I was reading, and not a story, so that I wouldn't have to leave that character or that situation so soon. I hope Booker will make the leap into full length novels, because I believe she could do it.

I'm not sure if it is a good thing or not that I was so frustrated by these stories. I liked the themes and I found her characters compelling and realistic; this is a writer who knows people. But at the end of each story I just felt like...why not a book? Why do we have only this small window into this character's life?

I think I can recommend this collection though. The stories are great, the themes are not too subtle but do demand some reflection, and there is some humour and hopefulness to the stories sometimes. It was a quick read and I would definitely read this author again; I do hope she writes a novel because I would be all over it.

Three CN Towers out of five.