Friday, December 21, 2012

More by Austin Clarke

This is a dark one. Not totally depressing, of course - there are hopeful and even light moments - but it's not a novel that's going to make you feel great about the world. But I'll tell you what it is: amazing.

More is the story of a woman named Idora who basically shuts herself in her apartment for four days and struggles with the reality of her son's choices, which are leading him on a path to jail and/or an early death. The whole novel is just what is going on in her head during this time.

This is the kind of concept that takes a lot of confidence to pull off. It reminded me a bit of Castaway, which could have been a terrible (or terribly boring) movie were it not for the skills of the people involved, but mostly the strength of the acting - the audience really needed to care about the guy on the island. More is like that - you really have to care about Idora. And I did, desperately, because Austin Clarke is a masterful writer; I would not hesitate to use the term "literary genius". This guy is fucking good, you guys.

Idora lives in a rough neighbourhood called Moss Park, which is a real place but not one that I have any familiarity with beyond a vague sense of where it is located. She is from Barbados, but has lived in Toronto for many years, having moved with her husband who then deserted her to find work in America. Her teenaged son, BJ, is getting involved with a rough crowd, but this thread is not as simplistic as all that. The book skirts around the edge of what BJ is actually involved in, but clearly a lot of it consists of his struggle with his identity as a black son of a single mother in a country/world that doesn't give a shit about black people. He is developing a personal and cultural identity that mirrors Idora's as he wrestles with the myriad difficulties of being a black man in this world.

Idora has a job at the university and a best friend who is white, and constantly juggles the two different worlds she inhabits. I want to talk about all of it - her resentment of her friend's experience of Kensington Market as a white woman; her aching for BJ to belong; her sharp-edged pride at being a citizen of a country that hates her; the complex intersection of race, religion, gender and sexuality behind every line - but you really should experience it for yourself.

Seriously, I can't write any more about it - just do yourself a favour and read this book.

Five CN Towers out of five.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The City Man by Howard Akler

This is a book with a very distinct style, but unlike some other stories with a similar cadence, it is immensely readable. Set in 1934, The City Man is the story of a pickpocket named Mona who becomes an anonymous source on a series of Star articles about the pickpocketing racket (or "the whiz") in Toronto. She becomes romantically entangled with the reporter, Eli Morenz, which leads to lots of trouble for both of them.

At around 150 sparsely populated pages, this is a super quick and easy read, but somehow Akler manages to stuff it full of evocative description and emotional depth. It's not even worth trying to understand the slang, which whizzes by at a mile a minute. I picked up on the meaning of what they were saying most of the time. I love the jazzy underworld talk from that time - I am personally trying to bring "what's the rumpus?" back into play.

I liked how the novel was littered with Eli's newspaper articles, which are short and somewhat quaint. The action is set into motion by the city's centenary celebrations, where the police band and bystanders are hit by the pickpockets in force, leading to the formation of a special "whiz squad" on the police force to catch the "Centenary Mob". The descriptions of Toronto are sparse but excellent; lots of recognizable streets and landmarks are sprinkled through the text.

It was especially cool to read about the role of female pickpockets - Mona does not do the actual picking of the pocket, but she has a more difficult job: framing the mark. She basically uses her body to very gently, very subtly move the mark into position and cause a slight distraction by her touch so that her partner can grab the cash more easily. Pretty sneaky.

This is the sort of book that takes a "less is more" approach to feelings, but it works. Morenz's editor tells him a heartbreaking story about his first scoop, and you never read Morenz's reaction, and the story is never brought up again, but you can imagine how it affected Morenz and you certainly feel it affecting you. There are so many little snippets of things that the characters are never shown struggling with, but it opens up those ideas for you to reflect on after closing the book. It is very effective writing.

I really enjoyed this book - it's a quick read but a deep one, and it will stay with you.

Four CN Towers out of five.