Friday, February 15, 2013

Adultery by Richard B. Wright

I have to be honest - when I picked up this book, I thought it might finally be the one to get a really shitty review. I have liked a large majority of the books I've read for this blog, which works out well for me, but it makes me worry that I don't come across as a very discerning reader. So when I saw the front cover of this one - with its lurid title in big block letters across a picture of a woman in the back seat of a car, head thrown back in ecstasy - I thought, yeah, this is the trash I'm looking for.

But it didn't turn out that way, because to my utter surprise, this is a smart, well-written and...almost lovely novel. It purports to be about adultery but I think it is more general in its themes, honestly. I think it is about death, and family, and in particular about, in the words of the book itself:

"[...T]he sheer cussedness of life: its enslavement to appetite and old bad habits, its helpless reliance on chance, its thousand natural shocks that threaten to undo us."
Sounds depressing, right? Admittedly it's not a happy story. Our protagonist, Dan Fielding, is on business in London and slips down to Devon for the weekend with a much younger co-worker, Denise, with whom he is engaged in a two-day-old affair. She is abducted, raped and killed (in the first chapter, no spoiler alert needed) and the rest of the story follows Dan home to Toronto as he deals with the aftermath of his choices and of the random twist of fate that revealed them. It's an odd situation: his family is guarded in their anger over the affair because of the death and media circus; the grieving family and friends of the victim don't know how to handle this older man who brought her (accidentally) to her death. It's weird. Although it isn't first person, most of the narration happens inside Dan's head as he processes what others must be thinking about him. There isn't a lot of discussion of how he feels about himself, which I think is a deliberate choice.

I liked it. The writing is very good, the story was interesting and I liked that it dealt with a part of death that doesn't get a lot of play in fiction - the surreal period immediately afterwards, and the awkward dilemma of how to conduct oneself when one didn't have a straightforward relationship with the deceased. Dan leaves the funeral knowing far more about Denise than he did before, and the overwhelming loss of what her life could have been is bigger for him than the loss of her. The novel explores a lot of stuff like that without explicitly naming it; there is a lot to be drawn from it that depends on one's own experiences.

My one objection is that I found Dan almost too sympathetic; the narrative sometimes seems to forget the thoughtless and humiliating ordeal he put his wife and daughter through by having an affair. I didn't buy any of his justifications and had a hard time understanding his motivation for sleeping with Denise in the first place.

There's not a lot of Toronto-centric stuff going on, so I can't recommend it on a get-to-know-Toronto basis, but as a novel it's solid and an interesting read. Quick, but not light.

Four CN Towers out of five.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Code White by Debra Anderson

When I was about seventeen, a lot of my friends were in the psych ward. I'm not sure if that is a reflection on me - did I drive people crazy? More likely I attracted a certain kind of friend; sensitive, creative, extremely smart types who didn't fit neatly into boxes in one way or another. Anyway, I can think of at least four friends of mine who spent time in the psych ward while I was in high school, and we used to go and visit them. Let me tell you something: it's not a super fun place.

I remember at first being a bit jealous because there was a pool table and a popsicle vending machine. But after spending some time there you could tell that it would be better to not be there at all. So it was with some familiarity that I read 'Code White', which takes place almost entirely on the psych ward of a hospital.

The story is told from Alex's point of view. She wakes up in the hospital with no memory of how she came to be there, and then proceeds to journal her days, weeks, and months on the ward. Alex has bipolar disorder, but most of the narration happens when she is depressed, with only vague references made to her manic periods. I found this to be an interesting choice on the author's part, and it imbued Alex's story with a vaguely unreliable slant.

Alex is gay, and the book is almost as much about lesbian culture as it is about life on the psych ward - and they are, in a way, mirrored in each other: the close-up lives, the everyone-knows-everything-about-you feelings, the performances of gender/sanity. It's very cleverly written and realistic. The writer (whose first novel this is, although she has written plays) is clearly extremely gifted and writes honestly.

Here's the thing though: nothing happens. It's kind of what you would expect from journalling the daily life of a hospital ward: not much goes on, just the same shit every day. I think the book is as interesting as it could be given the premise - after all, the characters are well-drawn, and the pacing is not bad - but it's so limited by the lack of action. Based on my experiences just visiting folks in this situation, it's certainly realistic, but that isn't always a good thing.

I didn't find this to be a great Toronto book, as not much Toronto scenery is included, for obvious reasons. But I am interested in Anderson as an emerging Toronto novelist, and while I wouldn't recommend this book, I am excited to read other stuff by her.

Two CN Towers out of five.