Friday, May 24, 2013

My Darling Dead Ones by Erika de Vasconcelos

It is refreshing sometimes to read stories that are explicitly about women. This novel has no men - well, barely any men - and the ones that are there play miniscule roles in the drama that unfolds. The story follows four generations of Portugese women as they move through life and tell each other their stories. It is, as you can imagine, beautifully written, with shades of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

There is a family tree at the start of the novel, which is helpful but not totally necessary, as the narrative is clear on who is related to whom, and how. It's hard to describe what exactly happens in the book, as it is mostly a non-linear exploration, complete with secrets and revelations, of the lives of women - and these four women in particular (that is, Helena and her sister Magdalena, Helena's daughter Leninha, and her daughter Fiona) along with Fiona's sister Laura, and daughters Bea and Zoe.

I think you'll know if you like this kind of thing by reading the back, honestly. It's about women and their lives, stories, love and loss, the lives of immigrants. Obviously I eat this stuff up - and I liked that it wasn't overly sentimental - but it's not for everyone.

In terms of Toronto, it doesn't really play much of a part. There are no landmarks mentioned and it doesn't try to capture the flavour of the city at all. It is more of an internal story, in that most of it takes part in the feelings of the women involved and not so much the world around them.

All told, it is a gorgeous story by a gifted writer, and it will appeal to exactly the readers it intends to.

Four CN Towers out of five.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Norman Bray in the Performance of His Life by Trevor Cole

This book will probably make you squirm, if you're the type of person who squirms watching awkward shows like Extras or Frasier. The protagonist (hero is definitely not the right word) of the novel, Norman Bray, is the type of person one would never want to know in real life, but because the novel is about him you're sort of forced to sympathize with him. It's like the more empathetic you are, the more you are going to try to like him, but the more you're also going to be perplexed by his lack of empathy.

The story takes place about three years after the death of Norman's common-law partner, Gillian. Norman is an out of work actor who doesn't really do much with his life but doesn't seem to think he should have to do anything. The bank is foreclosing on the house he inherited from Gillian, and all of a sudden he must find a way to not only pay what is owed on the house, but find a way to support himself financially. The real world does not appeal to Norman, who is constantly reliving past triumphs and reinventing the past in general.

How do I describe this character? Self-involved seems like an understatement. Norman never listens to other people; he barely takes the time to learn people's names. He is constantly inventing the world to make himself look amazing, but he's not really a liar - he seems to truly believe the things he says (the narration is third person but spends a lot of time in Norman's head). He is in extreme denial almost constantly. I think probably if he were real, it would turn out he had some sort of psychological disorder, but I have no idea what that would be. At first I thought he was perhaps supposed to be a sociopath, but I think he would have empathy for other people if he listened to them or was aware of anything beyond himself.

The mystery of the character of Norman, and the outrageous things he believes and does, are what drives the story and keeps it in a strange tension of comedy and tragedy. The other intriguing character in the book is Amy, Gillian's daughter, who reads Gillian's journals and begins to raise questions about her death, and about Norman himself. I love her character, because she is genuine and flawed and pretty much the opposite of Norman, in that she doesn't think enough of herself and is constantly preoccupied with the needs of others.

I read this book in two days. It was fascinating. There is certainly a lot of Toronto in the background - street names and landmarks - but in an unessential sense; it could have been set anywhere. The main setting, really, is the inside of Norman's head, with all its strange and deceptive twists and turns. The book is just perfectly written, hilarious and heart-breaking all at once. I would read this author's work again without question.

I highly recommend this one, you guys.

Five CN Towers out of five