Friday, November 22, 2013

Ten Good Seconds of Silence by Elizabeth Ruth

This book hits a lot more notes than I expected it to - missing children, psych ward, eating disorder, lesbianism, rape, etc. etc. It could have been called LADY CONCERNS. Still, it's not too heavy-handed or emotionally manipulative, for which I am grateful.

The story deals with Lilith, a professional clairvoyant who works with the Toronto PD to find missing children. It stretches one's credibility to believe that the police force would pay - and provide an office for - someone whose work strategy involves writing a "contract" with a missing child, in crayon, and then sitting in a greenhouse and staring off  into space, but I guess if they were getting results, who knows? Lilith has a teenaged daughter named Lemon (yes, really) who is struggling with belonging, as teenage girls are wont to do. Lemon wants to know who her father is. Lilith doesn't want to talk about it. There is no father, as far as she is concerned.

The present day story is little more than a framing device for Lilith's recollections of her earlier life, in the months leading up to her pregnancy, which she spent in a psychiatric ward. There she spends her time with Randy, a loose cannon who killed her abusive husband, and Mrs. Moffat, who attempted suicide after the birth of her son. In this way the story dips into issues like post-partum depression and domestic violence but rarely deals with them head on, preventing the heavy-handedness I was sort of dreading.

Toronto is not prominent in the book except for the greenhouse in Allan Gardens, which is described multiple times in great detail. It makes sense that Toronto is not such a stand out setting as I believe the book is at least partly about disappearing, and how easy it is to do so in faceless, anonymous cities.

This novel is certainly well written, and the story is interesting and different in a lot of ways. Parts of it (including the conclusion) were a bit to airy-fairy for me though - perhaps I am too cynical for the psychic mumbo jumbo and certainly I AM too cynical for a "and then everything was all better" ending. I wouldn't universally recommend this book although I can think of one or two people I know who would enjoy it. A good book, but not a great one - not one that will stay with me.

Three CN Towers out of five.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

This is one of the few books I'd heard of before I started this blog, although I didn't know what it was about. However, it's won a lot of awards and garnered much critical acclaim, so I had expectations going in.

It's a lovely novel, it really is. People complain about poets making the transition to novels, and the language in this book is pure poetry, but I didn't find it distracting or overdone; the story was easily discernable and the tangents were, for the most part, interesting, and certainly lovely to read. Michaels is a true artist with words.

The story is from the point of view of Jakob, a boy who escapes Poland during the Holocaust with the help of a Greek man named Athos. It follows the pair to occupied Greece, and finally to freedom (in a sense) in Toronto. The book isn't really about the story as much as it is about its themes, and ideas. There is a lot about love, and death, and how survivors of great trauma find ways to move in the world and live on. It is one of the more effective uses of the Holocaust as a springboard for these themes that I've seen; the atrocities committed by the Nazis are explicitly detailed, in stark contrast to descriptions of beautiful Greek villages or enduring love.

The last third of the novel switches protagonists; it is fro the point of view of a man named Ben, a child of Holocaust suvivors, who is addressing his narrative to Jakob after the death of the latter. This section I could have done without, honestly; it is surprising to me that a female writer would create such indulgent male fantasy. I didn't like Ben and I wasn't done with Jakob's story; it was like another book intruded on the one I was reading.

Toronto doesn't play a huge part in the novel, although a couple neighbourhoods are name-checked. The value of the narrative is definitely its universal human themes, with plot and characters a secondary consideration.

This is a lovely book, worth reading. However, it might be because I'm a bit exhausted with Holocaust novels, but I don't think it will stay with me as much as it should.

Three CN Towers out of five.