Friday, July 18, 2014

Drive-By Saviours by Chris Benjamin

Like many of the novels set in Toronto that I've read for this blog, this is an immigrant's tale; it is also what some would call a "ripping good yarn". I think a lot of novels, particularly first novels, try so hard to be serious and impactful and struggle with grand ideas, that they lose the ability to be just a straight up good story. This book is a good story.

There are two protagonists in the book, whose stories we follow in alternating chapters. The first is Bumi, an Indonesian man from a small island called Rilaka, who is taken away to the mainland for school and must learn to suppress his intellectual curiousity in order to escape notice, and begins to develop a severe case of OCD. When his irrational guilt over a crime he didn't commit collides with his neighbours' suspicion of his strange obsessive habits, he has to escape to Canada to save his own life.

It is in Toronto that Bumi meets Mark, the second protagonist. Mark's chapters are told from a first person perspective, which helps lend a little sympathy; Mark is kind of a dick and he needs all the help he can get. He is a social worker, bored with the job and with his relationship and longing for his old ideals and desire to save the world.

When Mark and Bumi meet, a considerable way through the novel, Bumi starts to see a source of warmth in a culture that has been very cold to him; Mark sees a purpose, someone he can 'save'. Both men's expectations and how they diverge from the reality of what happens is what is compelling about the story; there are no easy answers here, no pat morality tale about globalization or a yes/no answer on being a white saviour.

The book delves into a Toronto hidden from many; the world of the undocumented immigrant. Bumi works 10-14 hour shifts at an Indonesian restaurant every day for a decade to pay off his debt to the human traffickers who brought him to Canada. Every cent goes to paying off his debt, and more is deducted for small crimes such as using too much water in his obsessive hand washing rituals. Bumi's struggle is portrayed in a straightforward way that contrasts well with Mark's privileged ennui. There is no maudlin sentimentality or white guilt implicit in the writing; it is what it is.

I thought this was a fantastically well written novel; I had a hard time believing it was the author's first, and I would definitely read his work again. The story gave me a lot to think about, and there were nice touches of sweetness among the horror; I didn't come out of it wanting to die, even though as a whole the story is pretty depressing. I would have liked to see more of Toronto, but I did enjoy the parts set in Indonesia and I thought there were some interesting insights into the culture during Suharto's reign.

I recommend this book. Four CN Towers out of five.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Courage My Love by Sarah Dearing

The premise of this book can be pretty well summed up by the Pulp song "Common People" - if you're not familiar, it's about a rich girl who wants to "live with the common people" and essentially escape her own dull life by living with poor folks and pretending to be one of them; but as the singer points out, she can never understand how it feels to be poor when she knows she can step out of that world at any time. I recommend listening to the song over reading this book.

The novel follows Philippa, an unhappy American housewife to an uptight Canadian...stockbroker? (something like that), recently transplanted from Cincinnati to a rented condo in Yorkville. A combination of factors semi-revealed throughout the story cause Philippa to realize she is unhappy with her life, and she rechristens herself "Nova" and runs away to Kensington Market. There she discovers poor people exist, meets a predictably wacky cast of lovable weirdos, and reinvents herself.

There were a couple things that bugged me about this novel. First, the main character had so little personality - both before and after her transformation - I had a hard time caring about what happened to her at all. Second, the whole "bored rich white housewife who feels unfulfilled" was a fairly insightful theme back in the 50s and 60s, but this novel is set in 1999. We got there, ladies. Props to rich white ladies for successfully shaking off their ennui. We really don't need to write about this anymore, because in this cultural context Philippa is not trapped. Not only could she leave Brendan (her husband) if she wanted, she could go home to her loving and supportive parents in Cincinnati, or she could get a job or volunteer or do something to occupy her time. Rich white ladies are no longer obligated to sit and crochet all day or whatever. The other thing she could do is talk it out with her husband. Sure, he seems kind of uptight, but he's not a total asshole, and not once does she even attempt to tell him how she is feeling.

On the other side of this, when she's in the market - oh, god. It all just seems so tacky and patronizing. It's some rugged white guy with one dreadlock who tells her all about the neighbourhood, shares some really trite wisdom about life etc. (surprise! Poor people know things!). It was really hard to get through the Nova chapters without cringing. It gets a little better once she does get cut off and has to get a job and eat shitty food because it's the only thing she can afford, but still, she's just playing a part. She could still call her parents and go home.

One good point about the book is it does capture in rich and accurate detail two very different downtown Toronto neighbourhoods: Kensington Market and Yorkville. It also deals with stuff like gentrification well, if at a basic 101 level. I also thought the writing had a nice flow, even if I didn't care about the characters.

I wanted to like this book more, but alas, I could not. Two CN Towers out of five.