Friday, April 24, 2015

Love Marriage by V. V. Ganeshananthan

I think there should be, if there is not already, a name for the genre of novel that is the history of a country told through the history of one family. I know I have read several books in this vein (My Darling Dead Ones and Barnacle Love come immediately to mind, but there are many others I have read for this blog alone). I think it is a delicate thing to do, to find the right balance between the history and the present, and the personal and the political.

Love Marriage does this very well. It is also an exploration of the vast spectrum of marriage between Arranged Marriage and Love Marriage in the narrator's home country of Sri Lanka (although she herself was born in America). The book starts with the premise that marriage and family come from each other, and that every family story must start with a marriage. On that premise alone it is quite an interesting look at the different reasons people get married, and what a huge range of reasons there are even within this one family.

The narrator is Yalani, a young woman who moves from America (I can't remember where, or perhaps it is never said) to Toronto, to be with her terminally ill uncle in the last months of his life. Her uncle was a Tamil Tiger, who had disappeared to join the movement when his sister, Yalani's mother, was still young. With him is his daughter, raised in the Tiger movement. Their presence forces Yalani's otherwise politically neutral family to take at least an outward appearance of sympathy for the cause.

Yalani starts to collect stories from her uncle, taking down the family history. This is of course, irrevocably interwoven with the history of the conflict in Sri Lanka between the Tamils and the government. While understanding of her uncle's position, Yalani (and the story) find in difficult to cope with the violence of Tamil resistance, and her cousin's hardness toward her and her adopted home.

This book is very beautiful, and written quite poetically. The theme of marriage was deftly interwoven throughout, and helps keep the story on track. I also really enjoyed the recurring theme of fire, although sometimes it was less than subtle.

Toronto, unfortunately, makes very little impression in the story, except (as always!) a city of immigrants. The family lives in an area of Scarborough that is essentially a second Jaffna, where it is difficult to escape the conflict and racial tensions of Sri Lanka. The novel briefly touches on the idea of the family coming to grips with being, essentially, brown people - their Tamil identities erased by white Canadians.

It is an emotionally taxing but truly beautiful novel, and I highly recommend it - and look forward to reading more from this author.

Four CN Towers out of five.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Turncoat by Don Gutteridge

This novel was rather erroneously included on my list of books set in Toronto; it is only the first chapter that takes place here. The rest of the story takes place in a very small community between Toronto and Cobourg. But, you know, I read the damn thing, so here's my review regardless.

The story follows Marc Edwards, a young soldier in what was then 'Upper Canada', in 1836. Marc is keen for action but things were pretty slow in Toronto back then. Fortunately, through family connections he is selected by the Lieutenant-Governor to solve the politically delicate death of an undercover government informant in a small community outside of Toronto.

The story is full of intrigue and smuggling, and illicit affairs and dodgy characters. Marc is not infused with a lot of personality, but there are some notable characters who flesh out the story a bit. The little town it's set in has lots of appropriately 1830s-ish folks with names like Erastus and Philander, who all have something to hide - some nefarious, most just sneaky. And there's sexy ladies who may have something to do with the murder but may not, you know how those sexy ladies can be.

All the ingredients were there for a story I would enjoy, even though historical fiction is not always my favourite. However, this book just never managed to grab my attention. The mystery wasn't mysterious enough - I didn't guess who did it, but I didn't care, either. The romantic subplot lacked chemistry, and was unceremoniously dropped at the end. And the constant name-checking of different factions of the political conflict, with no attempt to explain what they were and how they related to each other, was very confusing and alienating.

I think if you are a big Canadian history buff you might get a kick out of this novel, but even then the writing doesn't really hold up. I will read any genre if the writing is good enough. If you write a mystery that can't hold my interest, you need to write better. I wanted very much to like this book but I was glad when I finished it.

I think the writer has good ideas, a good premise and a feel for comedic timing. However, I think there is a trick to writing that elicits feeling from the reader, and this writer has not yet mastered it.

Two CN Towers out of five.