Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Book Review #6: When Alice Lay Down With Peter by Margaret Sweatman

(An entertaining novel of magic realism from the Canadian prairies.)

This novel is an entirely original history of the Canadian prairies. From the early years of buffalo hunting and rebellion through to 1970, Blondie, the wry narrator, recounts the story of four feisty women: her mother, Alice; her stunningly beautiful daughter, Helen; her artist granddaughter, Dianna; and herself. In her 109 years, Blondie has seen it all, from the hanging of Louis Riel to the loss of Helen in the Spanish Civil War.

Assorted husbands, a banker, a monk, a communist and several ghosts also make an appearance, lending this marvelous literary confection set in the Red River valley of southern Manitoba a magical eccentric atmosphere. Recurring floods and lightning bolts at the moment of conception add to the rollicking mix.

Sweatman writes with rare skill and humor: “Eli looked at the corn as a Zen Buddhist would examine a screwdriver.” She delights in the way words flood their banks and find new channels through the flatlands: “My mother’s laughter, those nine months, came from the place where happiness and a nearly intolerable ache live together” and “the air was like the underside of a mushroom, milky pale lavender and musk”.

The beauty of the language never wavers. It is consistently inventive and, with the strong story, lifts this novel to another level. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Book Review #5: Village of the Small Houses by Ian Ferguson

(If you missed this one when it first came out, it's worth going back for. A wildly entertaining memoir of the far North.)

At times touching, at times humorous, this engaging memoir is set primarily in Fort Vermilion, a town of scattered native and white settlements in extreme northern Alberta. The author moved there with his family in 1959 after a rental scam his father was pulling in Edmonton was discovered. The North was a country of rough roads, endless winters (snow in July), ramshackle shacks and marvelously eccentric characters. These included the author’s likable scheming father (who became a teacher in the local school); his father’s best friend, Bud Peyen, a huge ferryman native; the author’s best friend, Lloyd Loonskin; and the unforgettable Sixtoes Mitchell, a trapper and the scariest-looking man in the world: “He looked as if his face had caught on fire and they’d put it out with an axe.”

Ferguson delivers a clear picture of what life was like for a young man growing up far from TV and flush toilets, surrounded by thousands of square miles of inhospitable bush country. Against this background, the people tend to stand out and the author’s recollections bring them fully to life. Highlights include the family’s escape from Edmonton in a 1953 green-and-white Mercury Zephyr; the time Lloyd Loonskin got himself lost in the woods and was found by Sixtoes; and a bear attack in which the author was saved by the family dog. This memoir comes with the smell of wood smoke, yet is able to avoid the sentimental and romantic notions of a life of poverty in the north.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Book Review #4: This Side Jordan by Margaret Laurence

(A somewhat forgotten classic by one of Canada's greatest writers.)

First published in 1960, This Side Jordan is the first novel by Margaret Laurence, best known for her modern classics, The Stone Angel and The Diviners. Set in 1950s West Africa, the novel throbs with a palpable sense of urgency. You can almost hear the highlife music playing in the background.

Employing a cast of vividly drawn characters, Laurence explores the difficult psychological and social borderline between blacks and whites at the end of the colonial era in the city of Accra and its environs.

The main protagonist, the spectacled Nathaniel Amegbe, is torn between two worlds: his deeply felt Ashanti past and his present occupation as a schoolteacher. As readers, we are privy to Amegbe’s attempts to think his way to a kind of salvation. Amegbe, in all his contradictions, embodies Africa as it tries to enter the modern world.

Laurence paints characters that are living presences. Johnie Kestoe, for example, a racist company man, “was thin in a sharp, almost metallic way, like a man made of netted wire upon which flesh has been inadequately spread.” The stories of Amegbe, Kestoe, their wives, families, business colleagues and friends, are the struggles of two distinct worlds trying to mesh.

The novel works brilliantly at numerous levels: the personal, the historic, the social. As an exploration of Ghana in that period, it is strikingly believable. It also sparkles with Laurence’s fine writing: “Oppressive and stifling, the air seemed to be hung with hot unshed rain, and the leaves of the palm trees crackled like breeze-fanned flames.”

This Side Jordan is an examination of greed, racism, pride, struggle and self-betrayal. In the end, however, it is a tale of the human condition and the saving grace of redemption.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Book Review #3: Charlie Johnson in the Flames by Michael Ignatieff

(Yes, Michael Ignatieff had a previous life as a novelist, an excellent one actually.)
This short, intense novel tells the story of Charlie Johnson, a war correspondent working in the Balkans during the recent war there. Charlie, hardened to the realities of war but not yet insensitive to the human beings experiencing daily trauma, is accompanied by his cameraman and best friend, Jacek, a melancholy, reliable Pole. The story focuses on a single event and its aftermath. While hiding in a contested village, Charlie sees a peasant woman set alight and tries to put her out with his bare hands. After his recovery, he grows obsessed with his memory of the woman, who was rescued by helicopter but eventually died. He returns to the Balkan danger zones to hunt down the high-ranked soldier who murdered her, not to kill him but to simply ask “Why?”

This is an extremely accomplished novel in which the author places the reader in burned out villages and tense, ugly towns with uncanny clarity. An old rundown hotel has “Third Reich corridors, curving, carpeted, high-ceilinged and dim”. The Balkans at war are a haunting and dangerous place so Charlie’s return is difficult to understand, even for him, but entirely believable. As Jacek says, “We suffer from too much experience”, and Charlie, whose life feels empty and undirected, hungers for answers. All the characters, including the locals, Charlie’s burdened wife, and Etta, his lover from the home office in London, leap off the page into reality. This is a highly filmic work, disturbing, engaged, utterly convincing.