The Dinner by Herman Koch

dinnerWell.

Where do I even start? I guess a synopsis of some kind is a good idea.

The Dinner takes place in one evening. Through the course of one meal (um… the dinner). All we know when it begins is that two couples are meeting for dinner at a fashionable restaurant. It’s a last-minute reservation, but one of them has the clout needed to get a table, and the others resent him for it. That in itself was an intriguing set up.

Conversation is banal and awkward, but generally polite. Meanwhile the reader is aware there are things unsaid. Big things. Things that must be discussed before the meal ends. I have to say, Koch has done an incredible job here at building and maintaining the tension. I was so stressed while reading I booked a massage before I finished. My upper back and neck are holding all the tension of those 304 pages.

Each of the couples has a fifteen-year-old son. The sons have done something terrible. No one at the table seems to know how much the other three actually know about it. Each is desperately trying to protect their family. Each seemingly trying to pretend this is not that big a deal.

The Dinner looks not only at the actions of the boys and where these may have come from, but at how parenting styles, family relationships, genetics and mental illness may have each played a role. As the evening progresses we see through flashbacks how the families have reached the situation they are now facing. Prepare to be shocked – horrified even – and touched by the words and actions of all characters. You will judge the parents and the children, and at some stage, place the blame in each of the characters’ hands.

Incredibly written, hard to read yet impossible to put down. First really good, thought-provoking novel I have read in a while.

Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Hogarth (Feb 12 2013)
ISBN-10: 0770437850
ISBN-13: 978-0770437855

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The Sweet Girl by Annabel Lyon

Daughter to Aristotle, Pythias is intelligent, curious and stubbornly independent  also rather unfortunately, she is a girl – a condition which blocks her from the schools, books and debates she craves. Her privileged societal status means that her quirky and at times shocking interests (dissections! bird skeletons! swimming!) are tolerated by her family and those that surround them, though barely.

When the death of Alexander the Great results in her family’s exile, Pythias must help guide her ageing father in keeping them safe, fed and sheltered. There are many offering help: male and female, rich and poor, even the gods and goddesses. Pythias quickly discovers that her wit, beauty and female charms are both an asset to be wielded and a huge risk for all involved.

Always a fan of historical fiction, I greatly enjoyed reading The Sweet Girl. Yet I am somewhat embarrassed to admit I don’t really know if I properly understood what was happening at all times, what Lyon’s intent or message was. The writing style was … for lack of a better descriptor: dense. There were snippets of magical realism, yet as it wasn’t carried through the whole narrative it was a struggle to realize where the fantasy began and ended. I wasn’t 3/4 though the novel when I had already decided I was going to reread this in the next year or two, to fully grasp the meaning.

That may sound like a criticism (technically, yes it is) but I will say I look forward to rereading it. Pythias was a fascinating character. I have read very little from this period and there was much to absorb and learn of the culture and norms of the day.

Well worth a read, but be sure to allow yourself the time to take it all in.

Long-listed for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Random House Canada (Sep 18 2012)
ISBN-10: 0307359441
ISBN-13: 978-0307359445

Kin by Leseley Crewe

When David and Annie first meet their new neighbour Lila they are children; it is 1935 in Cape Breton and they are among the only families in their home of Glace Bay not feeling the extreme crunch of the Depression. Too young to understand the disadvantages of her background they only know that she is different, and that they are drawn to her, and they immediately adopt the orphaned Lila as their ‘kin’ and begin a complex weave of relationships that Crewe follows from childhood to old age, in Round Island in 2011.

I am a Cape Bretoner, and a history buff. My grandparents and their siblings grew up on the island (granted – the other side of the island) in the same time period. Their day-to-day lives could have been very similar. I was very excited to see this book show up in my mailbox, and could not wait to read it.

I have never read Lesley Crewe before. I actually have one of her other novels, but it is in my ever-growing ‘to-be-read’ pile. So I had no idea what to expect. Still, if you’ll forgive the contradiction, this was not what I expected. I somehow thought it would be lighter, more of a feel-good, down-home romance-y story. The cover was pretty. The title suggests happy family connections. All of that was there, but there was more. Far from dark, Kin was still not a light easy read. Its characters were complex, the action unexpected.

Kin follows three generations of families through more than seven decades in and around industrial Cape Breton, and as far away as Halifax and Montreal. The cast of characters is long, but it is the first three – Annie, David and Lila that the plot centres around. I loved Annie through and through, as I expect I was supposed to. Even her frustrating choices were completely understandable. And I fell in love with Henry right along with her. Actually, much quicker than she did.  I won’t ruin the story for you, but I do want to say I was disappointed with how her story ended. (It seemed abrupt, and didn’t fit the rest of the story well. Perhaps that’s just me? I’d love to hear what other readers think.)

David and Lila were harder to deal with. I struggled to understand their relationship mostly because it was so believable; it’s the hopeless childhood love story we have all seen time and again in various forms: full of passion and chemistry but little substance, and if not given the chance to mature, doomed for failure. Numerous times I wanted to throw the book across the room as they made their heartbreaking decisions.

Kin did a fabulous job of capturing the ties of family and friendship in a small community, while also portraying how these ties can be limiting and destructive. It was engaging and at times humourous. If there is a criticism, I think it could have ended quicker – not earlier in time, but just with less detail. Near the end it felt like Crewe was desperate to wrap up all the little details, but I like to have at least a few open to my imagination. (I feel like I say this a lot. If I ever do get around to writing a book, someone kindly remind me of this and make sure I wrap it up efficiently.) Still, I greatly enjoyed the story and will be moving her other novels up in my ‘to-be-read’ list.

Paperback: 416 pages
Publisher: Nimbus Publishing (Sep 4 2012)
ISBN-10: 1551099225
ISBN-13: 978-1551099224

The Emperor of Paris by CS Richardson

Is it fate or circumstance that brings two lovers together? Romantics would argue the first, the more pragmatic like me, the second. The Emperor of Paris makes the pragmatic romantic, weaving magic into the story of the decades-long sequence of events which brings two unlikely characters together. This novel is much more than just a love story. It is a love letter – to Paris, to books and to circumstance.

Perhaps the most beautiful line I’ve read in years was the simple sentence which ended the novel. “Tell me how we came to this,” Isabeau says to Octavio. And suddenly you want to start all over again at page one, to rediscover how the disfigured daughter of an esteemed Paris fashion designer comes to fall in love with the illiterate book-loving baker.

Told in two times, the story alternates between the present, as Octavio rushes home to his burning bakery, and the past, filled with charming and melancholy characters whose actions contribute to bringing the lovers together.

The Emperor of Paris is a novel to be savoured. Read it slowly. Appreciate the words, the personalities and the images created. This is wonderful writing.

I feel like I ought to say more, but it doesn’t feel right to say too much. The book is quiet and unassuming. It is beautiful. You need to read it for yourself.

 Long-listed for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Hardcover: 288 pages

Publisher: Doubleday Canada (Aug 14 2012)

ISBN-10: 0385670907

ISBN-13: 978-0385670906

 

*** On a side note – I’m back! My apologies for taking a month to update my supposedly weekly blog. All I can say is life got a little crazy for a time, and something had to give. As this blog is neither family nor work, it was temporarily de-prioritized. All is well, just had a lot of things to sort out, including an upcoming move. I will do my best to make up for the missed weeks with some double postings over the next while. ***

Why Men Lie by Linden MacIntyre

Effie Gillis has lived with three men, plus her father and brother, has been lied to and hurt by them all, and has finally reached a point in her life where she feels autonomous and strong enough that no man will surprise her again. When she runs in to JC Campbell, a friend from more than 20 years ago, she sees in him what she has been looking for her whole life: an independent, stable man she can trust.

Of course, if this were true, it wouldn’t make a very interesting novel, now would it? I don’t like to write spoilers into my reviews so all I will say is: it is mostly true. But like the rest of them, JC lies. But then again, so does Effie.

Why Men Lie is the third novel from Linden MacIntyre, the follow-up to his Giller Award winning The Bishop’s Man,  and as the third in what’s become known as his Cape Breton trilogy, some of the characters are carried over. Effie is the sister of Father Duncan MacAskill, the ‘bishop’s man’ of the previous book. Having dealt with most of his demons, he plays a smaller role here, offering advice and stability to the many troubled characters.

I read this novel quickly – it was only released two days ago – and with its complexity, I am sure I won’t fully comprehend all it is saying it until I have had more time to think on it, discuss it with friends and reread it. My first impressions though are pretty much all favourable.

Effie’s struggle to differentiate between memories, nightmares and suggestions both touched and terrified me. I know that confusion, that fear – thankfully not in as an extreme situation as hers. The relationships and cross-connections between all the main characters were the right mixture of confusing, amusing and realistic (if you are from a small community). The ex-husbands who are first cousins is classic.

I both love and hate that we are never told for sure what really happened all those years ago between Effie and her Dad, why Sandy really shot himself. In the end, the “why” men lie is not important. They do. So do women. Get on with it and live life. That said, Effie’s “stalker” [minor spoiler] was not convincing or very well wrapped up, and I was left confused as to what the point of the character or plat-line was to the overall story.

There is a familiarity in MacIntyre’s writing that makes his novels feel like they are about people I know, like I am some minor character who could easily appear in the next chapter. The fact that I am from a small community not far away from all the action on the Long Stretch is part of it, but I have read a lot of Cape Breton authors and only a few of them can recreate ‘home’ so well.

Well worth the read, wherever you may be from.

Hardcover: 384 pages
Publisher: Random House Canada (Mar 27 2012)
ISBN-10: 0307360865
ISBN-13: 978-0307360861

Disclosure: I received a review copy of this novel from Random House Canada. As per my review policy, this in no way obliges me to write a positive review. I sincerely enjoyed the book.

The Free World by David Bezmozgis

It’s 1978. The Krasnanskys, Soviet-Jewish refugees from Latvia, are stuck in Rome. Samuil, the patriarch, is suffering from arthritis and the effects of war wounds and tuberculosis. He has been denied entry to Canada, and the family is in limbo. As they wait for a reprieve (or worse) they must adjust their expectations and adapt to life as refugees in Italy.

At the heart of the novel is a clash of cultures. When I picked the book up, I expected this to be a clash between Soviet and Italian lifestyles, but instead the real conflict was between the Soviet-Jewish family members – some (well, one) loyal to the Communist Party, others staunchly Zionist, and the rest rejecting either form of orthodoxy and really just wanting to get to Canada.

Alternating between three narrators and multiple locations and periods in history, David Bezmozgis’ The Free World is an intriguing look at one family’s history, and the effect of world history on their path.  While I enjoyed the changing narrators and looking back at each of their lives, flashback upon flashback (and sometimes, a flashback within a flashback) made for confusing reading. Slow yourself down. Flip back a few pages to make sure you know who is speaking and what year it is. Know your Soviet history (or keep Wikipedia handy if you don’t.) The story is fantastic, and worth the extra effort.

Note: I received a review copy of this novel from HarperCollins last fall, when I was struggling to read all Giller short-listed books before the award ceremony. I did not reach that goal, and then put the book aside to finish my 2011 TBR list. I was pleased to finally get back to it in January.

Hardcover, 384 pages

HarperCollins Canada; $32.99

ISBN: 9781443403993

 ISBN10: 1443403997

2011 Governor General’s Literary Awards Finalist – Fiction. Shortlisted for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Big Town by Stephens Gerard Malone

It has always surprised me that there aren’t more stories written about Africville, and I was thrilled when an invitation to the launch of Stephens Gerard Malone’s new novel, Big Town: A Novel of Africville appeared in my inbox. (Even more so as it was my first “official” invite to a book launch.)

Despite the title, I would describe Big Town as a story of friendship more than a story of Africville. The central friendship between the dim-witted Early Okander, sick and troubled Toby and tomboy Chub unfolds with the community and its destruction as a backdrop.

Narrated by Early, seventeen but with the mental age of seven or eight, Big Town is a story of three kids who just want to be kids, while the in the background, sex, drugs, politics and racism are threatening their world. It is worth noting that both Early and Chub live outside of Africville and are white, but spend much of their time in the community visiting Toby.

Telling the story through the eyes of children too young to fully comprehend what is happening to their community and why adds a unique perspective – though I am curious if it provides enough of the required information for someone who doesn’t know the history so well to follow along. It might, I haven’t asked anyone yet.

Big Town is a heart-warming story of friendship triumphing over adversity – one that might have benefited from a little less adversity (with a few exceptions, all the white people are bad, all the black people are good and the three kids suffer illness, abuse, rape, loneliness, self-mutilation and pretty much every imaginable heartbreak).

A great read, and an excellent gift idea for fans of local and/or historical fiction who will definitely want to add it to their collections.

 

Paperback: 224 pages

Publisher: Nimbus Publishing (Sep 15 2011)

ISBN-10: 1551098547

ISBN-13: 978-1551098548

Note: I know, I know. I am way behind. I still have two more reviews of Giller nominated books to post. I’ve been travelling lots for work lately which I naively believed would give me more time to write. I’ll double up on review per week for the next while to get ’em all in.