One Book To Rule Them All

Later this month, The Boat People will go head-to-head with Trudy Morgan Cole’s Most Anything You Please, Lisa Moore’s Something For Everyone, and Jamie Fitzpatrick’s The End of Music in NL Reads, an annual literary competition hosted by the NL Public Library. You can vote for your favourite book (hint: mine, please!) online here. On February 28, everyone is welcome to attend the debates where each book will be defended by a champion reader (details here).

My champion is super hero and local celeb Hasan Hai. He founded the hugely popular Merb’y Calendar, can be seen around town at Christmas as the hilarious Dark Elf on the Shelf, and is a phenomenal fundraiser. On a more personal note though I have really admired his commitment to goodness and community building from afar for the past couple of years. It’s going to be a tough thing not to fan girl hard when we finally meet next week. Dr. Math believes we don’t need to crunch any numbers for this competition and that I’m definitely going to win because merb’ys are magic. :)

It’s always an honour to be up for any prize but this one’s extra special because of my fellow finalists. The four of us got together last Saturday night in Trudy’s basement studio to talk books and craft. You can listen to our 1 hour convo here on Soundcloud or find the podcast Shelf Esteem: episode 22 on iTunes or your favourite podcatcher (1 hour).

So Much Love

Earlier this year, during a visit to M&S, my editor Anita told me about one of her other authors, Rebecca Rosenblum. She's a bit like you, Anita said. She knows everything about her characters, even the minor ones, and they like to show up in multiple stories.

A writer after my own readerly heart, I thought. Rebecca's debut novel was about to come out and Anita gave me a copy. Last week, I cracked it open. So Much Love is incredible, utterly devastating. Quiet, meditative, and simultaneously a compulsive read. In the last fifty pages, I couldn't put it down. Even when it was time to call my husband who I hadn't seen in a week, still I couldn't set the book aside.

At its heart is an abduction - a young woman is snatched from a parking lot after dark. For months no one knows where Catherine Reindeer has gone or if she's alive. Then the mystery is solved and everyone in her life must cope with the consequences.

Catherine lives in a small town and her disappearance affects everyone in it - her husband, her mother, co-workers, an English professor, a highschool girl she never met. Their stories are relayed in first person and third, giving us glimpses into these other lives while sketching a picture of the missing woman. The kidnapper has his say in second person, a point of view cannily chosen to make the reader complicit. In a lesser author's hands the device might have been coy but Rosenblum pulls it off with a dexterity that would make Nabokov proud.

Woven through Catherine's narrative is the story of her favourite poet, Juliana Ohlin, who died twenty years earlier, murdered, everyone believes by her boyfriend. The menace of men - strangers, intimates - looms large over the book but it is never suffocating. Because there are other themes here too: resilience, bravery, hope. The question of who a person becomes when pushed to the brink, how far you would go to survive, the value of rage when there is no one to rage at.

There's nothing lurid here, no cringeworthy gore. Instead, the prose is precise and emotion is at the fore. Every word, every nuanced thought, feels familiar and correct. 

Neither novel nor story collection, So Much Love evades neat categorization -  and is stronger for that defiance. Rosenblum wields the subtle pen of the short story writer, revealing through her interconnected stories just the tip of the iceberg. Always there is sense that there's more to tell about these characters, other details and anecdotes that didn't make the cut. As a reader I want to rummage through her recycling bin. As a writer I envy her restraint.

Antidote

A few months ago, during a sunny spring weekend that coincided with my 12th wedding anniversary, I read Alain de Botton's The Course of Love. I'd been hearing about the book for a while (and about de Botton for even longer) so I came to it with curiosity and an open mind. In hindsight, this is perhaps the best way to approach The Course of Love. It's a quirky kind of book, part novel, part how-to manual, a hybrid experiment in something I might call didactic fiction. Except didactic fiction sounds plodding and high-handed and The Course of Love is neither.

The book follows Rabih and Kirsten, a couple in Edinburgh. They meet, fall in love, marry, have children, and you as reader-voyeur follow the trajectory of their relationship. It's illuminating and honest and at various points along the way the narrator - sounding very much like a dispassionate anthropologist, a voice-over on one of those nature shows - interrupts with wry commentary. Musing on the fickleness of infatuation, for example, the narrator says: "The only people who can still strike us as normal are those we don’t yet know very well. The best cure for love is to get to know them better."

There were times when I genuinely burst out laughing. Or nodded in agreement. What de Botton has written is a necessary antidote to every false and silly notion we've been spoon-fed about love and romance and long-term commitment. It's the kind of book everyone should read when they are young, 19 or 20, and then again once a decade.

Sense of an ending IV

On the subject of endings once again, here is some wisdom from writer Ethan Canin who believes our job, as writers, through the course of the story, is to engage the reader so fully and deeply that emotion overwhelms intellect and the reader is carried along: "At the end of a story or novel, you do not want the reader thinking. Endings are about emotion, and logic is emotion's enemy." The idea is the ending should make the reader think about all that has come before and he draws a parallel with films that end with a camera tilt up to the sky. Canin is musing here, more than providing concrete advice perhaps but his thoughts are illuminating, nonetheless. Read the whole exchange with him over at The Atlantic.

 

 

 

Sense of an ending III

I'm always, always, looking for writing advice. Is this because I haven't got an MFA? Or because I'm a master procrastinator? Both? Either way, I recently found these gems from an old interview with Lorrie Moore.

...the ending of a short story spins and looks back over the short story and so it’s more retrospective in a way.
— Lorrie Moore

Have a look at her thoughts on endings. I'm obsessed with endings which, in my experience, are either instinctive and automatic or impossible roadblocks that stall everything. I always knew how my novel would end; I even had an epilogue in mind which I decided not to write because it would be superfluous. But short stories are hit/ miss and lately I've taken to not committing a word to the page until I have a sense of the ending. (Though this might be a habit I need to break this year)

So I'm always on the look out for easy tricks and here's one from Lorrie Moore: take something from the middle of the story and move it, out of order, to the end.

 

Cathedral

And then there's Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries, a book with more than its fair share of plot, "a gothic cathedral of plot!" At 800+ pages, maybe plot, erected on such a intricately designed scale with flying buttresses and gargoyles and stained glass, is necessity more than extravagance.

The Luminaries has been on my shelf for some time, sitting there like a door stop screaming "commitment." Then last month I was looking for a new read, something dense and hearty that might also help me break my online habit, and there was The Luminaries waving its hands, calling out: "pick me!"

January seems tailor-made for mammoth reads. This is when - if you live in the northern hemisphere, at least - you want to crack open Middlemarch or The Children's Book, Middlesex or the complete Harry Potter. Cuddle up by the fire, tuck in to something substantial, and try to tune out the internet's siren song.

The Luminaries is set in gold-rush 19th-century New Zealand. A dead man is found in a cabin. A prostitute lies collapsed on the road. The richest man in town has gone missing. And on a night of torrential rain, a council of twelve convene a secret meeting. What is the thread that binds these things together? Eight hundred and thirty two pages later, you find out.

Catton adopts the 19th century Gothic as her style. Her narrator is all-knowing and arch, moving freely in and out of different characters' points of view. Everything is explained and very little is submerged. There are cliff hangers galore. In the role of the villain: an enigmatic man with a scar. It's the kind of page-turner that might have been written by a 21st century Wilkie Collins. All the suspense and classic story-telling of an earlier age with modern-day good sense (which is to say you find any simpering Angels in the House).

But perhaps this all sounds hopelessly outmoded. Haven't we moved beyond conventional plot and story-telling, evolved past the need for narratorial hand-holding? This reader has not! I found The Luminaries completely refreshing.

And make no mistake, Catton's characters are well-drawn and complex with flawed motives and inconsistent, deeply human, actions. Her scene-setting is on point. Themes of land appropriation and colonial entitlement, racism and inequality are handled with intelligence and empathy. Agency is found in unexpected places. (At one point a villain casts aspersions on the local prostitute, only to be reminded that as many men bare him a grudge, there are twice as many who love and would protect her.)

The Luminaries - which won a slew of prizes including the Man-Booker and the Governor General's - is immersive and sustaining. After a while I forgot the internet existed.

Lost the plot

Tessa Hadley has perfected a magic trick. And I want to know her secret.

She writes these novels - the most recent one is the excellent The Past - that break the rules of plot. Specifically the main rule that plot should progress in an Aristotelian arc. Characters are introduced. The scene is set. There is pressing conflict and tensions mount toward a peak. The handgun is shot, secrets are revealed, the story blows wide open. Then, climax discharged with, characters settle into a new normal and denouement eases into conclusion.

That is the formula. It's what readers expect, what keeps pages turning. But then along comes Tessa Hadley. And she's got no truck with any of that.

In The Past four middle aged siblings gather in the country home of their grandparents. Hadley tells the story through the eyes of the grown children and then, rewinding a few decades, from the point of view of their mother. Secrets are revealed, sure. There is a mystery, yes (the decaying carcass of a dog is found in an abandoned cottage) but it doesn't feel very pressing. There is a romance, yes. But it isn't very urgent. Doesn't this sound like the world's most boring book?

And yet, The Past is a compulsive read. I finished it in just a few days and then was sorry it wasn't longer (this, incidentally, is how I devour all her books and stories). What is it about Hadley? Her prose is faultless. She has a way of finding words for the things that are indescribable; her writing thrums with arresting moments of insight. And in her stories, character is queen. Her imaginary people - so flawed, so foolish, so endearing - continue to resonate long after the last page is read.

Is this the secret? Can conventional plot be replaced by insightful, well-crafted prose and pitch perfect characters? Are those three ingredients sufficient to propel a story forward? Somehow, I don't think it's as simple as following a formula. My suspicion is it's the exceptional writer who can pull this off, conjure story without plot. And those rare birds aren't giving away any of their secrets.