Thursday, July 18, 2013

Sanctuary Line

Sanctuary Line

By Jane Urquhart


This book is full of symbolism and pensive reflections.  It is well structured, with all the subplots neatly interwoven.  It has beautiful descriptions of the north coast of Lake Erie and interesting historical background.  It has tragic themes of innocence lost and star-crossed love.  There are thoughtful questions on many subjects: memory, religion, family, allegiance.  It draws interesting parallels between the children's poetry of R.L. Stevenson and Emily Dickenson.


But the whole plot is centred on the behaviour of one man who evidently has a mental problem and is weak, erratic, ineffective and tiresome.  The narrator professes to hate him and this creates a problem for the reader who is unable to warm to him also.  I don't think it is possible to engage a reader with a character whom the narrator dislikes.


Another problem for me is the character of the narrator, a pale studious woman, unable to refocus her life after a tragic love affair when she was 16.  Her job is tagging butterflies day after day and she lives alone on a run-down ancestral farm with the ghosts of her past. She is sympathetic but passion-less.


I read and loved Urquhart's The Stone Carvers and Map of Glass, but I found this book slow and unemotional.  I loved the prose, the descriptions, the allusions, the structure, the insights and reflections.  Urquhart is a beautiful, intelligent writer, but I didn't feel any urgency in this book.  I hate to be negative when the writing is so beautiful, but in the end, I didn't really care about any of the characters.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Ru by Kim Thuy


by Kim Thuy  

This is a short, poignant, beautifully sculpted account of a girl's transition from a palatial home in Saigon to a new home in Quebec.  In 1979 and 1980, our newspapers were full of the tragedy of the Vietnamese "boat people," and Canada admitted 50,000 of these refugees.  They were sponsored by individuals, church and community groups across Canada.  Because they spoke French, many were welcomed into Quebec communities.  This is the story told by a participant, a young girl whose family settled in Granby, Quebec. Thuy's story is largely autobiographical.
There are multiple settings, maybe too many: Saigon during the Vietnam War, the escape by boat to Malaysia and the refugee camps, life in Granby, a return trip to Saigon long after the war, and life as an adult in Montreal with an autistic son.

A picture of Thuy's life is revealed through trenchant allusions and episodes.  There is no attempt to be chronological; the connections are interior but the cumulative effect is a picture of the range of emotions and experiences of a family snatched up in events that were larger than they were.

The narration is completely non-chronological.  One chapter starts with mentally handicapped Aunt Seven in Saigon before the war, progresses through a reminiscence of street vendors, then flashes to a visit to Hanoi with a friend after the war, moves forward to Granby and the adaptation to Canadian food (breakfast is never soup) and ends in the present with the statement that she rarely eats breakfast now that she is a Canadian.  This stylistic device allows the author to write a personal account with connections that follow themes and memory triggers.  She tells her own story and creates an amalgam of the events which shaped her life. 
Although the events are harrowing, there is no melodrama. Thuy's prose is disengaged and rather than a plea for pity, this is a celebration of the human ability to endure.

The style is spare and allusive.  One description or episode, recounted in detail, is illustrative of many others. The difference between North and South Vietnam is shown through a comparison of language differences.  North Vietnam had no words for coca cola, spies, rebels, Communist sympathizers and illegitimate babies whose fathers were American GIs.  The extent of adaptation required of these transplanted Asians is epitomized in the discovery of the necessity for winter and summer clothes.  The gap between rich and poor in Vietnam is illustrated by the Communist inspectors who thought that ladies' brassieres were coffee filters.  The Europeanization of Vietnam's rich families is embodied by Thuy's grandfather who ate only butter imported from France. 

For all the skillfully selected episodes which illustrate a time or place, I found the characters elusive.  There are allusions to Thuy's difficult relationship to her mother, the practical family organizer who neglected her daughter's emotional needs, and who cast off her past like a skin and rediscovered herself through dance at age 55.  But I was never sure whether Thuy understood her mother or resented her.   As an adult in Canada, Thuy became the mother of an autistic child.  This challenge is also incorporated into her tale, a struggle that I think is part of another book. 

There are many, many themes, a lifetime of experiences and observations in this one small book: class structure in Vietnam, transitioning in society, the validity of the American Dream, differences and qualities of parenting styles, life in a vanquished country, life in refugee camps.  It is a rich book, with many ideas and viewpoints to consider, maybe too many.  But all the ideas are complex and thoughtful and connect us with one of the many cultures that are changing our Canadian society.  

When first released in French in 2010, Ru won the Governor-General's Award for Fiction.  Its translation by Sheila Fischman, Canada's leading English-French translator, is a testament to its quality.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Hunger Games Book One

The Hunger Games: Part One

Suzanne Collins


When The Hunger Games was first published in 2008, by Scholastic, no less, I was full of disapprobation.  A book for children about children killing children in our world of violent video games and schoolyard shootings?  I didn't think so.

But here I am on a beach holiday where I met a nice priest trying to get through Book Three before his plane left the next day, and he told me that the series is well written for its genre.  Well, if he is trying to keep in touch with his young parishioners, and as my own children have all read the series, and my friend assures me that it's a quick read… well, I borrowed Book One.

He's right; it is well written for its genre.  I read it in a day and didn't put it down until I finished it!  That's partly because I am on holiday, but mostly because Collins is good at creating suspense and she moves her plot right along.  Her characters are sympathetic, the setting is interesting and the plot details fold nicely into the narrative.  The action is fast, except for the denouement which is the way it's supposed to be, and the ending leaves us anticipating the sequel.

There's not a lot to ponder and reflect upon after the cover is closed, but the setting is intriguing: a totalitarian state, which has emerged in North America after climate collapse, with technological superiority over 12 vassal states.  There are historical antecedents:   the citizens of the dominant state all have Roman names, and the tribute system of young people being sent to the capitol is like the story of Theseus and the Minotaur.

The main plot prototype is the TV reality show Survivors.  Once the tributes from the provinces reach the arena, all their actions and conversations are recorded, edited and assembled into a film production which is aired nation-wide each day.  But in this grim reality show, the protagonists must all kill each other, and the winner is a hero for life.

And the story is surprisingly moral.   

The writer has been careful that neither the hero nor heroine kill anybody in cold blood, and the conflict at the end is against a man who has shown himself to be treacherous and savage.  The winning qualities are resourcefulness, physical skill, loyalty, team spirit and quick thinking.

Surprisingly, I think this would be a fine read for young people, especially reluctant readers.  The concept is gripping, the pace is fast, it's not badly written and good values are modeled.

No, I won't read Books Two and Three because they are really written for young people, but, hey, Book One was fun!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Garden of Evening Mists

The Garden of Evening Mists

Tan Twan Eng


This is a complex and interesting story, provoking questions on some interesting themes.  It is set in Malaya during the Japanese Occupation of World War II and the later communist rebel uprisings, and in Malaysia 34 years later.  The two main characters are Aritomo, an esteemed Japanese gardener previously employed by the Emperor, who had moved to Malaya before the war, and Yun Ling, an Anglophile "Straits Chinese" woman, the sole survivor of a Japanese POW camp.  A third major character is Magnus, the owner of a tea estate, Majuba, in the Cameron Highlands, and a survivor of the British concentration camps of the Boer War. 


The main theme is how survivors of the brutality and treachery of war can live out the rest of their lives in a multi-cultural world.  I found it an interesting and original problem.


The characters of both Yun Ling and Aritomo provoke questions and their mysterious pasts propel the narrative.  How did Yun Ling manage to survive the notorious internment camp system, and why did Aritomo stay aloof from the Japanese rape of Malaya?  (Another question is raised about Yun Ling's father and brother, businessmen who prospered during the war at a time when those who were not against the Japanese were abetting them.  Yun Ling's mother seems to know the answer and has collapsed into mental illness.)


Aritomo is clearly a man of influence; during the war, he intervened with the Japanese invaders on behalf of Magnus and the workers on his estate.  After the war, he paid off the Communist rebels to ensure the safety of Majuba and his own garden, Yugiri.  Is he protecting his friends or subsidizing the rebels?  Is he an accommodator or a pragmatist or a Japanese agent?  What are his motives?


Yun Ling's life is brought together with Aritomo's when she apprentices herself to him in order to learn the art of Japanese gardening so she can make a garden to commemorate her sister who perished in the camp.


The two develop a complicated relationship and eventually become lovers.  She learns gardening and archery from him and the serenity of the garden helps in her healing.  He learns about the atrocities committed by the Japanese and in a sado-masochist exchange creates a personalized "horimono" or tattoo over her entire back.  Then he mysteriously disappears forever into the jungle whose many trails he knows by heart.


There are many tangled threads in this plot and the switching of time frames does not make it easy to unravel them.  This is part of the mood - the misty garden edging the jungle, and the clouded, complicated past of Aritomo and Yun Ling. 


The character of Aritomo is particularly enigmatic.  I could not even establish his sexual preference.  He is passionless and controlled; his Japanese men friends have been gay.  His wartime relationship with Tominaga, the leader of Yun Ling's internment camp is suspicious.  My conclusion is that he had been embedded in Malaya by the Emperor of Japan and that the story of his falling-out with his employer was false.  He has to face his past when he hears Yun Ling's accounts of the suffering in the camp.  His suicide says that some actions are unforgiveable.


Unfortunately, in his effort to create a mood of mystery and secrecy around his main characters, the author fails to create empathy for them.  The complexity and culpability of both Aritomo and Yun Ling make their dilemmas intellectual rather than emotional.  The story of the wartime love affair between Tatsuji, the kamikaze pilot, and Teruzen who flew in his place, is more moving than the love affair between the two main characters.


Tan Twan Eng has set himself a difficult task:  how to sustain sympathy for unlikeable main characters.  Aritomo is a man who would show his love and contrition by creating a work of art and also lie to his lover that he had never done one before.  Likewise we learn that Yun Ling survived the prison camp because she was an informer on her fellow captives and countrymen.  After the war she became a judge who was merciless with Japanese militants and their collaborators, partly to appease her own conscience.  She is not an easy person to like; she does not like herself and her medical diagnosis leaves us unmoved.


Both characters are trying to become, "straight-shooters" with their archery practice and their search for the centre of the target, but these are not Cupid's arrows, and the characters remain passionless in their romance and appeal to readers.


This novel interested me especially because of the accounts of the Japanese labour camps during the war.  Having had an uncle who barely survived working on the Burma Railroad, I was appalled to learn recently that although the horrors of the Holocaust are well publicized, the Japanese atrocities and the Rape of Nanking have been subsumed by the horror of Hiroshima, and are not taught to today's students.  Jewish people have rightly taken steps to ensure that their loss will never be forgotten, but there is no lasting support group for the victims of the Japanese, and their suffering seems in vain.  A novel such as this keeps the historical record of Japanese atrocities in World War II on the public conscience.


However, I was disappointed to have these historical events lumped together with the activities of The Golden Lily, an organization that exists in the realm of conspiracy theorists.  The Golden Lily is supposed to have been a cadre trusted by the Emperor of Japan to loot the treasures of conquered countries and hide them until after the war when they could be put into the Emperor's coffers.  The remarkable resurgence of the Japanese economy after the war is said to have been financed by this plunder.  The answer to the riddle of Aritomo is that he was part of The Golden Lily.  Although this plot resolution is clever, I resent that it is coupled with the facts of the Japanese labour camps, putting the historical camps in the same category as the conjectured Golden Lily organization.  The strong message about the horrors of the camps is diluted by association.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Ship of Brides


Jojo Moyes


This is an interesting historical novel about the aircraft carrier Victorious which brought 655   war brides from Sydney to Portsmouth in 1946.  These very young women of all backgrounds were forced to live together in cramped makeshift quarters on the high seas for almost six weeks.  Their only commonality was their uncertain future in a strange land, the newness of their marriages to men they hardly knew, and their homesickness for the land of their birth which most would never see again.  It was a social experiment for all involved, passengers and crew.

The narrative follows the occupants of one cabin: a society girl from Sydney, a pregnant farm girl from the outback, a war nurse who had married a patient, and a 16-year old whose husband held the ticket to a better chance for her.  Two other major characters are the captain who is struggling with psychological and physical wounds sustained in the sinking of the sister ship of Victorious near the end of the war, and one of the marines who stood guard duty over the women after curfew every evening. 

It is an interesting mix of characters and the setting is fraught with suspense for the future and raw memories of the recent past.  There are interesting passages about the survivors of the Japanese POW camps, the war in the Pacific, hospital camps and life in Australia during the war.

The story opens at a ship dismemberment yard in India where one of the brides, now a grandmother, sees the old carrier being finally scrapped.  Throughout the book, we wonder which of the four brides she will turn out to be.   The shipyard setting is surreal in itself, as anyone who has seen pictures of those workplaces will know. 
The book is interesting historically and also philosophically with its  loose theme of putting old traumas and sins behind one when the opportunity to make a new life arises.  Forgiveness and moral strength are valued qualities. 

The mood is suspenseful  as the plot develops and new details about the characters' pasts are revealed, but the characters themselves are not very complex.  The writer is a romance writer who has done some interesting research and found a story that is full of possibilities.  On the whole she has done well with it, although some of the scenes are melodramatic and much too drawn out.  The framework which focusses the story on a small representative group is engaging and clever.
The book is an easy, good, and worthwhile read. The shared experience of the voyage makes its mark on all the characters and leaves the reader more reflective and appreciative of the sacrifices and hopes that marked the end of World War II.


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Home by Toni Morrison

                                       Toni Morrison
How many themes does a novel need?  I could have used a GPS to navigate the many paths that Toni Morrison takes us down in her latest book, Home.  Is this an account of a road trip?  Is this about a young man with post- traumatic stress following the Korean War?  Is this about the plight of black Americans in the 1950s?  Is it, as the title suggests, about the green, green grass of home? But then, why is the opening poem about self-awareness?  Maybe it's about learning to be a man like the brutal horses who 'stood like men.'  It's all of these things, in 145 pages.  At Can.$25.95, maybe I'm getting my money's worth with so many ideas to chew through.  Or maybe I'm asking myself, "Where's the editor of this tangle?"


I'll focus on the positive:   Morrison has created a full and likable character in Frank, the protagonist and he engages my interest. He is complex and sympathetic.  As a toddler he took responsibility for his baby sister, Cee, and he never wavered in his role as her protector.   She is the constant in his life which he recognizes: "Deep down inside her lived my secret picture of myself - a strong good me… p.103"  He is a decent kid who had never left his home in rural Georgia until he went to the freezing front of the Korean War where he lost his two childhood friends, saw atrocities and committed them himself, and came home damaged, shell-shocked and alcoholic.  The main narrative concerns his search for recovery and I admire his persistence.


The other character to whom I responded is Frank's girlfriend, Lily.  In one strong chapter, which reads like a short story, she decides that loneliness is a price she is willing to pay to find self-fulfilment through ambition and independence.  But Lily then disappears from the narrative and her contribution to the plot is unclear.


Insight into the characters is enhanced by the experimental and interesting technique of inserting italicized first-person passages which sometimes contradict the third-person narrator.  Another less successful experiment is the random appearances of a mystery man dressed in a zoot-suit.  His role is puzzling.


I expected some lovely writing from this winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and in many passages I was not disappointed:  "He pulled the trigger.  The click from the empty chamber was both tiny and thunderous." And, "egg yolks, not sliding now, but stuck like phlegm to the window."  Frank experiences, "the free-floating rage, the self-loathing disguised as somebody else's fault."  These passages are evocative.


But I am at a loss with, "the sound of a cheap cello coming from a chute of cattle…", a "heart jump of sorrow,"  a woman in a wheelchair who is "quick as a hummingbird," and a face which, "seemed to morph into the front of a jeep."  Morph?


Despite my enjoyment of some of the characters and language, Morrison's multitude of themes distanced me and left me unsatisfied.  The underlying theme is the poverty of Black America in the 1950s: poverty of opportunity, support, ambition and finances.  But some of the incidents, like the attack on the couple traveling on the train, did not advance the plot.  This would be acceptable in a longer work, but a short novel should be spare and focussed.  I thought that I was reading a road trip story.

Another important theme is the rehabilitation of black GIs after the Korean War, a big issue.  In Frank's case this is effected by his return to his nurturing home environment.  As the book is titled Home, it must be that an important theme is one's attachment to home, which in this book is Lotus, a run-down rural black settlement in Georgia. Ambivalent love of home is a familiar theme, starting with The Odyssey, but the depiction of Lotus is fuzzy.  At times this village seems soul-less, ignorant and dead-end, a place that offered Frank and Cee no guidance and no support, where the little girl was criticised by everyone, neighbours wagged their tongues, but no one intervened on their behalf.  Both children left at the first opportunity. But when the narrative suddenly segues to Cee's story, we hear her reminiscing fondly of a brook full of fish, gardens full of crops, and kindly neighbours fixing each others' front steps. At the end of the book, home is where redemption is found.  Frank and Cee discover a community of women rich in goodwill and traditional knowledge and values.  The rediscovery of the healing values of home, the Prodigal Son story, is a full theme in itself, but Morrison has so many themes going that she doesn't fully develop this one.

 In this potentially nurturing village, it seems that Frank and Cee's parents were the anomaly, too tired after work to care for their children.  Both children grew up to be scarred by the adult world for which their parents had given them no preparation. Thus, the importance of caring parenting would seem to be another theme.

But finally, I have concluded that Morrison's main theme must be self-knowledge and self-acceptance.  My evidence is the action in the first and last chapters, Frank's italicised first-person accounts, and the poem in the frontispiece:

                                                "Whose house is this?

                                       Whose house keeps out the light

                                                                In here?

                                                Say, who owns this house?

                                                            It's not mine.

                                     I dreamed another, sweeter, brighter

                            With a view of lakes crossed in painted boats;

                                   Of fields wide as arms open for me.

                                                   This house is strange.

                                                         Its shadows lie.

                                Say, tell me, why does its lock fit my key?"


The strong image created in the opening chapter with echoes in the final chapter must have significance.  It concerns the fighting stallions.  The opening sentence is, "They rose up like men.  We saw them.  Like men they stood."  And the chapter ends," They were so beautiful.  So brutal.  And they stood like men."  In the final action of the book, Frank nails a board to a tree beside the grave of a murdered man whom he had reburied as a mark of respect.  On the board he has written, "Here Stands a Man"

In the first-person account (p. 103) Frank talks about, "a strong good me tied to the memory of those horses and the burial of a stranger."

Cee also discovers the strength that comes from belief in herself, and under the tutelage of the Lotus women she learns not to lean on her brother.  Although I found this sudden identification and resolution of her need too abrupt and tidy, it does illustrate the importance of this theme.

Persistent excavation has enabled me to make some sense of this novel, but a cohesive and disciplined narration would have made it a much more satisfying read.  My verdict is that I was left  disappointed and unsatisfied by Morrison's lack of focus and disjointed narrative.  Too bad.