Suzanne Joinson first came onto my radar with A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, a book I’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten around to yet. So when The Photographer’s Wife, Joinson’s latest novel came across my desk, I couldn’t pass it up. Set in 1920s Jerusalem and filled with political intrigue, I knew I’d love it from the start. Continue reading
I was interested in reading The Shadow of the Crescent Moon even before it was made the Long List for the Bailey’s Prize simply because it is by Fatima Bhutto. The Bhutto family is to Pakistan what the Kennedy family is to the United States; a prime political family of privilege scarred by tragedy. Continue reading
Smoke River is Krista Foss‘ first novel. It is set in the vaguely named interlake region of Ontario, in a fictitious settlement that bears a striking resemblance to the Caledonia and Hagersville area bordering the Six Nations Reserve. In recent years, Caledonia has been synonymous with First Nations land disputes, and that sets the scene for Smoke River. Continue reading
When someone like Jhumpa Lahiri comes out with a new book you just know that I’m going to read it. As a Pulitzer Prize winner, her books are always well written and highly acclaimed. The Lowland is no different, having made it on the short list for the Man Booker Prize.
The Lowland tells the story of two brothers in Calcutta who take very different paths as they grow up. Subhash more than fulfills his parents’ dreams by flying off to the United States for graduate school. Udayan, who is Subhash’s intellectual equal, remains in Calcutta to pursue a more controversial and political calling by becoming involved with the communist Naxalite movement. Most of the story focuses on Subhash’s time in the United States, which came as a bit of a disappointment to me. The Naxalite movement in India in the 1960’s and 1970’s was such an important time in the development of the newly Independent India, and its reverberations continue to be felt today, and yet outside of South Asia very little is known about it.
The Lowland is written in a very understated style that is pervaded with a sense of melancholy. I think the Canadian cover of The Lowland (pictured above) captures this style very effectively. Everything that occurs is told in a very flat way. The highs are not very high, and everything else seems to be low. I am not a fan of this style. Though there is a lot to gain from reading The Lowland, i have to admit that reading it made me a little tired. It was not a book I could sit down and gobble up in one reading.
By contrast, the UK cover captures the dynamism of the times portrayed in the novel, as well as the politics that are always lying just below the surface. If I were to judge a book by its cover, it is a book I would much rather read. Not only that, the UK cover brings to mind the parts of the novel I really enjoyed.
Who would like this book? Obviously, The Lowland is going to appeal to those who like good writing and literary fiction of the highest order. As a contender for the Booker Prize, I am not quite sure who it is going to fare. So far it is the first on the short list that I’ve read, but I feel its chance of winning may be slim more for political reasons than for actual merit. I think this book would also be well suited to those who are interested in finding out more about a political movement that is not normally discussed in fiction set in South Asia. Lahiri’s inclusion of the Maoist insurgents known as the Naxalites makes The Lowland her most overtly political novel. It is a direction I would like to see her move in again in the future.
At first glance Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan seems like a natural choice to sweep Canada Reads. It is an iconic Canadian novel and Governor General Award winner that captures the plight of the English and French in Quebec in the early part of the twentieth century. MacLennan’s writing is clean, crisp and timeless, concealing the fact that it was written more than sixty years ago.
But as I got more into the novel, I became less convinced. The plot moves along at a snail’s pace. This is largely due to MacLennan’s impromptu ravings over the (multiple) two solitudes that form the backbone of the novel. He expounds many times and at length on the dichotomies that prop his story up: French vs. English, Catholic vs. Protestant, Religion vs. Science, America vs. Canada and the list goes on. I think I prefer a little more subtly. Overall, these digressions make the novel about 200 pages longer than it should have been.
Some of the characters in Two Solitudes, however, are truly memorable and Canadian. I am thinking specifically of Yardley, the retired seaman from Nova Scotia who decides to buy a farm in the all French outpost of St. Marc. He is one of those characters in Canadian literature that you can’t help but love. I put him up along side Matthew Cuthbert. The relationship that develops between Yardley and young Paul is one of the sustaining factors of the novel. This relationship is certainly more plausible that the supposed romance that takes between Yardley’s granddaughter and Paul. But now I am digressing much as MacLennan does.
Initially I thought Two Solitudes would fair quite nicely in the Canada Reads debates, but now I’m not so sure. Away, defended by Charlotte Gray, and The Age of Hope, defended by Ron MacLean will surely surpass Two Solitudes. I think Two Solitudes‘ defender Jay Baruchel has a lot of popular support, but can he stand up to the likes of Gray and MacLean?
Who would like this book? The usual CBC Canada Reads crowd – that goes without saying. I think this novel would also appeal to the historically and politically minded. It really is a key work in depicting Canada’s social history.
Sussex Drive by Linda Svendsen is one fun novel. As the name indicates, it is a political satire set in the hallowed halls of Ottawa’s elite.The story is set in 2008 and melds together aspects of recent history that we recognize (ie. the election of Obama, the proroguing of Parliment and the rise of the right in Canada) with a perhaps less plausible alternative history (GG reports to King Charles). In its telling the story focuses primarily on two female power brokers – Becky, the brash and pushy wife of the PM, and Lise, the somewhat controversial immigrant GG. Perhaps because of this point of view the reader also gets a peak at how the personal lives of these VIPs and their children are manipulated by the political machine.
Two things that i really appreciated about the novel were the use of language and the prominence of women. As is befitting the bilingual environment of Ottawa and the parliamentary millieu, the characters switch back and forth between English and French as they speak. This is done effortlessly by some and with a little bit more struggling by others. As a reader, however, I think it is clear what is being said without knowledge of French. Secondly, the women in Sussex Drive are very complex characters juggling the concerns of public and private life. The men, on the other hand, are somewhat one dimensional. The GG, who is modeled on Michaelle Jean, is a sensitive arbiter of power put in a number of very awkward situations by the conservative First Family. Becky, the PM’s wife, is a manipulative behind the scenes force, who ultimately steers the direction of the government. By drawing on these two characters Svendsen gives the reader a different view of Ottawa from the one we are used to.
Overall Svendsen has written a very interesting and intriguing look at politics in Canada. It is not the most staggeringly beautiful piece of Canadian literature, but it is a fun, humorous page turner.
Who would like this book? Anyone interested in (Canadian) political satire. Sussex Drive exists in the same vein as Terry Fallis‘ Ottawa based satires. Politically speaking, I think it would appeal to left leaning readers, but it is hard for me to judge for sure. The political right might like it too if they are willing to laugh at themselves. There seems to be a trend towards buying political books for one’s dad, but this one would definitely appeal to a mother as well.