(The following is an excerpt from a review written by Naomi MacKinnon at Consumed by Ink. It is reproduced here in part with her kind permission.)
Malagash is a gem of a book. And I can’t think of anyone I wouldn’t recommend it to.
The title of the book refers to the community where the story is set. Malagash is located along the north shore of Nova Scotia and is one of those places you can easily pass through without knowing you are there.
I thought Malagash would be a small town, but it is not even that. One long road, a twisting red paved loop around the north shore of Nova Scotia. There’s a tractor sitting in a field. A dirt bike leaning up against a shed. We pass a pen of llamas, who look bored as hell. The Atlantic ocean itself comes right up to drive along beside us. Then it slips away.
But this book is not really about the place. This story could have taken place anywhere.
Narrated by young Sunday, she tells us how her family came home to Malagash so her father could live out his final days where he had been born and raised. Her father is now in the hospital while the rest of the family (her mother, herself, and her younger brother Simon) stay with their grandmother.
The beauty of this book comes through in the interactions between the family members; their visits to the hospital to see their father, as well as the quieter, more ordinary times they share back at the house.
“Why do you take the phone off the hook every day?” Simon asks her. He’s smearing too much margarine on his slice of brown bread.
“Because there is nothing in the world more important than having dinner with my grandchildren,” my grandmother says.
She shakes pepper and salt onto her food. She takes a butter knife and puts too much margarine on her brown bread, just like Simon does, and then looks up to smile at us.
“And because it’s annoying,” she says.
Sunday and Simon begin to form a new, closer bond – almost against their will. By way of their remote location and absence of friends, they’re forced to spend time together.
Most Anything You Please (2017, Breakwater Books) is the first book I have read by Ms. Morgan-Cole and it is a solid saga of the Holloway family through several decades. The author was born in, and still lives in the Rabbittown neighbourhood of St. John’s:
“Over the years, I’ve discussed with many friends the fact that, when we were growing up in the 1970s, there was a family-owned convenience store on every corner, most of which have since disappeared. Most Anything You Please is the novel that grew out of those memories and conversations.”
Excerpt from Author’s Note
In fact, this novel could have been called The Holloways of Rabbittown for most of the drama takes place in the new neighbourhood where Wes and Ellen Holloway open a small convenience store in the pre-WWII years. The store is Ellen’s; Wes has his construction business to run. So from the mid-’30s to the present day, we are treated to the Rabbittown worlds of Ellen, her children (specifically Audrey), her grandchildren and so on. All the while the store manages to stay in business, changing with the times, but never changing owners. While some of the family members leave Newfoundland, they typically return, for when you have nothing left, you always have family.
Audrey is the central character since she represents the middle woman in the Holloway matriarchy of Ellen, Audrey and Rachel. It is Audrey who takes us from the opening “Prelude” through the post-war years (when she marries a US serviceman and moves to his native Louisiana) to the mid-nineties. Each chapter centres on one of the three women, with an occasional “interlude” featuring one of the male Holloways. It is the creative editing and layout of the storytelling that makes this novel stand out. While it mainly sticks to a chronological format, it does, by means of the Interludes, give foregleams of the years to come. Ms. Morgan-Cole will also skip over a number of years, thus speeding up the story and keeping it focused on the significant developments.
I rated this a five-star read of fiction over at Goodreads and I highly recommend this book to those who enjoy reading family-based sagas. Most Anything You Please is one of those novels you cannot say enough good things about. I enjoyed every page of it, and I will be adding it to the 2018 Longlist for a “Very Best!” Book Award for fiction. To sum up, Ms. Morgan-Cole’s writing along with skilful editing make Most Anything You Please, in the words of author Kevin Major: “a wonderful achievement.”
Another reviewer stated: “This multi-generational story about women in Newfoundland was a joy to read.” – Consumed by Ink
Rating: 5 out of 5.
About the author: Trudy J. Morgan-Cole is a writer and teacher who lives in St. John’s. Her previous books include By the Rivers of Brooklyn (2009), That Forgetful Shore (2011), and A Sudden Sun (2014), all of which were shortlisted for the Best Atlantic Published Book Award.
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Prolific Miramichi author Wayne Curtis, whose most recent collection of fictional short stories was In the Country (2016, Pottersfield Press), has just released a new collection entitled Homecoming: A Road Less Travelled (2017, Pottersfield Press). The book’s thirteen stories, many interrelated, contain the idea of returning to a place either one has escaped from or returning to in order to make amends with those from the past:
“it is like I have to return to that place to see how much of my past was real and how much was an illusion, and if either is still there.” (from “At Mount St. Joseph’s”)
The bulk of the stories centre around two couples, Sean O’Reilly and Amy Black, and Floyd Harris and his wife Beverley. With the exception of Beverly (who is from Massachusetts), all the principal characters in the stories are from the Miramichi. Their lives begin either on the farm or as in the case of Sean and Amy, an orphanage in Bradford (aka Newcastle). There is a definite progression to each story, although it is not always chronological in order of events. As in the case of Floyd and Beverly, the stories start with their move from the USA back to the Miramichi, then the next story finds Floyd, years later, hitchhiking out of town with only a suitcase and a duffle bag. What happened in the interval? Patience pays off, for Mr Curtis does not leave us wondering for long!
Reading Wayne Curtis
Reading a Wayne Curtis short story (or one of his many novels, for that matter) is a singular experience, one to be relished and not quickly dispensed with. The beauty of the short story format is the economy of any elaboration and how the author can make us envision places and characters in as few words as possible. While Mr Curtis is not a stark, “bare bones” style of writer, the wordage is sufficient for the ideas and thoughts to be conveyed in a comprehensive manner. Mr Curtis is an unquestionably masculine writer in the manner of David Adams Richards, but with a more resolute, nostalgic outlook on life and events. Mr Curtis’ storytelling “voice” is a deeply resonant one, reminding me of the sound of the baritone saxophone earnestly playing a ballad, or as Sean says in “Brothers and Sisters”:
“my cigarette-coarsened voice was deep, as I said a few words that could have come from the lips of Orson Wells or William Conrad”.
These stories are from a time when downtown Newcastle was a bustling place, for it was the main shopping district of the Miramichi in those days before the advent of malls and highway driving to Moncton to shop at Costco. Travel was by bus or train (“It was the link to fulfilling my dreams” says young Jack in “The Train”) between the scattered communities for those not able to afford a car (or cars).
Some Favourite Lines:
“…some people do this; they overpower the lover’s freedom to choose.”
“…once in a while she loved me, but mostly I loved her, in the way that it’s easier to love than be loved.”
“It’s funny how time can help smooth over a potential career opportunity, which is a soul builder, but not a broken heart, which is a soul destroyer.”
“…that first love which men carry inside them for the rest of their lives. We are all wild geese in that regard.”
On ageing: “I have had one near stroke and a near heart attack. it appears like everything is near these days.”
As you read through the stories, you’ll discover that Mr Curtis also excels in descriptions of the weather:
that time in the season when hailstones drive out of a raw sky like pellets being shot at you.
the willow trees drank up the moisture and gave birth to rabbit paws of new hope – furry buds, white along black stems – that tossed about like beads of jellybeans, bitter in their taste but sweet in the scent of spring.
the straw fields were brought to life by a stiff wind and the big choppy river, so dark a blue, lapped against the frozen marshes where quills of ragged cattail buckled down to the earth.
I was totally fascinated by each and every story, setting aside the book only to contemplate a thought about something I had just read. These stories will likely be best appreciated by long-time Miramichiers, but they have a timeless appeal as well, for relationships have not really changed from an internal perspective, only the external forces have evolved, and all the old ones (money, mental illness, employment) are all still there too. Homecoming may well be the best work to date of Mr Curtis, at least in this reviewer’s estimation. Perhaps due to his age (he is in his mid 70’s now) he has a more soulful and deeper intensity behind his thoughts. This reader is getting older too and can relate more to looking back than looking forward most days. At any rate, Homecoming represents the best in the short story format from one of Canada’s most underrated writers.
Homecoming can be purchased in various stores in and around the Miramichi. It is also available at Amazon.ca.
Glynis Guevara was born in Barataria, Trinidad. She was shortlisted for the Small Axe Literary short fiction prize in 2012 and was also a finalist for the inaugural Burt Award for Caribbean Literature in 2014. She currently lives in Toronto where she works as an adult literacy and ESL instructor.
Under the Zaboca Tree (2017, Inanna Publications) is a Young Adult (YA) book that tells the story of Baby Girl (Melody) Sparks, and her trip to Trinidad and Tobago with her father Smokey (Nicholas) who has sole custody of her. They are leaving Canada to start life anew in Trinidad; her father had separated from her stepmother. Baby Girl has never known her mother and Smokey is not very forthcoming on past family history. Once back in Trinidad, there are many things new to Baby Girl: the island slang, food, new people and new friends to make. Then there is her father’s new girlfriend Vena with whom they live with on Paradise Lane. A swift end to that relationship lands them in Flat Hill Village, a less than desirable area where the cycle of being surrounded by new people plus a high crime rate are unsettling to the young girl.
“Flat Hill Village, with its shabby yards, unruly trees and assortment of odd indiviuals, compared to Paradise Lane, with its regular hardworking folks and neatly kept trees and flower gardens decorating the front of each house, was hard for me to take in. I sat on the bed and stared at the walls, wishing I had the magical power to make my absent mother reappear. Just then a gecko about five inches long scurried from one edge of the ceiling to the next. I was too shell shocked to holler.”
All throughout Under the Zaboca Tree, we feel Baby Girl’s distress, confusion, loneliness and hurt as she gets moved from place to place, and yearns to have a mother like other children. While fortunate to have a father who has cared for her until this point, questions about why her birth mother has never contacted her remain a mystery. Then, one day, an accidental discovery of papers in the bottom of an old desk drawer leads her to confront her father for the truth. A delightful, four-star YA read that is insightful to life in Trinidad & Tobago as well as comprehending the stress transient parents can put on their kids as seen through a child’s eyes.
Under the Zaboca Tree by Glynis Guevara
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The following guest review is by Naomi MacKinnon of the Consumed by Ink book blog, who focuses her reading on books by Atlantic Canadians. Naomi claims she has kept a list of all the books she’s read since Grade 8!
Jacob has a fulfilling job in Toronto as a counsellor at a men’s outreach centre; men living with HIV. When he is asked to come home to Advocate, the small town in Nova Scotia where he grew up, to say goodbye to his dying grandmother, he has severe misgivings. He remembers the events of 1984 well; when he was 11 years old and his Uncle David came home after being away for more than a decade.
Uncle David has full blown AIDS and has come home to die. His grandmother is not happy to see him and she’s definitely not happy to have him at her house as he slowly fades away. Young Jacob becomes witness to the fear and panic brought on by the first cases of AIDS in the country. He witnesses the arguments his mother and aunt have with his grandmother, and with the rest of the town as they are gradually alienated by almost everyone.
My uncle would be long dead before attitudes began to change. He lived in the most suspicious, superstitious and reactionary years of the disease. My grandmother was the personification of these attitudes. She led the trials, even though they were against her only son. The situation was ridiculous, as bad as the divisions between the Protestants and the Catholics when the town was founded hundreds of years ago.
Jacob carries the anger and resentment from this experience into adulthood. It influences his choice of career as well as his personal life, which is pretty much non-existent.
I was the only one who couldn’t let it go.
His grandmother’s wish is for Jacob to give the eulogy at her funeral. He is surprised that she would want him to be the one to do this, and he at first refuses to have anything to do with it. But when he learns new information about his grandmother, he reconsiders. The book ends on just the right note.
I didn’t think I would be very interested in reading a story about the early AIDS crisis, but I was wrong (as I so often am). The writing style and alternating timeline kept me turning the pages. I was especially invested in young Jacob’s story, his friendship with the scrappy and fearless Deanny, and the impression all of it made on his young, developing self. Deanny was from the “wrong side of the tracks”, and in fact, it was the individuals from marginalised communities that supported the family most when they needed it.
Advocate is a small town, and what happened here certainly happened elsewhere. But I am giving you a chance to redeem yourself.
Darren Greer’s Just Beneath My Skin won the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award in 2015. This year, Advocate was a finalist for the same award. Advocate is also the winner of the 2017 Jim Connors Dartmouth Book Award for Fiction.
I definitely plan to seek out his other books at some point in the future.
Award-winning author Ami Sands Brodoff’s newest novel, In Many Waters (Inanna 2017) takes place primarily in Malta where Zoe, along with her brother Cal were born and raised. The story begins in Malta. It is 2007 and it has been 7 years since Zoe and Cal lost their parents, Cassandra and Lior, in a surfing accident in waters off Mexico. Zoe dislikes being on the water, for it means you could be in it, a fear instilled in her when as a child, her father threw her into the water in a “sink or swim” moment: “Zoe never quite forgave him for that scare. but her lifelong fear was perverse revenge. Her parent’s drowning deaths only made her terror burrow in more deeply.” Cal, on the other hand, is like his father and loves the water and is a strong swimmer.
In Many Waters is a multi-layered, multi-national, multi-generational story that is very enjoyable to read.
Meanwhile, off the coast of Libya, a young woman by the name of Aziza floats, a survivor of an attempt to flee the country and reach Malta as a refugee.
“Black water licked her limbs. She remembered where she was, had no idea how long she’d been floating in the sea, no sense how long she could hold on. Aziza thought of Uncle Nuru strapping her into the life vest the moment she stepped onto his old wooden fishing boat in the middle of the night at the port in Tripoli. Uncle had to tie the straps tight, Aziza was so skinny. She’d always been thin no matter how much she ate, with long arms and legs, a swan-like neck, slender hands and feet. Like her father. Like Baba, she was strong; unlike him, she looked delicate. Her father, Idir, had vanished from their home in Tripoli six months ago. After Baba disappeared, the terror grew. Menacing calls, death threats scrawled onto the front of their house. Her father’s leather shop in the souk ransacked, their home set on fire, then Uncle Nuru’s burned to the ground. They were not the only ones. Anyone under suspicion, anyone disloyal to Brother Leader Qaddafi, or accused of disloyalty—it didn’t take much.”
Aziza is rescued by Cal when he sees her floating in the water when he is out for a swim. Unsure what to do with her, or what might happen to her as an illegal immigrant, he takes her back to his apartment where he helps her to regain her health. Not being able to hide her in his apartment forever, Aziza eventually comes to the attention of the Maltese authorities and is subjected to the demeaning immigrant internment process along with hundreds of others. Thanks to Cal’s help on the outside, Aziza is eventually taken in by a Montreal family as a nanny. Cal will eventually follow her there where he plans to attend university. At the time of Aziza’s rescue, Zoe is in Mexico trying to track down clues about her parent’s death (the bodies were never recovered) and where she discovers her parent’s marriage wasn’t as secure as she thought, which raises more questions in her mind. One can feel Zoe’s frustrations at the insensible clues she is given, especially from Luz, a close friend of her mother:
“Lior did not like our friendship, which stood between them, but she could not have survived…without me.” “Well, she didn’t.” Luz sat erect, her chin raised, looking past Zoe. “Neither did he.” Shit, Zoe hated this woman.
In Many Waters is a multi-layered, multi-national, multi-generational story that is fascinating to read. There is also the significant side story of Zoe’s estranged Aunt Yael (Cassandra’s older sister), who one day up and leaves Cassandra and her parents and disappears. The book is also quite informative regarding the history of the Jewish people in Malta and how they came to form a community on that tiny island. Overall an impressive read, right to the final page.
About the author: Ami Sands Brodoff is the award-winning author of three novels and a volume of stories. Her previous novel, The White Space Between, about a mother and daughter struggling with the impact of the Holocaust, won The Canadian Jewish Book Award for Fiction. Bloodknots, a volume of thematically linked stories about families on the edge, was a finalist for The ReLit Award. Ami’s debut novel,Can You See Me? was nominated for The Pushcart Prize.
Publisher : Inanna Poetry & Fiction Series (April 9 2017)
Language: : English
Paperback : 320 pages
ISBN-10 : 1771333650
ISBN-13 : 978-1771333658
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This ambitious novel (420 pages) by Ms Guzzo-McParland is an epic story of an Italian family emigrating to Canada, some (like Caterina the narrator) to join their family, others (like her older friend Lucia) to meet husbands for the first time. They make the voyage by the sea in the late 1950’s onboard the Saturnia, from which the story takes its title. Caterina, her mother Teresa along with Lucia the teenage proxy bride are “the women” of the Saturnia.
The Women of Saturn is a fine novel demonstrating that Ms Guzzo-McParland can certainly write a gripping novel.
While many of the passengers experience sea sickness for much of the voyage, Caterina and Lucia do not and have the freedom of the ship. Younger Caterina is charged with monitoring Lucia, ensuring that she doesn’t get involved with any of the overly-attentive male staff, a task which Caterina neither likes nor is entirely successful at. It is here, onboard the Saturnalia that the back story is developed and the reclusive, bookish young Caterina is awakened to the realities of life. Engrossed, she wants to remember it all and write it down with aspirations of becoming an author one day.
Presently, Lucia has been the victim of a vicious beating and lies comatose in a Montreal hospital. Speculative ties are made to the Montreal mafia, and while Caterina cannot quite believe it, she feels she must find out how her fellow ‘woman of Saturnalia’ came to be in this situation.
“There are still too many circles floating around me, all bits of one life! How to make sense of it all in a linear form? There are still some huge gaps in Lucia’s story between our ocean crossing and now.”
Her search takes her back to the rustic Calabrian village of Mulirena, where she and Lucia grew up and where Lucia was to marry Antonio until an incident occurred and she was forced to become a proxy bride for Pasquale, who was already in Montreal. Now, with his wife in a coma, Pasquale has fled back to Italy and more questions are raised in Caterina’s mind, as well as amongst the paesani in Montreal. Added to her worries are Lucia’s troubled teen daughter Angie and her boyfriend Sean’s aspirations for public office and how all this reflects poorly on his public image.
A greatly enjoyable, well-written and constructed story with many layers that kept the narrative moving along briskly and the pages turning. The story’s setting gives an insight into the Montreal of the post-Olympic era when the construction scandals were exposed and mob ties were the centre of attention, causing the Italian community to be further stereotyped.
Yet, The Women of Saturn winds up with a somewhat dissatisfying and all too sudden conclusion, leaving this reader with more questions than answers. Notwithstanding, this book is a fine novel demonstrating that Ms Guzzo-McParland can write a gripping novel, though one that begs a more definitive conclusion.
The year is 1936 and the Clarey family of Halifax, Nova Scotia is, by all accounts, a typical family. The father, Charles is the latest owner of Clarey Paint and Glass, a business started by his grandfather. Charles and Mary Clarey live in a house with their children Edith (Edie) and Mel. Their oldest, Gus is away at a seminary college in Antigonish. Mel’s best friend Lawrence (Lawrie) Shine lives across the street. The Spanish Boy opens with Mel, Lawrie and Edie all running to the Halifax waterfront to get a glimpse of the German airship The Hindenburg. It is a moment, frozen in time that resonates throughout their lives. They are all teenagers living in the pre-war innocence that is North America in the inter-war years. However, world events, a new Clarey employee (“the Spanish Boy”) and Edie’s disappearance will soon end all that, resulting in a lifetime of grief that is carried by all, in various ways for the next 67 years:
“Her (Edie’s) presence had bound them together. Her absence rendered them solitary creatures, unable any longer to find comfort in each other’s company; and yet afraid to remain apart and lose the last vestige of her.”
The Spanish Boy subtly draws you in by acquainting the reader with the routine of life in 1936 Halifax, and the regular mundaneness of existence in a carefree world (in Canada, at any rate). However, Ms Reardon soon takes us into the lives and thoughts of the various characters, such as Theresa, the Clarey family’s live-in housekeeper, the sole survivor of her house when the Halifax Explosion happened in 1917, claiming the life of her two children whose bodies were never found and rendered Theresa physically and emotionally scarred. There is 18-year-old Edie, finished high school and put to work by her father answering the phone in the family business. Her father has bribed her to do this job by giving her a new bicycle, for it saves him from paying out a full wage in these difficult times. Edie is naively adventurous and usually gets her own way. Then there is Micah Gessen (aka Michael Green) a Jew from Toronto appears in Halifax looking for a job so he can purchase passage on a ship to get to Spain where he wants to fight in the revolution. The strangely handsome Micah turns Edie’s head and she too wants to go to Spain with Micah, (who doesn’t want her tagging along) although she has no idea of what awaits her or what she will do once she gets there. She just wants adventure.
An amazing and captivating read, The Spanish Boy came recommended to me by Binnie Brennan, to whom Ms Reardon credits in her acknowledgements for her guidance. Indeed, Mel’s final years in the Shorefront Residences nursing home evoked memories of Ms Brennan’s 2009 novella Harbour View, about life inside a small Halifax nursing home from both the resident’s point of view as well as the staff’s. Both books are highly sensitive to the plight of our elderly family members, who are practically forgotten in the cloistered environment they have been relegated to.
I highly recommend The Spanish Boy. It has mystery, mirth, grief and an overreaching sense of pathos that will leave you pondering the seemingly insignificant occurrences that affected the Clarey family over the years (the Hindenburg, a bicycle, a belt, a stolen hat, missed opportunities, etc.) and it may well cause you to reflect back on your own experiences as well. CanLit at its best, it is a certain entry on the “Very Best” Book Award longlist for 2017.
Samantha Rideout was born and raised in an outport community in Central Newfoundland. Her first novel, Pieces, was released in 2013. She currently lives in New York with her husband, Rob. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the primary female antagonist of The People Who Stay (2016, Flanker Press), Sylvia Pride, is also from an outport community and lives with her husband in Boston. She left Newfoundland to find something better, wanting to escape its close confines of friends and family and spread her wings. It is there that she meets that man who becomes her husband, Tyler.
“…this little trip down memory lane has shown me some truths I needed to see. Getting away from home, getting home, however you want to look at it, it was good to take some time to rethink everything.”
Ten years after she left, she and Ty return for her cousin Mary’s wedding. She shares her thoughts with us as she takes in the familiar surroundings of the fictional community of Cuddlesville: “she inhaled the fresh sea air through her nostrils. Permeated by Newfoundland air, for a fleeting moment she felt a positive spin on her melancholy attitude toward the province. A little fluttering feeling in her heart made her remember that buried among the bad memories were a set of good memories just out of reach.”
To Sylvia, the town appears frozen in time as all the familiar landmarks are still there ten years later. Yet, while the community may have not changed outwardly, the people she grew up with are no longer children either, including her childhood friend Charlie, who is married with four children. Charlie has married Sylvia’s other childhood friend Drew for whom she once thought she had feelings for, but now knows otherwise. The book is divided into Parts I and II, and Part I takes up 3/4 of the book. About half of Part I is the lead-up to the wedding of Mary and Phonse, in which everything that can go wrong does. It also deals with Sylvia’s emotions about reconnecting with family and friends she has not kept in contact with while dealing with her and Ty’s domestic problems and he inability to carry a baby to term without miscarrying it. By the time the wedding is over, I was getting weary of reading this book; incorrectly labelling it as “ChickLit”. Then, Ms. Rideout surprisingly states at the end of Chapter 24:
…but the story doesn’t end here. The wedding is just the halftime show. The most important players are just beginning to come to life. After all, if the story ended at the wedding, there wouldn’t be a story.
Well played, Ms. Rideout! You made me want to keep reading, and I am happy I did so, for the rest of the book gets down to the real story: true friendship, marriage and family and what’s important and what’s not. Sylvia thinks to herself: “this little trip down memory lane has shown me some truths I needed to see. Getting away from home, getting home, however you want to look at it, it was good to take some time to rethink everything.”
Overall, The People Who Stay is a thoroughly enjoyable, stimulating and insightful read and will appeal to anybody who has left home to strike out on their own, and may have come to realize that something may be missing in an otherwise fulfilling life.
It is a curiosity that the more I enjoy reading a book, the more difficult I find composing a review. This is especially so of a work of fiction and even more especially so with a book like The Last Half of the Year by Newfoundland author and actor Paul Rowe (2016, Killick Press). It is a book I read through so fast, that it took quite a bit of reflection to see it’s deeper themes.
Read it slowly and carefully, for The Last Half of the Year is intricately interlaced, and it will hold you spellbound up to the final pages and long afterwards.
TLHOTY (if I may use the acronym to save typing it) is an enthralling journey through the lives of Jason (Jasie) Dade and his father Saul Dade. Mr. Rowe deftly takes a piece of Dade DNA, proceeds to unfold it, dissect it, then reassemble it to see where the parallel accounts of father and son intersect and interact. It is all recorded for our reading enjoyment in TLHOTY‘s 300 pages.
Father & Son, Dreamer & Drifter
Saul’s story starts (or gets jump-started) when the Great War breaks out. He immediately throws down his farm implements to volunteer. He ends up as a sailor with the Merchant Marine, has his ship torpedoed out from under him, is eventually rescued (“stay calm and wait” he tells himself) and returns to Newfoundland with big dreams in mind. It is shortly after he gets overseas that Saul makes a trip to Scotland to meet up with some friends from back home that are in the Forestry Service there. Drinking in a bar he meets a curious tattooed man. The man is Petro, a Russian Jew and who actually owns the bar they are drinking in, The Thunder Stone. Petro (whose name tellingly means stone, or rock) tells Saul how the original Thunder Stone was moved to St. Petersburg square to serve as the pedestal for the statue of Peter the Great. He prophetically tells Saul there is a large stone back where he lives (even though Petro has never been there): “I tell you Saul Dade, in the place of this stone there is a large treasure and it will help you obtain everything you seek.”
We initially meet Jason Dade as a first-year university dropout who is leaving home to travel with a friend to the North City (which is somewhere on the mainland of Canada). He is in search of The Man. He is certain that when he meets The Man, his purpose in life will be clear. Along the way in his intrepid and seemingly directionless travels Jason encounters many people, some good, some bad, but like his father drifting in the Atlantic ocean awaiting rescue, Jason patiently awaits his encounter with The Man.
TLHOTY alternates back and forth between father & son, past and present in a most engaging way, demonstrating that although Saul and Jason may not have a close relationship,in the end they are not really that different.
This was an amazing read. Author Paul Rowe has penned a clinic in creative writing with a plethora of recurring themes, symbols such as crucifixion, anagrams, acronyms and so on. Read it slowly and carefully, for The Last Half of the Year is intricately interlaced, and it will hold you spellbound up to the final pages and long afterwards. I am adding it to the long list for “The Very Best!” Awards for 2016.
Just after finishing Let Us Be True (2015, Coteau Books), I rated it a 3 out of 5 stars at Goodreads. Then I changed my mind and gave it another star because I kept thinking about the story long after I finished it, which is a sign of a four-star book for me. I kept thinking about it primarily due to the way the author, Erna Buffie has written the life story of Pearl Calder. As the central character, the entire novel swirls outward and around Pearl, moving horizontally from the past to the present, yet, like the game of 3D chess they play on the Starship Enterprise, there are vertical components to the story as well. It all comes together in a wonderfully woven story that goes back and forth from the Prairies to the battlegrounds of Europe.
Primarily, the novel is about Pearl and her two daughters Darlene and Carol and begins in the year 2000 with the death of Pearl’s husband Henry. Pearl ponders a life without Henry:
Her Henry. She’d sometimes wished to God he was somebody else’s Henry, and now he was. He was God’s Henry and she was alone with…two daughters she didn’t understand.
Pearl is a brash, belligerent and opinionated woman around her daughters, but others often comment how nice Pearl is, one nurse even calling her a “sweetie pie” and a “real little peach”. The daughters never see this side of their mother, her demeanour due in large part to the secrets she is keeping from them.
[Pearl] was like her name: like sand between your toes, an irritant that had rolled itself into something hard and round and opaque but not smooth. More like a freshwater pearl: irregular and covered in ridges.
At one point, when she is seemingly on her deathbed, she confesses the truth about her life, not to one of her children, but to Athena, Darlene’s friend: “I’m going to tell you something.” She said. “And when I’m gone, I want you to tell my kids.”
There are times when Pearl looks back on her younger days, an orphan along with her sister Winnie after their parents die under tragic circumstances. They are raised by an Aunt and Uncle who don’t want them, with the older girl Winnie running away leaving Pearl alone with them, much to Pearl’s displeasure. Interestingly, the book’s cover image is that of a sad young girl in an old (hand-me-down?) print dress grasping barbed wire. Is it a young Pearl despairing of her life on her hateful Uncle’s farm? It could very well be.
So Many Secrets
Certainly, no one in Let Us Be True has an easy time of it. Everyone has their trials and their secrets, thinking them best kept to themselves, much to the consternation of their loved ones. Some, like Pearl’s father, bring back terrible memories of the war, others try to escape a dreary life on the Prairies by enlisting, never to come back at all. Yet, Let Us Be True is not really a ‘sad’ or depressing book, but one full of truth, just as the title beckons us to be. If all the characters in this book were true to their loved ones, their lives would certainly be less tragic.
Let Us Be True is Ms. Buffie’s first novel, and as such is a great accomplishment, and one she can be proud of. Her writing is not overly sentimental, but she captures the lamentable situation of each character well, in terms we can empathize, if not sympathize with. As I was reading, I kept thinking how her style was similar to that of Binnie Brennan’s whose books I also enjoy and have reviewed here for The Miramichi Reader. Ms. Buffie’s descriptions likewise provide a spark of uplifting realism.
There are a couple of such passages I really enjoyed and both occur near the end of the book; one when Pearl is airing out Winnie’s sickroom, the other when Pearl’s mother Lettie is contemplating her illness whilst putting up preserves. The attention to detail and the flow of the narrative is startling. It cannot be easy to make each character distinct (male or female), but again, Ms. Buffie accomplishes this task very well.
Something else I realized after finishing it was that I didn’t read it carefully enough in the first place. In order to do this review justice, I had to revisit the book in several places to piece the story back together. If you read this book, take the time notice the ‘small stuff’; it may not make seem to be important until later in the book! Since the book goes back and forth in various time periods, you need to pay keen attention to who does what and what happens to them at the time to fully comprehend their circumstances. Despite this, I would say that this book is very readable, and is a notable first effort from Erna Buffie, one that should get her long-listed, if not short-listed.