All I Ask by Eva Crocker
Melt came to mind as I read this book – the characters in All I Ask are friends who live and work in St. John’s, NL. Unlike Jess and Cait, Stacey and Viv are younger and only just starting to move from school to careers and long-term relationships.
Soon after Stacey moves into her new apartment–with a new roommate who she’s not really sure about–she is woken up by the police early one morning. While still in her pajamas, the police aggressively force their way in and conduct a search of her apartment. They question her, but ignore the questions she asks of them. The only information they give her at the time is that they have evidence of “illegal digital material” being transmitted from this location.
All of Stacey’s digital devices have been confiscated for a search. Stacey, feeling violated, tries to remember what she might have saved on there from over the years. What will happen if they find something?
They took my computer and phone so they could copy the contents. They called it a mirror image. They said it was the fastest way to prove I wasn’t the suspect and also I didn’t have a choice.
All the stupid things I’d googled. Things I should have known. ‘When did Newfoundland join Canada?’ ‘What is Brexit?’ ‘Are most oven dials Fahrenheit or Celsius?’ How much of that is in the mirror image? Reams of it.
Who was combing through my hard drive? Picking through the digital traces, footsteps, shadows. Taking in the un-deleted drafts, all the weird, unflattering angles. Three or four guys, taking their time.
I kept wishing I’d gone home with someone so I wouldn’t have to be alone in this violated house. Every unfamiliar noise sent a jolt through me–‘The cats, it’s just the cats’, I kept telling myself.
Viv is enraged on behalf of her friend that the police would treat vulnerable citizens this way. She and Stacey’s new love interest suggest she file a report against them, but Stacey is the type who prefers to leave things alone and hope they go away: “For a moment I considered not telling her. It seemed like the sort of thing that could maybe be undone if you never ever mentioned it to another person.”
The inappropriate police aggression feels timely.
A part of me even felt guilty that someone might get a talking-to from their boss–when I get the wrong dish in a restaurant I don’t send it back for the same reason. Probably a moot concern, though–probably they all agree everyone was just doing their job. So they were a little overzealous. Mistakes happen. When cops make a mistake, suddenly mistakes are allowed to happen. Suddenly we’re all just humans doing our best to make a go of it.
All I Ask focuses on the characters and why they do what they do. As Marcie mentions in her review, Crocker is good at the details of ordinary life. For example, in this day and age when you’re without a cell phone: “My mother’s landline is the only phone number I know by heart. I put a quarter into the phone and listened to it drop into the guts of the machine. I pictured the coin landing on a pile of quarters, all dropped down there by desperate people.” And the inclusion of her cats as an important part of her life: “Snot sat on the toilet tank and watched me shampoo my hair; Courtney curled up in the sink, licking the bottom of the faucet.”
Stacey’s vulnerability comes through in a big way – a comforting reminder that we are not alone. Who hasn’t felt scared to stand up for themselves? To say no to the person in the store trying to sell you a credit card? To file a report against powerful men? To ask someone out? To wait for a reply from that job we really want?
Every time I got a phone call or an e-mail, hope and dread rushed through me. When it was just a mailing list I’d signed up for or a late notice from the library a swill of disappointment mixed with relief sloshed around inside me because it wasn’t an opportunity or a rejection.
I think that’s what makes this book stand out–the vulnerability of the characters; whether they are miffed at their friend, feeling betrayed by another, regretting a decision they’ve made, feeling jealous that their friend is spending more time with their partner, worrying about paying the bills, tip-toeing around their roommate, or nervous about bringing their new crush to the family Christmas party. We’ve all been there. (Or, at least, in the vicinity.)
The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
Most of you have probably either read or heard of this book by now. Published during the Covid-19 pandemic, The Pull of the Stars takes place during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. And, if that’s not enough intensity for you, it takes place in a room at the hospital set up for women in labour who are also infected with the virus.
I found this book to be a page-turner. The action in that little room was non-stop. But, like The Wonder, I had questions about the ending. Still, I’m not sorry to have read it. And it was interesting to note the familiarities to our world right now.
I saw a couple arm in arm below us hurry through a puddle of lamplight, their bluntly pointed masks like the beaks of unfamiliar birds.
On a fence, specifics of a variety concert with CANCELLED stamped diagonally across them; an advertisement for the All-Ireland Hurling Finals, POSTPONED FOR THE DURATION pasted on it. So many shops shuttered now due to staff being laid low by the grippe, and offices with blinds drawn down or regretful notices nailed up. Many of the firms that were still open looked deserted to me, on the verge of failing for lack of custom. Dublin was a great mouth holed with missing teeth.
Already I felt ashamed every time I caught myself resenting small privations when others had it so much worse. Guilt was the sooty air we breathed these days.
Woe and joy so grown together, it was hard to tell them apart.
Rebecca also found the story “gripping” despite its flaws.
Consent by Annabel Lyon
Although Consent is a suspenseful novel about two sets of sisters connected by something unknown to the reader until the second half of the book, I personally was most interested in the relationships – the ‘why’ of what happens, rather than the ‘what’.
Saskia and Jenny are twins, very different from one another. Sara and Mattie are even more different – Mattie, who is younger, is intellectually disabled. Saskia and Sara act somewhat as caretakers for their sisters, and, when things go extremely awry, their avengers.
Loneliness permeates the pages of this book. Saskia and Sara–the sisters requiring less care–fall through the cracks as the people around them put their energy into their needier sisters. In Saskia’s academic life, she researches the “intersection of solitude and physical sensation in literature.” In Sara’s personal life, she falls for a man who is unavailable. “Loneliness sends you into your body instead of your brain…”
Actually, they were both hard: angry and unforgiving. Actually, they were both soft, tender with pain and childlike with incomprehension.
(I found both parts of the story reminded me very much of other recent reads: Saskia and Jenny’s storyline, at one point, put me in mind of Pascale Quiviger’s excellent book If You Hear Me. While Sara and Maggie’s story shared similarities with Watching You Without Me by Lynn Coady.)
I’m not sure what Lyon is trying to say in the end (she’s too smart for me), but it haunts me still.
Penny found it “strange” yet “compelling”.
Their father had gone back to work the way a pitbull goes back to a mailman’s leg–grim, ferocious, unrelenting, joyless.
So brittle. Bit by bit she would chip off, shards sharp enough to cut, until there was just a blade of her left in the body’s sheath.
Clyde Fans by Seth
I’m still in the middle of reading this book – I’m not very good at reading graphic novels, so it’s been my breakfast book for several weeks now.
Clyde Fans was inspired by an old closed-up business in Toronto that the author noticed about 25 or 30 years ago, and the book was 20 years in the making. I’m not surprised – it’s a big book. And, even though it’s a graphic novel, the panels and illustrations are small and detailed, sometimes with 20 panels on one page.
And the story is complex: Clyde Fans was started by the father and passed on to his two sons, neither of which were really cut out for it, but one was far better at it than the other. Abe ran the business and Simon looked after his mother and their home that was situated above the store. Abe is a jerk to his brother (probably because he’s had a miserable life) and Simon is full of anxiety (which just makes Abe even more impatient with him).
The book alternates between narrators as well as moving back and forth through time (between 1957 and 1997). The brothers’ relationship is revealed, as well as the history they have with their parents and the Clyde Fans business.
My favourite thing about this book is the detail in it. I’d be done it by now if I didn’t keep getting distracted by the details in the illustrations. There are streetscapes with storefronts, piles of books on side tables, portraits on the walls, and old toys lined up on shelves.
Graphic novel fans won’t want to miss it. My fellow shadow juror, Lindy, calls it “a sophisticated, layered, existential masterpiece.“
Join others in reading the 2020 longlist at the new Scotiabank Giller Prize Book Club!