For the last few years I have been shadowing the Giller Prize along with other devoted CanLit fans. This year, I’m leaving all the deadlines to others, (be sure to visit Shadowing the Best of CanLit to see what Penny and Lindy and John have been up to!) but, of course, I couldn’t resist them completely. So, here are some quick thoughts about the Giller books I’ve read so far this year in the order in which I read them.
Glorious Frazzled Beings by Angelique Lalonde
This story collection is truly inhabited by “glorious frazzled beings.” And some not-so-glorious, depending on your point of view.
The stories are divided up into 4 sections: Homemaking, in which the characters–in some way–are making, or attempting to make, homes for themselves; somewhere for them to belong. Housekeeping, in which the characters attempt to keep their homes and families going. Home Breaking, in which the characters are in the process of breaking up their homes, or have already done so. Homing, in which the characters return home; to a physical home or to a place within themselves that feels like home.
You will encounter characters such as the ghost lady with the big head, a man who collects carpets, a woman who finds her late mother’s online dating profile, a woman who longs for a child while her partner is too wrapped up in his fictional world to notice, a man who expects his wife to take care of that dead leopard on the bathroom floor, and a boy who is born with “beautiful silver fox ears.” A mixture of realism and supernatural – from story to story you don’t know what you’re going to get.
Like any other creature in a story, in the town Carmen found she became flat. Losing edges to the page, the painful parts of her story carved off, shed like dead skin on a wet towel. The loathsome bits left for microscopic insects with mouthpieces specialized for dead human cells.
… lately there’s been an aching pulse in her womb that feels like a spirit trying to rip through the fabric of the universe seeking insemination in order to be made flesh.
Living together as a nuclear family in a walled-in house is like constantly burning little fires that aren’t put out properly and stepping on the hot ashes in the most surprising of moments.
She wishes her whole body could float away, settle onto the ocean, be eaten up by crustaceans, transformed into shell that will crumble to sand when the animal dies and its hard exterior is crushed beneath the ocean’s weight.
Connie doesn’t think it’s stealing if you take things from the people you love. Even if you don’t ask, even if they wouldn’t give it to you if you did. Because Connie gave everything to the people she loved. So much giving that a big chaos of emptiness grew in her where all the love had been.
One more woman washed out of a world scripted to efface her, not even a ripple in the surface of the fabricated story in which all people belong.
What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad
Through the character of a 9-year-old boy, the author brings us into a refugee-filled boat, precariously making its way across a body of water. Not knowing where they will land, or if they will land at all.
The story reads quickly with “before” and “after” alternating chapters. “Before” takes us on the boy’s journey leading up to the wreckage on the beach. (Not a spoiler as this is in the first chapter.) “After” takes us from the time of the wreckage on.
As he runs from the authorities on the beach, Amir encounters a fifteen-year-old girl who hides him in her barn.
He has never seen a girl like her before–perhaps on television, on the American shows, but not in the flesh. He felt when he first saw her that she looked familiar, but it is only now he understands why. She looks like the illustrated girl on the canister of the powdered milk his mother buys for his baby brother. They could never afford the good kind of anything, but his mother always made sure to buy the expensive powdered milk. He quickly learned you could tell the quality of a product by how Western the people on the packaging looked. White skin, blue eyes, blond hair–these things spoke of luxury, betterment, possibility.
The fact that we know what is going to happen to the refugees on the boat with Amir gives us the space to think about other things; rather than sitting on the edge of our seats wondering if they’re all going to make it, we’re free to think about each of the characters on the boat. What are their stories? How did they end up in this desperate situation? What about the owner of the boat… despite the fact that he seems fully aware of the dangers, he continues ferrying people across the water. Is he aware of the uselessness of his life jackets? We’re free to wonder about Amir’s mother and baby brother left behind in Egypt and his Uncle enduring the trip in the hold of the boat. Or to notice the tense atmosphere of waiting on the boat; waiting for something to happen–a land sighting, a storm, a fight, another boat, or just forever nothing.
It entranced him, the echo-breathing emptiness of the sea. Here or there a gull cried out, and if he leaned upward and let his eyes go limp he was able to shape the contours of the clouds into all manner of strange creatures, but these were only fleeting breaks in the nothingness.
Astra by Cedar Bowers
Astra is a book that will appeal to many. It’s about a woman who is trying to make her way in the world after having grown up on a commune. Not just any commune, a failed commune; meaning that she had very little social interactions and supervision over the years, and some of the ones she did have were questionable or damaging.
Each chapter of the book tells the story of Astra at a different point in her life and from a different perspective; the perspective of someone connected to her at that time in her life. The first being her father Raymond who decides whether or not to keep her by the role of his lucky dice.
The structure of the book not only allows us to see the complexity of Astra as she gets older, but it also allows us insight into the ten people who help to tell her story. Attraction, repulsion, fear, bewilderment, the desire to help, rescue, and control are among the reactions others have to Astra, helping to shape her way in the world. For a while it felt as though she was ping-ponging between whoever happened to show up in her life at any given time, until slowly she begins to orchestrate her own life.
Stand-out chapters for me include: Astra as a girl sneaking visits with Kimmy who lived nearby, crawling into her bedroom when Kimmy’s mom was busy with the new baby. Kimmy didn’t know what to think of this girl with the sheared-off hair and the scrapes and bruises all over her legs. “She’s like a character from a book. Like Gretel or Tinker Bell or Little Red Riding Hood. Brave Courageous. This girl wouldn’t blink if she ran into a wild animal, or a witch, or worse. She isn’t scared of strangers.“
Astra as a young woman, living with Doris, the woman who owns the commune Astra grew up on. Doris offered help when Astra needed a place to stay, but quickly begins to question whether that had been a good idea. “Astra can be wickedly defensive. Honestly, there’s no other way to put it; she is downright exhausting to be around.“
Astra trying to strike out on her own, hired by Lauren to be a live-in nanny for her son. But Lauren has issues of her own, and as Astra gets comfortable in her house, Lauren begins to worry about her husband developing an attraction to Astra, and becomes obsessed with Astra’s every move.
Astra as a new wife to Nick; Nick feeling as though Astra is the wild gem of a woman he’s been waiting for. A woman who needs rescuing. He convinces Astra to see a psychologist and pats himself on the back for it, thinking that it’s just the thing. “Nick likens talking with Astra about her past to unrolling a spool of barbed wire fencing–at every point there are tangles and sharp bits where they snag and stall.“
Astra from the perspective of Dom, someone who had lived at the commune with her for a week one summer. This is the chapter that, although late in the book, made me realize I was more invested in these characters than I thought I was. “If only there was a script for life. If he could have read ahead and seen just how elemental Astra was going to be.”
We’re not just matter. We’re not f*cking stars in the cosmos. We’re one human life stacked on top of the traumas and the tragedies of another.
The Strangers by Katherena Vermette
If you liked The Break, you will like The Strangers. It is written in a very similar way, alternating viewpoints, and chronicles the lives of three generations of Indigenous women. If you read The Break, you may remember Elsie and her daughters Phoenix, Cedar, and Sparrow. This book focuses on them, as well as Elsie’s mother and grandmother.
The Strangers encompasses themes of generational trauma, racial discrimination, physical and substance abuse, mental illness, and poverty. But it is also a story about how we are connected even as we are apart. Elsie’s daughters have been apart from her for years, and apart from each other. Elsie and her mother were never close, and while her grandmother tried her best to keep everyone together, the world had other plans.
Margaret used to think this was normal, that all families were made up of so many sad stories. But as she got older, it seemed only Indians, Metis, who had sorrow built into their bones, who exchanged despair as ordinarily as recipes, who had devastation after devastation after dismissal after denial woven into their skin. As if sad stories were the only heirloom they had to pass on.
As much as it hurt to read about Elsie’s struggle with addiction, it was her mother’s story that got to me the most. Margaret is so angry. Angry at her husband, her children, her mother, but mostly at herself.
On the day Cedar-Sage was born, Margaret was raging. Silently, only in her head, of course, while she went about doing every f*cking thing for every f*cking body, but it was a keen, bright rage.
Vermette wouldn’t write about such heavy topics without giving us hope, and in this book there is hope in the form of Cedar.
This is what I think is so sad, all these people who don’t talk to anyone else. No one seems to talk to my mom. I always thought if I knew everybody in my family, I would always want to talk to them… That’s what family should be. I wonder what happened to make it not like that for the Strangers. Can’t think of anything that would make me want to stop talking to anyone. Even after Phoenix did what she did, and all the warning against it, I still would give anything to see my sister again. Anything.
The Strangers was recently the winner of the 2021 Atwood Gibson Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.
Em by Kim Thuy
In the same way Katherena Vermette’s books are similar, Kim Thuy’s are as well. If you have loved Ru, Man, and/or Vi, you will love Em. It is written in the same poetic fragmented way. So beautiful that you can’t stop reading and suddenly the book is over.
Her books are also similar in that they are all connected in some way to the Vietnam war and the repercussions of it on the people. This one is inspired by Operation Babylift, which was the evacuation of thousands of biracial orphans (products of American soldiers and Vietnamese women) from Saigon in 1975. Em follows the fate of one such orphan as she makes her way in the world.
Some favourite lines…
In every conflict zone, good steals in and edges its way right into the cracks of evil.
Certainly, bullets kill, but so, perhaps, does desire.
Alexandre’s distress at the prospect of waking one night to the spectacle of his plantation on fire was concealed beneath his unbleached linen suit.
The discussions had been so bitter and the stakes so complex and critical that the negotiators forgot the existence of simple human beings, the ones waiting on those lands for the arrival of a baby or the ripening of a mango or, on a school bench, the announcement of a grade.
The tears of rage and bewilderment, of hatred and victory, of fatigue and joy, blended with the picture of brothers and sisters who must awkwardly embrace after a long dispute, while their hearts were still bleeding and their bodies covered in bruises.
Fight Night by Miriam Toews
This book is a gem. Written as a letter to her missing father, Fight Night illuminates a unique and beautiful relationship between a girl and her grandmother as the grandmother fights to live another day and the girl fights to keep her family together.
We all have fires inside us, even you. Grandma says you pour so much alcohol on the fire inside you that it’s guaranteed never to go out.
Grandma is full of mischief and a zest for life. She revels in shocking people with her talk of bowel movements, assisted dying, and sex, while Swiv is forever crawling around on the floor retrieving Grandma’s pills and pulling on her compression socks.
To be alive means full body contact with the absurd.
You play hard to the end, Swiv. To the buzzer. There is no alternative.
She said that what makes a tragedy bearable and unbearable is the same thing–which is that life goes on.
Some of the same themes run through Fight Night as her other books, particularly All My Puny Sorrows with its themes of mental illness and suicide.
She says Mom does the emotional work for the whole family, feeling everything ten times harder than is necessary so the rest of us can act normal.
Toews is a master at making us laugh and cry at the same time. If you love her work, you won’t want to miss this one.
He looked sad and happy at the same time. That’s a popular adult look because adults are busy and have to do everything at once, even feel things.
The Son of the House by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia
The title of this book is a bit misleading since the story is about the lives of two women. The circumstances in which we learn about them is an interesting setup – they are kidnapped together and have some time to kill as they wait for their loved ones to come up with a ransom.
The novel is set in Enugu, Nigeria. One of the women becomes a housemaid early in her life, moving from one family home to another over the years until she finally heads out on her own. The other grows up with more opportunities, has a career and her own flat, but feels as though she’s not fulfilling her “duty” as a woman unless she marries and has a child. Their stories advance chronologically until the day they are kidnapped.
Although the story is about women, it shows the repercussions in the lives of girls and women of the importance placed on sons in the Igbo culture.
I would make a better son of the house, I sometimes thought. But what fell to me was not carrying on the family name but ensuring that the one who was to do so succeeded.
I especially enjoyed the setting of this novel; a great addition to what I learned about Nigeria and some of its people and culture in the Giller-longlisted book from last year, Butter Honey Pig Bread.
A favoruite line: “Grief, she was thinking, had roiled my brains, and was now cooking beans with my best judgment.”
We, Jane by Aimee Wall
After some time in Montreal and a break-up with her live-in boyfriend, Marthe is feeling restless; like she wants to do something of some importance, something that means something. She meets Ruth, an older woman who is also from her home province of Newfoundland, and begins telling Marthe stories about a woman in rural Newfoundland who has been performing abortions for women in need. She tells Marthe about the underground movement from the 60s referred to collectively as “Jane.” Ruth starts talking about going back there and continuing the work, and taking Marthe with her as the next generation.
Jane wanted her to come along, to get tangled up, and Marthe wanted to be wanted in the thick of something. She wanted someone to be a little bit possessive of her.
A debut novel, this is beautifully written. What I like about it isn’t so much the story itself, but the familiarity in some of the characters and scenes, and the ideas.
Heather walked off all sturdy and calm, and Marthe raged inside. Of course Heather didn’t get it. Heather was another of those serene, fresh-faced girls Marthe used to break her own heart trying to get inside of, to be. Jealous of their calm and trying to squeeze in and take some of it. Why didn’t it emanate from them in a way she could catch? That containment, that quiet. That utter lack of a need for attention. Girls who never drank too much, never overshared. had really white teeth.
A man passed them on the sidewalk, the late thirties overgrown-child type, baggy shorts and hockey-player hair, sandals. He was just walking along, eating a donut, sipping from a big Tim Horton’s cup. Marthe wondered what it felt like to live in the world like that guy did.
Marthe wanted to belong to something but she wanted it to be the right thing. Marthe wanted to really do something. Marthe wanted to hold some kind of new control in her hands, Marthe still wanted some kind of vengeance on her body. Marthe wanted to know whether or not she actually really wanted to come home. Marthe didn’t want Karl back and she didn’t want the baby they didn’t have. Marthe wanted to keep accumulating. She wanted stories. She wanted to be Trish and Ruth and Therese and Jenny all at once. Marthe had a weakness for the future perfect. She wanted it to have been rich and complicated and joyful and messy and hard and she wanted it all under her belt already. Marthe was impatient but she also couldn’t choose. Marthe wanted to live out all the stories at once, she didn’t want to pick just one.
Which of these would you like to read?