From the Library: Love, Letters, and Listeners

In which I talk about the final installment of Andre Alexis’ Quincunx, the final Giller shortlisted book, the latest from a prolific Nova Scotian author, and the debut of another.

Ring by Andre Alexis

I think many Andre Alexis fans have been anxiously awaiting the fifth book in his Quincunx. On the other hand, I have been apprehensive about it; afraid that after reading them all, the whole project will still go right over my head.

The book itself is a romance with supernatural elements – another reason for apprehension; if it hadn’t been written by a beloved author I might not have been interested in a book of that description. And, I have to admit, romance is probably not his strength. But, putting aside the genre, Ring has plenty of other things going for it. All the thought and ideas that went into the book are better explained by Alexis himself. You can watch his book launch interview with Nick Mount here.

I appreciate the book (and the project) more having listened to Alexis talk about it. He explains that he’s interested in the idea of “the divine” and how divine/human interaction might look “put through the ringer of different genres.” He has included elements of each of the other novels in the quincunx in Ring: the character Robbie from Pastoral (as well as dreams about sheep); the poem at the centre of Ring–which he explains is also at the centre of the entire quincunx–is populated by gods (Fifteen Dogs); as well, there is a talking dog named Margos (reminiscent of Majnoun); Tancred from The Hidden Keys is the male love interest in Ring; and Professor Bruno from Days by Moonlight is a family friend of the main character. It’s worth reading just to make all the connections, of which I have only mentioned a few.

Alexis feels his purpose as a writer is to look at ideas from different angles, rather than come up with entirely new ideas; that “the renewal of the day-to-day is the biggest reward that literature can give.”

Letters Across the Sea by Genevieve Graham

Letters Across the Sea is the most recent book by Genevieve Graham. Her books are quick and enjoyable and I always learn something new about Canadian history. In this book, she writes about the increasing anti-Semitism in Toronto in the 1930s that led to the Christie Pits Riot. The story continues through the war years, delving into the Battle of Hong Kong and the Japanese POW camps.

As always in Graham’s books, there is a love story; in this case, one between Anglo-Canadian female journalist Molly (whose character is inspired by real-life journalist Rhea Clyman) and Jewish-Canadian Max who is involved in the Battle of Hong Kong and becomes a ‘missing person.’ As always, I told myself I’m not going to get caught up in the love story because I think I know how it’s going to end, but–as always–I did get caught up and I might have even got a little choked up.

The Listeners by Jordan Tannahill

The last of my 2021 Giller shortlisted books is a page-turner. A woman begins to hear a “hum” that her husband and daughter don’t hear, and it won’t go away. The Listeners shows us how one small thing that divides us can quickly become a big thing.

The thing was, the sound wasn’t at all loud or abrasive. It was just there, all the time, constantly wearing me down, eroding me. And yet, at times, even I began to doubt whether it existed.

I felt us all slipping. Slipping into a household of secrets, and silences, and resentments. And me, slipping fastest of all, into darkness. Into days of never leaving the house. Never leaving myself. Never leaving the hum.

When the woman finds a group of others who can hear the hum, the destruction moves from one household to the community and leads us to ask questions: What is truth? Who is right? Who can we trust?

In this world of fake news and conspiracy theories, The Listeners is a timely read. I had some questions near the end that didn’t get answered, but maybe that’s intentional – maybe I’m supposed to make up my own mind as to what’s real and what’s not.

One Who Has Been Here Before by Becca Babcock

Although this book is inspired by the Goler clan of Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, Babcock wanted to present them in a gentle light. From an interview with the Writer’s Federation of Nova Scotia, Babcock explains, “… this family has been through a lot. The more I learned about them, the less I wanted to add scrutiny to them and what they’ve lived. I hope my book makes readers consider families like the Golers more gently.”

Emma is a grad student who comes to Nova Scotia to research the notorious Gaugin family. Readers who are looking for something dark and suspenseful may be disappointed – the book focuses on Emma’s personal journey: reconciling with the past and opening herself up to the future. It encourages the reader also to be open to seeing people and situations from different perspectives; it’s easy to label someone as “bad” rather than try to understand the circumstances behind their actions.

You can just be you, and I can just be me, and that can be enough.

I loved reading about Emma’s hikes into the woods to visit the abandoned house and outbuildings that were left behind when the arrests were made. The stories they could tell if only they could speak.

The buildings aren’t waiting. They’re sighing, sinking, leaning back into the ground, letting themselves ease slowly into the soil. They’re not surrendering to the seeds and the roots, the bird and mouse nests. They’re opening up, offering themselves. They’re not waiting at all. They don’t need anyone. They don’t need me.

What have you been reading from the library lately?

24 thoughts on “From the Library: Love, Letters, and Listeners

    • Naomi says:

      I didn’t mean to make it sound as though the book doesn’t work on its own – I just appreciated it *even more* having listened to him talk about it. Sorry for the confusion! 🙂

  1. Rebecca Foster says:

    I loved Fifteen Dogs, but the rest of Alexis’ stuff isn’t readily available over here, and I’m not sure I’d commit to reading four more books…

    My husband and I have both had issues with mild tinnitus, so the premise of The Listeners appeals!

    I like the cover for One Who Has Been Here Before. It sounds a little bit like Claire Fuller’s books, maybe?

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, I can see the comparison to Claire Fuller.
      I think you and your husband should read The Listeners for sure! 🙂
      I found all five books worth reading, even as standalones, but I get the feeling of having to play catch-up on the other four.

  2. Karissa says:

    Yikes, I’d never heard of the Goler family but I just looked them up!

    I read 15 Dogs and I keep picking up The Ring in the bookstore and looking at it but somehow I always hesitate over whether or not I actually want to read it. There was something so unsettling about 15 Dogs that I’m not sure I want to delve back in to Alexis’ mind!

  3. Cathy746books says:

    The Listeners sounds really intriguing Naomi. I also hadn’t heard of the Golers before, but I like the idea of a book that tries to understand them rather than just sensationalise them.

  4. annelogan17 says:

    Every time an Andre Alexis book would come out, and then I wouldn’t read it, I felt guilty not experiencing this canlit award-winner. And yet, the descriptions and reviews of the books sort of put me off, I think they’d go right over my head, I need more concrete plotlines to keep me rooted.

    The Listeners was so different wasn’t it!

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, I really enjoyed The Listeners – a definite page-turner!

      I think you might like “Days by Moonlight,” because of all the small southern Ontario towns that are in it.

    • Marcie McCauley says:

      I echo Naomi’s suggestion if you are looking for just one of his to sample.
      There’s also A, which is kinda related to the cycle, but kinda not, and it’s super concise (like, could read it in an hour…sometimes that matters heheh).

  5. Laila@BigReadingLife says:

    One Who Has Been Here Before definitely appeals to me! I don’t know if I can get it here but I’ll keep my eye out for it.

    What have I been reading from the library lately? I just finished a book of essays by Kiese Laymon called How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others and it was fabulous. Just starting a book called The Genius of Birds. I’m on a nature book kick.

    • Naomi says:

      Ooo… The Genius of Birds sounds good. I’d love to listen to that one.
      I like the title of Laymon’s book. I see that you gave it 5 stars!
      I have several books from the library right now and am trying to decide which one to read next – they’re all so different!

    • Naomi says:

      I’m thinking most people outside of NS have probably not heard of the Golers. I can barely remember them being in the news when I was little. My parents definitely wouldn’t have wanted me to know about it!

  6. Marcie McCauley says:

    Did you ever read A.S. Byatt’s Possession? It has a definition for ‘romance’ in it as the epigraph and I was thinking maybe that’s the kind of story he was aiming for in Ring. I admire the cycle, even though I had the distinct sense that this one–the third, but the fifth one published (so it’s the centre of the quincunx shape, the part that unites all the others around it)–was playing with things that are too literary for me to properly appreciate. The connections were fun though! I’ve not read Graham for ages…she seems like good pandemic reading though.

    • Naomi says:

      You know, I really enjoy whipping through each of Graham’s books as they come out, and because I’ve kept up, I can’t stop now! WWI is next, I think!

      I’m glad you ended up finding things to like in Ring. 🙂

      I have not read Possession! And I was just telling Rebecca not long ago that I have one of her books but I was sure it was NOT Possession. Then I came across it a few days later and it IS Possession. So why haven’t I read it yet?!

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