Review 2104: The Other Side of the Bridge

Mary Lawson’s milieu is the tough life in remote northern Ontario. In The Other Side of the Bridge, she examines the relationships between parents and children and between brothers.

In the late 1930s, Arthur and Jake Dunn are a farmer’s sons. Jake was born after their mother had several miscarriages, and she has been so worried about him that he has not been made to work the farm, while Arthur works hard to help his father. Jake gets by on charm and recklessness, while Arthur tries to protect his mother by lying about the various fixes Jakes gets himself into. Arthur, who is quiet, solid, and dutiful, realizes at one point that Jake is purposefully making trouble for him.

Although his mother loves only Jake, Arthur has the moral high ground until a fateful accident on a bridge.

In the 1950s, Ian Christopherson is a high school student whose mother has left him and his father. He is harboring hatred for his mother for leaving and a disinclination to become a doctor like his father just because it’s expected. He also has a crush on Laura Dunn, Arthur Dunn’s wife, and asks for a summer job on the farm just so he can sometimes be around her. The couple seems content, but their relationship is more complex than he realizes until brother Jake comes home after having been gone for 15 years.

This novel is deeply affecting, dealing with long-suppressed emotions and intricate relationships. It is written in beautifully spare prose. Another great book from Lawson, who deserves a lot more attention than she seems to be getting.

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Review 2045: A Town Called Solace

I enjoyed Mary Lawson’s Crow Lake a great deal, but I can say for A Town Called Solace that at some point, I became so interested in it that I had a hard time putting it down to get other things done. This novel is set in 1972 and in memories of 30 years earlier.

Eight-year-old Clara is nearly stunned with anxiety. Her 15-year-old sister Rose ran away from home several weeks ago. Clara’s mother is prostrate from grief, and Clara stays looking out the window, because Rose told her she’d send her a message and she doesn’t want to miss it. She takes comfort in going next door to feed Mrs. Orchard’s cat, as she asked her to do when she went into the hospital. The only thing is, a strange man has appeared in Mrs. Orchard’s house.

That man is Liam. Clara’s parents haven’t told her that Mrs. Orchard died and left everything to Liam, a neighbor from her previous home she took care of when he was four. Liam has recently split from his wife and on hearing of his inheritance, quit his job and traveled all the way to far northern Ontario to Solace. His plan is to fix up the house and sell it, but he slowly becomes involved with people in the community.

Liam, who has always had trouble forming relationships, understands that Clara believes her parents are liars because they didn’t tell her about Mrs. Orchard, so he extends her the peace of his home when he is out so that she can feed and play with the cat, and the courtesy of not lying to her. Periodically, the novel returns a few months in time to Mrs. Orchard’s last few days and her memories of that time when Liam was four years old.

I absolutely loved this book. It is about loneliness and the difference that love and understanding can make in a life. It is empathetic without being mawkish or manipulative. It’s also about ordinary people trying to make their way through life. It’s lovely.

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Review 2042: The Maid

Dear Nita Prose,

For a good example of a narrator who doesn’t understand social cues, read Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and try harder.

P. S. Do you think it’s likely that a person being questioned by the police would, when asked about another person, sit there and think about every conversation they had with them, taking about six pages to do so? I don’t.

P. P. S. I did not finish reading your book.

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Review 2003: The Museum Guard

I have been a big fan so far of Howard Norman’s quirky novels. However, I had a slightly more mixed reaction to The Museum Guard.

DeFoe Russet has lived in the Lord Nelson Hotel in Halifax ever since his parents died in a freak Zeppelin accident when he was eight. As a boy, he was cared for by his uncle Edward, if you can call it that. Edward is an irresponsible, gambling, drinking womanizer with a lot of opinions.

DeFoe works as a museum guard in the small Glace Hotel, where his uncle also works when he bothers to show up. DeFoe is very much in love with Imogen Linny, the caretaker for the local Jewish cemetery. However, although they are lovers, Imogen is difficult and seems often to tolerate DeFoe.

DeFoe doesn’t seem to realize how stuck he is in his life. He has no plans except to continue working as a museum guard and to persist with Imogen. He is interested in listening to the tours of the museum given by Miss Dello, a local professor, and likes to think about the paintings.

Edward has been making himself obnoxious about DeFoe’s relationship with Imogen, whom DeFoe has kept from meeting Edward. But Imogen has recently become fascinated by a painting in the museum, Jewess on a Street in Amsterdam by Joop Heijman. Then there is a fateful meeting between Imogen and Edward in the museum. Imogen essentially dumps DeFoe and begins spending a lot of time with Edward, who without permission lets her into the museum at night to be with the painting. Soon, the novel takes a bizarre turn as Imogen begins to believe she is the woman in the painting.

The novel is set mostly in 1938 and 1939 against the background of what is happening in Nazi Germany. DeFoe tells us on the first page that he steals the painting for Imogen, and the novel is about what causes him to do that and what happens afterwards.

I guess this novel is about stepping out of ordinary life. However, a lot of time is spent on DeFoe’s obsession with Imogen, maybe a bit too much, and the novel just gets weirder as it goes along. I’m not saying I disliked it, just that it wasn’t one of my favorites of Norman’s novels.

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Review 1998: The Glass Hotel

A woman, Vincent, falls into the sea at the beginning of The Glass Hotel. Then the narrative returns to the past, covering about 20 years in time.

As a young woman, Vincent works as a bartender in an expensive hotel in Caiette, a small, isolated village on Vancouver Island. One day a strange message is painted on one of the lobby windows. Vincent is sure that her brother Paul, also employed by the hotel, did it because of his behavior and because she pulled a similar prank in high school. However, she doesn’t discuss it with him because shortly thereafter she meets Jonathan Alkaitis, the wealthy owner of the hotel, and leaves with him.

To get away from Caiette, Vincent has become Alkaitis’s much younger trophy wife. At least, she is pretending to be his wife. They aren’t actually married. Although there are other plot lines in this novel, most of the action centers around the discovery that Alkaitis has been running a Ponzi scheme.

There are a lot of characters in this novel, but Mandel doesn’t do much to make readers interested in them. In fact, I was struck about halfway through the novel when Alkaitis remarks that Vincent is interesting. There is very little dialogue in the novel, and frankly, Mandel hasn’t done much to show that she nor, really, anyone else is interesting.

Frankly, most of the characters in this novel are morally bankrupt. I was going to say excluding the investors, but actually they had to be either clueless or greedy, because most people would know the returns Alkaitis was paying were unlikely.

The last few pages of the book were really good, but do they make the rest worth reading? All I can say is I found the novel slow moving, and I kept putting it down. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t much like it, either.

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Review 1866: The Bird Artist

The Bird Artist, I find, is listed as the first in Howard Norman’s Canadian trilogy, of which The Haunting of L. is the third. I’m not sure I understand the grouping, since I have read several other books by Norman and they are all set in Canada, so far. However that may be, I continue to be charmed by his work even though it all seems to explore some dark places.

Fabian Vas is the narrator of the novel, and he tells us right off the bat that he has murdered someone. Then he goes on to describe his life in the remote village of Witless Bay, Newfoundland, where he becomes a bird artist and boat fixer, beginning his story in 1911.

Two complicated sets of relationships affect Fabian’s future when he is a young man. One is that between Alaric, his mother, and Orkney, his father. The other is between himself and Margaret, his longtime friend and lover. Margaret is acerbic, and Fabian seems ambivalent. Alaric hates Margaret, so she talks Orkney into arranging a marriage for him with a cousin he has never met. It is this arrangement that kicks off a series of events ending in some fatalities.

That makes it sound like a dark novel, but it is not. In fact, it has a lightness to it, in tone, in its insights in its characters. It is about betrayal and guilt but also about redemption. Another fine novel from Norman.

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Review 1819: Dirty Birds

Just before I read Dirty Birds, I attempted to read Quichotte by Salman Rushdie, and I was surprised by the parallels. Both protagonists are on a quest to make a woman love them. Although Rushdie’s protagonist is old and Murray’s is young, both are naïve and deluded. Road trips are part of each novel, and so is satire—Rushdie’s for the cult of personality and big pharma, among other things, Murray’s for the Montreal art scene and the young man as artist. I found Murray’s book more successful and a lot funnier.

Milton Ontario is a hapless young man who is not only utterly average but characterized by the extent of his naiveté and inexperience. He gets an idea in his head that he wants to be a poet, even though he writes atrocious poetry (at first dedicated to the love of his life, Ashley, and later to the love of his life, Robin), so he sets out from his small town for Montreal and a tiny room he has rented sight unseen in a dilapidated, filthy house full of students and would-be artists. There he attempts to enter the art scene and falls in love with Robin, the maker of a seven-minute documentary entitled Dirty Birds, who is almost unaware of his existence.

Milton stumbles through a series of horrendous jobs horrendously performed and meets a cast of rowdy, raucous characters. He inadvertently starts a riot and gets to meet his hero, Leonard Cohen, only to find he is a mob boss (where I think the novel starts to go a bit astray). In among all this silly action is a series of footnotes enlightening us about the history of Canadian mistreatment of indigenous peoples, Newfies, and French-Canadians, among others.

Although I think it gets a little carried away with itself (and I didn’t like the part about the late, great Cohen), for the most part, this novel is a hoot.


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Review 1738: #1976 Club! Lady Oracle

My final choice for the 1976 Club is this early novel by Margaret Atwood, her third. Up until now, the earliest novel I’ve read by her is The Handmaid’s Tale, published nine years later. Although her novels have mostly been totally unlike each other except for frequent forays into dystopia, Lady Oracle was surprising to me. For the most part, it is quite a silly romp.

When we first meet Joan, she has faked her own death and run away from her life to make a new start in Italy. Over the course of the novel, we learn why.

Joan grows up with a distant and disapproving mother and a mostly absent and ineffectual father. Her mother focuses on her weight, though, so as she gets older, Joan changes from trying to please her mother to defiantly trying to get fatter. It takes the death of her beloved aunt to bring her down to a normal size, because if she loses weight, she’ll inherit enough money to run away from Toronto to London. However, she is thereafter haunted by the spirit of the fat lady.

As a naïve teenager in London, she gets involved in the first of a series of odd relationships characterized by her eagerness to please—first an impoverished Polish Count to whom she loses her virginity simply because she doesn’t know what to do in an embarrassing situation; then her husband, a fervent and ascetic believer in some cause, if only he could figure out which one; then the Royal Porcupine, an artist who offers a bit of romance, albeit on the shabby side. All the while, she is hiding two secrets—that she used to be hugely fat and that she writes trashy romance novels for a living. To hide her past, she accumulates complex lies. However, her secrets are threatened when she almost inadvertently writes a best-selling book of poetry.

By and large, I enjoyed this novel, which gets more and more complicated as it goes along, and sillier and sillier. I was deeply disappointed in the ending, which read to me as if Atwood just got tired of writing the novel and wanted to get it over with. Although Joan seems to be finally developing some self-esteem by the last chapters, everything is left up in the air, and I fear she is doomed to repeat her past.

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Review 1598: The Haunting of L.

In 1927, Peter Duvette accepts a job as a photographer’s assistant in Churchill, Manitoba. The day he reaches the remote town, he meets his boss, Vienna Linn, and Linn’s fianceé, Kala Murie. Kala is in the middle of a lecture about spirit photography, in which the spirit of the deceased person appears in photographs of family or friends. After the lecture, Linn and Murie are getting married.

So, Peter is surprised when that night he ends up in bed with the bride. It’s not too long before Kala tells him that Linn makes money by causing disasters that he photographs for a rich client. So far, these disasters have mostly been train wrecks.

Quirky isn’t exactly the word for this novel, because it is about a truly evil person. But it is certainly hard to predict where it will go. It’s eerie and atmospheric while still presenting a moving love story. This is the third book I’ve read by Howard Norman, and I’ve greatly enjoyed them all.

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Review 1583: The Northern Lights

I so much enjoyed Howard Norman’s My Darling Detective that I made a note to myself to read more by him. I finally chose The Northern Lights because of its setting.

In the 1950’s, Noah Krainik lives with his family on an isolated lake in northern Manitoba. His father Anthony is a geographer who is mapping the far reaches of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, so he leaves Noah, his mother Mina, and his cousin Charlotte alone for months at a time. He blames his work, but there are some events that don’t add up. For example, while out working he somehow ended up in Halifax and arranged for Charlotte to live with them after her parents were killed in a factory collapse. Halifax is a long way from either Manitoba or Saskatchewan.

Every summer, beginning when he is nine, Noah takes the mail plane to Quill, 90 miles away, to live with his best friend Pelly and Pelly’s aunt and uncle, Nettie and Sam. There he experiences the richer life of a village of Cree Indians, trappers, and others who prefer this wilderness life that smacks of a much earlier time period. The novel begins, though, in 1959, when 14-year-old Noah learns of Pelly’s death.

This evocative novel explores the life in the wilderness and what happens when Anthony’s desertion provokes a move out of the wilderness to Toronto. There, Mina gets a job at the Northern Lights movie theater, where she first met Anthony.

This is a novel full of interesting, colorful characters, and I greatly enjoyed it. I especially liked the portion set in remote Manitoba.

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