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Friday, December 2, 2016

Canadian Book Advent Calendar (Day 2) - "B" is for Badami, Baldwin, Boyden, and Burnard

For this year’s advent calendar, I am recommending Canadian authors/books found on Schatje’s Shelves.  Again, to make things more interesting/challenging, I will use the alphabet, skipping “X” and “Z”.  In total, I propose to focus on 50 Canadian writers, an early nod to Canada's 150th birthday next year.

“B” is for Anita Rau Badami
Anita Rau Badami is a writer of South Asian descent living in Canada. Her novels deal with the complexities of Indian family life and with the cultural gap that emerges when Indians move to the west.  I would recommend all four of her books.


Tamarind Mem
The Hero's Walk
Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?


“B” is for Shauna Singh Baldwin
Shauna Singh Baldwin is a Canadian-American novelist of Indian descent.

What the Body Remembers (2000 winner of Commonwealth Writers’ Prize)
The Tiger Claw (2004 Giller Prize nominee)
The Selector of Souls

 Review of The Selector of Souls   (3 Stars)
This novel is set in India in the mid-1990s. There are two major characters whose stories are told in alternating sections. Damini, a Sikh-Hindu, is a widowed grandmother who, after she loses her job because of the death of her long-time employer, moves in with her daughter and her family. Damini begins working at a health clinic. Anu, a Christian-Hindu, is a battered wife who leaves her husband after sending her daughter to Canada; she joins a convent and works at the health clinic which also employs Damini. The two work together to improve the lot of women.

This book is primarily about the (mis)treatment of girls and women in India, a supposedly democratic country but one dominated by a patriarchal society which views females as expendable. After assisting with the birth of her granddaughter, Damini wonders, “What terrible deeds must this soul have done in a past life, to now be punished by taking form as a girl. What will she face but suffering that leads to more suffering” (236). In the Acknowledgements at the end of the book, the author mentions, “Demographers estimate that 45 million baby girls were missing in India in the nineties, and 42.4 million from 2001-2008 as a result of prenatal selection. Worldwide, 160 million girls are estimated missing since the 1970s. Those missing girls inspired this novel” (545). The novel touches not only on prenatal gender selection (abortion of female fetuses), but also on infanticide of baby girls, arranged marriage, rape, and domestic violence.

The book is full of historical, political, and religious references which often obscure the narrative. There is no doubt that the author is writing from experience and has done extensive research, but sometimes the novel reads more like non-fiction because it is so crammed with data. The author’s voice overshadows the characters’ stories.

Another problem is that the book has much too many coincidences. Damini and Anu are very different in terms of background, age, and social status, yet their lives repeatedly intersect. In a country with a population of over a billion, they meet not only in New Delhi but also in a remote mountain town in northern India. People who figure in the life of one character eventually feature in the life of the other. For example, Amu’s husband’s first love is the daughter-in-law of Damini’s employer. Amu’s husband also eventually employs Damini’s son. The list goes on and on; the number of coincidences stretches credibility.

In terms of characterization, the men receive short shrift. Most are flat characters and all are misogynists to some extent. The one liberal-minded man mentioned is Anu’s father and he’s dead. Even Anu’s liberated aunt, who publically fights for women’s rights, is married to a man who, despite physical evidence, wants Anu to return to her abusive husband.

A further weakness is that the author uses vocabulary that would be very familiar to an Indian but not to a Western reader. Terms for clothing, caste, and religious ceremonies are often not explained, so the reader is left unable to visualize what is being described. A glossary would definitely have been helpful.

This book is worth reading because it certainly opens one’s eyes to a major issue in India (and other parts of the world as well), but it is unfortunate that the narrative is not allowed to speak for itself.

“B” is for Joseph Boyden
I’ve mentioned Joseph Boyden several times in my blog.  I would rank him amongst my favourite Canadian authors.  All three of his novels are must-reads for all Canadians.

Three Day Road (winner of the 2005 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, longlisted for the 2007 IMPAC    Award)
Through Black Spruce (winner of the 2008 Giller Prize) – See my review at
The Orenda (longlisted for the 2013 Giller Prize, shortlisted for the 2013 Governor General's Award for English fiction, winner of the 2014 Canada Reads competition) – See my review at

“B” is for Bonnie Burnard
This Canadian novelist won the inaugural Giller Prize.


A Good House (winner of the 1999 Giller Prize)

Review of Suddenly   (3 Stars)
Sandra, a middle-class, middle-aged woman is living through the last stages of breast cancer.  As the plot races forward to the inevitable end, it also meanders backwards as Sandra, via her journals, revisits happy and significant events in the past.  Sandra’s point of view is supplemented with that of Jude and Colleen, her best friends who help Jack, Sandra’s husband, care for her.

There are several themes:  how the process of dying changes those involved and their loved ones; how the lives of ordinary women contain stories worth telling; how memories are a kind of salvation.

A weakness is that although the novel is about female friendships, there is little direct dialogue among the three women who supposedly share everything; instead, there are only individual musings.

This is not a novel for those who enjoy action-packed books; this is a novel driven by character and relationships.