Twitter Account

Follow me on Twitter (@DCYakabuski) and Instagram (@doreenyakabuski).

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Review of WASHINGTON BLACK by Esi Edugyan

4 Stars
Set in the 1830s, this novel, shortlisted for both the Man Booker Prize and the Giller Prize, covers about eight years in the life of its narrator, George Washington Black (Wash).

Wash was born into slavery on a sugar plantation in Barbados.  When he is 11, he is rescued from the brutality of field work when chosen by Christopher Wilde (Titch), a naturalist and inventor and the brother of the plantation owner, to be his manservant and to assist him in his scientific endeavours.  Wash’s intelligence and his aptitude for drawing pique Titch’s interest so he nurtures his talent and introduces him to the wonders of the natural world.  The death of a man leaves Wash with a bounty on his head so Titch and Wash flee the island.  This is the beginning of Wash’s travels as he eventually finds himself in far-flung locales as he tries to make his way in a world, “trying my best . . . to be my own free man” (231).

In some ways this is an adventure tale.  Wash travels the world:  Virginia, the Arctic, Nova Scotia, London, Amsterdam, and Morocco.  He gets to fly in a hydrogen balloon, sail the sea and dive into its depths, and see the high Arctic and the desert.  It is also a coming-of-age story showing Wash’s psychological growth from youth to adulthood.  Most importantly, it asks the question, What is true freedom?

As a child, Wash asks his surrogate mother, “’What it like, Kit? Free?’”  She tells him, “’When you free, you can do anything. . . . You go wherever it is you wanting.  You wake up any time you wanting.  When you free . . . someone ask you a question, you ain’t got to answer.  You ain’t got to finish no job you don’t want to finish’” (9).  As a slave, Wash has no freedom; his owner even takes measures to ensure that his slaves aren’t free to choose death by suicide.  So Wash dreams of freedom, though Titch warns him, “’Freedom, Wash, is a word with different meanings to different people’” (154).  

When Wash escapes the plantation and Titch offers him freedom in Upper Canada, Wash admits, “’I was terrified to my very core, and . . . the idea of embarking on a perilous journey without Titch filled me with a panic so savage it felt as if I were being asked to perform some brutal act upon myself, to sever my own throat” (182).  This reaction reveals that Wash remains a slave; he knows no life but being the property of someone else, though it upsets him when Titch, to avoid confrontation, tells someone, “’Indeed, the boy is my property’” (140).  In a telling comment, Titch laments, “’You will never leave me, Wash . . . Even when I am gone.  That is what breaks my heart’” (216).

Eventually, Wash must live on his own.  Once he is forced “to leave behind Titch’s coddled world,” he discovers he will never be free of “the brutality of white men.  To be called nigger and kicked at in disgust like a wharf rat” (231).  Though he is technically a free man in Nova Scotia, he hides from a bounty hunter he fears is looking for him.  Though he becomes an accomplished illustrator and a pioneering zoologist, he cannot get the recognition he has earned:  “in the end my name would be nowhere” (385).  At one point, Wash makes a conclusion that his time with Titch “had schooled me to believe I could leave all misery behind, I could cast off all violence, outrun a vicious death.  I had even begun thinking I’d been born for a higher purpose, to draw the earth’s bounty, and to invent; I had imagined my existence a true and rightful part of the natural order.  How wrong-headed it had all been.  I was a black boy, only – I had no future before me, and little grace or mercy behind me.  I was nothing, I would die nothing” (165).  

Just as Wash always carries physical scars of his slavery, he can never be truly free of the psychological trauma of his enslavement.  For example, he has difficulty trusting people; whenever he meets someone, he remains suspicious:  “Despite his general mildness, I feared him, of course” (80) and “no part of me did trust him” (177) and “But it is also true that there was something in him I did not fully trust” (234).  After he lives without Titch in his life, he feels he has no identity because he had one only in relation to Titch:  “I became a boy without an identity, a walking shadow” (230).  His sense of wonder at the natural world and his sketching of it cover his fear and loneliness because he remains a lost soul with a “sense of rootlessness” (400).

Of course, the concept of freedom is examined through other characters as well.  Does Titch’s father stay in the Arctic to be free of familial ties?  Titch is an abolitionist who believes “Slavery is a moral stain” which “will keep white men from their heaven” (105), but in order to do his research and create his inventions, he requires access to money made by the sugar cane plantation where slaves labour and are inhumanely treated so he can never be truly free of family duties.   Though Titch has more personal freedom than his family’s slaves, feelings of guilt haunt him, and he is like Wash who cannot be free of his past.  Wash recognizes that “wounds had arrested [Titch] in boyhood” (416) and because of Titch’s background, Wash even speculates that perhaps for Titch “any deep acceptance of equality was impossible” (322).

The cover of my copy has a sketch of an octopus which proves to be a symbol in the novel.  On a diving expedition, Wash finds an octopus that “swam directly into my hands” (274) and he wishes to keep it alive and protect it.  The octopus is, of course, an exotic creature, and Wash sees himself as an oddity:  “a creature . . . a disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind and a talent on canvas, running, always running, from the dimmest of shadows” (230-231).  When taken captive, the octopus becomes ill in her tank; “I looked at the octopus, and I saw not the miraculous animal but my own slow, relentless extinction” (337-338).

There are some elements in the novel that irritated me.  For instance, there are quite a few coincidences where people appear almost magically.  Wash’s narration also bothered me:  though he is obviously intelligent, he is an uneducated boy born into slavery who struggles with learning to read, yet he has such an extensive vocabulary?

Though not perfect, this is a book I can see myself re-reading.  It has a depth that invites a second look.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Review of A LIGHT OF HER OWN by Carrie Callaghan (New Release)

2 Stars
This novel is set during the Golden Age of Dutch painting.  In 1633, in Haarlem, Judith Leyster is a young woman striving to have her own artist’s workshop and to be the first woman admitted to the artists’ guild.  She struggles with money problems because the male-dominated art world seems to be conspiring against her.  Meanwhile, Judith’s friend Maria is a guilt-ridden Catholic, in a time when her religion is banned, always looking for ways to atone for her perceived sins.  

This book felt so flat to me.  It is full of historical detail about domestic life and the technical aspects of painting, so the author obviously did considerable research.  However, the novel’s style, inconsistencies in plot, and poor character development left me feeling that considerable revision is needed.

Let’s start with style.  The author has a tendency to overuse short, choppy sentences:  “The flash of wet paint suggested a few lines.  On the right sparkled a small star.  She gave a slight smile and used the back of her hand to wipe away another tear.  Her monogram now marked the building as her own.  She dabbed a bit . . .”  Then there’s the repetition of words.  For instance, some form of the word shiver is used 18 times, and cold appears 38 times!  And paragraphs are so disjointed.  For example, Judith and Maria go to visit a dying man:  “The green-striped coverlet stippled as Maria added her hand’s weight to the bed, and Judith thought of the fields of hay bending in the wind that she had seen once while traveling to a countryside tavern.  Someone had since harvested that hay, and what did the field look like now?”  Is this supposed to illustrate Judith’s obsession with painting?  Later, “She walked slowly along the canal and watched the ripples as well as the few remaining raindrops fracturing the reflected trees.  Why was it so complicated, she wondered, to have what so many others had?  A livelihood, a scrap of freedom to do as she pleased?”  She admires the beauty of nature, as an artist might, but then that beauty has her bemoaning her lack of independence?  Some transitions are definitely needed.  

Then there are the inconsistencies and gaps in logic.  Judith tells a man she has “urgent business in Den Haag” but that man later comments that she can go to Den Haag to help her friend.  How does he know her urgent business is to help a friend?  Judith asks a friend how long he apprenticed with the painter Frans Hals when that friend started at the same time as she did?  A young boy approaches Judith and says, “’I’m from the prison.  They sent me to find you, right?’”  Who is “they”?  Maria sees smoke coming out the window of a house but she is distracted by a bird cooing?

Maria describes a relic as “’Bone fragments.  In a silver reliquary, which was itself inside a gold reliquary’” though she was told the relic was “’An ornamental silver box holding sacred bone and a carved bronze reliquary’”!  Maria hopes that a priest “had not segmented the bone, [a relic], which was already small.”  So it’s not bone fragments but one “already small” bone?  And why would a priest lend part of an “already small” relic to a friend whose parish has “Not painters, but sculptors or some such trade”?  Why would sculptors need a bone fragment?

The problem with characterization is that characters behave inconsistently.  Judith is all over the place.  When a friend is so ill she could die, Judith doesn’t tell her friend’s father, a loving father who is very worried about his daughter?!   Then later she just blurts out the truth.  She promises, against all common sense and obligation, to keep a secret and does so for the longest time, but then breaks that promise?  

Oh but Maria is even more scattered.  She has a traumatic experience that leaves her afraid to walk in Haarlem but then shortly afterwards she convinces her father to let her travel alone to Leiden and to stay overnight in a city she has never visited.  She worries about “how she was going to find her way in a new city” but then “she declined the directional guidance of the older gentleman who had chatted with her during the ride [in the carriage to Leiden].”  She stupidly doesn’t find herself accommodation for the night before curfew, thereby placing herself “in danger.”  For someone so guilt-ridden about her “sins”, she lies in a letter to her father?   Maria is supposed to be about 25 years old, but she behaves as if she’s half that age:  “she needed to learn to sacrifice her pride.  Though perhaps Judith should sacrifice hers.  Maria had sacrificed so much already.”  She becomes upset with Judith for breaking a promise rather than being grateful for her saving her life?

I think there’s an interesting story to be told about Judith Leyster, a real person, but unfortunately, this novel does not do that.  

Note:  I received a digital galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Review of THE WITCH ELM by Tana French

3 Stars
I was planning on reading the first book in the Dublin Murder Squad series since I’ve read so many positive reviews of it, but then I noticed that a standalone novel by the author was released earlier this fall.  I don’t know how The Witch Elm compares to the series, but I’m afraid the book doesn’t motivate me to read another Tana French novel. 

Toby Hennessy, as he states in the opening sentence, is a lucky person.   He is good looking, smart, athletic, and popular.  He has a good job, supportive parents, a close-knit extended family, stalwart friends, and a devoted girlfriend.  He has no real financial worries: he seems to have considerable savings and his parents put down the deposit when he purchased his apartment.  Toby suspects his cousin Leon thinks of him as “some pampered prince who had never dealt with anything tougher than a hangover” because even as a boy, “[Toby] never worried about getting in trouble – [he] always talked [his] way out of it.”

Toby’s good fortune comes to an end when he is brutally beaten in a home invasion.  As a result of the attack, he walks with a limp, slurs his speech, and has gaps in his memory.  In many ways, he looks like a stroke victim.  He also loses his confidence:  “Me, six months ago, clear-eyed and clear-voiced, sitting up straight and smart, answering every question promptly and directly and with total unthinking confidence: every cell of me had carried a natural and absolute credibility . . . Me now, slurring, babbling, droopy-eyed and drag-footed, jumping and trembling . . . defective, unreliable, lacking any credibility or authority or weight.”  

Toby moves in with his Uncle Hugo who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer.  While Toby is living at Ivy House, a body is discovered on the property and a murder investigation begins.  Because of his memory lapses, Toby starts to wonder if he may have played a role in the death.  

One problem I had with the book is its glacial pacing.  For pages and pages and chapters and chapters, nothing happens.  The discovery of the body, for example, doesn’t occur until page 162!  The pace occasionally picks up but then the plot becomes static again.  There are no real twists and turns, no real surprises.  Much of the novel consists of Toby’s speculations as his paranoia mounts.  

Another problem is that Toby is not a likeable character.  Before his trauma, he is judgmental and dismissive of others’ concerns.  When discussing disadvantaged youth, whom Toby describes as “scuzzy youths with low-grade criminal records,” he has little sympathy:  “’The recession’s over; there’s no reason for anyone to be stuck in the muck unless they actually choose to be.’”  When a friend with a less-privileged background tells Toby, “’You haven’t got a clue’”, Toby thinks his friend “liked to play up the wrong-side-of-the-tracks angle, when he wanted an excuse to get chippy and self-righteous.”

Even after his trauma, Toby does not become much more likeable.  He devotes a lot of time to complaining about the effects of the beating but does nothing to help himself.  He has no physiotherapy, speech therapy, or occupational therapy appointments during his extended stay at Ivy House.  His brain injury becomes a convenient excuse for violent behaviour sparked by a bruised ego.  He speaks about having learned about luck but by the time he explains his epiphany at the end, I didn’t care.

My other issue with the novel is two characters.  Toby’s girlfriend Melissa and his uncle Hugo are just too good to be true.  Since Toby is the narrator, we see the characters only from his point of view, but there is no evidence to suggest that they are less than saints.  And why would Melissa be so slavishly devoted to a self-absorbed Toby who shows little concern for anything outside his bubble of privilege?

This was a disappointing introduction to Tana French.  I appreciate that she does shed light on the devastating effects of brain injury.  Unfortunately, the book’s negative qualities outweigh the positive.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Review of TRANSCRIPTION by Kate Atkinson

3.5 Stars
Life After Life and its companion A God in Ruins are among my favourite novels, so I was anxious to read Atkinson’s latest book.  Unfortunately, it proved not to be as masterly.

In 1940, 18-year-old Juliet Armstrong is recruited by the Secret Service.  Her job is to transcribe recordings of meetings between British Nazi sympathizers and Godfrey Toby, a British spy posing as a Gestapo agent.  Later, MI5 puts her out in the field, infiltrating another group of Hitler supporters.  The novel then switches to 1950 when Juliet is a BBC producer, but her work during the war comes back to haunt her.  She receives a note with a threat:  “’You will pay for what you did’” (186).  Who is threatening her and why does a former colleague refuse to admit knowing her?

The novel emphasizes how truth is lost in wartime.  Juliet believes “that appearances were invariably deceptive” (188) and this belief is reinforced when she is told that “’The mark of a good agent is when you have no idea which side they’re on’” (116).  Juliet lies easily when first interviewed for a position with Secret Security, but she is accepted anyway; her interviewer “knew everything about her – more than she knew herself – including every lie and half-truth she told him at the interview.  It didn’t seem to matter.  In fact, she suspected that it helped in a way” (37).  

When first sent into the field and given a false identity, she is advised, “’And remember, if you’re going to tell a lie, tell a good one. . . . It can be a difficult concept, fabricating a life – the falsehoods and so on.  Some people find it challenging to dissemble in this way.’”   Juliet’s reaction is telling:  “Not me, Juliet thought” (80).  Looking back at the war, Juliet comments, “The war had made the world weary of facts” (178) because “People always said they wanted the truth, but really they were perfectly content with a facsimile” (185).  

By the end of the war Juliet knows “she has moved away from [truth]” (19).  The problem is that, after adopting so many identities during the war, she seems to have lost herself:  “There had been other identities too, although she never owned up to them in public.  And then there was Juliet Armstrong, of course, who some days seemed like the most fictitious of them all, despite being the ‘real’ Juliet.  But then what constituted real?  Wasn’t everything, even this life itself, just a game of deception” (259)?  

One is left wondering how truthful Juliet is.  There’s an episode with earrings that shows her to be untrustworthy.  And ten years later, she continues to deceive.  She admits to lying in her BBC interview and she destroys incriminating evidence to protect herself and a colleague:  “It was not the first time she had destroyed evidence of wrong-doing and she supposed it wouldn’t be the last” (214).  At the BBC, she rewrites children’s radio histories to enliven them, often leaving out details, so one cannot help but wonder if she is leaving out details about her life.  Since her name is closely associated with a dramatic script, is Juliet playing a role?  Of course, Juliet is not the only enigma.  Juliet’s colleagues (Godfrey Toby, Peregrine Gibbons, Miles Merton) also remain largely unknown, as befits spies.

The problem is that it is difficult to emotionally connect with Juliet.  At the beginning, she is so naïve.  Her age explains her innocence, but surely she should have realized the truth about Perry much sooner.    And throughout her wartime activity, she makes frivolous comments.  She thinks of her role as an adventure, as she is told to do; though one incident makes her aware of the fatal consequences of her spying, her comments and interior dialogue suggest little true change in her attitude.  Would someone having to clean up after a killing actually quote Shakespeare:  “She would have to clean again.  And Again.  Out, damned spot” (284)?  Something seems missing, perhaps some warmth in her personality?  Juliet even refers to this:  “The unfathomable hollow inside her would never be filled” (171) and “She sometimes wondered if there was some emptiness inside that she was trying to fill” (205).

There are wonderful touches of humour.  Juliet’s thoughts during Perry’s courtship, for example, are hilarious.  What is missing is tension; for a spy thriller there is little danger except in a couple of episodes.  And because of the first chapter, the reader knows that Juliet survives.  The pacing is also uneven; for long stretches, nothing happens.  Though this shows spy work is often mundane, unlike what James Bond films might suggest, such plotting does little to maintain the reader’s interest.

The book has the literary allusions I love, quite a few surprises, and several layers:  “’There can be many layers to a thing.  Like the spectrum of light’” (312).  Unfortunately, the book just didn’t resonate with me; it didn’t have the emotional impact of Atkinson’s other World War II novels.  Juliet ends up feeling that people are often pawns in “someone else’s great game” (313) and in some ways I feel the reader is manipulated by how information is divulged and withheld.  I do think, however, that I might re-read the book because, like Juliet misses and misconstrues details, I might also have done so.  I guess I’d be a lousy spy!

Friday, November 2, 2018

Review of AN OCEAN OF MINUTES by Thea Lim

3.5 Stars
I chose to read this novel because it appeared on the 2018 Giller Prize shortlist and the brief plot outline intrigued me.

In 1981, the southern U.S. is hit by a deadly pandemic.  Polly Nader’s fiancé Frank contracts the disease so Polly agrees to travel to the future.  A company named TimeRaiser will give Frank the life-saving medicine developed in the future if Polly agrees to travel to 1993 and work for 32 months helping to rebuild a country devastated by the plague.  Frank and Polly agree to meet twelve years in the future and resume their lives.  Polly, however, ends up in 1998.  Frank does not meet her at the pre-arranged location on any of the agreed-upon days and she is unable to get information as to his whereabouts.  Is he still alive and, if he is, does he still love her?

The novel examines love’s ability to survive through time.  For Polly no time has passed when she arrives in 1998, but for Frank, if he has survived, 17 years have passed.  Being reunited with Frank becomes Polly’s hope through difficult times:  “From a completely objective standpoint, the odds [of Frank waiting for her] were poor.  But in that secret, covered place, between breastbone and sinew and pumping ventricle, Polly always knew he was coming” (119) because “All that love.  It can’t die.  It has to go somewhere” (178).  As time passes, however, she experiences periods of doubt:  “Polly was not sure of anything.  [She wonders if] love could neatly and unremarkably stop” though that thought “was more impossible and terrible than travelling through all of time” (185).  She takes solace by reminding herself of what she had once been told:  “No matter what happens, the past has a permanence.  The past is safe” (235).  Her mantra becomes, “Once something’s been done, it can’t be undone” (260) because Frank once told her, “Polly I can’t unlove you” (265). 

The author’s answer to the question of love’s durability through time may not satisfy everyone but I found the ending totally realistic.  Throughout the novel, there are flashbacks which show the development of the relationship between Polly and Frank so what happens at the end strikes me as exactly the way such a relationship would unfold, given the circumstances.    

The book is more than a love story.  It examines migration and displacement, issues very pertinent to our time with its widespread refugee crisis.  When Polly arrives in the future, she is a refugee from the past trying to navigate an unrecognizable world.  She has little status, few rights, and no money.  She is an indentured servant who has to work off her debt, but because she has to pay for almost everything, her debt to TimeRaiser keeps growing.  Working and living conditions are poor, and these only worsen for Polly when she is demoted from skilled worker to manual labourer.  To access information, journeymen like her face endless bureaucracy. 

The novel also sheds light on the economic divide and the disconnect between rich and poor.  Because of the plague, the U.S. becomes two countries, America in the south and the United States in the north.  The north is prosperous but the south was devastated by the pandemic and is trying to recover.  Polly is told that America is “’creating a vacation belt . . . attracting hundreds of vacationers . . . We have . . . a stream of cheap and willing workers . . . We have workers to build resorts, and workers to work in them’” (56-57).  I could not help but think of Mexico, especially when many of the workers Polly encounters speak Spanish. 

The movement of journeymen is curtailed; they cannot leave without permission.  Polly has a surreal experience when she goes on a walk looking for Frank.  She is arrested by Customs and Border Protection and questioned by an ICE agent:  “’Why did you charge our wall’” (97)?  And even with documentation to travel, people from the south going north must endure medical screening and “the threatening looks of the passport officials” (267). 

When Polly first arrives in the future, she joins hundreds of other workers pedaling on stationary bicycles; she is told, “’The air conditioning runs on clean energy, from pedal power, powered by people like you.  You get exercise and healthy living, the vacationers get lights and A/C’” (48).  Meanwhile, those cyclists live in shipping containers.  A journeyman may harvest “swamp cabbage, wading out in coagulated waters as snakes writhed around her knees” but “Up north, they bought the greens in capsules, two dollars a pill, as an immune-system booster” (182). 

Though it has insights, the book is not without its flaws.  Polly is dull and emotionless and makes some stupid decisions so it is difficult to connect with her.  The book becomes tedious at times when nothing happens.  I don’t think it will win the Giller Prize, but I have yet to read the other nominees - and I have been wrong in the past.