Kate Atkinson, author of Life After Life, is one of those novelists whose writing is very clever yet it comes off naturally. Where Life After Life explored infinite chances, as lived by Ursula Todd, A God in Ruins is the life lived by her younger brother Teddy.
Teddy is a pilot with Bomber Command during World War II and his story is wonderfully told in the most non-chronological way. This is the cleverness I speak of. Atkinson tells the story in this patchwork fashion where the reader comes to understand the whole story but the characters often seem well ahead of the game, it being their life and all. Atkinson moves the reader back and forth between a present time and a past. It reminded me of The Time Traveller’s Wife in that way, which I enjoyed very much.
I was fascinated by the details of the air raids because of the first-hand accounts I have from James’ grandfather. Of the 120,000 who served, 55,573 were killed including over 10,000 Canadians. Teddy is British, which doesn’t get him extra luck one way or the other. We know early on that Teddy survives the war because we know that he has a wife and child. But his wife dies. We don’t know why, but we do know that his daughter is a bit of a terror, and probably was from birth anyway.
There are lovely repeated references throughout the book, like the exaltation of skylarks (the lifting of birds/planes), quips about whether a certain character believes in reincarnation (which is funny if you’ve read the previous title), lucky charms, and references to poetry and novels that offer opportunities to think deeper if you so desire.
Although the setting is during the war, or the present day is seen through that lens, it’s not a war novel. It’s more about the mystery and revelation we have throughout our life. The knowledge we gain after the fact, and how we choose to respond or not respond.
This novel is a strong contender for favourite read of 2016.
One of my favourite discussions was about the 1970s cultural references in the novel. Here’s what I said:
Until our conversation last week, I did not pick up on the fact that the book is set in the 1970s because there are so many hipster trends today that allude to that period. It’s obvious now, and so overt, that it’s embarrassing to admit that I glazed over this aspect of the novel. As I started compiling a list of the cultural references, I couldn’t stop so this is not an exhaustive list, just want sprang to mind.
First off, I loved the Napolean-Dynamite visual I got when reading about Boo or Johnny wearing the white and blue striped gym socks and sweat bands. That alone brought levity to the underlying story of two boys dead in a school shooting. The peace symbol and style of clothes really do set the story in the 70s for me but Town/Heaven is presented as Salvation Army so, again, I didn’t initially understand the setting to be the 1970s. My assumption then, since there are no computers or video games, is that Town’s culture is that of America in current day.
The clothes especially made me laugh and Boo’s criticism of the cashmere sweater and egotism of 13-year-old girls reminded me of that all-about-me phase. It’s funny, especially, if the 70s was the Me decade, to end up in town with generations of 13 year old Americans. You would not feel so unique, which is maybe why some townies identify as gommers, or portal seekers, or find other ways of segmenting themselves off.
The other prominent 70s references for me were the Hardy Boys references, especially the building named Frank and Joe, the music references, and I immediately thought of the do-good council as the Brady Bunch.
I wonder if there are no cars in Town because 13 year olds can’t drive, or if that’s a reference to the oil crisis? Likely the former. And I don’t know enough about the history of the periodic table but there’s obviously an interesting study of those elements and their function within the storytelling.
What I don’t recall are references to Star Wars. But Boo is certainly aware of the starscape and Zig only changes it on occasion. I wonder for people who saw the moon landing first hand, if it was underwhelming. It’s cool, but there’s nothing there. Was that a letdown and made people wonder about heaven? If you imagined the moon as this great place then saw its pocked surface, did you question what you’d imagined about heaven?
The mental health building, Johnny’s behaviour, and the sense of being in purgatory or sentenced to 50 years in town reminded me of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There were several places in the novel when I wondered who the crazy actually was.
A quaint love story, or rather unrequited love story. Rachel Joyce’s first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, is the story of a saintly pensioner who walks, in yachting shoes, across England to say goodbye to a friend from long ago who is in a hospice. This is the other side of the story. Miss Queenie Hennessy is the friend who is waiting for Harold Fry, and while she waits, she writes out her confession and goodbye to Harold.
And I mean, really, the woman is dying. You’d think the man could get on a train or bus. But no, he is walking and she is waiting. The time gives them space to build themselves up for the visit, I suppose.
Anyway this companion book, since it’s not really a sequel, is about the burden of guilt Queenie has been carrying since leaving Kingsbridge 20 years ago. The novel is her letter to Harold about her recollections of first seeing him, dancing to himself under falling snow, and then meeting in the canteen at the brewery. She mentions, often, that Harold always remarks to everyone that they first met in the stationery cupboard. Miss Queenie Hennessy, however, was balling her eyes out so perhaps she’d rather remember it as the canteen. No matter. The “where” is the least of her deathbed worries.
Instead it’s that she met, danced with, and became friends with Harold’s son and never said a word about it to Harold. More than that, Harold’s son David stole money from her, along with her love poems and egg whisk. The egg whisk being the most irritating item to go astray. She lent David books, let him sleep on her couch, gave him money and offered up friendly advice about staying in touch with his parents. But David was as troubled as he was troubling.
Despite Queenie’s efforts to befriend him, David lied to her, mocked her, and eventually disappeared. His sudden death put Queenie on the spot. She couldn’t confess. She couldn’t tell Harold about her involvement with David because she feared the betrayal would be too great. She ran away then, but now she’s determined to say the things she wished she’d said then.
The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is her declaration of love and her confession. If Harold Fry’s pace is slow, Rachel Joyce’s writing just clips along at a good measure, which makes this 300-pager feel like a zippy read.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize and longlisted for the Man Book Prize. Read them both, why not.
All the Broken Things is this month’s Vancouver Sun Book Club read. Since the book club members get a say in what we read, I’m predisposed to like the books we pick and All the Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer is no exception. It’s well written, the story is interesting, the characters are true characters and parts of the book are stuck in my mind.
All the Broken Things is about a Vietnamese family who moves to Canada in the early 80s. They are suffering in various ways from Agent Orange. The father died on the boat. The mother has sores that she keeps from the children, the youngest was born deformed and the boy Bo is mentally scarred by the experience. Bo oscillates between fight or flight and after one particular bout with a boy named Ernie, he’s picked up by Gerry who’s working the circus circuit and is looking for a bear wrestler. No seriously.
Although the book is set in 1984, Kuitenbrouwer mentions in the introduction that bear wrestling was a fixture in Ontario sideshows until 1976 and she’s simply shifted the timeframe to suit the story.
Bo joins the circus and the rest of the novel is about the tension of two captive bears, a boy who feels like a captive, the atrocity of war and circus Freak Shows. It’s strange and beautiful at once. The majesty of the bear, the hilarity of her on a bike. The beauty of Bo’s mother, the sullen, drunk. Orange the sister, Agent Orange.
I’m looking forward to what my fellow Book Club members have to say about the novel.
Hey, my friend Annemarie wrote a book that I can now fully appreciate it. Healthy Mum, Happy Baby is part anecdote and part cookbook for moms who are breastfeeding.
First, I had no idea how hungry I would be all the time. The anecdotes from other moms were funny and reassuring. By 4 pm I am hangry (this is hungry + angry for those of you fortunate to not know this word). I was diligent about food and exercise before being pregnant, during pregnancy and I’ve been pretty good post pregnancy as well. Although really, I owe all my thanks to James. Annemarie’s book is for anyone who doesn’t have a “James” who cooks awesome food and slides healthy snacks across the table at the right times (being mindful of keeping his fingers out of the way).
Second, of course I am aware that my diet affects the baby’s diet. But as an exhausted new mom who is low on energy, making decisions is hard. Annemarie’s book offers some delicious meal options that make it easy to flip through and say, “ah yes, I’ll have that for dinner.” I appreciate the legend showing the prep and cook time for each recipe. I mostly flagged the 30 min or less recipes but I did drool fondly over the 60-min recipes while daydreaming about the days when I’ll have time to actually do some dinner prep.
Overall there are 35 recipes that don’t require exact measurement and will be tasty immediately or sometime later that evening when the baby has nodded off and you can still function to lift fork to mouth. Hands down, the list of healthy snacks is worthy of space on the fridge.
Also good, this book comes in whatever print or digital format works for you.
Healthy Mum, Happy Baby
How to Feed Yourself When You’re Breastfeeding Your Baby
by Annemarie Tempelman-Kluit
Published by Random House
Good job Annemarie! Thanks for this lovely, and timely gift.
Curtis Sittenfeld is the New York Times bestselling author of American Wife and Prep, neither of which I’ve read so I was keen to get into Sisterland. I wouldn’t normally go for a book about twins and ESP because although I like magical realism and fantasy, I find things psychic abilities a little creepy. My imagination is too susceptible and maybe that’s why this novel is sort of mesmerizing.
The story is about twins Daisy and Violet who have ESP. Their “senses” help them know things like what a guy likes in a girl and they can sometimes see things like the name of a person who’s kidnapped a little boy. As little girls, the twins have fun playing games guessing at what the other is thinking, which creeps out their mom. As teens, they aren’t popular girls, twins were less common in the ‘70-90s, but they do become a little infamous when Daisy takes a chance and tells another girl that she has ESP. The other girl is a popular, rich girl who takes advantage of Daisy to win a boy but then betrays her to the school as a witch.
One of my favourite lines in the book is early on at page 67 in a section of dialogue between a substitute teacher doing roll call, Marisa the mean, popular girl and Daisy.
She took attendance by calling out our last names, and when she got to Shramm, I raised my hand and said, “Here.”
She looked again at the list. “There are two Shramms. You’re which one?”
“No,” Marisa said immediately. “She’s Witch Two.”
Out of context it can seem a bit slack stick but what I like about that line is that it sums up that caustic humour of teenagers. A less skilled writer would have made Marisa more of a caricature but instead she is craftily constructed.
From then on Daisy masks her senses and Vi embraces them. Daisy even changes her name in college in order to hide from the stories. She starts going by Kate instead, marries a nice sensible boy and has two kids. Violet on the other hand is a lesbian, psychic medium who predicts a massive earthquake and ends up on local, then national, tv broadcasting her predictions and stirring up old tensions between herself and Daisy/Kate.
Kate is of course mortified about the prediction and the publicity, has a run in with old Marisa, who is still chasing boys despite being in her late 30s now, and ends up making a ton of mistakes in her attempts to just be normal.
Between Kate and Violet, I think Vi is my favourite twin. Violet, the first born, who embraces her ESP and rocks the flowy shirts and birkenstocks, really puts the woo in woo-woo. And even though she’s worthy of many eye rolls, there’s something redeeming about her.
At the beginning of the novel I was cheering for Kate but by the end Vi was the champ. Sittenfeld’s set up of the dynamic between the twins and the what-if concerns about Vi’s earthquake prediction made Sisterland into a fun, summer read. The bit of a mystery kept me cruising through the book.
If you like Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry, then you’ll like Sisterland. Both are about twins who are intensely attached to each other, emotionally removed from their parents and who possess some extraordinary abilities. Not to say that if you like a twin book, you’ll like another, but more so because Niffenegger and Sittenfeld are both great writers who turn these plotlines into well-written, page turners.
The Emperor of Paris by CS Richardson is a series of short, interconnected love stories set before and after World War I in Paris. The most prominent storyline is of Emile Notre-Dame, thinnest baker in Paris and his wife Immacolata, who have a son Octavio. Both father and son cannot read but are amazing storytellers and Boulangerie Notre-Dame becomes rather infamous among its regular patrons who come for the buttery croissants and baguettes but also for the stories.
The bakery occupied the ground floor of a narrow flatiron building known throughout the neighbourhood as the cake-slice. As far back as anyone could remember the letters above its windows, in their carved wooden flourishes, had spelled out:
BOULA GERIE NOTRE-DAME
the N having long since vanished.
The story of the N’s disappearance is a regular request from the bakery’s patrons, the most fantastical version being about thieves who spread across France stealing Ns and the most favourite being that of Napolean stealing the N himself.
The love of books is another thread through the story. Despite not being able to read, Octavio is a regular buyer from a book stall near the Louvre. For both Octavio and the bookstall owner, books have a special meaning, and lead to friendships and relationships.
CS Richardson has crafted a very fine story indeed. His cast of characters each contribute to the overarching story while having their own backstories as well. Emile, Immacolata, and Octavio run the bakery as I mentioned. Then there’s the fashion designers Pascal Normand and his wife Celeste, who hide their daughter Isabeau from view because of a facial scar from an unfortunate childhood accident. And we have three generations of the Fournier family who own the bookstall. On top of that, there’s a blind watchmaker, a starving portrait artist and Madame Lafrouche whose husband Alphonse gifts Emile The Arabian Nights which becomes the first book in Octavio’s collection and eventually makes it into the hands of Isabeau.
I was first introduced to CS Richardson from my publishing ties. Richardson is an award-winning cover designer for Random House and his first novel The End of the Alphabet was my favourite book in 2008. The Emperor of Paris is a strong contender for 2013.
Here are a few highlights from the chat with Annabel Lyon on The Sweet Girl
On how The Golden Mean and The Sweet Girl work together
I was really drawn to Aristotle first and foremost, his intellect, and then I was stuck with the fact that he happened to be an ancient Greek - it was the philosophy that drew me first, the history second. But after I finished writing The Golden Mean, I knew my project was only half-finished. That was such a male book, but I wanted to look at the female world also.
Tips on writing dialogue
always, always, always read it aloud. That’s my first instruction to students. If it doesn’t sound natural aloud, it’s not going to read like natural dialogue. I also encourage students to make the dialogue do the work, and not rely on what are known as dialogue tags (she shouted menacingly, that kind of thing). Those are like stage directions, and for me they dilute the power of the line itself. And finally, in historical fiction, make sure your characters still sound like real people. I don’t think “Zounds, my liege, thou hast verily captured it” is nearly as good as “You got it,” even if you’re working with ancient characters.
In response to my question about routine in writing (whether for fiction, or in my case business writing)
Thanks for your question about routine, Monique. I’m not a big believer in the Romantic image of the writer—alone, suffering, pirate blouse in a garret somewhere, waiting for the muse. It’s a job, and I treat it like a job: dress professionally, go to the office, do your work. You wouldn’t procrastinate relentlessly if you were a lawyer or doctor or drywaller or barrista, and you shouldn’t let yourself do that as a writer, either. I like to compare creative writing to journalism, partly because my dad was a journalist, but partly also because there’s a huge overlap between the skill sets. A good non-fiction sentence and a good fiction sentence have a lot in common. A good opening to a short story and a good lede in a news story are playing on a lot of the same principles. And, similarly, I believe strongly that good creative writing can be taught, just as journalism can be taught. Inspiration, no, but craft, yes.
On factual references in the novel, in particular midwifery and stillbirths being buried with puppies
The puppies: yes, this was something I learned about on my trip to Greece. I was fortunate to travel with a university class from Carleton and U Winnipeg (I made friends with some academics, who let me tag along), and one of the things we got to do was learn about the work of Maria Liston, who teaches at Waterloo and also works at the American School in Athens. I joke that she could be the star of CSI: Ancient Athens, because her work focuses on things like bone remains. She can look at a bone and tell you what it is, how the person died, etc. She told us about her research into the remains of babies found in wells with puppies, and concluded that these were drops midwives used for babies who hadn’t survived. The puppies were one of those touches that was so bittersweet: awful, and yet you could imagine someone grieving the baby’s death and (in their belief system) wanting to send something cuddly with them, to keep them company. You can’t invent this stuff! And of course, as a fiction writer, you can’t pass it up either. I got her permission to use this.
On why I included The Sweet Girl in my Shoebox Project for Shelters package
Related to Golden Mean as a male world and The Sweet Girl as a female world, I’m participating in The Shoebox Project this year (final dropoff day is Monday!), where you put together a shoebox of gifts that are delivered to women in shelters. I felt that Pythias’ story was a good survival story, or at least showed how you need to keep your wits about you even when the world seems against you. So it’s included in my shoebox. http://www.shoeboxproject.com/
If you’re looking for a great gift this season for a reader then I highly recommend The Golden Mean and The Sweet Girl. A combo pack or singles.
The Red House is the latest novel by Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and A Spot of Bother. The novels are getting more and more experimental and deeper into the psyche of the characters. In some ways A Spot of Bother and The Red House remind me of Martin Amis novels in that we get a low-class to middle-class view of the British and the protagonists are losers in some way, and continue to be losers even at the end of the novel.
In The Red House we have a brother and sister, Richard and Angela, who’ve drifted apart but are reunited after the death of their mother. Richard, who is younger and more successful—a doctor, albeit with a lawsuit pending—has invited his sister and her unemployed husband and three children on holiday. Richard also has his new wife Louisa and her teenage daughter Melissa in tow. Louisa seems to be the least developed character. She’s initially presented as the trophy wife who is amenable to everything and everyone. She has a small triumph in confronting Richard midway through the book but otherwise isn’t as developed as her daughter, who is beautiful outside but not inside, Alex the athletic son, Daisy the Christian, Benjy the little kid, Angela the self-proclaimed underachiever who is losing a grip on reality or Dominic the weak father. But then again, the novel really isn’t about anyone.
The crazy thing about this book is that the perspective shifts, almost at every paragraph, from one character to the next. This is a bit of a challenge in the beginning because on top of the shifting perspective, some of the characters are reading books so you get their interior monologue as they read.
Overall, the book was enjoyable but not my favourite Haddon novel, which still remains Curious Incident. Regardless, if you’re a Haddon fan, then give this one a go. Like Spot of Bother, it’s not an uplifting ending but it’s not depressing either.
Although the paperback was published in 2005, Sweetness in the Belly never made it to my reading list until last week. Camilla Gibb has written a brilliant book. I know you know. It was on all sorts of lists and everyone raved about it, which is probably why it took me so long to get around to it. But really, one word review: awesome.
Sweetness in the Belly is set in Harar, Ethiopia and London, England. The story is told through flashbacks to Ethiopia in the 70s and England in the 80s and 90s. Lilly is our protagonist and she is a white Muslim growing up in the class hierarchy system of an Ethiopian town where devout women pray, raise children and fight for survival against contaminated water, the jinn and other evil spirits, and husbands or lovers who leave them with children to raise and limited means to do so.
Lilly’s British, hippy parents raise her (sort of) as they travelled around African. But their unhappy end left Lilly in the care of a great Muslim teacher. On her journey to a shrine in Harar, many things happen that part her from her male travel companion and leave her in the care of Nouria, who’s less than thrilled to have another mouth to feed.
Lilly, the orphaned foreigner who knows the Qu’ran, learns the culture of Hararis and so does the reader along with her. Eventually caught up in the war, poverty and famine, Lilly escapes to live in London. It’s an exile, not a homecoming as she has left loved ones and must watch horrible events unfold from afar. But it’s actually through her exile that readers learn more of Ethiopia and of what it may be like for refugees.
This is what happens in the West. Muslims from Pakistan pray alongside Muslims from Nigeria and Ethiopia and Malaysia and Iran, and because the only thing they share in common is the holy book, that becomes the sole basis of the new community: not culture, not tradition, not place. The book is the only thing that offers consensus, so traditions are discarded as if they are filthy third-world clothes. ‘We were ignorant before,’ people say, as if it is only in the West that they have learned the true way of Islam.
In traveling through Indonesia, Turkey, Jordan and Egypt, I’ve experienced firsthand the moderation and cultural interpretations in a way that mean these sections of the text to really resonate with me. In Indonesia, I had a friend who when explaining praying said, “it is good to pray, it is better to pray with others, it is best to pray in the mosque.”
Everything was shades of grey that made perfect sense to me.
Later in the text, Lilly says “My religion is full of colour and possibility and choice; it’s a moderate interpretation ... one that allows you to use whatever means allow you to feel closer to God, be it saints, prayer beads, or qat, one that allows you to have the occasional drink, work alongside men, go without a veil when you choose, sit alone with an unrelated man in a room, even hold his hand ...”
It’s an interpretation where jihad is one’s personal struggle to be a good Muslim, not a fight against those who are not Muslim.
Sweetness in the Belly is one of those books that although set in a particular time and place, is really quite timeless.
Published in 2006 as part of the Myths series, Atwood provides a contemporary take on one of the most enduring stories of all time, Homer’s The Odyssey. In Homer’s tale, Penelope is the ever constant, faithful wife who dutifully tends to her husband’s empire without compromise to his finances or her fidelity despite hearing tale after tale from passing travellers recounting Odysseus’ great triumphs and tribulations in the war against Troy and his own yearnings for love in the arms of beautiful goddesses. I mean, really, did she just stand by for 20 years spinning a bit of yarn?
In Atwood’s version, Penelope is more than just the long-suffering wife of the hero. She is a very clever woman who makes 1 fatal mistake that costs her the lives of 12 obedient maids.
I love Atwood’s academic and philosophical answers to the elements of The Odyssey that went unquestioned in my literature classes. The Penelopiad begins with two questions: what led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to? I did wonder.
I also love the contemporary twist of the maids presenting evidence through song and dance, as if they were on Glee, the video trial, and Penelope checking out the contemporary world via spiritual mediums and commenting on the similarities or differences to her time.
Penelope may have been as clever as Helen was beautiful, but Margaret Atwood stands in a class of her own at the top of the clever charts.
Ami McKay’s second novel is sure to be a bestseller just like the first.
I am Moth, a girl from the lowest part of Chrystie Street, born to a slum-house mystic and the man who broke her heart.
So begins The Virgin Cure, a story about a street girl named Moth who is lured by the street savvy Mae into Miss Everett’s brothel for girls. Set in the 1800s in New York, girls as young as 12 are preyed upon by those wishing to make a buck or to pay a large sum to be a girl’s first. Sadly there are many gentlemen willing to sleep with young girls and, more depressing, there are many who believe virgins will cure syphillus.
Moth is 12, and like many girls from poor families, is sold. Money changes hands and she goes first to Mrs. Wentworth as a ladies maid. But Mrs. Wentworth likes to beat pretty girls so Moth runs away only to find that her mother is no longer living in their apartment. With no where to go, she’s left to her own devices until she is “saved” by Miss Everett, who trains young girls in the art of seduction and then sells their first trick for a lovely sum to well-to-do gentlemen including the Chief of Dectectives, bankers, and politicians. Thankfully Mr. Dink (no pun apparently intended) and Dr. Sadie (a lady physician dedicated to serving the needs of women and children) provide Moth a means to live beyond the street or the whorehouse. The question is whether she’ll take these offers.
The Virgin Cure is a novel about friendship and betrayal, and it’s a ficitionalized account of McKay’s great, great- grandmother who was a lady physician in NYC during this time.
If God was a petulant 18-year-old then his name would be Bob and he would have won rule over Earth in a botched job application process. Bob would have been the only applicant, put forward by his mother who sat on the committee. Well, he wouldn’t have been the only applicant. Mr B would have also applied but the committee would find him very sensible and boring. In this version of Earth’s beginning, a decision by committee—which always works, right?—would have seen Bob and Mr B become the co-rulers of Earth.
In six days, Bob created the heavens and the earth, the beasts in the field and the creatures of the sea (well Mr. B did the whales), and 25 million other species, including lots of pretty girls for Bob to chase.
And Bob said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
Only it wasn’t very good light. Bob created fireworks, sparklers and neon tubes that circled the globe like weird tangled rainbows. He dabbled with bugs that blinked and abstract creatures whose heads lit up and cast long overlapping shadows. There were mile-high candles and mountains of fairy lights. For an hours or so, Earth was lit by enormous crystal chandeliers.
Bob thought his creations were very cool.
They were very cool but they didn’t work.
So Bob tried for an ambient glow (which proved toxic) ... And finally, when he curled up in the corner of the nothingness, tired as a child by the harebrainedness of his efforts, Mr B took the opportunity to sort things out.
Congratulations Bob. Six days. No wonder the world is a mess.
Bob is careless, self-obsessed, and rather bored. He spends a lot of time sleeping and sulking, which leaves Mr B to sort out famine, war and floods. On top of that, many of the disasters are directly related to Bob having a bit of a mood as he lusts after mortals. In this century, the apple of his eye is Lucy, a nice zookeeper who has a Renaissance look and is a charming virgin, much to her own chagrin.
Bob could appear to her as a swan, or bull, but he’s thinking this time he’ll just show up and do what mortals do, take her for dinner.
For Earth’s sake, it better work out. And if it doesn’t, I recommend building that ark.
There Is No Dog is a hilarious read. I enjoyed it immensely.
Following on the heels of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, and other Quirk Classics, comes The Meowmorphosis.
In Franz Kafka’s original version, Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman, wakes up in his bed to find himself transformed into a large insect. In Coleridge Cook’s version, Samsa is a giant cat.
The Quirk Classics typically follow the plot summary to fairly closely, but introduce the absurd twist introduced in the title.
Gregor wakes up as a giant cat. He looks around his room, which appears normal, and decides to go back to sleep to forget about what has happened. He attempts to roll over, only to discover that he cannot due to his new body. He gets distracted and plays kitten-like with some dust particles and reflects on the dreary life he’s led as a traveling salesman. He turns to the clock and sees that he has overslept and missed his train to work.
Gregor’s mother knocks on the door, and suspects that he may be ill, since he never misses the train. The family is dependent on Gergor’s income so they are keen for him to open the door, which is locked as usual. The situation is more intense when Gregor’s manager comes to the family’s home to inquire of Gregor’s whereabouts and to let him know that the office is not satisfied with his work of late.
Gregor, with his large yet kitten-like paws, does manage to unlock the door. Horrified by Gregor’s appearance, the office manager runs from the apartment and Gregor’s father aggressively shoos Gregor back into his room.
Gregor wakes and sees that someone has put milk and bread in his room. It’s his sister who has taken to caring for him. She also changes his litter.
As Gregor grows, he begins scratching the furniture and climbing on things, which leads his sister to remove the furniture. As these transformations have been taking place, Gregor’s aged father has gotten a job and the family has taken in boarders. One evening as the boarders are listening to the sister play violin, Gregor creeps out of his bedroom (the door has been left ajar) and unwittingly startles the boarders. He subsequently runs away from the family home. In Kafka’s original, Gregor dies. In Cook’s version, he suffers a judgement day of sorts.
Lots of good writing exists in Canada, but there are a couple of authors who stand out for me and Miriam Toews is one of them. Maybe I recognize the Prairie sense of humour, or maybe she’s just really good.
Irma Voth is the quirky protagonist of this novel. She’s 19, married, Mennonite and living in Mexico. The problem is that she married a narco Mexican named Jorge who wants her to leave Campo 6.5, and whether he’s a narco or not, her father disapproves of Mexicans, anyone who leaves the campo, and everything his daughters do or want to do.
If my dad’s assessment was accurate this place was teeming with narcos, and not just the garden-variety narcos but narcosatanics in search of sensations (like Jorge, allegedly), bored with drinking blood from skulls and poised to bolt for bigger thrills while the rest of us were in it for the long haul, working hard and honestly for very little money, the way God meant for us to be. But I didn’t believe it. I think my uncle got a job selling cars in Canada and Wilf wanted to study the violin and my aunt thought it would be cool to get a prm. But who knows. Maybe they’re a family of drug lords now, throwing bodies out of helicopters and bowling with the heads of double-crossers. That would be my father’s theory.
The reclusively of Irma’s Mennonite community makes for some misunderstandings and confusion when a film crew moves in to make a documentary of the community. Irma, already ostracized from her family, is swept up in the madness of the film and hired as a translator for the lead German actress. Her innocence and curiosity is a virtue and a pesky annoyance to those more worldly. What I like about Toews’ writing is that Irma’s ignorance and questioning is more sound than the seemingly insightful musings of the film director, the lead actress, the film crew and Jorge. Irma gets it, even when she doesn’t.