book review

Extraordinary ordinariness: A review of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

From humble beginnings emerges a remarkable journey (or two) in Rachel Joyce’s Man Booker longlisted debut novel. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry opens with an ordinary couple, living a nondescript life in their quiet English home. Harold and Maureen are in their 60s and have been married for 47 years. They keep themselves to themselves, making uncomfortable small talk with the next door neighbour and otherwise going about life in an unremarkable way.

“He understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others. As a passerby, he was in a place where everything, not only the land, was open. People would feel free to talk, and he was free to listen. To carry a little of them as he went. He had neglected so many things that he owed this small piece of generosity to Queenie and the past.”

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

From humble beginnings emerges a remarkable journey (or two) in Rachel Joyce’s Man Booker longlisted debut novel.The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry opens with an ordinary couple, living a nondescript life in their quiet English home. Harold and Maureen are in their 60s and have been married for 47 years. They keep themselves to themselves, making uncomfortable small talk with the next door neighbour and otherwise going about life in an unremarkable way.

Then one day, Harold receives a letter from a former co-worker named Queenie Hennessy who is writing to say goodbye because she has cancer and is dying. Harold is knocked off-kilter: he hasn’t spoken to Queenie in 20 years. When he goes to mail his response, he feels it’s not enough. After a random encounter with a girl who works in a garage, Harold comes to a decision, or a realization, that is somewhat startling for him: if he keeps walking, and believes that Queenie will be waiting for him at the end of that walk, then Queenie will keep living. He calls her hospice and asks them to pass along the message that he will be walking to her, from Kingsbridge in the south to Berwick-upon-Tweed in the north, over 500 miles. She must keep living as long as he keeps walking, he insists, and off he goes.

The premise is simple, and a bit illogical, and the protagonist is fully aware that his journey doesn’t make rational sense. Continue reading “Extraordinary ordinariness: A review of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce”

book review

Riding herself back together: a review of Gold by Chris Cleave

The discussion of the sport is fascinating, even if you have no interest in cycling. The intensity of the competition between Kate and Zoe drives the plot. Cleave excels at the human, the everyday, and this is where the book is at its strongest. Sophie and Tom are the brightest spots in Gold.

“After [the crash] there was an inquiry and they asked Zoe why she hadn’t stopped riding. She told them she must have been in shock. Really, she didn’t want anyone to see her face. She wanted to keep her helmet on, because its visor hid her eyes, and she needed to ride herself back together. If she could have kept on riding flat out, forever, then she would have.”

– Chris Cleave, Gold

Competition is happening on several different levels in Chris Cleave’s latest work, Gold, and it’s all intense. Determining which is the most important race to win might just require a photo finish. Gold is the story of Zoe and Kate, the top two female cyclists in Britain, and everything they share and fight for and fight over: Kate’s cyclist husband Jack, their daughter Sophie, coach Tom Voss, and dreams of winning gold in London 2012—their last Olympics, because of their age.

Cleave, who became a superstar upon publication of Little Bee, a sweeping story of a Nigerian refugee and the deep ties she shares with a British journalist, narrows his dramatic focus here: in the main plot, Kate and Zoe are competing for the single available spot to represent Britain in the Olympics. Kate is the more naturally gifted of the two but is also the more empathetic, more willing to give up what she wants for the good of everyone else. Zoe is driven by demons and is willing to do anything to win, including some fairly dirty off-track tactics to psych out her opponents.

The other central storyline revolves around Kate and Jack’s young daughter, Sophie. Eight years old, Sophie’s unwittingly been the cause of Kate’s lack of Olympic triumph. Continue reading “Riding herself back together: a review of Gold by Chris Cleave”

book review

The smell of chai and sadness: a review of Everything was Good-bye by Gurjinder Basran

The writing is lush and elegant. Basran really is “one to watch,” as she was proclaimed by the Vancouver Sun. Her characterization is superb, and her descriptions of smells are particularly evocative.

“If only. Those two words have gathered like ghosts. If only my father hadn’t died, if only my mother had had sons, if only Harj had stayed, if only I hadn’t met Liam, if only he could have loved me…Once, when I was lamenting Harj’s departure, my mother told me that ‘if only’ was the beginning of new dreams made of old things and that only God could reincarnate our hopes into such a reality.”

Everything was Good-bye, Gurjinder Basran

I first heard about Everything Was Good-bye through an invitation to join Penguin Canada and the Chatelaine Book Club for an evening with author Gurjinder Basran. Having a chance to hang out in the Penguin offices, sipping wine, chatting with other bloggers, and listening to Gurjinder read from the book and then answer questions was a not-to-be-missed experience, and I suggest you read the great recaps on Nicole About Town’s and Just a Lil Lost’s blogs.

I’ve since read Everything was Good-bye, and my reading was informed by Basran’s discussion of how she came to write the book and her own life experiences—almost like reading the book club guide and then reading the novel. Set in the 1990s, Everything Was Good-bye is the story of Meena, a first-generation Punjabi-Canadian struggling to find her place within her family, her cultural community, and Canadian society in general. While it grew out of a journalling project and was inspired by Basran’s life in many ways, the book is a work of fiction (one that was an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award finalist and that won Mother Tongue Publishing’s Search for the Great BC Novel Contest).

As a teenager and the youngest of six daughters, Meena’s life is overshadowed by the choices her older sisters have made. She’s something of an outcast, more interested in wearing jeans than salwar suits, in lining up to get a Simple Minds record autographed than going to yet another friend of a friend’s wedding party. And yet she’s also an outsider at school because she looks “different” and adheres to a different set of family and social customs. It angers her family that she spends time with Liam, a white boy and outsider in his own right, an artistic kid from a difficult home who feels just as lost as Meena does.

Spanning the time from Meena’s broken but beautiful romance with Liam in her late teens to her heartbreaking marriage in her thirties, the book offers gracefully drawn sketches of Meena’s life, moments of tragedy and sadness that are inescapable because of her upbringing. Continue reading “The smell of chai and sadness: a review of Everything was Good-bye by Gurjinder Basran”

book review

Failing on purpose: A review of The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

As an experiment in literary form, Marcus succeeds by failing. The lack of coherent plot, the deliberate masking and obscuring of story and characters, does exactly what he wants them to do. And because of that, this is very difficult book to get into, let alone enjoy.

“The lack of speech, the absence of language to build us into full people, had turned us into a kind of emotive cattle. Perhaps a raucous inner life produced shattering notes inside us, but with no extraction tool, no language to pry it free and publicize it, even if it was moronic, one sensed that the whole enterprise of consciousness had suddenly lost its way. Without a way to say it, there was no reason to even think it.”

The Flame Alphabet, Ben Marcus

It’s strange that a book called The Flame Alphabet left me so cold. Ben Marcus’ newest novel has a deeply intriguing premise, one that he aims his prodigious talent toward to make as inaccessible as possible.

In The Flame Alphabet, the world is beset by the most puzzling, devastating plague it’s ever known: language. Language kills. First, it seems it’s only the speech of children—and possibly only Jewish children—-but soon the speech fever spreads, making the speech of all children unbearable to adults. This killing language progresses, making adults’ speech and even written language toxic. Adults wither and die over weeks and months as they are subjected to speech, while children, who are immune, run rampant.

The first part of the book chronicles this rising plague through the eyes of the narrator Sam as he deals with a somewhat distant relationship with wife Claire and tries to comprehend their teenage daughter Esther. As the world begins to realize what is causing the illness, Sam follows an underground movement to make and test cures, all of which fail. Eventually Sam takes Claire and flees their home—and their daughter—in search of respite and a cure. The second half sees Sam in a research facility, as both the experimenter and the experimented-upon.

Language kills. People’s faces shrivel, their tongues harden from disuse. Even writing causes pain, even gesturing can hurt. Marcus puts forth frightening questions: what are we without language? What distinguishes us from animals when we cannot convey meaning to one another? What, even, is the point of meaning at all if we can’t express it, if it can’t be shared? Continue reading “Failing on purpose: A review of The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus”