Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Annabel by Kathleen Winter

This was a really interesting book and certainly deserving of its Giller nomination.  The story is about Wayne, an unusual baby born into a small community in Labrador.  Unusual because he is a hermaphrodite.  The only people who know Wayne has both male and female sex organs are his parents and a trusted neighbour, Thomasina.  Wayne's father and his doctors decide he should be raised as a boy so sew up his vagina and feed him with hormones.  His mother mourns the loss of her daughter, but goes along with her husband's decision.

Wayne's father tries hard to turn him into a typical Labrador boy - teaching him hunting, trapping and other masculine pursuits.  But Wayne is interested in synchronized swimming, drawing and is particularly fascinated by bridges.  His best friend is a young girl who dreams of being an opera singer.

On the day Wayne is born, Thomasina loses her husband and daughter Annabel to drowning.  When Wayne is young she calls him Annabel when they are alone.  He hears it as the nickname "Amble" and thinks nothing of it.  Though he is given daily medication, Wayne is not told the truth until he hits puberty and has to be given even stronger hormones to suppress his female side.

After high school Wayne feels trapped in Labrador and moves to St. John's where he also experiments with stopping his hormone treatments.  This has both good and terrible consequences for him when some local boys find out.  But, somewhat surprisingly, it also strengthens his relationship with his father who wishes to protect his daughter that he'd always treated as a son.

At times the descriptive passages got a bit overwhelming, though they certainly painted a clear picture of both small town life and St. John's.  I did skim some of them though I'm sure they're what attracted the Giller judges.  In all it was worth wading through them to see how the main story unfolded.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Fishing Fleet by Anne De Courcy

This non-fiction book, subtitled Husband Hunting in the Raj, describes the young English women who travelled to India to find husbands in the late 1800s and early 20th century.  The women were sent to have their pick of soldiers and government workers posted in India.  Some were returning to their birthplace having been sent back to England by their parents for their education, others were "old maids" in their early 20s who had fewer prospects at home.

I don't really recommend this book unless, like me, you are headed to India in the near future and wish to learn more about the country's history.  It reads like a text book and some of the lengthy descriptions of clothing and living quarters were quite tedious.  That being said, it was clearly well researched - in the acknowledgments the author credits dozens of memoirs and first hand accounts.  And some of the social commentary - on the gender discrimination as well as the racial and class discrimination were quite fascinating.  It was also interesting to read about sites that I will see (like the Taj Mahal) from the perspective of people who were seeing them over 100 years ago.

In sum, this was educational but felt a bit like studying for a history exam rather than leisure reading.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

This was a really interesting book about family members and the secrets they keep.  At the start of the book, the father, Kweku dies of a heart attack in his home in Ghana while his young second wife is still asleep.  Kweku was estranged from his first wife and their four children but they gather in Ghana for his funeral.

The book delves into the history of the family in the US.  Kweku immigrated from Ghana to the US for medical school.  There he meets his first wife, Fola, an immigrant from Nigeria who gives up dreams of law school to raise their children.  Kweku came from an impoverished family and dedicated his life to providing for his family so they would not want as he did.  But because this was his sole purpose when he loses his job he cannot cope and abandons them.

Fola came from less humble beginnings but her father and maternal grandparents were murdered when she was a child.  She thus longs mostly for stability for herself and her children.   So when Kweku leaves and she cannot provide for all four children she sends her twins, Taiwo and Kehinde, to live with her half brother in Nigeria.  He is a drug dealer and pimp and the children suffer terribly there.  They withhold secrets from that time until the funeral and it causes great hardship for them as adults.

The oldest son, Olu, follows in his father's footsteps and becomes a doctor.  He is married but has trouble showing affection - again for reasons which are only revealed in Ghana.

Finally, the baby of the family, Sadie, who was closest to her mother until a recent falling out, suffers from body image issues and an eating disorder.  She only sees how she fits in when she meets her father's aunts for the first time.

The writing style is very interesting - it jumps from character to character and from past to present.  It is also very lyrical - almost poetic in style - which occasionally makes it a bit difficult to follow.  But all in all I thoroughly enjoyed this book.