Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Break by Katherena Vermette

This is another one of those books about the indigenous experience that should be required reading for all Canadians.  It is not a historical book as many are, but is set in present day Winnipeg - in the seedier parts of the North End.  Most of the characters are members of the Metis community.

The strength of this book is in its characters - predominantly female, all remarkably resilient.  The chapters are written from a multitude of different perspectives which, by the end of the book, illuminate what happened on one fateful night.  The story starts with Stella - in the middle of the night she looks out her window and sees what she believes to be is a young girl getting raped in the snow.  She calls the police to alert them to the trouble - they take hours to arrive and assume she is exaggerating or mistaken and has only seen petty gang violence.

But as the story progresses we see what happened in the lead up to this event from the perspective of Stella's family, friends and the young police officer investigating.

The strength of the characters begins at the top with Flora, known as Kookom, the matriarch of the family.  At various times all of her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren turn to her for comfort and support.  The other perspectives we see are her daughter, Cheryl, who is an artist trying to survive her split from her husband and the death of her sister (and Stella's mother).  She turns to alcohol, but also family and friends.

Cheryl has two daughters.  Lou is a social worker with two children whose long time boyfriend has just returned "home to the bush".  She tries hard to be tough and professional but even she breaks down in the face of the events surrounding the assault which Stella witnessed.  Paulina is her younger, softer, sister who has one daughter and is in a new relationship with a man who she desperately wants to trust.  Stella is their cousin.

We also hear from Cheryl's best friend, Rita, Paulina's daughter, Emily, the Metis police officer and Phoenix, a homeless teenager who has just been released from a youth detention centre.  By the end we understand the relationships between the characters, both in their pasts and in the present.  It's interesting that the only male who narrates a chapter is the police officer - and even he draws his strength from his mother.  If this sounds complicated it's partly because I don't want to give too much away.  I can tell you it is aided by a family tree at the front of the book which I referred to regularly.

I really recommend this book - to show how strength of character and family bonds, particularly between women, can help people cope with and survive terrible tragedy - and you are left with the hope that they will thrive rather than just survive.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

This was a really interesting book about poverty, race, gender, sexual abuse and relationships.  The book is told from the perspective of a young woman looking back on her life after she is fired from her job (this is revealed in the prologue so is not a spoiler).  Now that I look back on the 450 page book, I'm not even sure we ever learned the narrator's name - this may have been the point as she never seemed to develop and independent personality, but rather lived in the shadows of others.

The narrator, whose mother is black and father is white, meets Tracey, whose mother is white and father is black, when they are children living in low income housing in London in the 1970s or 80s.  Both are registered for dance classes at a local church, but only Tracey shows any talent.  That doesn't really seem to bother the narrator as much as you would expect - and neither does the fact that Tracey is for the most part a mean spirited liar and not much of a friend.  Though we are given the chance to sympathize with Tracey somewhat when we see how difficult her childhood is - particularly her relationship with her drug dealing father who is in and out of prison.

The book travels back and forth in time - we know early on that Tracey and the narrator had a falling out when they were in their early 20s, and the back and forth chapters eventually show us what happened.  We also see the narrator's experience with high school (while Tracey is allowed to go to dance school, the narrator's activist and educated mother makes her pursue a more academic course); university (where she studies media and has her first relationship - with a man who also keeps her firmly in his shadow); her first job working for YTV and finally her job as an assistant to Aimee, an Australian pop sensation.  Aimee is a self-absorbed, rich woman who thinks she can change the world with her money and reputation.  She takes advantage of all those around her, including the narrator, in order to achieve her ends.  Her special project is building a school for girls in Gambia and she travels there several times with her entourage in tow.

While Aimee's intentions are good, she pays no attention to the problems she has created by working with a dictatorial government, bettering girls at the expense of boys, ignoring cultural conventions and becoming personally involved with a teacher much her junior.  The narrator and others are left to deal with the aftermath of Aimee's whirlwind visits.  There we see the narrator develop relationships with the local people as well as others on Aimee's team.  It is one of these relationships that ultimately leads to her firing.

In addition to the main story there were some interesting side stories.  I particularly liked the story of the narrator's mother and how she put herself through university, worked as an activist and eventually made her way into municipal and federal politics.  She was a strong role model - though she also put the narrator, as well as her partners, in the shadows so did not help the narrator in developing her own personality.  I also found the story of how the poor people in the Gambia became vulnerable to Muslim radicalization due to their poverty, lack of education and lack of options.

All in all this was an interesting book, but really because of all the interesting characters and less so because of the narrative.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

It's hard to know where to begin in reviewing such a complex novel.  I'll start with the simple:  in past years I have been disappointed by the Giller winners; this was a very satisfying exception.  I loved the book.  It is, however, very dense, almost an epic, and it took me quite a while to read it.  I found I couldn't read for long stretches (until the very end where I really wanted to know what happened) and that sometimes meant I forgot small but crucial facts that had previously happened.  So I had to go back and search for them.  I was glad I was not reading on an e-reader.

The book starts in Vancouver in 1989.  Marie is 10 years old and her father has just left his marriage, returned to Hong Kong and killed himself (I'm not giving anything away - this was revealed in the first paragraph).  Shortly after, Ai-Ming, a young woman who has fled China following her involvement in the Tiananmen Square massacre, arrives on Marie's doorstep and is given a temporary home by Marie and her mother.

Ai-Ming befriends Marie and begins to tell her the history of her family.  It begins when Marie's father is a child and his mother and aunt are singers in teahouses just as Mao is coming to power.

The story then follows Chinese history as seen through the eyes of Ai-Ming's father, Sparrow, his cousin Zhuli and their friend Kai.  We are also introduced to many other of Sparrow's friends and relatives.  Sparrow is a brilliant composer, his cousin a violinist and Kai a pianist.  All are successful at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in the 1960s - until Mao's forces decide they are too "rightist" for his society and they are forced to make enormous changes in their lives.

There are vivid descriptions of life under Mao - from work camps to raids in the cities to forced work reassignments and punishment of children for the "sins" of their fathers.  While individuals attempt to remain loyal to their friends and family members, the pressure to survive almost makes that impossible.

The book also travels from Shanghai to remote villages in China and ultimately to Beijing where Sparrow's family is swept up in the 1989 demonstrations.  As Ai-Ming's family's story slowly unfolds we eventually learn her connection to Marie's family and come to understand why she has sought shelter with them.

But Ai-Ming eventually also moves on and Marie, as an adult, is left to search for the ending on her own - eventually travelling to Shanghai and meeting some of the "actors" in Ai-Ming's story and piecing together what led to her father's suicide.

Throughout the book, there is also constant reference to an allegorical "Book of Records" - I found that part a little hard to understand other than it was meant to be a representation of the lives of Ai-Ming and Marie's family members searching the world for each other and ultimately where they are meant to be in their own lives.  I did like how it wove the narrative together as various characters searched for and found chapters and used copies of the book to deliver secret messages to each other.

All in all I really enjoyed this book - just don't expect it to be a quick or light read.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

This was a fantastic first novel about the "American Dream" and how it can go terribly wrong.  The main characters are Jendi and Nene, immigrants to New York City from Cameroon.  Jendi arrived on a visitor's visa and overstayed his welcome - he is working with a lawyer of questionable morals and skill to make an asylum claim.  Nene is studying at a local community college and dreams of becoming a pharmacist.

For a while things look good for the couple - Jendi gets a job as a chauffeur for a Wall Street executive, Clark Edwards.  He is paid more money than he has ever received driving Clark, his wife Cindy and their sons Vince and Mighty.  Nene even makes extra money by spending the summer with Cindy in the Hamptons working as an assistant housekeeper.

The problem with the dream is that Clark works at Lehmann Brothers, which eventually implodes.  The book examines how this business failure destroyed so many lives, both directly and indirectly.  Not only is Clark affected by the closure, but his stress and overwork has a terrible impact on his wife and sons.  And it results in job loss for Jendi, and Clark's secretary and others who must now struggle to find work in a recessionary economy.  Jendi is not even able to return to work as a cab driver as there is more demand for driving jobs than there are cabs on the roads.

So Jendi and Nene have to figure out how to go forward with less money and an uncertain immigration status.  The American dream they had strived for their whole lives does not turn out at all as expected.  And terrible things happen to both their family and the Edwards family, whose fates have become intertwined more than one would expect from and employer-employee relationship.

I don't want to give away the ending - I will just say it is not your typical happy immigration story.