Posts Tagged ‘anansi’

Michael Winter – Minister Without Portfolio

December 3, 2013


Michael Winter returns with his fifth novel, Minister Without Portfolio, a tale of guilt, loss, and renewal. The protagonist is Henry Hayward, and at the novel’s start he is a man adrift, trying to get over a split with his girlfriend, yet feeling unable to do so if he stays in St. John’s. Luckily, a friend finds him a gig doing contracting work for the military in Kabul and off he goes. But, just as Henry’s broken heart is mending, a bomb goes off, literally, and Henry is covered in guilt and the blood of his childhood friend, Tender Morris. Henry feels it’s his fault, because in the heat of the moment he accidentally grabbed Tender’s gun, leaving him unarmed against a suicide bomber.

Henry returns to Newfoundland, crushed, seeking renewal in the aptly titled town of Renews. There he begins to rebuild Tender’s dilapidated home and shortly after begins caring for Tender’s widow Martha, who is pregnant. Henry dedicates himself to Martha, wanting to make things right for her and her unborn child.

While Minister Without Portfolio does a good job of painting an authentic portrait of rural Newfoundland, the book doesn’t have the same verve and energy of Winter’s earlier work. The dialogue doesn’t pop like it did in The Architects Are Here and his protagonist Henry pales in comparison to the too similar Rockwell Kent of The Big Why. Like Kent, Henry is plagued with the thought that he isn’t living his life the way he should be, and he claims he just wants to be good, but he never quite knows how to truly be himself.

The problem is Henry isn’t that interesting, and Winter’s minimal and staccato prose doesn’t help create an evocative portrait. This novel would have been much more powerful if written from the perspective of Martha, the grieving, pregnant widow, rather than Henry’s. Perhaps Winter needs to veer away from the long-suffering, slightly unlikable anti-hero, which has been his go-to protagonist in nearly all his work to date. Sadly, Minister Without Portfolio feels like a bit of a misstep and a rehash. Like its protagonist, it seems to be searching for something yet never quite reaches its full potential.

Lynn Coady – Hellgoing (Anansi)

September 3, 2013


For Rover Arts

Still hot on the heels of her Giller Prize nominated novel The Antagonist, Lynn Coady returns with Hellgoing, her first short story collection since 2000’s Play The Monster Blind. These nine stories will quickly transport the reader into familiar Coady territory: troubled families, big city vs. small town drunks, pregnant teenagers, strained amorous relationships, the literary world and devout Catholics. It feels great to hang around with such a varied cast of Coady folk again all at once. Long-time readers will notice, however, that Coady’s settings have shifted west just as she has. No longer do we see the rich Maritime dialogue of her earlier work; instead, many of her characters are west coasters with names like Rain, Hart and Ames, ex-hippies, writers and academics.

In all of Coady’s novels, except for her debut, she has written from the point of view of a male narrator (and has done so convincingly). However, in this collection eight of the nine stories are told from the point of view of women characters. In the title story, Coady writes from the voice of a forty-something feminist who is struggling to fit in with her family after her mother’s death. The acerbic wit of the woman’s father, and the relationship between him and his son will remind readers of Rank and his caustic dad Gord in The Antagonist. In “Wireless,” Coady skillfully depicts functioning alcoholics, as she writes in the voice of a female journalist who meets a kindred spirit in Ned, a burly musician from Newfoundland.

A couple of Coady’s stories bring to mind other great women writers. For example, in “Take This and Eat It,” Coady writes from the perspective of a nun who tries to talk a young anorexic religious fanatic into eating some food, and finally convinces her to eat the body of Christ. The story’s dry humour mixed with themes of religion and blasphemy is suggestive of the great Flannery O’Connor. Moreover, in “An Otherworld,” Coady tells the story of a soon to be married couple with a fetish for S&M, and its tone is reminiscent of Mary Gaitskill’s first collection of stories Bad Behavior. But in the end, the writer Coady reminds us most of herself, as she mines the same ground and themes of her earlier work. For example, the engrossing “Mr. Hope” harkens back to her debut novel Strange Heaven, and is written from the perspective of an apathetic woman who gets pregnant as a teenager.

The collection’s strongest story, “Dogs in Clothes,” deals with the world of publishing and a young publicist who tries to drown herself in her work rather than deal with the fact that her father is having a serious operation. Coady handles the juxtaposition well, giving her narrator compassion, while her sly worldview and clever turns of phrase never let the material get too sentimental. The story is compelling, yet feels imperfect, as it tries too hard to be subtle. And overall, this seems to be Hellgoing’s biggest flaw – the attempts at subtlety and imagery to tie a story together are arguably lacking.

Every story in the collection is an absorbing read, but many of the endings could have been stronger. This is a minor complaint because Hellgoing is an engaging collection of short stories from a writer at the top of her game. And these stories will serve us just fine as we wait for what Coady truly excels at – her novels.

Lisa Moore – Caught (Anansi)

August 23, 2013


For Rover Arts


Lisa Moore returns with a new novel that makes good on the recent accolades bestowed upon her excellent 2010 novel, February. Her new book is titled Caught, and takes the plot device of a prisoner on the run as its starting point and introduces us to David Slaney, a would-be smuggler who escapes from jail on the eve of his 25th birthday. Slaney was four years into a sentence for spearheading one of the biggest pot-smuggling cases in Canadian history, but now that he’s out, he and his buddy Hearn plan to do it all over again, only not get caught this time.

While Caught may come off as a summer thriller with its flashy dust jacket and fast-paced opening pages of an escaped convict in an orange jumpsuit racing through brush and brambles in darkness, this is still very much a languid and reflective Lisa Moore novel, full of empathy for its characters, rich attention to detail, and highly memorable scenes.

Caught is set in the late seventies and is split into two narratives – the first focusing on escaped prisoner David Slaney, and the second on Patterson, an undercover cop whose career depends on catching Slaney and Hearn red-handed. At first Patterson seems stiff, a cop who sweats too much, and seems desperate for a promotion, yet Moore gently builds layer after layer of character around him, making him whole, fallible, and decent. The same goes for David Slaney, who Moore portrays as a bright-eyed kid – still full of optimism and love and adventure, qualities a second stint in prison will be sure to dash out. Slaney’s not a mean guy, or a delinquent, in fact he’s quite the opposite, Slaney only wants people to be happy and feel safe, and we see this countless times as he makes his way across the country from Nova Scotia to Vancouver to reunite with his buddy Hearn.

Some of the strongest scenes come from Slaney’s chance encounters as he makes his way to the west coast. The ride from a girl who lives with her grandfather, the rescue of a drowning woman on the beach and a bride having her wedding dress zipped up in a hotel room are just a few scenes that immediately come to mind. They are filled with such fine imagery that they leave a lasting impression on the reader. But the novel’s most compelling passages arrive when Slaney is en route to Colombia on a boat with a drunk sailor named Cyril and his way-too-young summer fling, Ada. Moore handles these at-sea scenes with ease, making her readers feel the water lapping at the hull of the ship, and the sun and salt water burning their skin.

Caught is an excellent novel. It begs to be read quickly, yet Moore’s language and imagery demands it be read slowly. Line by line it is probably the most finely crafted novel of Moore’s career and will no doubt be considered one of the best books of 2013. Her prose is veering into Hemingway territory, cutting to the heart of things so simply and frankly, and making us really feel what her characters are feeling. To give just one slight example as Slaney considers Ada while on the way to South America: “Slaney thought there was something true in her. He could not understand how she had come to be there with an old drunk. They were overtaken by stillness. The sea was still and there wasn’t a breath of wind.” Honest and propulsive, Caught is a mature novel from an author still proving she only gets better with time.