I know that every month has an “ides”, but I couldn’t resist the title of this post, as the ides of March are of course the most famous ides of all, thanks to Shakespeare and Julius Caesar. And so, as I sip my steaming cup of chai tea, I’ll be looking over my shoulder in case someone is sneaking up behind me to cut me down, even in the prime of life.
I have two very different Canadian novels to tell you about today. The first is Red Jacket by Pamela Mordecai. This author was born in Jamaica, but has lived in Canada since the mid-90s, and currently resides in Kitchener. Red Jacket follows Grace Carpenter from her childhood in rural St Chris, a fictional Caribbean island, to her schooling in Queenstown, then to Toronto, where she attends university, then to Ann Arbor, Michigan for graduate studies, and finally to Geneva, where, working for the World Health Organization, she collaborates in efforts to find solutions to the AIDS crisis in Africa and the Caribbean. Along the way, she meets a wide variety of characters, including Maisie and Stephanie, Charlie and Mark, and finally Father Atules, who works with her on her most important project. But throughout her life, Grace is troubled by her origins. She can’t understand why all the other members of her large family are black, while she is a redibo, having copper coloured skin, red hair and gray eyes. She knows she is loved and cherished, but she never really feels that she belongs. When some of the neighbour kids taunt her and call her “a little red jacket”, she doesn’t understand what they mean, and it is not for many years that the truth about her real parentage is explained to her. She struggles throughout her life to find her true identity and to reconcile her circumstances with where she came from and who she has become. Mordecai uses Creole terminology and speech patterns to enhance the reader’s experience and really create the feeling of being on a Caribbean island. She provides an index at the back for easy reference, and it is there that one finds the meaning of the term “red jacket”. While the timelines and side-stories in this lengthy, detailed novel are sometimes a bit muddled, I stuck with it to the end and it was worth the effort. Alternately heart-wrenching, clever and very real, this novel tackles issues that are relevant on both a personal and a global level.
I also read a very short novel by Jesse Gilmour called Green Hotel. It tells the difficult story of the struggles 20-something son Hayden experiences living with his artistic, suicidal father. Hayden’s mother is not in the picture at all, and it seems she hasn’t been since he was under ten years old. The details of Hayden’s upbringing are challenging in themselves, and his current vices (drugs, alcohol and pyromania) add to an already difficult situation. What is a young man to do when his father wants to kill himself? This novel makes the reader consider the value of living at any cost, and does so in a moving, dare I say “positive”, way. Too bad the writing style is so much like father David Gilmour’s early novels, because there is real talent and a gift with words evident in the writing. Perhaps Jesse needs to break away from the influence of his famous father and find his own voice. I also think that if I was a 20-something woman living in Toronto, I might have been able to relate to the characters better, but it wasn’t as much of a hurdle as it may have been. This book does not require a huge time commitment, as it is just over 100 pages.
That’s all for today! Stay safe until the Ides are over!
Bye for now…