Despite this beautiful, sunny summer morning, I can definitely feel that summer is coming to a close. There may be something in the air that indicates the passing of the season. It could also be the changing crops that are available at the Kitchener Market that mark this change, for now peaches are plentiful and pears and apples are beginning to make an appearance. However you mark this changing season, don’t be too melancholy just yet… there are still many more weeks until the end of summer.
My book club met yesterday to discuss Austin Clarke’s novel, The Question. This novel opens with a man arriving at a birthday party where he knows no one. His colleague invited him to this event, but at the last minute had to cancel, encouraging him to attend anyway. At this party, he meets a woman on the deck, sits beside her and chats, all the while reminiscing about his early childhood spent in Barbados. He and the woman make small talk; the man considers the setting, the deck, the flowers in the garden, the fruit on offer, the dog that has taken a liking to him, and his current relationship with a Filipino woman, Room, who hates crowds and so did not accompany him to the party, and the afternoon turns into evening. The next part of the book finds the man married to someone who is not Room, a bizarre relationship in which nothing is certain, and which leads the man, by trashing their apartment, to make a frenzied attempt to escape the situation, or possibly to punish. I have never read anything by this award-winning Canadian author, but the description on the front flap of the book sounded intriguing, and I figured I couldn’t go wrong with anything by this esteemed author, so I added it to the book club selection list. If I had read it first, though, I would not have put it on the list. It was difficult to get into, there seemed to be little, if any, plot, and the main character’s obsession with women’s bodies was borderline offensive. I found that the second half of the book was easier to read, probably because there was less reminiscing for the man, the writing seemed more straightforward, and there seemed to be more of a “plot” (I use that term loosely). It was not a very good reading experience for me, and I suspected that my book club members would feel the same. My suspicions were confirmed when I received an email from one of my members a few days before the meeting, letting me know that she would not be able to make it to the meeting (thankfully not because of the choice of book!) but sending me her thoughts about the book. She wrote: “I didn’t enjoy it… I strongly disliked the main character… he’s the kind of guy I’d make sure to avoid at a party! I got sick of his breast fixation and his sleazy view of women’s bodies…” At the beginning of our meetings, I always go around the table and have each person tell the group what they thought of the book in general, and then move on to discuss the book in greater detail. This ensures that everyone gets a chance to participate in the discussion. The first person to start the discussion yesterday opened with: “I hated it.” She hated the characters, found nothing redeeming about them, but admitted to reading the entire book in one afternoon, saying that she couldn’t put it down, that she felt compelled to keep reading because she was waiting for something to happen. She did comment on the excellent use of language and the stunning imagery, which she felt was the only redeeming thing about the book. The next person said she had no problem putting it down, and skipped and skimmed until she finally reached the end (the person who sent the email also said she skimmed to the end, hoping it would get better: “It didn’t”, she decided). And the last member, who shares one copy of each book with the emailing member, said that the book went back and forth across the street many times over the three weeks they had their shared library copy, so disgusted were they with the characters, yet so determined were they to finish the book because it was “assigned reading”. Well, I was sure that this would be a short discussion, but it turned out to be a lengthy, lively one, one in which, unbelievably, the first member, who stated that she hated it, said that she was tempted to reread it! Here are some of the highlights of our discussion: We all agreed that the first part of the book, which takes place at the party, was exhausting, that it was so tiring to read about the seemingly pointless small talk of the man and the woman he sat beside, and that we were all wishing the man would get off the deck soon and go home! We discussed the fact that nearly all the characters in the book, particularly the main characters, remained nameless throughout the novel, and yet the minor characters had many names (ie: Romula Lucena Maria Mandaros, aka Room; Eireene, aka Reens and Auntie Reens). We felt that the main character’s position as a judge on the Immigration and Refugee Board, which is such a powerful and prestigious position, was frightening because he was clearly very insecure, doubting his own merits as a black man in a white, Canadian culture, and questioning the legitimacy of his marriage to a white woman, a member of “the Establishment”, while he is really just a poor black boy from the Islands. We discussed his relationship with his first wife, Room, one that is nurturing, if a bit odd, in relation to his marriage with his second, white wife, in which he is controlled and manipulated and treated like a pet. In fact, his position is below that of the dog, and he knows it, yet he continues in this relationship, admitting to the reader “I wish I was not the man I am”. We determined that Room represented the Islands, where he feels safe, while the white wife was Canada, where he struggles to belong yet always feels insecure, where he always was and would always remain an outsider. We felt that this book offered an interesting insight into Canadian culture from an immigrant perspective. The main character held a position of such authority, power and prestige, and yet, in his position at home, he is nothing, leading him to feel that he doesn’t really belong anywhere. We talked about Eireene, and her relationship with the woman and, by default, the man. One of the members even took the initiative and looked up the lyrics to the song, "Strange Fruit" most famously performed by Billie Holiday, which is mentioned in the book a number of times and which proved to be significant. We talked about so much more during our 90+ minute meeting, but in short, we managed to go from “The question is, What the hell was the point of this book?” to “I think I might have to read it again” (several members now want to read something else by this author - I will lend them my as-yet unread copy of The Polished Hoe). That, I believe, is the sign of a good discussion.
And yesterday I finished reading the latest book by another Canadian author, Linden MacIntyre, called Punishment. This excellent tells the story of one man’s struggle to do the right thing, when “the right thing” is anything but clear, in the face of moral, emotional, personal and legal adversity. Forced to take early retirement from his position as a Corrections Officer at Kingston Penitentiary and facing a separation from his estranged wife Anna, Tony Breau/MacMillan returns to his hometown in Newfoundland to lick his wounds and hopefully find some peace in his life. When Dwayne Strickland is arrested for his involvement in the death of a young girl from the village, Tony is called in to help. He has had past involvement with Strickland when he was incarcerated in Millhaven and Kingston Pen while Tony was still working in Corrections. Although he doesn’t really know him, Strickland being so much younger, he is pressured to talk with Dwayne, despite his wish to keep a low profile and move on with forging a new life. With pressure from all sides weighing heavily on him and against his better judgment, Tony is sucked into the vortex of the events as they are happening, and begins to question his own guilt as he struggles to find a way to atone for his actions. This is a crime novel, a page-turner that will keep you reading late into the night as the conflicts, manipulations and betrayals become more complex and widespread. It is a study in guilt, and questions the choices we make when there is no clear right and wrong and we are left wandering in a gray area, trying to determine what action to take that will correct the wrongs while also hurting the least number of innocent (or nearly innocent) people. It is also an exploration into the many forms punishment may take, who is punished and how. Like Clarke, MacIntyre, too, has an amazing skill with use of language. I have a quotation that I want to share with you: "It is in the fertile gap between how things are and how things might have been that sorrow blooms". It was one of the best books I’ve read in a while. Although it is a “crime story”, it reminded me of one of his earlier books, The Bishop’s Man, about a priest in Newfoundland who may or may not be involved in the coverup of the sexual abuse of children at the hands of Catholic priests. It also reminded me of John Boyne’s A History of Loneliness, which has a similar theme but which focuses on Irish priests. I would definitely recommend any of these novels to readers who enjoy character-driven books and explorations into morality, guilt and making choices in difficult situations.
Whew! It’s been a busy reading week! I’m not sure what to read next, as I look at my nearly toppling pile of possible reads, both library books and books for review. I think I will leave that decision-making until this evening, and get outside to enjoy a gorgeous day!
Bye for now…