Sunday, 6 November 2011

Little Bee

 "Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl.  Everyone would be pleased to see me coming," says Little Bee, our eponymous, teenaged, Nigerian heroine.  These first engaging paragraphs of Chris Cleave's novel Little Bee not only draw us in to Little Bee's tale, they also remind us of the instinctive racism that ethnic immigrants are subjected to every day.

Little Bee is a 16-year old Nigerian refugee who flees the Niger Delta oil war only to be kept in a UK immigration detention centre for 2 years.  She is let out illegally with no place to go, no papers, and no prospects.  She seeks out an English couple living in Surrey, Sarah and Andrew, whom she met during the conflict.  Andrew, riddled with guilt over his own inability or unwillingness to help Little Bee at a crucial moment, kills himself upon seeing her face appear in his safe, suburban backyard.  Sarah and Little Bee's lives become intertwined as Sarah tries to assuage her guilt and feeling of complicity in Little Bee's story by attempting to obtain British citizenship for her.

For an Anglo-Saxon middle-aged Englishman, the task of writing in a 16-year old Nigerian girl's voice sounds a little daunting, even riddled with political correctness pitfalls. But the strange part is, Little Bee's story is compelling and absorbing, and her voice is thoughtful and insightful.  We leave the novel madly in love with her.   Her narrative is surprisingly much more convincing than Sarah's.

In fact, if the novel has a glaring fault, Sarah's narrative is it.  Her voice and dialogue are wooden and contrived and it is in writing of a white, uppermiddle class English woman, rather than a Nigerian immigrant, that Cleave falls prey to stereotypes.  Cleave betrays a significant amount of disgust for Sarah's materialistic suburban life, and Sarah comes across as morally wishy-washy and, well, fairly boring.  She is carrying on an affair with an odious man who might as be wearing a black cape and twirling a mustache, whilst tying Little Bee to a railroad for all the likeability and sympathy he is able to drum up from the reader.  Her best friend is so vacuously promiscuous Samatha Jones would find her nauseating.  If Sarah is redeemed at all, it is only because of her eventual attachment and devotion to Little Bee. 

According to Cleave, the novel was partially inspired by the true story of Manuel Bravo, an Angolan asylum-seeker, who after four years of being held in an immigration detention centre, learned that he and his 9 year old son would be deported the next morning.  Because unaccompanied minors cannot be deported, Bravo killed himself that evening so that his son would have the chance to stay in the UK until his 18th birthday.

The novel contains Western guilt in spades, and perhaps one of the reasons Sarah's narrative is so unconvincing is because Little Bee's story of watching family members murdered and fleeing from certain death diminishes Sarah's puerile problems of marital and professional discontent.  Western stories become silly and small, and we squirm with discomfort when we read passages such as "the simple little word horror.  It means something different to the people from my village.  In your country, if you are not scared enough already, you can go to watch a horror film...For one hour you are haunted, and you do not trust anybody, and then the feeling fades away.  Horror in your country is something you take a dose of to remind yoursef that you are not suffering from it.  For me and the girls from my village, horror is a disease and we are sick with it.  It is not an illness you can cure yourself of by standing up and letting the big red cinema seat fold itself up behind you.  That would be a good trick."

Despite the flaws of Sarah's narrative, Little Bee offers us the best of what literary art can do.  The novel puts a human face to asylym seekers and raises awareness to their plight in the UK, but it also reminds us to attempt to try to see the humanity behind statistics and new stories, to attempt to understand other people's stories, and attempt to emphathise more.  We see ourselves in Andrew's inertia and guilt, but hope we would have at very least Sarah's reluctant ability to act.  Cleave encourages his readers to remain engaged in the world, and in this endeavour he is very successful.  I left the novel reminding myself to stay sympathetic, compassionate, and above all, alert and active against cruelty and violence wherever I come across it.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

The Sentimentalists

Johanna Skibsrud's novel, The Sentimentalists, (UK), (Can), was the surprise winner this year at Canada's most prestigious literary award, the Giller Prize.  And having recently finished the novel, let me tell you, no one is more surprised than me.  I feel a little bit guilty saying that; The Sentimentalists is Skibsrud's first novel and I generally give new authors some slack for their shortcomings, but, well, actually, I don't really feel that guilty.  She just won a $40,000 literary prize and is probably jet-setting around the globe or lunching with Margaret Atwood right now, and I'm sitting around eating potato salad and writing this blog.

The Sentimentalists deals chiefly in memory and personal legacy, and follows an unnamed first-person narrator, who is dealing with the infidelity of her former partner, and the looming, pending death of her father.  The narrator moves in with her father and his friend in the fictional town of Casablanca, and tries to pry her father's memories of the Vietnam War out of him, which is cool, because I really feel that war is an underrepresented subject in literature these days.  Right?  No one is writing about war, and no one is automatically winning literary awards just for talking about war in their novels.  Right?

What's the problem with the novel?  First of all, it really annoys me when writers don't give their protagonists names.  I'm sure there is some profound, thematic reason for leaving her nameless, but I don't care.  I want to know her damn name.  That quibble might seem like a small thing, but as a character, Nameless Nelly is left as blank as her name.  We're given no reason to care about her.  So I didn't.  And when you don't care about the protagonist of the story, you tend not to care about...the story.

But what bothered me even more was the unforgivably clunky writing style.  I hate clunky writing. To Hades with it!  I know that some people tend to consider writing style to be of secondary importance; according to them, bad writing can simply be something we have to endure to absorb great ideas from an otherwise great writer.  Bull.  Dear authors, hear me now, your writing style IS your novel.  In Skibsrud's case, her novel cannot get away from her needlessly convoluted and wooden sentences.

I don't mean to be overly critical.  I mean, the novel isn't The DaVinci Code, or anything.  There are occasional flashes of brilliance, and glimpses of a great mind.  Just when my eyes were glazing over with the most boredom, some little insight of the novel would reach in and rip my heart out, reminding me of some old pain I had forgotten.  The narrator's father is an almost great character who almost crackles off the page with ornery pain and repentance.  Skibsrud could be a great writer.  But reading this little novel, which only measures about 200-pages long, I was reminded of one of my mother's favourite phrases:  it draaaaags along as slowly as molasses in January.

But hey, maybe she'll get better.  It's only her first novel.  But do you know when some people might not feel the need to improve their craft?  When they're given thousands of dollars and well-respected awards for their less-than-remarkable efforts.

Friday, 8 April 2011

The Blue Castle

Every book geek has his or her own literary rituals and traditions, and I am no different; hence, at the beginning of every spring I pull L.M. Montgomery's 1926 novel, The Blue Castle, (Can), (UK), off the shelf to reread.  This ritual occurs partly because I first read the novel in March at the age of 13 years old, just as the spring was first breaking, and partly because at the time I was suffering through the two greatest cruelties inflicted on Canadians and teenagers: slushly late winters and middle school. 

If you have read the tale, you will recognise why I might choose the beginning of spring to read Valancy Stirling's reviving story of rebirth and rejuvination.  While Montgomery herself labelled the novel, "an amusing little comedy for adults," Valancy and her break from the oppression of her small-minded, judgemental family and society, has meant much more to me than mere amusement (although the novel is very amusing).  If you too remember 13 accurately, you will sympathise with my timely need for a novel about breaking free from small-minded society.  If you too have suffered through a Canadian winter, and died a little inside of happiness at the smell of melting snow in spring, you will sympathise keenly.

The story begins with Valancy Stirling waking one morning with the realisation that the next day she will be 29 years old, and that she has no hope of becoming married and escaping the drudgery of her spinster life.  She lives a joyless existence with her uncaring mother and tiresome, elderly cousin.  Her family views her as a weak, insignificant girl; a poor shadow of her beautiful, charming cousin Olive, who is constantly pursued by suitable bachelors.  She lives a life of dreary obligation and timidity, until one day, bothered by a continual heart pain, she visits a heart specialist, who tells her that she has at most a year to live.

Determined not to live her remaining year under the thumb of her family, she keeps her ailment to herself, adopts a carpe diem attitude, and proceeds to shock her family by behaving exactly as she likes: laughing at them outwardly, and going to live with the town drunk, in order to nurse his dying daughter, who has been shunned by society after giving birth to an illigitimate baby.

Critics have not always responded well to The Blue Castle, finding Valancy's sudden transformation unlikely.  Is this novel a work of great, explorative art?  No.  Is the ending a little predictable?  Sure.  Is it a little sentimental and soppy?  Yes.  Do critics who gripe about things like that probably go home and kick puppies?  I would imagine so.

This novel was originally intended for adults, likely because of what at the time would have considered adult themes, but would now be considered tame for any afterschool programming.  The tone and scope would be perfect for any girl in her early teens, or any adult who wants to escape back to that elfin, enchanted world of L.M.Montgomery. 

The novel is written with Montgomery's unimitatable tone (just ask Budge Wilson), weaving between acidic, witty observations of human nature, and dreamy depictions of the wilderness.  Montgomery gives Valancy the ability to gut her family with her razor sharp tongue, and then escape to dream in the wilds of Muskoka.  This novel is one of the few stories that Montgomery does not set in her trademark PEI landscapes, and the Muskoka that Valancy finds refuge in is full of smoky grey wood cabins, wildflowers, tall pine trees, and purple shadows.

Monday, 28 February 2011


I love finding new, talented authors, especially if I get to jump on the bandwagon right after they've published their first novel.  Such is the case for me with Kathleen Winter and her beautiful first novel  Annabel (Can)(UK).

Annabel is a seemingly scandalous story.  Our protagonist, Wayne Blake, is born with both male and female genitalia, in the heart of rural Labrador, in 1968.  Wayne is raised as a boy, and his mother, Jacinta; father, Treadway; and neighbour, Thomasina keep the secret of his dual sex to themselves.  When Treadway decides he must be raised as a boy (and names him Wayne, the least androgynous name imaginable), Jacinta secretly grieves the loss of a daughter.

As Wayne grows up, Treadway is unable to keep his son's feminine side hidden.  Wayne is pre-occupied with synchronised swimming and European architecture, and has no interest in his father's hunting or other masculine pursuits.  Wayne's physical appearance is more feminine than other boys, and his parents must give him hormones to stop him from developing breasts.  As Wayne matures and learns of his secret, he must make the choice to either accept his dual gender, or continue living as a man.

If you feel that a story about a hermaphrodite is too heavy or disturbing, let me encourage you to pick this book up anyway.  Despite the controversial and seemingly overtly sexual nature of the topic, Winter constantly steps away from making the story sensationalistic.  Instead, she emphasises nature during Wayne's birth, "at the beginning of March, during the first signs of spring breakup of the ice--at time of great importance to Labradorians who hunted ducks for food-and he was born, like most children in that place in 1968, surrounded by women his mother had known all her married life...", reminding the reader that Wayne's duality is an act of nature.

Certainly, the novel contains moments of sadness, shock, depression, and violence, but this novel is not train-crash, I-want-to-look-away-but-I-can't reading in the manner of Angela Carter. Winter's ability to humanise Wayne with delicacy is one of the aspects of the book that I found the most admirable.

Also worthy of admiration is Wayne's supporting cast, who are complex and richly drawn, from the sensible neighbour turned widowed travelling bohemian, Thomasina, to his wistful mother Jacinta, who gave up the city she loves for a rural back country she feels out of place in.  The secondary character that I found most compelling is Wayne's overtly masculine father Treadway, whose macho inability to accept his son's femininity is offset by his love of nature and his dogs, his thirst for reading, and his own inability to fit in with other men.

Also of interest is Wayne's childhood female friend, Wally (several secondary characters close to Wayne are given androgynous names).  Given a somewhat boyish appearance, Wally is in a way Wayne's alter ego, something of a physical embodiment of his female self, Annabel (hence the title).  Winter avoids cliches by leaving Wayne's relationship with Wally without definition, much as Wayne's sexuality as a whole remains up in the air.  

However, by far the most memorable and absorbing aspect of Annabel is the beautiful and evocative depiction of wintry, lonely rural Labrador.  White caribou, snow, and calm rivers pepper a world that is both peaceful and deeply alive, with a "striation, a pulse, as the land drinks light and emits a vibration.  Sometimes you can see it with your naked eye, strips of light coming of the land."  This sense of a throbbing, yet quiet natural world is so absorbing that I felt buried in it for the first couple of chapters.  The beauty and tone of Winter's setting is reflected in the beautiful Canadian hardback edition: a soft natural scene with white and pale, ice blue.

Annabel brings us a new author able to tackle shocking subjects with delicacy, and to bring out the quiet beauty of seemingly tragic lives.  I look forward to many years of being on Winter's bandwagon.