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by Tommy Orange
(McClelland & Stewart)
The title of this tremendous novel comes from Gertrude Stein who said of Oakland (California) 'there is no there, there' which sounds like the most insulting thing ever (and may I just say that Oakland was my home for over twenty years and occupies a special place in my heart?) but this is out of context. She was actually speaking of the area she grew up in which had fallen prey to developers and gentrification, so this is a very apt description of Oakland, the loss of neighbourhoods, and how displaced many of the people are, especially the elderly, minorities, and central to this novel, indigenous people. Thomas King (The Inconvenient Indian) talks about the romantic dead Indian and the fondness White people have for them, while simultaneously having no time for modern day Natives who live off the reservation (or on the reservation for that matter) in cities such as Oakland. There There is a series of overlapping and relating, multigenerational stories which culminate at the Big Oakland Powwow. Tommy Orange, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations, sets a fierce, unrelenting pace, gathering skeins of violence, loss, abuse, addiction, despair, identity, spirituality and beauty, into a vivid and complex whole. His characters live and breathe and die on the page. This debut novel is both brutal and literary, gut-wrenching and poetic.
This coming-of-age memoir is almost stranger than fiction. Westover grows up in a family of survivalists in the mountains of Idaho preparing for the apocalypse. In her author notes, Westover tells us that her book is not about Mormonism. But it is about a patriarchal, sometimes abusive (terrifyingly at the hands of an older brother), rigid, isolated life albeit in a beautiful setting. Her father is both strict and loving, her mother, subservient and erratically strong, making for a precarious childhood. Her father denounces anything he suspects of enabling governmental control which includes hospitals and doctors; her mother, a herbalist and midwife trusts in God's pharmacy; and Westover and her siblings help forage and manufacture her tinctures, and work brutal hours in their father's scrap yard. They endure some horrific accidents and the prose here is unflinching but also poetic and often beautiful. The children receive no kind of education although self-education is condoned for her brothers. There's a lovely passage at the beginning of the book where Westover describes the school bus passing their home. When she is 17, Westover begins her own education in English and Mathematics although it is woefully inadequate and rudimentary, and is almost miraculously admitted to Brigham Young University where she is introduced to World History for the first time and learns about the Holocaust and the Civil Rights Movement. This is a woman on a quest for knowledge, a woman who defies the roles set out for her and self-invents, pursuing an education that allows her to see with new eyes. And it is also about home, family and the ties that bind.
Sarah Perry continues her wonderful immersion into Gothic themes in her second novel Melmoth (I also loved The Essex Serpent!). Melmoth feels like a horror novel at first, but then it opens up into an exploration of guilt, responsibility, and the human longing for connection and forgiveness. It is satisfying on multiple levels, therefore, for being a chilling story of a centuries-old haunting, and for its clarity in describing humanity's mistakes. This is one of the not-so-secret aspects of horror - it is an excellent way of plumbing the depths of human psychology, including rationalization of bad behaviour, feelings of alienation, and large scale human atrocities. Melmoth is quite lyrically written, and you might sense Melmoth herself longing, watching, and waiting for you, out of the corner of your eye.
I first read The Enormous Room many, many years ago, as a teenager, and it profoundly affected me. It is still one of my favourite books. It is billed as an autobiographical novel now, but I'd say it's the only sort of memoir a poet could write! During World War I, e e cummings went to France as a volunteer for the Red Cross ambulance unit on the Western Front. He was arrested with his companion, only referred to as "B", for possible treason. Although never charged officially, he was detained for around 4 months in a prison. The Enormous Room is his account of this time, and it is in turn joyful, despairing, and philosophical, and one of the most entertaining, beautiful books I've read. His light descriptions belie the horror of his situation. He is generous in his description of his prisonmates, who share "the enormous room", which is essentially one giant cell they've all been thrown into. This is a classic of prison memoirs, and also just an excellent book on its own. It should be on your shelf!
Written by Shauntay Grant, Illustrated by Eva Campbell
My pick this month is a story about home; a story about connection, roots and a sense of place. In the book a young girl yearns to travel back in time to her great-grandmother’s community, conjured in her mind’s eye by old stories. “Take me,” she muses, “to where the pavement ends and family begins.” She can almost taste the berries on the hill where small, colourful houses overlook a sparkling harbour. She can see children playing football “Back the Field” and kids rafting on Tibby’s pond and crowding around a bonfire at Kildare’s Field. When author Shauntay Grant recited the text at a reading she asked those of us in the audience to close our eyes and be transported. But with the book in hand, the reader’s imaginings are buoyed along by Eva Campbell’s evocative artwork. Her oil and pastel illustrations are saturated with deep colour - vivid, but hazy like memories - which together with Grant’s prose conveys the richness and vibrancy of lives lived in the tightly-knit community. And of course this wasn’t just any community. It was Africville, an historic Black community that survived and thrived on the shores of Bedford Basin for over 150 years, despite shameful municipal neglect, until it was demolished by the City of Halifax in the 1960s. This book is a powerful reminder to kids and adults alike that to understand the sorrow of Africville it is not enough to know how appallingly racist urban planning decisions perversely led to it being identified as a slum and ultimately bulldozed. Grant’s is a tender look at the loss of a home in human terms, and how the Africville spirit continues to inspire hope and be celebrated through events such as the annual Africville reunion.