This Giller short-listed book by a Quebec author is hard to describe. It is epic story-telling told with great detail, so there is much content about many many topics. Sometimes I wished that some of the content had been edited out as this is a very long book. Part of the book takes place in Quebec and it is very French-Canadian, with complex family dynamics, wicked nuns, etc. The last half takes place in Berlin and Rome, albeit with characters that are linked by family to the first part of the book. The Lamontagne family is always surprising; the writing is imaginative and often dark.
In 1922, Count Alexander Roskov, a member of the Russian aristocracy, is declared an enemy of the state and subjected to “house” arrest in the Hotel Metropol. The description of his demeanour and manners is exquisite and impeccable, hardly surprising for an author whose previous book was Rules of Civility. Alexander creates new and changing relationships with individuals who work in the hotel over the next 32 years. The prose illustrates beautifully the importance of virtues like loyalty. The Soviet Union undergoes dramatic change in this post-revolution period, so Alexander has to be adaptable. The most impactful change occurs when he becomes guardian of a 6-year-old little girl. This is a wonderful book with masterful writing, so a joy to read.
Full disclosure: I have not always been a fan of Ondaatje’s writing; I thought I was never going to get through The English Patient. This book is entirely different because it is enjoyably readable. Warlight is a post-WWII story of Nathaniel, abandoned by his parents at the age of 14 to undergo a bizarre, slightly delinquent upbringing by “guardians”. Ondaatje is a master of withholding in terms of story, so the book essentially is a slow reveal. Why did his mother Rose leave Nathaniel and his sister in the care of a truly odd set of characters, nicknamed The Moth and The Darter? What role did Rose play in the War? There is much left unstated or just left to our wonderment. Masterful writing.
This book is subtitled “A Daughter’s Memoir”, and chronicles the last years of her parent’s lives after relocating from their home to London to a seniors residence in Ottawa. Ms. Hay’s wonderful prose describes her aged mother: “her loose skin hung off her like silken parchment … (her) bare arms were as pitiable as a ballerinas”. The decline in the health of her parents is described in depressing and brutally honest detail, proving once again that growing old is not for sissies. Ms. Hay’s relationships with her parents (and her siblings) is examined thoughtfully, carefully and critically, in particular her often fraught relationship with her tempestuous father. This is very fine writing, introspective and compelling.
This book was a chance discovery at the library, so was read without expectations. Therefore the pleasure of reading a very fine first novel was palpable. Andrea leaves a strict childhood in Nebraska to be immersed in Portland’s lesbian life. A bad breakup results in a brief hookup with a man, and a pregnancy results. Much of the book details the difficulty of relationships, in particular the idealized fantasy of a relationship. There are funny parts and sad portions but the core of the book is about the family that we choose, for an excellent story.
An ongoing quest to read more indigenous authors can be complicated because there can be a vast gap in the ability of a non-Indigenous reader to grasp meaning. This book by Ms. Mailhot produced an uncomfortable feeling because of her raw and uncompromising writing. The narrative unfolds as a stream-of-consciousness confession of many difficulties: foster care, parenthood and removal of children, substance abuse, complicated and often destructive relationships, mental illness, suicidal ideation … the list goes on. Although short in terms of pages (132), this book is thought-provoking and intense, and is best read in short segments (like poetry). Highly recommended but be warned that this is a tough read.
Ms. Ward previously wrote the excellent Salvage The Bones, and this new book is even better. The setting is Mississippi, a multi-generational family struggling to live, to love and to survive. Past atrocities live on in the form of ghosts. There are indelible portraits in this story: a thirteen year old boy trying to find his place in the world, his mother who is incapable of loving her children, his mixed-race grandparents. Powerful and evocative storytelling.