The list of Irish Canadian authors is surprisingly short, or at least what I was able to ascertain with a Google search. The number is even shorter when the works need to be part of my existing collection. As such, Brian Moore is not on this month’s reading list; my collecting could not keep up with the output of this prolific writer. Nevertheless, the variety of this month’s authors provides an array of styles and settings, transporting the reader through time and place, from the 19th century Irish potato famine to the Tiannamen square massacre in China.
The Law of Dreams is Peter Behrens first novel which begins in the Great Irish Famine and follows the voyage of Fergus from the hills of rural Ireland across Great Britain and the Atlantic to the port of Montreal in 1847. The book was the 2006 winner of the Governor General’s English Literature award and shortlisted for numerous other prizes. Fergus’s journey endures the indignity of the poor house, the desperation of a marauding gang, the temptation of Liverpool, the drudgery of railway work, the deception of men and women, and the deadliness of crossing the ocean in coffin ships. He persists against the odds because “that is what you do in dreams. The law of dreams is, keep moving.” It is a refrain repeated often, one which fuels Fergus’s survival.
The density of some early pages was a dramatic shift from my previous novel making the transition challenging. As the characters evolved and the story expanded, the desire to uncover Fergus’s next days drew me into long stretches of reading and discovery. I could not relate personally to the times or the conditions but I could certainly imagine the heroic tale resonating with economic migrants in all parts of the world today. The trials and tribulations reminded me of my mother-in-laws escape from western Ukraine after the second World War which eventually led her to a life in Toronto (https://wordpress.com/post/henrydecock.org/687). I expect the book resembles, as well, the plight of Syrian refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea into Europe seeking some new, promised land. The book keeps reminding us of the basic motivation: “What you wanted must keep you going”; “What you lost weakened you, could kill you. What you wanted kept you going. What you wanted gave you strength”; and finally, “Is courage just the awareness that gestures, journeys, lives have intrinsic shape, and must, one way or another be completed?” I enjoyed the book and glad I finally picked it off my shelf.
Room is another highly acclaimed, award winning book which won the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and shortlisted for the 2010 Booker, Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction, and Governor General’s Awards. The film adaptation was released in 2015, nominated for four academy awards in that year. Emma Donoghue was already an accomplished writer earning recognition with two previous books. She was born in Ireland and is now living with her partner in London, Ontario. The story is told through the words of 5 year old Jack who was born in captivity, living only within the four walls of a shed with his Ma, where the only exposure to the outside world is the skylight and a TV. They eventually escape as the pair must carefully and scarily acclimatize themselves to their new reality.
The language, the observations, the thoughts from start to finish are completely from the five year old boy, and one with very limited understanding and experience. Jack does not use prepositions and he names objects; for example, they live in Room, not the room, and he sleeps in Wardrobe. I eventually became accustomed to the structure and slowly realized the brilliance in Ms. Donohue’s writing craft. Rather than long descriptions, the reader must piece together numerous observations and statements to understand the conditions; for example, Jack details the list of items Ma orders, including painkillers, and later we learn she moves candy “to her front teeth that are less rotted.” The reader also understands Ma is being raped several times a week while Jack is presumably asleep in Wardrobe: “When Old Nick creaks Bed, I listen and count fives on my fingers, tonight its 217 creeks. I always have to count till he makes that gaspy sound and stops.”
When Jack describes the actions and words of the growing number of people he encounters after the brazen escape, we are confronted with some of the absurdity of our everyday living: “There’s a dog crossing a road with a human on a rope, I think it’s actually tied, not like the daycare that were just holding on” ; “He talks on his little phone, he says it’s Deana on the other end. The other end is the invisible one.” And Jack understands only the literal interpretation of a word or phrase, offering moments of humour amidst the troubling story Donoghue imagined from real life news stories about instances of reintegration after years of imprisonment.
Room offered me one of the most compelling and profound truisms when Jack reacts to the psychiatrist’s assurances that he no longer needed to be frightened. “I don’t say because of manners, but actually he’s got it backwards. In Room I was safe and Outside is the scary.” This adage is applicable in so many situations where we do not venture into something new, or do not make ourselves vulnerable, hiding in the safety of our own small entity, physical or emotional. The accolades for Room and Emma Donohue are well deserved.
My third book of the month was Butterfly Lovers by Charles Foran, who graduated with degrees in literature including a Masters from the University College, Dublin. He taught at a university in Beijing for a period of time which included the democratic uprising of 1989. Previous work, fiction and non-fiction, had been nominated for awards in Canada where he is now teaching as an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto after a stint as president of PEN. He is also known for his biography on Mordecai Richler which was the recipient of the 2011 Taylor Prize and the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-Fiction. I have a couple of Charles Foran’ fictional works but have never opened one until now.
After twenty pages I began to regret my selection, wondering if I could tolerate it until completion. There were numerous passages which felt as if the author was attempting to impress other writers: “Remy Fidani’s clientele is predominantly grant-happy student, dole-fed radical, Canada Council-crumbed artist. Smokers of Marlboros and Gauloises, consumers of cafe au laits and Bradors from the bottle, readers of Le Devoir and the weeklies, journals unavailable except in shops with names like “Dis-Ease” and books special-ordered from one of the university stores, never collected, and then stolen from the shelves once staff have given up trying to place the title in the proper hands” (p.9). What the hockey puck! The first nine chapters are filled with image after image catering to literature professors who teach and treat books as an intellectual exercise rather than a source of enjoyment, whose classes are sure to kill any love of reading. Numerous sentences span half a page utilizing commas and semi-colons which make them grammatically correct but exceedingly annoying.
Suddenly, when the protagonist, David, moves to China to teach English, the sentences are shorter and succinct, as if mimicking the structure of a second language learner. The book redeems itself in the second half with a story which retained my interest in the outcome as the tension builds in the aftermath of Tiannamen and the relentless attacks on protesting intellectuals persists. There are also instances of thoughtful statements emanating from the ashes of the tragedy: “Besides, politics is almost never about ideas. Always personalities. Always power. We said so ourselves: to change the world, we first had to change our skins” (p. 302). I ended up with mixed feelings about the book.
It was finished while I was the cottage where I had not brought the planned fourth read. However, I remembered the Extraordinary Canadian series was stored away in our basement. All 17 books in that collection are written by novelists about a well known Canadian; Charles Foran wrote Maurice Richard. True to his previous form Foran demonstrates a penchant for unnecessarily lengthy sentences made possible with the utilization of dashes, creating sentences within sentences, melding separate but related ideas such that you lose track of the original thought. Every other page seems to have an example. Yet there are moments of simplicity and clarity with vivid descriptions to situate you in the French working class mind of Montreal. It is a quick, entertaining read.
Finally we get to one of my favourite authors, Jane Urquhart. Years ago I salvaged a very early book, Changing Heaven, from the delete bins at the local bookstore and immediately fell for her beautiful prose. I am in possession of all her books, even reaching back through online booksellers to acquire out of print copies of almost all her work except for some of her first poetry. She may be best known for Away, about Irish immigration to Canada which won the 1993 Trillium award, and The Underpainter, winner of the 1997 Governor General’s Literary award. My favourite continues to be the 2001 book, The Stone Carvers.
Curiously, I had yet to read her last book, The Night Stages, released in 2015. Set in 1950’s Ireland, the story is a weaving together of Kenneth Lochead’s earlier creation of a mural in the lounge of the international airport in Gander, Newfoundland where Tamara, pilot of planes during WWII, is stranded for three days after escaping the emotional clutches of Niall, a successful meteoroligist and athlete, and older brother to an estranged sibling, Kieran who is training for an epic bicycle race across Ireland.
The profundity of Jane Urquhart’s work is in the evocation of art and the written word. True to her education and passion, Jane Urquhart paints a vivid picture of the Irish countryside, capturing the sights, sounds and smells of Kerry county. At the same time, she delves deeply into her characters minds and emotions, reaching back into affective memories. Back and forth, between time and countries, we begin to piece together the connections among the protagonists and the parallels with the content and creation of the mural. There were moments in the early pages when I had to look back to help understand some of the linkages. The pieces all came together in the final chapters and the much anticipated cross-country race, The Ras. It is a story full of Irish lore, with its own brand of storytelling and myth making, although I am still working through the author’s intentions. The essence may have been captured in this quote: “Anything that moves forward, anything at all progressive, leaves something raw and wounded behind it.” The reference was to the building of a roadway but the belief applies to all manner of change.
I really enjoyed reading this novel. I am ever hopeful Jane Urquhart is continuing to write.
Next month I have decided to delve into mystery novels. You might think I would devote April to baseball books given the new season begins on the first. Alas, those will wait until the summer unless someone out there can recommend a baseball mystery.