Fall is the season for new releases and book awards. The Scotiabank Giller Prize announced it’s long list at the beginning of October (including two which had yet to be published) and just this morning, unveiled the shortlist of five finalists. A week ago, the newly named Atwood Gibson Writer’s Trust Fiction Prize (now there is a mouthful) revealed their five nominees. The Governor General’s Literary Awards is next up with their list on October 14; all will make their selection in the first two weeks of November. Keeping up with the new releases is almost a full time job; attaining them becomes increasingly difficult with each passing year and the concomitant reduction in space at home. My future collecting will need to be more focused, purchasing only award nominees or reducing the writers to only my favourite authors.
That list would need to include Mariam Toews. She first drew my attention with the release of her third novel, A Complicated Kindness. It was a phenomenal success winning numerous awards, including the 2004 Governor Generals’ and was the winner of 2006 Canada Reads competition. I have purchased and read every book since, including a memoir written in her father’s voice and inspired by his suicide, Swing Low: A Life. I have acquired her first two novels through ABE.com and have found American first editions of The Flying Troutmans and All My Puny Sorrows in my US travels. (The latter was turned into a movie which had its debut at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.) I remember when Mariam Toews was one of three writers at a local edition of Read for the Cure. The quirkiness of her writing was evident in her presentation that evening, stories seemingly random all coalescing by the end in a satisfyingly cohesive manner. I brought my books along and she graciously signed them all.
Her latest book, Fight Night, has been receiving considerable press and has been nominated for the Giller and the Atwood/Gibson so far. Fight Night like every one of her previous novels are semi-autobiographical, all containing elements which reflect her life from growing up as a Mennonite in Manitoba, to her father’s and sister’s suicide, to her current situation living in Toronto with her mother and daughter. You will know Miriam Toews life by reading her works of fiction.
This story is told through the voice of Swiv, a ten year old girl just suspended from school whose actor Mother is pregnant with Gord, identified as such even though the sex of the fetus is unknown. The name is that of her father who has left. They live in Toronto with the grandmother who assists in “home schooling” Swiv until she is able to return. Swiv in turn supports Grandma with her daily medicine dosages and by putting on her compression socks. Grandma is a devout follower of basketball, the subject of much conversation, and is a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays, with the doorbell chiming “Take me out to the ballgame”. Swiv and Grandma have given each other writing projects, one of which is a letter to the future newborn, Gord. In the meantime, the mother is managing the hormones of pregnancy and the stress of her work and her boss.
Grandma is the real star of the story with her feisty personality and idiosyncrasies, making her one of the more endearing characters in Canadian fiction. In one of Grandma’s many attempts to explain to Swiv the circumstances of their family, she encapsulates the essence of the book and it’s title:
It was protection. What she was doing was forming a team with that guy. We need teams. That was a good instinct. Survival. She was fighting, fighting, fighting . . . to stay alive. To get back to you. And here we are . . . where’s that nitro, honey? Well, that’s the truth . . . you know, fighting can make peace . . . fighting can be going small . . .
And then a few paragraphs later, in talking about their relationship to the church:
They stole it from us. It was . . . our tragedy! Which is our humanity. We need those things. We need tragedy, which is the need to love and the need . . . not just the need, the imperative, the human imperative . . . to experience joy. To find joy and to create joy. All through the night. The fight night.
I loved this book.
Mary Lawson burst onto the Canadian literary scene in 2002 with her very first novel, Crow Lake, at the age of 56. I remember reading the articles and thought of her as a role model, someone who came to writing later in life and persisted until she was able to land that first publication. Crow Lake was an instant success winning the Books in Canada First Novel Award and published in 22 countries. Her follow-up novel, The Other Side of the Bridge, was long-listed for the Booker Prize. Mary Lawson moved to Great Britain to pursue a career in industrial psychology. A Town Called Solace, like all her books, takes place in a fictional northern Ontario community, reflective of her rural roots. This latest novel was also long listed for the Booker Prize and reads in the same manner of the other work.
The story is told by three characters in alternating chapters. Clara is the young girl whose older sister, Rose, has run away from home. Clara cannot understand and is standing vigil in the front window of their home in Solace, waiting for Rose to return. Clara is also responsible for feeding Mrs. Orchard’s cat, her neighbour who has been taken to the hospital. Elizabeth’s recollections resurrect much of the history behind the novel, which includes Liam who has just arrived in town after quitting his accounting job in Toronto and separating from his wife of eight years. Between the three narratives, the story unwinds as the reader is introduced to life in a small town and its accompanying characters. To that end, the book reminded me of an old adage: The best thing about a small town is that everybody knows everybody; the worst thing about a small town is that everybody knows everybody.
Unlike many of my other reviews, I have not highlighted a particular quote or a passage to emphasize a point or a perspective. Instead, I found the book to be similar to a home cooked meal. The material is familiar and comforting without the exotic presentation on fancy dishware. Instead the reader finishes satiated from a warm experience, a high degree of satisfaction. Every time I read the title, the 80’s song, Town called Malice kept playing in my head. “‘Cause time is short and life is cruel but it’s up to us to change, This town called malice.” As a result, I thought the book title to be unfortunate until I thought of the meaning of solace: comfort or consolation in a time of distress or sadness. The book is hopeful and as such provides a dose of solace for the characters and the readers.
For something completely different, I ventured into Kill the Mall. The author, Pash Malla is not a household name even among prodigious readers of Canadian literature. His first book was a collection of short stories with the curious title, The Withdrawal Method, published in 2008. It was longlisted for the Giller prize which would explain it’s presence on my shelves, and was the winner of the Trillium award. There is more biography on those inside flaps, stating he was born in St. John’s Newfoundland, but grew up for his formative years in London, Ontario, my hometown. A search on Google finds Pash Malla to be the 2021-22 Mabel Pugh Taylor Writer-in-Residence at McMaster University. Convenient since he lives in Hamilton now. I picked up Kill the Mall his the latest book since I already own two others, and I must admit, was intrigued by the title.
The premise of the book is the most unlikeliest of scenarios. The narrator, a writer, has been selected as the artist-in-residence at the local mall, where he must spend the next eight weeks practicing his craft, engaging with the public and writing weekly reports. His name is unclear, never being used in the dialogue, the only hint being an indecipherable signature at the end of his application which opens the book. The remainder is a weekly account of his imaginative misadventures and fantastical encounters. He is watched by K. Sohail, the security with the squeaky running shoes and jingling pants who locks him in every night; he befriends Dennis, who sells him a pair of jeans making him Dennis’s one and only customer. He is haunted by Pony tail, and pony tails; the former as another more popular artist-in-residence; the latter, the multiple apparitions of Dennis’s own, who may have been murdered, which conspire with the cars in the parking garage in an attempt to capture him. Trust me, if these images sound strange, they are….and there are many more in the book.
The book is hilarious, with a very wry sense of humour throughout. You could open the book at almost any page to find a funny passage, sometimes with clever insight, or describing some bizarre scenario. From the first progress report: “Work is the lifeblood of humanity. But love is the lifebones (equally essential). For blood without form is just a red mess on the floor“. In the second report, he talks about his getting a haircut: “You head for the salon confident that you’ll return a ‘satisfied customer,’ for cutting, by its very nature, assures a reduction in length. Little else in life offers such an inbuilt guarantee. Even a lunch, should it flee your system via propulsive evacuation, might leave you hungrier than you were before you ate.” One more example which typified a relentless paranoia: “Wasn’t instinctual behaviour precisely what the mall wanted? For me to be seduced by what felt like intuition and to believe that said intuition was my own, when in fact the mall had infiltrated my thoughts? Six weeks here had no doubt reporgrammed my brain to the mall’s diabolical caprices.‘” However, as much as I laughed and smiled for three quarters of the book, I was getting a little bored by the end.
Followers of my posts will know I am enrolled in an online memoir writing course; my next books, therefore, will be…..memoirs.