I've read a lot of books in my short little life. I've read a lot of books (though I will echo my friend Steph, here, in saying that I too don't thinkI've read a lot of books in my short little life. I've read a lot of books (though I will echo my friend Steph, here, in saying that I too don't think I'll ever consider myself to be very well read), and I've enjoyed a lot of books, and I've even been bowled over by one or two texts that have danced across my way. The first book that ever did this for me was The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy. The next book that came close, for reasons that were variously different but ultimately led to the same end, was Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wide. And then there was The Heart of the Matter, by Graham Greene, and anything at all by Flannery O'Connor. Nabokov's Lolita. This is the kind of writing, I like to think, that survives the ages. These are the kinds of stories that rise above the initial hype, that speak to something more and grand and other, something that lifts us above our tired lives and makes us see the world in an entirely different way.
And then I read Annabel, and everything changed.
Note: I've decided to do away with my five star ranking system for books. It just doesn't seem to fit the way I do reviews.
I don't know how much of a review this can be, to be perfectly honest. But this is the first time, in this short little life where I've read a lot of books, and even been bowled over by a few, where I've found myself actually wanting to give the book away, to evangelize, to become a champion of the narrative. I've recommended books to friends before, but this is the first time that I literally want to stop strangers on the street and hand them a copy. I want to say, "Read this. Read this, and please believe me when I say it will change your life, even if you don't agree with the story. Read this. Open your mind, and your heart, and just read."
How does one start, when talking about Annabel? I could talk about the language, which is exquisite, and perfect, so careful and yet so delicate, so seamless, so calm. I could talk about character, and say that the characters in this novel are exactly the kinds of things one hopes to create when one is a hopeful, half-formed writer struggling to bloom in the wilds of second-year workshop. I could talk about place, and about the way that Kathleen Winter made the searing loneliness and the untrammeled beauty of Labrador come alive for me in a way that I've seldom experienced. I could concur with this reviewer, and talk about how accomplished this novel is, how staggering an achievement. I could do all of these things, and gladly. Kathleen Winter, in my opinion, deserves all of this and more.
The thing is -- everybody talks about the language, and the characters, and the setting. But beautiful as they are, this isn't what makes me want to gift Annabel away to unsuspecting strangers on the street. For me, there's something deeper at work in my response to the book. I think it's an important book in addition to being beautiful, maybe in the way that To Kill a Mockingbird is important, and relevant now even decades in the future.
In many ways, Annabel is a simple story. It opens with the birth of an intersex child in late 1960's Labrador. The parents, Treadway and Jacinta, worried about what harshness a world might visit on a child so different as this, make the decision to raise their baby as a boy, and call him Wayne. The story then follows Wayne's childhood, and his gradual awakening and awareness of his other self, this female self that lies in the shadows of his small town existence. This, in the bare bones sense, is the narrative. But of course there's so much more going on. The book, at its heart, is about perception, and how you view the world versus how the world really might be, and I absolutely love how the aspect of an intersex child fit into this kind of existential question.
I'm also willing to say, right up front, that part of why I reacted to this book in the way that I did has a lot to do with my particular life path, and where it's gone. I can see so many instances of myself -- who I was, who I am now, who I might be in the future -- in so many of the characters. I grew up as a child with a very black-and-white view of the world, and most days I feel like my last decade of life has been all about unlearning these early viewpoints, in much the same way as Treadway, the father of the book's title character, comes to unlearn his initial preconceptions by the end of the book. I understand so much of the fear that drives the early part of the novel -- the fear on the part of Wayne's parents, the fear of what might lie in store for this intersex child, the fear of anything that is other and different. I completely understood and marveled at Treadway's desire to protect his child, even though I disagreed with how he chose to go about it. Also -- I grew up in a small town, and there was a queen bee in my elementary school who now seems personified in Donna Palliser, the schoolyard bully. I shivered and read about the cruelty of children, and I remembered, and my heart ached for these kids, growing up in the shadow of an unforgiving world, unable to dream even of possibility.
There's a lovely scene later on in the novel where Wayne, now grown and dancing alone in his room, speaks of how his body wants to be water -- to be fluid, and formless, and changing as swift as the current. If I could choose one sentence that encapsulates the impact that this novel has had on me, that would be it. It's a sentiment that fits a great deal of the world, I think. We are creatures of water, both in the literal and in the figurative sense. When we are young, we are soft and malleable and easily adaptable to hundreds of different situations. And yet as we grow older, this softness, this pliability, somehow melds into definite opinions and ways of seeing the world, opinions on what should be what and what shouldn't be, and how one should live one's life, etc. We begin as a free-flowing stream, and gradually the world turns us all into ice, in one way or another. But that's not how we were made to be. More than anything, after reading this novel, I want to stand tall and shout to the world: this is not how we were meant to be.
Years ago, a friend of mine once said that sexuality is a spectrum -- people are not eithor/or, but merely placed closer to one end of the spectrum than others. Some of us lucky people get to be right in the middle. This novel is arguing, in some sense, that gender is in many ways the same kind of thing -- something that goes above and beyond the physical characteristics of a person -- how you act, what you wear, how your body is made -- and instead is a flickering, powerful, shimmering thing. "It could be beautiful," said Thomasina, "if only people would listen." (I am misquoting here, for which I apologize, but I had to give my copy of the book back to the library tout de suite, as hundreds of other souls wanted to read it. More happiness to them, I say!) It is arguing that who we are as people likewise flickers and shimmers and changes, all of the time.
And I love that. I love it because it's a kind of prophecy that's come true in my own life. I think it's an incredibly powerful message, and an incredibly important one. I love how Kathleen Winter took the story of one lonely child, one who longs for beauty and can only find ugliness due to the preconceptions of those around him, and in writing her novel made something that could make all of us wake up to the possibilities inherent in the world when one stops looking at "this way" and "that way" and instead just lets their heart and their mind become like water, flowing unchecked down the stream.
If I could pick one word to describe Kathleen Winter as a writer (leaving aside the obvious fact that a person can't actually be encapsulated in one word, especially in light of all of my "we are free-flowing streams" talk as above!), I think it would be this: compassionate. I think this is the most compassionate novel I've ever read. As a writer, this is the kind of thing that I long to be able to do -- to treat the people in my novels with the same kind of heartfelt, forgiving, and yet hugely meticulous hand that makes this novel so real. When Wayne speaks with his father toward the end of the book, and is surprised by his father's knowledge of St. John's even though he's never been there -- surprised by Treadway's knowledge of the cathedrals, his insight into the intricate marbled floor and where the marble floor came from -- we can see how even the title character, this child whose very life has been built on an identity that can shift and change, has himself fallen victim to the tendency to put people in boxes. To order and categorize and make sense of a world that can be so cruel. To see one thing in front of him (in this case, his father, who has been alternately distant and harsh on him throughout adolescence) and have a certain image of his father because of it, when in fact another image -- another, softer Treadway -- might be an equal possibility. Just as those others in the novel might see the male Wayne without realizing that his other, softer female self, his Annabel, is also an equal reality.
I want to press this novel into the hands of people I meet, and look into their eyes, and say, "The world is more beautiful, and more complicated, than you could possibly imagine." I want to leave copies of this novel at random places on the street -- in train stations, on bus seats, on the shelves at the grocery store -- so that people might pick it up, and read it, and realize for themselves how terribly fragile and yet terribly strong we all are. How much we love, and how easy it is for us to hurt others simply through being afraid. I want to close my eyes and imagine a world where we are as seamless as water, where we drift and change and bubble and hold within us the hundred rivers of possibility. A world that welcomes this possibility, and does not treat it with cruelty, or with fear.
I want a world that's unafraid. Read the book -- you'll want one too. ...more
**spoiler alert** I picked a copy of this novel up at the library, happy to have found it after mentally adding the runners for the Canada Reads 2011**spoiler alert** I picked a copy of this novel up at the library, happy to have found it after mentally adding the runners for the Canada Reads 2011 title to my list of must-reads. I finished it over the weekend, and in many ways -- especially considering its relevance, post-2010 Olympic rush -- I can see why it was chosen as one of the books to be championed for the Canada Reads competition.
The Bone Cage is the story of two Canadian athletes, preparing for their respective stints at the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney. Sade Jorgenson is a 26 year old swimmer, and Thomas "Digger" Stapleton is a 31-year old wrestler. Both athletes want gold, and both of them are acutely aware of the fact that the 2000 games offer their last chance at that spot on the podium. There is a lovely thread of uncertainty and nostalgia running through the book, a kind of athlete's mortality, as both Sadie and Digger begin to realize and contemplate what life will be like for them when the Olympics are over and their athletic lives have changed.
The two embark on a (very) fledgling relationship as the months bring them closer to the Olympics. I found it fascinating to watch their different lives and outlooks on sport unfold, while the sudden turn of events that occurs two-thirds of the way through the book threw their situations into sharp contrast in a surprising and effective way.
The writing is lush and clear, and really sensuous in places -- Abdou certainly knows how to evoke the smell/taste/hear/touch world of the professional athlete. The action sequences -- Sadie as she swims her laps, and Digger as he wrestles his opponents to the floor -- are meticulous and detailed, and I thought the contrast between these scenes and the somewhat lifeless nature of their other interactions with people highlighted the intensive, focused career of the athlete.
Having said all that, however, I ultimately found it hard to identify and care about the characters in this book. I find this odd, in some ways, because in a sense this is a very universal book -- we all have things that we want to strive for, and we all have things that we pursue in equally intensive, passionate ways. The athlete's journey is marked as different due to the physical struggle, but I was hoping that I could connect with Sadie and Digger nonetheless. I too know what it's like to pursue a dream at the expense of all else, and feel that fuzzy, faint uncertainty about what one might make of their life should the dream not come to pass. But somehow, this didn't manage to click with the characters in the novel. In the end, I found myself becoming increasingly distanced by the action sequences, and frustrated by my inability to understand or see both Sadie and Digger's motivations. Sensuousness of the prose aside, my overall read of the book actually ended up feeling fairly sterile. I didn't come away feeling like I knew these characters at all.
I think this is interesting in and of itself, because when Georges Laraque championed this book during the Canada Reads competition, I remember him doing so precisely because he thought that the book, being about athletes, would speak to that very drive and inner desire I mentioned above. And I seem to remember some of the other panellists disagreeing -- that is, they didn't find the book to be as universal, they didn't find the athlete's struggle to be one they could pick up as their own.
So, ultimately I think this raises some interesting questions. The book is certainly realistic, in that the depiction of the solitary life of the athlete is so authentic as to make the reader feel like an outsider. But it's for exactly this reason that I'm not sure the book works as an effective story. As a reader, even if I don't like the characters, I want to be able to identify or sympathize with them in some way. I want something about the world of the novel to engage me, to draw me in, and that just didn't happen in my reading of The Bone Cage. And I think a truly effective story manages to tread the line equally between both of these elements -- imparting that different world in an authentic way while still maintaining that magical grasp of storytelling that pulls the reader along and makes them feel right beside the characters.
I'm ready and willing to admit that this may be because the book offers a window into specialized knowledge, knowledge in which I'm not interested. If I was more of an athlete (as opposed to the free and easy I-run-because-I-feel-good kind of gal that I am), maybe the book would have been more appealing. Maybe the characters would have done more for me. I'm not sure. ...more
On the surface, Stanley Park is a simple, albeit fiendishly entertaining, story. Chef Jeremy Papier runs an up-and-coming restaurant in Vancouver -- aOn the surface, Stanley Park is a simple, albeit fiendishly entertaining, story. Chef Jeremy Papier runs an up-and-coming restaurant in Vancouver -- a restaurant that's devoted to local food, and local atmosphere. The 100 Mile Diet shoved into a little place in Crosstown. He's head chef, and his good friend (and potential romantic interest) Jules Capelli is his sous chef, pastry chef, and restaurant partner in crime. Life is hectic (what life isn't, when restaurants are involved), and there's a niggling disquiet introduced in the first interactions that Jeremy has with his father -- an anthropologist in the midst of a submersive study on the homeless in Vancouver's Stanley Park -- but when the reader is first introduced to all involved, life seems on the whole to be good.
Naturally, of course, things are not so. Jeremy has money issues. His restaurant, though popular and decidedly hip, is losing money. Jeremy is, in fact, in deep shit -- shit that becomes all the more apparent when his scrambling debt finally comes to the attention of his original restaurant investor, Dante Beale.
Dante is a business man and neighbour of Jeremy's father, and he runs a hugely successful chain of coffee houses in Vancouver called Inferno. (Some articles on the novel have highlighted the obviousness of these monikers, but as a gal who has done some obvious character naming in her time, I found them hilariously fun.) Dante has also been wanting to get his hands on Jeremy's restaurant for some time, much to the chagrin of the lovely sous-chef, and this all comes to a head about halfway through the book, when Jeremy must finally go to Dante and admit his money failures.
Running parallel to the restaurant woe is another storyline involving Jeremy and his father, the Professor. As mentioned, the Professor is doing a study on the homeless people who live in Stanley Park. While initially somewhat estranged, Jeremy's own fascination with local food and what it means inevitably draws him closer to his father's world. The closeness that develops between the two men over the course of the novel was, I felt, a beautiful thing to watch. Guarded at first, but unfolding slowly, like the trees themselves ...
Anyway. Big Bad Dante steps in, finally, and takes the restaurant over. Guts the place. Hires Jeremy's new paramour (a beguiling -- and yet oddly repulsive, in a you're-too-charming-to-be-true kind of way -- girl named Benny) as the new decorator, and proceeds to turn the restaurant into precisely the kind of uber-hip, urban fusion cuisine juggernaut that Jeremy's spent his whole career fighting quietly against.
What a bastard! (Can you say bastard in a book review? Oh well.) Oooh, the transformation of the restaurant got me so mad. But the descriptions of the food were delicious, and my faith in Jeremy Papier strong, and so I continued ...
I don't think I can say much more without giving away the plot, but the resolution of this novel basically staggered me with its brilliant execution. Reading the latter half of this novel was like watching one continuous panned shot of a sophisticated, culinary art film. (I doubt that "culinary art" is a film genre, but it should be. Fact.) Bright flashing colours and subterfuge and good-looking people all over the place. Again -- fiendishly entertaining. So, so good.
But what lifted this book above mere entertainment for me, and put it into that realm of the Seleckys and the Atwoods, was how Taylor managed to combine his restaurant narrative and his anthropological narrative in such a fantastic conclusion at the end. So good. This is a novel of ideas that somehow also manages to be a novel of concrete textures and people and colours. It's fun, but also hugely important, and while this might sound simple, too often these are hard things to achieve all at the same time. (This is where my you'll never be this good ever ever voice kicks in.)
Somehow, though, Taylor does it. And he does it all in such a fun, funny, entertaining way, with language that's straight and clean while still managing to be breathtaking and innovative all at the same time.
So this is a book that's floored me, basically. This is the kind of novel -- not least of all because it's about food -- that makes me want to be a writer, to be a person who can use her words well, and build a world that makes the reader see their own world differently, even after the book's conclusion. Of course it's not perfect (though I'm pretty darn close to thinking of it so) -- the build up to Jeremy's financial meltdown lasts maybe a little longer than it should, and Benny shifts out of Jeremy's life rather quickly in the last third of the book -- but overall these are tiny, tiny niggles. I loved every inch of this novel. I wish there was a sequel. I'm going to read and re-read this and savour the language every time....more
The ten stories in This Cake are mostly (with one or two exceptions) first person narratives, and each of the stories deals with a particular grasp onThe ten stories in This Cake are mostly (with one or two exceptions) first person narratives, and each of the stories deals with a particular grasp on human sadness and disappointment. In Throwing Cotton, the protagonist struggles with suspicions of her husband's infidelity while simultaneously trying to get pregnant. In Watching Atlas, the male protagonist deals with the reality of a dead-end job and the creeping anger he feels with his partner's childhood pal, a drunk who is all too ready to dump her young son on long-suffering friends. And in my favourite story, Paul Farenbacher's Yard Sale, a woman watches as her memories of a beloved neighbour disappear with his possessions. Every story is crisp and bare and essential. One of the jacket blurbs advertises the stories as detailing "those tender, blasted-open moments that change us for good", and I couldn't agree more; reading it, I couldn't help but feel as tender and vulnerable as these struggling men and women.
The beauty of this collection, for me, lies in the fact that it's so deceptively simple. These stories are so clean, so fresh, and so real, that to read them feels like watching a prima ballerina onstage -- you know, somewhere in the back of your mind, that hours and hours and days and a heck of a lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into making things look so easy, but everything plays out in front of you so naturally that at the end it all feels like magic. When you watch that ballerina, some small part of you becomes convinced that they're just gifted -- that they glide effortlessly above the work. And when I finished This Cake Is For The Party, I felt the same way. These stories do not feel like work. They feel like ... truth, if that is not a terribly cheesy thing to say. Selecky is a master of language, and it shows precisely because you don't notice the language, at least at first. But I finished the collection and kept rolling certain details through my mind, remembering certain phrases, certain details that caught the world in a different shade. Language that manages to do that is masterful language indeed. It was lovely.
Whether's she's illuminating the disaster moment of a hitherto happy marriage, or detailing a woman's shock at her soon-to-be-married best friend's infidelity, Selecky's focus on the small gestures that her characters make, and the things they do not say, take these ten stories out of the realm of fiction and place them squarely in the realm of everyday experience. Maybe that's why they feel so effortless to me -- because they are, in a sense. We are all of us vulnerable, and reaching out for one another in the dark. Sometimes we find one another, and sometimes we do not. And sometimes without knowing it we lose those that are beside us.
This is a gem of a collection, and all the moreso because I think it reminds us, ever so gently, of the fragile people and hearts we all hold in our hands, sometimes even without knowing it. I highly, highly recommend it. ...more
Water for Elephants is the story of Jacob Jankowski, a young man in 1930's America who, upon learning of his parents' death in a car accident, leavesWater for Elephants is the story of Jacob Jankowski, a young man in 1930's America who, upon learning of his parents' death in a car accident, leaves his veterinary studies and joins a circus. The circus part is accidental -- he merely jumps a train to get away. But, this being a circus, his veterinary skills come in handy, and he soon finds himself a part of the entourage of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth -- an entourage that includes, among others, the charmingly cruel animal trainer, August, and his lovely wife Marlena.
This book is peopled with characters (both human and animal) so rich and descriptions so vivid that at times I almost felt I could smell the horse manure. Gruen's research into circus life in the 1930's was staggering and meticulous, and it shows. The result, much like my earlier mention of Sarah Selecky's collection, is a researched novel that doesn't feel like a researched novel -- writing so effortless that it feels like nothing less than the truth. My unease with the unpredictable August grew alongside that of Jacob, and my love for the circus animals -- particularly that wonderful, wonderful elephant -- grew by mounds with every page I read.
The circus narrative is interspersed with present day scenes, where an elderly Jacob reflects back on his circus days. In the present day, he's in a nursing home, frustrated by his inability to get about, dogged by an insidious fear that he's slowly but surely losing his mind. It offers a most effective and heartbreaking contrast, to know what Jacob eventually becomes -- a reminder for us all, I suppose. And while I admit that I didn't find the present day scenes to be as captivating as the scenes in the past (can you blame me? We are, after all, talking about a circus!), the framing tool is one that Gruen uses quite effectively, particularly towards the end of the novel.
I only have one minor quibble with the book, and in a sense it's not even a quibble. Strangely, I found Marlena, though endearing, to be rather less full than I'd expected. Even though Jacob gets to know Marlena over a period of a few months, I never really felt like I knew her, in the way that I knew (insofar as a reader can know anything) characters such as Jacob or Walter or even the volatile August. I found myself wishing that we'd been able to spend more time with her, wishing that Gruen had been able to fit a few more scenes in to flesh out Marlena's history.
That's my only quibble -- a wish that the author had given me more to sink my teeth into. And so I suppose it's not a drawback so much as the ultimate compliment. This was a world I'd gladly have continued to read about. It enthralled and enchanted, and when I finished the last page of the book (bowled over by that lovely twist in the ending!), I came away from my read almost surprised to find myself alone, in Ontario, on my decidedly unexotic bedspread.
You can't ask much more of a book, I would say....more
A few days ago, I let the world know via Twitter that I wasn't sure if I'd be able to write a review about Room. And to be honest, I think I still feeA few days ago, I let the world know via Twitter that I wasn't sure if I'd be able to write a review about Room. And to be honest, I think I still feel this way, at least in part. I say this not because I didn't like the book (I did), and not because I'm not quite sure how to get my head around it (that, in most ways, is easy enough), but mostly, I guess, because it feels like such a trailblazing book that it's hard to place the novel itself in the context of literature, and books, and thoughts-what-one-might-have about such things.
Anyway, as you can see, I have now reneged on that thought, at least somewhat, and am attempting to slap a review up on this here blog. Mostly because I think that regardless of what one might have to say about Room, saying what you think about the book is important. And also, of course, because it really is an amazing novel, and Emma Donoghue deserves all the accolades she can get.
Room is the story of Jack, and his mother, who live a huge and varied existence within the confines of a single room. The book is narrated from Jack's five-year-old point of view, and tells the story of his existence in room with his Ma, the exciting happenings of his day-to-day, and their eventual escape. It's rich and wonderful and hilariously funny. Jack is a hugely imaginative child, and his descriptions and friendships and thoughts, even within the confines of "Room", make for hugely enjoyable storytelling.
But there's another story here, of course. The world might seem big enough to Jack, but in reality, the room in which he lives and in which he was born is the same room in which his mother has been held captive for seven years.
As a reader, you know this right from the beginning. So there's this amazingly delicate, and yet increasingly desperate, tone to the book and the events therein as Jack's story unfolds. It's like you're reading two stories all at once, as though you, the reader, are complicit right from page one in this world that Jack's mother has created out of fierce love for her son. When Jack notes that Old Nick, the man who comes to visit them in the middle of the night, always makes a beep beep sound before coming into Room, you as the reader know that he's speaking of an electronic combination lock, that they're locked in with no way of getting out. You as the reader know that when Ma lays on the bed making lights at the sky, she's flashing an SOS signal into the dark. You as the reader are privy to all of these things, and yet you're also aware at the same time of how crucial it is that Jack's innocence be kept alive, that he be allowed to think and imagine and play these things out in his world, at least for the moment.
Eventually, of course, Jack and Ma manage to escape the confines of Room. This occurs just over halfway through the book, and we then follow Ma and Jack's long convalescence, and Jack's slow adjustment to the world outside. I don't know how she did it, but Emma Donoghue's grasp on Jack's language, his funny use of verbs and his peculiar way of seeing the world, manages to make the world of "outside" seem truly terrifying and mind-boggling while still, at the same time, allowing you as the reader to bring your outside-world expertise into play. So you see the world through Jack's eyes and yet understand what that real world is, all at the same time. Such a wonderful thing, to read/watch this child approach a fuzzy bumblebee and see him stretch out his hand -- you know instinctively that there's bad news coming, and yet in that moment, the delicacy of this child discovering the world for the first time never ceases to make one smile.
My absolute favourite thing about the novel, strangely enough, was Jack's attachment to Room, and all of its various bits and bobs. How completely and utterly heartbreaking that was, to watch him struggle and feel sad and just want all that's familiar around him. And yet, of course, entirely believable all at the same time.
Much has already been said about how thoroughly Donoghue managed to capture the child's voice, so I won't say that much about it here, except to point out that this, really, is what made the book so groundbreaking for me. It's obviously not the first book written from a child's perspective, but something about the singularity of the story -- the nature of their confinement, and what Jack does with this, how it sheds light on the human ability to adapt and love and hang on even in the harshest of circumstances -- felt utterly new to me. I think it's the highest praise a writer could hope for -- to create a narrative that manages to sound completely new. We writers are constantly changing and adapting age-old narratives, but this book managed to create something apart from that.
All of which is to say, I guess, that I can't recommend this book highly enough, while still recognizing that it's a difficult read all the same. Not necessarily a book that could be enjoyed by everybody, but maybe a book that everyone should at least look at, all the same. I think we can sometimes forget that the most beautiful stories come out of subjects that are either taboo or seen as too dark to approach. But I am thankful to Donoghue for diving into this particular pool, and bringing this story out to the world, and reminding us that one can laugh and surge with hope even in the darkest of circumstances....more
**spoiler alert** I fell in love with Michael Cunningham’s writing in The Hours, his acclaimed, Pulitzer-prizewinning account of a day in the life of**spoiler alert** I fell in love with Michael Cunningham’s writing in The Hours, his acclaimed, Pulitzer-prizewinning account of a day in the life of three women whose lives are linked by the most precarious of threads. I thought it was a truly stunning depiction of class and gender and the social expectations put on an artist, and I left it eager for more Cunningham fare. The release of his new novel, By Nightfall, has more than fulfilled my anticipations (which is perhaps not the correct word, but I am wary of placing expectations on other writers in the wake of particularly lovely works. Of course I thought Cunningham would write something else equally exquisite – still, as a writer who herself worries about how the next project will fare, I didn’t want to burden Mr. Cunningham with hopes to be dashed, even unknowingly).
By Nightfall is the story of Peter Harris, a mid-forties art dealer who is happily married and living in New York. At the beginning of the novel, we learn that Peter’s brother-in-law – his wife’s much younger, much more chaotic brother – is coming to New York to stay with Peter and his family. We’re not sure for how long. We’re not even sure, at first, how Peter feels about this, because the novel opens with a creeping sense of ambivalence, of tiredness, a sort of general malaise that we soon understand has invaded the lives of Peter and his wife, Rebecca, ‘happily married’ though they may be.
Peter is calm, and methodical, and given to long stretches of contemplation. Over the years he has watched the fickle nature of his chosen industry bless and then scorn its acolytes – this up-and-coming sculptor, this edgy painter whose star inexplicably fades away. He is a man who has watched beauty blossom and then disintegrate right before his eyes, a husband who has witnessed the passion of his own marriage fade away through the years. Like Ashenbach, the protagonist of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice – to which publication By Nightfall is, at least in part, paying homage – Peter is a man both in love with and despairing of the terrible nature of beauty.
Enter Mizzy (a nickname for Ethan, short for “The Mistake”), Peter’s brother-in-law, who is rootless and drug-addicted and the embodiment of Peter’s yearning for beauty in a few very terrible ways. Peter first encounters Mizzy when he returns home from work and finds the boy in the shower – for a startled moment, Peter thinks he’s seeing Rebecca in all of her returned, youthful glory. Mistake (no pun intended) soon corrected, this moment of mixed identity nevertheless sets Peter on a course for destruction.
Cunningham makes beautiful use of side story in this novel, filling both Peter and Rebecca’s backgrounds in with lush and careful strokes. We learn about Rebecca’s chaotic upbringing, of Peter’s brother Matthew, dead of AIDS in his early twenties. We begin to see, just as Peter himself begins to see, the connections between his brother’s death and the death that will surely, one day, come to Mizzy. We fall in hopeless, inevitable love with Mizzy just as Peter does. By the end of the novel, my anticipation for the ruptures soon to come in Peter’s life was so great it was almost a torture to read slow, and savour Cunningham’s prose.
I did find Peter’s self absorption and long, stream of conscious thoughts somewhat trying, at times, and guiltily found myself skimming a few pages. But overall, Cunningham’s careful, tight sentences had me in thrall. The depiction of Mizzy is so well done, in fact, and Peter’s helpless love for him so inevitable, that the twist at the end of the story evoked a near-physical reaction on my part.
The unexpected force of bisexuality is territory that Cunningham has explored before, as Lisa Moore pointed out in her wonderful G&M review. I have not yet had chance to read A Home At The End of the World, though you can be sure it’s definitely next on the list. To me, it seems in many ways a perfect vehicle to explore all that’s terrifying and beautiful and unexpected about life in general, because in the end you never know what’s waiting to shake your foundations, what earthquakes lie dormant around the corner. The fact that Cunningham has managed to capture this in a novel that still holds forth a note of hope is, to my mind, a most wonderful feat indeed. ...more