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
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