Christophe Bernard: La Bête Creuse [The Hollow Beast]

The latest addition to my website is Christophe Bernard‘s La Bête Creuse [The Hollow Beast]. This is a very long, very funny novel, written in broad Quebecois dialect, about a family that may have a curse on them though, as we soon learn, it is possible that the curse is merely excessive consumption of alcohol. It starts in 1911 with Monti Bouge brilliantly saving (with his teeth) the puck in a key ice hockey game but he is pushed into the goal and the goal is awarded. He vows revenge on the referee, Victor Bradley. Many years later he again meets Bradley, now a postman, and goes out of his way to make his life miserable (delivering heavy items to his remote cabin). Monti eventually heads off to find gold in the Yukon. He does find money but not the conventional way and returns home rich. Meanwhile, we are also following his grandson François, alcoholic, drop-out and chronicler of his family, determined to show there is a curse. He too has his adventures. It is hilarious fun, with kidnapping, unreliable narrators, mad taxi drivers, dodgy poker games, odd beasts, and lots and lots of alcohol.

Nicole Lundrigan: Thaw

The latest addition to my website is Nicole Lundrigan‘s Thaw. The novel is set in the small Newfoundland town of Cupboard Cove and tells the story of two people who live there, as well as of their families. Tilley Gover is a sensitive boy with a loving mother but an aggressive and macho father and brother, both of whom think he should be more manly. He is interested in drawing and, when a celebrated artist, David Boone, returns to his home town, he learns from David about drawing and painting. David is there with his wife and his daughter, but also his mother, Hazel, who has had something of a wayward life, cursed by the circumstances of her birth, and who is now apparently going senile. However, there are dark, hidden secrets which will come out and involve both families. Lundrigan tells her story well, clearly having no time for the macho culture,

Nicole Lundrigan: Unraveling Arva

The latest addition to my website is Nicole Lundrigan‘s Unraveling Arva. Set in Newfoundland, Lundrigan’s home province, this novel tells the story of Arva House. Both parents drowned, her father, apparently, after having drunk too much and her mother by suicide. She is now looking after Old Man Crane, an elderly and sick man, when she meets Clive. She is soon pregnant and they marry but life is not easy, with Clive’s infidelity and drinking, and two young children to look after. Arva tends to keep herself to herself but manages to struggle through, becoming her own woman, with the help of the close-knit community. Lundrigan tells an excellent tale of a small Newfoundland fishing community and of a woman whose unravelling is positive, not negative.

Rober Racine: Le Mal de Vienne [The Vienna Sickness]

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The latest addition to my website is Rober Racine‘s Le Mal de Vienne [The Vienna Sickness]. The author of this novel, Rober Racine, is primarily known as a visual artist. He is also a composer and dramatist but has written five novels. This work is an entirely absurdist and anarchic novel, written by a man for whom images and sounds are clearly more important than the written word. It tells the story of four people. Studd, fifty-three at the start of the novel, spends his time making mixtapes of various sounds but he also suffers from thomasberharditis, which means he lives and see the world through the eyes of the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard (and partially through the eyes of Krapp from Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape). Bernhard, who died three years before this novel was published, is a key character. He is writing a huge novel which, at least, initially, is called The Daughter of God is No Longer the Sister of Christ (it changes its name several times), influenced by a photo of the composer Anton Bruckner. We also have Kevin O’Bryan who wants to display Bernard’s novel Beton (Concrete) in Letraset and Studd’s god-daughter who continually reads the same two books, though no-one, including the reader, knows what they are. The book is full of complicated lists, total nonsense, lively images, plays on words and lots of humour. I enjoyed it immensely but I doubt whether it will ever make it into English or, indeed, any other language.

Gérard Bessette: L’incubation (Incubation)

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The latest addition to my website is Gérard Bessette‘s L’incubation (Incubation). The novel is entirely narrated in stream-of-consciousness style by a man known as Lagarde, a librarian by profession. He is primarily telling the story Gordon Blackwell, his friend and an English teacher at the university in the small Canadian town of Narcotown. Gordon had met Antinéa (an English woman, despite her name) in London during the Blitz in World War II. They had started an affair, despite the fact that Antinéa was married to Jack, fighting in North Africa, and Gordon was engaged to Maggie back home in Narcotown. When Jack returned, injured, Antinéa paid little attention to him but when he died, she had a nervous breakdown. Gordon returned to Canada, married Maggie and they had two children When Antinéa, ten years later, comes to Canada to find Gordon, thing inevitably do not work out well. The stream-of-consciousness style, a new departure for Bessette, and influenced by the nouveau roman, is surprisingly effective at driving the fairly routine story on but it does seem a bit dated, fifty years plus later.

Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven

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The latest addition to my website is Emily St. John Mandel‘s Station Eleven. This book has been shortlisted for the US National Book Award, with the winner to be announced 19 November. This is a post-apocalyptic novel, but don’t let that put you off. As you will see in my review, there are a already a few post-apocalyptic novels on this site and they are generally very well written and intelligent, as is this one. They do not all have to be pitched battles between good and evil nor Space Westerns consisting of lone cowboys ridding the universe of evil-doers. The apocalypse is caused by an outbreak of a pandemic called Georgia Flu, which kills off around ninety-nine percent of the world’s human population in a very short time. The main survivors in this story all have some connection with Arthur Leander, a successful Canadian film actor who dies of a heart attack on stage, while playing King Lear, just as the pandemic is breaking out. Two of the survivors, Kirsten Raymonde, then eight years old and appearing in King Lear with Leander, and Jeevan Chaudhary, former paparazzo, who had stalked Leander but is now a paramedic and audience member, both witness Leander’s death. After the pandemic, Kirsten joins the Travelling Symphony, a troupe of both musicians and actors, who travel round what was the North-West of the United States, playing and performing in the scattered towns where there are survivors. All had been going well, till, in one town, they found that a man who called himself The Prophet had taken over and was terrorising the area. The Symphony has conflicts with him, causing them all sorts of problems. Meanwhile we follow the life of Arthur Leander, his rise to fame, his three marriage and divorces, and his contacts with the people who will survive. We also learn of a flight rerouted to Severn City Airport, as the pandemic breaks out, which will never leave the airport and how the survivors settle and survive there. Mandel tells an excellent story but also raises issues such as memories, loss of memories and recovery of memories as well as the issue of how music, Shakespeare and the determination that survival is not enough can help put back together a broken world.

Heather O’Neill: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night

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The latest addition to my website is Heather O’Neill‘s The Girl Who Was Saturday Night. This is another book in my reading of literary prize shortlist books that aren’t the Man Booker, this book being on the Giller Prize shortlist , with the winner to be announced 10 November. This novel tells the colourful story of nineteen-old Nouschka Tremblay, who lives in the less fashionable part of Montreal. She is very attached to her twin brother, Nicolas. Both are drop-outs but she has just started going back to school at the beginning of the book, while he makes his living from petty crime. Their father is Etienne Tremblay, a man who was a very successful folk singer in Quebec (but unknown outside the province). Etienne seduced a young woman at a party, had unprotected sex with her and then found that she was pregnant with the twins and was only fourteen. He went to prison, the mother was spirited away and the twins have been brought up by their grandfather. Etienne used them as props for his act but they rarely see him now. They have never seen their mother since though, during the course of the book, Nicolas tracks her down. Meanwhile, Nouschka, unwilling to be without a boyfriend, leads a varied sex life till she marries Raphaël, a man even she admits is the most unsuitable husband, as he has had a history of mental illness (threw himself off the Jacques Cartier Bridge and survived, has tried to kill his father and was arrested for having over a hundred dogs in his house). All this is told against the background of the Quebec separatist movement, culminating in the (just) failed referendum in 1995. It is a lively novel, as we see the seamy side of life in Montreal but it is witty and great fun, even if the characters are seriously flawed human beings.

Michael Ondaatje: Anil’s Ghost

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The latest addition to my website is Michael Ondaatje‘s Anil’s Ghost. This is another superb novel by Ondaatje on war, truth and perspective, this time focussing on the conflict in Sri Lanka, the country of his birth. It tells the story of Anil Tessera, a forensic pathologist and Sri Lankan by birth but who has spent much of her adult life in the West. She is now working for a United Nations human rights investigation, looking into political murders in Sri Lanka. She and her colleague, Sarath Diyasena, a local archeologist, find evidence of a body concealed in an ancient site. However, their investigation is hindered by Anil’s suspicion of Sarath’s connections, trying to identify the body and, inevitably, the fact that they are getting too near to people in power. We also meet Sarath’s brother, a doctor who deals with accidents and emergencies, who devotes his life to helping those that have been injured, while trying to keep away from politics, which is naturally not always easy. We also meet Ananda, a painter of Buddhas, who has been traumatised by the disappearance of his wife and who helps them give a face to the dead man. Ondaatje does not hold back on the horrors of war but, as with The English Patient, there is a lot more to this book.

Hubert Aquin: Trou de mémoire (Blackout)

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The latest addition to my website is Hubert Aquin‘s Trou de mémoire (Blackout). This is the story of two men who have a few things in common. Pierre X Magnant and Olympe Ghezzo-Quénum are both political revolutionaries, both pharmacists and are both having an affair with a (different) English woman, who happen to be sisters, though, by the time the novel starts, Magnant has just murdered his lover, Joan. Magnant is Canadian while Ghezzo-Quénum is Ivorian. Their paths intertwine, initially because Ghezzo-Quénum contacts Magnant about his revolutionary activities but later because Magnant seems to pursue the surviving sister, Rachel. While initially it seems to be a straightforward tale of psychopathy, it turns out to be more complicated than that as we learn that the various narrators are almost certainly unreliable, with even Magnant’s confession of murdering Joan suspect. Relatively few French Canadian novels are translated into English but this one has been though is sadly quite difficult to obtain in English translation.

Hubert Aquin: Prochain épisode (Next Episode)

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The latest addition to my website is Hubert Aquin‘s Prochain épisode (Next Episode), Aquin’s first novel and the only one of his works to be translated into English. Aquin wrote this novel when he was detained in a mental institution after having being arrested for possession of guns, to be used in terrorist attacks as part of his involvement in the Quebec liberation movement. The story tells of an unnamed narrator, clearly based on Aquin himself, who is in Switzerland and worried about his life and whether the Canadian police are tracking him. He meets his girlfriend K, who is also very much involved in the revolutionary movement and he is instructed to follow and kill a counter-revolutionary who may be a Belgian banker called von Ryndt or a Swiss banker called von Heute or von Heutz. While our narrator does follow and confront von Heutz, he is not very competent and things do not go according to plan. However, the fascination of this book is not the James Bond exploits of the narrator but his thoughts, concerns and worries about his life, his love and where he is and what he is doing. It has been hailed as a great Canadian novel and, though I do not feel that it deserves that acclaim, it is still an interesting read.