Monthly Archives: September 2010

Sandra Beck, by John Lavery

Sandra Beck, by John Lavery

John Lavery’s Sandra Beck is entrancing, at times infuriating and ultimately unforgettable. This applies to both the mercurial, enigmatic titular character and the book of which she is the beating heart, the central obsession and the puzzling, then gaping, then heart wrenching absence.

What we do know fairly factually about Sandra Beck is that she is ravishingly beautiful, musically gifted, an indefatigable administrator for the Montreal Symphony and equally tireless about perambulating through the world on fiercely wielded crutches as the result of losing a foot to bone cancer. The impressionistic portrait of the spirit of Sandra Beck is painted by the two people who love her most, and perhaps know her least: her jittery, intense, word-besotted teenaged daughter Josee, and her passionately devoted but bewildered husband, Montreal police chief and television personality Paul-Francois (PF) Bastarache, who has known and been fascinated by Sandra since they were teenagers. Josee’s and PF’s collective composition of Sandra Beck is both compelling and contradictory.

Josee sees Sandra as her consummate and ultimate “happiness”, but one that radiates only cold and is often simply not there. Josee’s obsession with her mother overshadows everything, so much so that the girl’s troubling sexual initiation seems like a peculiar afterthought, something with medical consequences that she simply must recover from so that she can continue to strive to please her mother.

Misunderstandings between francophone and anglophone culture, obdurate silences between Catholic and Protestant faiths, and odd miscommunication and misreading between French and English (the misapprehended phrase “Visit Bill” stands out vividly) all seem to be precursors of the more profound disconnection between Sandra Beck and her husband PF. While PF struggles to understand Sandra and give her personal and psychic space, while still feeling consumed by her powerful presence and wanting to support her, particularly during her recovery from the surgery to remove her foot, he despairs: “Sometimes I wonder if I’m listening in the same language she’s talking in.”

The first quarter of the book, told from Josee’s point of view, is uneven, somewhat queasy and seemingly a little too captivated with its own wordplay, although that could be as much an accurate depiction of a bright, troubled teenager as it is lack of discipline on Lavery’s part. It’s worth pointing out, however, as that may be the point in the book where some readers might give up on the book. However, Sandra Beck swiftly gains momentum and gathers emotional resonance as soon as PF’s voice takes over.

PF traces tenderly the milestones of the life of the woman he has known “off and on” (an odd but increasingly poignant phrase) throughout his life. He starts to mingle those memories with equally striking reminiscences about his career in law enforcement. PF is haunted by the victims of and suspects in crimes he has assisted in investigating, and that becomes entwined with an almost overpowering sense of Sandra Beck’s presence in an empty car seat as PF drives and unspools stories and memories in an extended scene. PF’s revelatory memory of the real-life École Polytechnique massacre is devastating, and then that shock builds to a stunning, emotionally lacerating crescendo – yes, the perfect musical metaphor to link to the mysterious and beloved Sandra Beck.

Although it is juxtaposed with thoughts and memories of his wife, PF’s contemplations about his life in law enforcement unto themselves vividly capture the impact of violent crime on those who examine crime scenes and help seek justice for victims. In contrast to the numbing litany and inventory of death in Roberto Bolano’s 2666, which has its own kind of power in sheer numbers but is grindingly inhuman, PF’s insights are shockingly intimate, but humanizing in that very unsettling intimacy. As he observes: “Having spent the day tramping through the swamp of the vilest human conduct imaginable, he was in an over-extended state of brittle nervousness which neither gentility nor prayer had managed to appease.”

What Sandra Beck the book seems to conclude is that neither love nor desire nor compassion, nor even acute powers of vigilance and observation, are ever going to give you the complete picture of another person, or solve the mystery that is another human being. However, this strangely bewitching book manages to couch that in a way that is not pessimistic. Although we have not learned as much as we would like to about Sandra Beck, we have learned a great deal about passionate, unconditional love that does not need to know all to love all.

Thank you to House of Anansi Press for providing a review copy of Sandra Beck, by John Lavery.

Fauna, by Alissa York

Fauna, by Alissa York

Early in his own reading of Fauna, a panelist with the National Post Afterword Reading Society referred to the urban wild settings in the book as “a kind of subconscious of the city”.1 I latched on to that observation about one-third of the way through my own reading of Alissa York’s fine novel. I found that characterization of Toronto’s Don river, valley and ravines as the subconscious, the undercurrent and the foundation of this haunting urban wildlife love story gorgeously informed my Fauna experience. “Characterization” is probably a particularly apt word, as the urban wild settings are almost a collective character unto themselves. York sensitively and unforgettably weaves the presence of this character throughout a tale of damaged souls struggling to survive in a large city and in the world in general.

Fauna’s characters, separate and with seemingly little in common initially, cross paths, converge and ultimately connect against a background that runs the gamut from the office towers of the city’s intimidating financial district, to the sweeping roadways and busy streets, to the lush, labrynthine, simultaneously welcoming and sinister forests, bushes, creeks and ravines. York deftly handles multiple voices and perspectives, including those of a federal wildlife officer on stress leave, an auto wrecking company owner and self-taught wildlife rescuer and sanctuary manager, a homeless teenager and her faithful dog, a veterinarian specializing in animal rehabilitation, a young military veteran and a controversial blogger who might or might not be on a deadly mission. Each character is troubled in one form or another in the present, but can also trace many current tribulations and challenges to dark chapters and influences in their respective pasts. They gravitate to each other through their love of and connection to nature and animals. In one case, where that love and connection do not exist, the character hostile to nature is tragically isolated.

York’s facility with balancing different voices and points of view extends beyond the human. The sections seen through the eyes of various urban wildlife are sufficiently convincing and germane to the story and its themes of personal and collective survival. This multi-layered approach is only occasionally an impediment to this otherwise engrossing novel when some of the switches are made a little too quickly, when you’d perhaps rather spend just a few more pages or even paragraphs with a specific character or situation.

Do I find this book resonates so much because the Toronto backdrop is literally so close to home? Perhaps, but I hope it would similarly strike a chord with any citizen sensitive to that same urban wild undercurrent in his or her own city.


1. The Afterword Reading Society (National Post)

I’m really enjoying how Alissa York manages to incorporate the wilds of the Don Valley and Toronto’s ravines in this novel. To me those areas are a kind of subconscious of the city and it’s just more than appropriate that Fauna’s characters spend their time moving in and out of it.
Ron Nurwisah, National Post arts editor

2. The terror within (The Globe and Mail)
When humans respond with fear to a threat from a predator, they should remember who the most dangerous animal on the planet is
Essay by Alissa York

I think [American writer and naturalist] Barry Lopez was right: While a cautious approach to any wild animal is only sensible, a phobic response is less about the beast in the underbrush than it is about the beast within. When we refuse to look inward – when we fix our fear on the head of a coyote or any other fellow predator – we miss the opportunity to face up to our own demons.

Book manna from heaven … from CBC Books

The Culprits, by Robert Hough

By virtue of the simple acts of reading a book. forming an impression of a book, forming that impression into something expressed in 140 characters, and then sending out that impression via Twitter with the wee tag #cbc140 added to it … one can be subject to the generosity of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Book Club, who might just reward your efforts with … more books.

Thanks to CBC Books’ most recent largesse, I just took delivery today of the following:

1. More Money Than Brains, by Laura Penny
2. April in Paris, by Michael Wallner
3. The Eye of Jade, by Diane Wei Liang
4. Peddling Peril, by David Albright
5. The Culprits, by Robert Hough

I confess that – as well read as I fancy I am – I know little about any of these books and authors. That’s what makes this package so delightful and makes me that much more grateful, as I’ll now have the opportunity to read some books I might not have chanced upon otherwise, and will learn about some new authors. Yes, the ice cream headache of bookish delight is gaining momentum already!

Give it a try: tweet your mini book reviews to #cbc140, and you could soon be feeling that same lightheaded feeling of bookish delight yourself!

Gould’s Book of Fish, by Richard Flanagan

Gould's Book of Fish, by Richard Flanagan

Gould’s Book of Fish brings to alarmingly vivid fictional life the goings-on at Macquarie Harbour penal colony, reputedly one of the harshest of the real-life British penal settlements in Van Diemen’s Land (now the Australian state of Tasmania) in the early 1800s. The rambling, at times hypnotic tale is told from the point of view of William Buelow Gould, jailed regularly as a forger but perhaps more unfortunate and imprudent in his choice of company than genuinely criminal. Throughout his personal history in and out of various forms of incarceration, he finds both salvation and damnation through his skills with a paintbrush.

Alternately crisp, shocking and brilliant, then long-winded to the verge of tediousness, Richard Flanagan has forged a thorny masterpiece. Description of life – if it could be called that – in the penal colony is thick with unforgettable and at times macabre violence, the singular perversity and brutality of what those in nominal power do to those in their control in the surreal penal colony. At its best, some of the bizarre plans of those besotted with their pathetic power in this setting take on a comic grandiosity reminiscent of Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda. The rush of almost unbelievable cruelty is sometimes halted in its tracks, though, by moments of stunning, lyrical intimacy and love, as Gould simply fights to survive, to maintain his sanity and to make human connections.

While Gould’s Book of Fish is ostensibly about a visual artist, it is a unique tribute to both the power and, at times, the impotence of words. Characters die, quite literally, because of the words they have amassed and the deceptions or other nefarious purposes for which they have amassed them. While Flanagan has created a story about and structured using pictures (taken from archived images by the real Gould), he has created with words many images so indelible you won’t be able to erase them, even if you most fervently wish to.

Gould’s Book of Fish culminates in the layering on of so many themes and considerations that some readers will be left exhausted, on the heels of the shock and brutality of much of what Gould has gone through and witnessed. That he does get through it to a form of perhaps unusual peace is some reward for persevering with this demanding book. I commit to revisiting this review in a few months’ time, as I suspect another reward of persevering is that there will be a revelatory afterglow from this book once its demands and shocks have dissipated.

Far To Go, by Alison Pick

Far To Go, by Alison Pick

Would opening words such as these turn you away from a book?

“I wish this were a happy story. A story to make you doubt, and despair, and then have your hopes redeemed so you could believe again, at the last minute, in the essential goodness of the world around us and the people in it. There are few things in life, though, that turn out for the best, with real happy endings.”

They shouldn’t. They’re spoken by the world-weary but compassionate modern day narrator of a generations-old tale. The narrator leads those not stymied by that opening into the compelling story of an unusually courageous family facing increasingly troubling and demanding challenges, dilemmas, changes and decisions in the face of the start of World War II. While that might sound daunting and indeed, not a happy story as the narrator warns, it’s the narrator’s own unwitting warmth that will draw you in, that counterbalances the grim aspects of the unfolding story, and ultimately offers forms of hope and redemption, more than the narrator would even credit.

The Bauers, Pavel and Anneliese and their six-year-old son Pepik, are a well-off, secular Jewish family living a quiet life in a small town in the Bohemia region of western Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s. Their story begins with a jolt, as they learn of violence touching their extended family, as rumours of the growing Nazi occupation start to intrude on their comparatively idyllic existence. The characters of the Bauer family, including Pepik’s young, beloved governess, Marta, business associates from Pavel’s textile factory and others, start out somewhat wooden. The initial jolting sequence aside, you might be slow to connect with any of them and feel their rising concerns and confusion. (Thankfully, the present day narrator offers a plausible explanation later for some of the woodenness.)

Even so, the Bauers and their child’s governess gradually develop into complex beings facing complicated times and situations, with often conflicting but very believable motivations and desires. At the same time, their eventual courage and determination seems unusual because these individuals don’t initially seem capable of great or even resourceful acts. They’re all in varying degrees of denial about the encroachment of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, seemingly too young or too sensitive to understand and cope with what is going on, or simply absorbed in day-to-day business and busy-ness, much of it ephemeral, trivial or distracting. In other words, the Bauers are authentically human in the face of forces beyond anyone’s comprehension.

Author Alison Pick was inspired by her grandparents’ own arduous five-year exodus from Czechoslovakia to Canada during World War II in constructing the story of the flight of the Bauers. She couples down to earth, propulsive description and dialogue with occasional flourishes of the cinematic, all interwoven with the deft and poignant use of literal and symbolic images. Trains, which bookend both the story of the Bauers and the voice of the narrator, are a powerful case in point. Pepik’s toy train set interconnects the Bauer home, is a source of both distraction and solace for him and his family, and is a reminder of his absence when his parents secure him a place on a Kindertransport, part of a series of trains used to rescue children from Nazi occupied territories to be placed with families in the United Kingdom until and if the children could be reunited with their parents after the war. Arrivals and departures on train platforms, especially Pepik’s dramatic departure, are on one hand like typically dramatic movie scenes, but Pick underpins them with the earthy sights, sounds and smells of desperate, frightened human beings. Throughout, she invests images like this with both thematic potency and realistic dramatic resonance.

Other examples of pervasive, effectively used imagery include references to lost children and lost childhood, and suppressed and denied identities. Marta, in that regard, is darker and more dimensional than her callow, innocent exterior first suggests. Most wrenchingly, the Bauers struggle with revealing or suppressing their Jewish heritage or assuming different identities in order to survive.

The voice of the present-day narrator in Far To Go – wounded but resilient – is a reassuring and steadfast guide to the conclusion of this riveting story of a family torn asunder, then reassembled in a perhaps somewhat surprising fashion.

“There was not joy, exactly, in finding each other – we were too old, too set in our ways – but our pain was dulled. What we felt was not quite pleasure, but contentment. We had each finished our searching.”

The voice is wary, damaged, almost resigned, but the note of contentment suggests a faith not entirely extinguished by the cruelties of history. This is a journey and a voice worth following to an unexpectedly redemptive resolution. Even the green-tinged tones of the cover convey a hopefulness that builds with a subtle momentum over the course of this absorbing book.

See also

Alison Pick recently discussed “Far To Go” on CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter

Thank you to House of Anansi Press for providing a review copy of So Far to Go, by Alison Pick.