The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre

The Bishop’s Man was the 2009  Giller Prize winner. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Giller, it’s Canada’s largest annual prize for fiction, netting the winner $50,000. MacIntyre, a well-known Canadian journalist who has won nine Geminis for broadcast journalism, beat out Anne Michaels, Colin McAdam, Annabel Lyon, and Kim Echlin.

I’m not sure The Bishop’s Man is a book I’d pick up on my own, but it’s this month’s book club pick. Still, the novel’s opening pages had me intrigued.  Its narrator, Father Duncan MacAskill,  is an intriguing character, but then he starts to spiral out of control and so does the book.

MacAskill is known as the “Exorcist.”  The Bishop  sends him to clean up after fallen priests – men who have sullied the name of the priesthood by engaging in sexual relationships with – well – anyone. As we all know, celibacy is one of the tenets of the priesthood.

MacAskill isn’t without his own secrets, though. When the bishop decides to send him back to his childhood home, MacAskill is forced to confront his own demons. Isolated from the world in backwoods  Cape Breton MacAskill suddenly realizes how lonely he is and he begins to drink heavily.

The Bishop’s Man is a page-turner. Lots of things are hinted at, enough to make the reader wonder: about the suicide of a young man and his relationship with a charismatic priest who has since left the order and married; about MacAskill’s time  in Honduras, revealed in snippets from his diary; about where his relationship with Stella, a woman in the village, might be headed; about his childhood.

MacIntyre juggles all these various threads and I guess this is where the book failed for me. I’m not a moron,  but sometimes the out of sequence narration was really a pain-in-the-ass. I’m all for the elliptical, but I’m not sure it served the story in this instance (unless MacIntyre was trying to mimic the disordered state of MacAskill’s mind.)

I haven’t read the other novels on the Giller shortlist and so I’d be curious to see how they stack up against this one. I guess the one thing The Bishop’s Man has going for it is a sense of immediacy. The Catholic Church has certainly had its share of troubles. Whether or not the novel’s verisimilitude is enough to overlook its other issues is up to the reader, I suppose.

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee is a South African writer and former winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Disgrace is the first novel I’ve read by Coetzee. It won the Booker Prize in 1999.

Disgrace is the story of Literature Professor, David Lurie. Lurie is a man who answers only to himself. Twice divorced, Lurie has “solved the problem of sex rather well.” But then his life starts to unravel; he pursues a student who seems ambivalent (but not altogether resistant) about his advances. When she accuses him of impropriety, Lurie does nothing to defend himself.  He packs himself off to his adult daughter’s farm on the Eastern Cape. His relationship with his daughter, Lucy, isn’t a particularly close one. Lurie, it seems, has been a haphazard father. He loves her, but he doesn’t know her. One day a horrific event changes their lives forever.

On the surface it would seem that Disgrace is about one man’s midlife crisis. Lurie chases beauty. He’s attractive and charming enough to grasp it – however fleetingly. What Lurie doesn’t have, however, is substance. And it isn’t until he’s forced to reorder his self-centered world that he gains real insight into what makes him human. That compassion, when it comes, is hard-earned. One of the interesting things about Lurie is that as a teacher of Romantic poetry (a movement that reveres nature), he actually finds all things natural distasteful – so life on the farm isn’t comfortable at all for him.

Disgrace was an easy book to read, but don’t let the prose fool you. This book is jam-packed with thoughtful ideas: how does a parent love a child; how does a man, at the mid-point of his life, reconcile who he thinks he is with who he is in actuality; how do the white people of South Africa co-exist peacefully with the Blacks – can they?

Disgrace isn’t a feel-good book. I did, however, feel that Lurie attained a certain grace by the novel’s final pages and, while in his company, I felt a little like it might be possible for everyone to achieve a similar state – although the trip is often unpleasant.

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

Out Stealing Horses has been on my tbr list for ages, so I was happy when it was chosen as the December read for my book club. I was also surprised because the woman who chose generally dislikes translations and this novel was translated from the original Norwegian. Anyway, I settled in and finished the book (one of the few in the group who actually did) and even after discussing it – I am not sure how I feel about the book.

The story concerns 67 year old Trond Sander who is living in isolation after the death of his second wife. The novel moves seamlessly between Trond’s every day concerns (getting his driveway plowed and stacking wood) and his memories of his youth. The summer he was 15 he and his father had left Trond’s mother and sister in Oslo and come to a cottage quike like the one Trond is currently inhabiting. It was there that Trond’s world was knocked off-kilter – not only by a tragedy that occurred in his friend Jon’s family, but also by events in his own life.

It took my a while to settle into this book. It’s a quiet novel and while the writing is quite powerful (particularly Pettersen’s descriptions of the natural world), I found the long sentences strangely difficult…too many commas or something. Still, I eventually stopped wanting to add full stops and gave myself over to Trond’s remarkable childhood recollections.

I’m not sure this book will appeal to everyone and so it’s not one that I can whole-heartedly recommend. That said – I do think it achieves something quite remarkable. As Trond’s story unfolds we learn a universal truth – sometimes there are no satisfactory explanations for life’s mysteries.

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

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Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book in 2007. Books with pedigree always make me nervous. What if I don’t like it? What does that say about me as a reader? No chance of not liking Mister Pip, though. This is a terrific book.

Thirteen-year-old Matilda lives on the tropical island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea. Many of the island’s inhabitants have fled, including Matilda’s father, because of a brutal civil war. Redskins and rambos are fighting, and the island is all but cut off from civilization. The only white inhabitant left in the village is a man called Mr. Watts, also known as Pop Eye. It is decided that he will teach the children, as the school teachers have all fled.

As they clean up the building they will use as a school room, Mr. Watts tells the children “I want this to be a place of light, no matter what happens.”

Mr. Watts begins to read the children Great Expectations which he claims is “the greatest novel by the greatest English writer of the nineteenth century.” And as Pip’s story unfolds, so does Jones’ novel. Not everyone agrees with Mr. Watts’ estimation of Dickens’ worth. Matilda’s mother, Dolores, in particular thinks Mr. Watts should be teaching the children about God and the devil. She and Mr. Watts are adversaries, but there can be no mistaking the impact Watts is having on Matilda.

Mister Pip is a fantastic book about the power of reading and imagination. It is also a powerful and startling novel about bravery and sacrifice, love and forgiveness.

I can not recommend it highly enough.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Adiga’s debut novel was the 2008 winner of the Man Booker Prize. There’s a certain cachet that comes attached to that especially if the author is relatively unknown. Adiga was, at one time, a correspondent for Time magazine- so he may actually be known to some people, but I’d never heard of him.

Truthfully, despite the accolades, I probably wouldn’t have picked up The White Tiger, but it was the choice for the book group I lead at a local book store.

In a series of missives written to His Excellency Wen Jiabao, Premier of China,  Balram Halwai recounts the details of his life, from his modest beginnings in the small village of Laxmangarh to his rise as a successful entrepreneur. His tale is an interesting one and paints a picture of India quite unlike any we have seen in the recent spate of books by Indian authors. Balram’s India isn’t swirling pink saris and saffron-infused food, it’s cockroaches, abject poverty and a system that stifles creativity and social advancement.

Balram condemns this India – the country which failed his dying father, was not able to deliver to him a meaningful education and is so filthy dirty, unless you drive in an air conditioned car, living in Delhi will take ten years off your life.

Balram grows sick of living in the muck, though, and decides he wants something more for his life than cleaning the floors in a tearoom. He learns to drive and then, through a weird twist of fate, ends up being the driver for Mr. Ashok and his wife Pinky Madam. Ashok is one of the new breed of Indians. Schooled in America, he is kind and fair to Balram but even as Balram grows fond of him, he is looking for ways to advance himself. He’s not content to be a slave forever; he aspires to be the master.

The White Tiger has been universally praised by critics. Adiga has created a wonderfully complex character in Balram. It is hard not to sympathize with him even as he goes from being underdog to monster.

The book is worth the read.

What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn

Catherine O’Flynn’s debut novel, What Was Lost, is as labyrinthine as the tunnels under the Green Oaks Shopping Centre. Ten year old Kate Meany is an amateur detective, raised (until his sudden death) by an older, single father. In the novel’s opening third, we travel with Kate and her stuffed monkey, Mickey, as they conduct stakeouts, deliberate over office stationary for Kate’s fledgling detective agency, and pal around with Adrian, the 22 year old son of the man who runs the store next to Kate’s house.

Flash forward almost 20 years and meet Kurt, a security guard at Green Oaks and Lisa, a manager at ‘Your Music’ a big-box music store in the same mall (and not incidentally, Adrian’s younger sister). One night, while sleepily watching the security moniter, Kurt sees Kate. It’s not possible: Kate disappeared the year she was ten and was never found. Adrian, suspected of wrong-doing, but never charged, disappeared and made no contact with his family except for a mixed tape he sent to Lisa every year on her birthday.

From these tangled threads, O’Flynn weaves an exceptionally good story about missed opportunities, luck, family and secrets. She even throws in a slightly gloomy (but fairly funny) picture of what it’s like to work in retail.

O’Flynn’s real strength is in her characters. Kate Meany is a wholly believable and totally enchanting little girl. Lisa and Kurt are flawed and likable. O’Flynn manages to tell us everything we need to know about a character with a line or two – whole back stories come to life with a few carefully chosen words. Even minor characters spring to glorious life and create a picture of small town-life which is ultimately eroded by progress aka big  impersonal malls.

The story had an extra layer of meaning for me because it took place in the West Midlands of England and I once lived there.  I am pretty sure that Green Oaks is actually Merry Hill, a huge shopping centre on the outskirts of Birmingham.

If I have one niggle about the book, it comes at the end. I didn’t like part 42- it felt extraneous to me, like an unnecessary bow on a beautifully wrapped present. Had O’Flynn quit at the end of part 41, I think this little gem of a novel would have been damn near perfect.

Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay

“Psychologically astute, richly rendered and deftly paced. It’s a pleasure from start to finish.” – Toronto Star

Canadian author Elizabeth Hay won the Giller Prize for her novel, Late Nights on Air. Obviously, you begin a book like this- one with a certain pedigree already attached- with a little trepidation. I mean, what if you hate it?

I am happy to report that this is a beautiful book.

Set in Yellowknife in 1975, the novel tells the story of the intersecting lives of Harry (a CBC radio station manager), Dido (a beautiful announcer who has fled to the North to escape a complicated, but profound, relationship), Eleanor (the station’s secretary), Eddy (the station’s technician), Ralph (a local photographer and on-air book reviewer) and Gwen (a newcomer, who had come to the North inspired by the tragic story of an explorer named John Hornby.) Although Gwen is clearly the central character of the book, Hay deftly manages the interior lives of all the characters and, in doing so, makes us yearn to know more.

The last third of the book takes four of the characters on a tremendous canoe trip, inspired by the life of Hornby. That trip and the consequences of it forever change the lives of these characters.

I have always said that I hate a book that flashes us forward in time and shows us where the characters are now. Hay employs this device, but it seems almost organic. And at the book’s conclusion, I felt truly sad to be parting company with these people.

Ultimately, though, this book is about silence, longing, isolation, community and what love looks like.

I highly recommend it.