book reviews

The Carnivore by Mark Sinnett: A Review

From ECW Press: The Carnivore is a historical novel of disaster and betrayal, set in the Toronto of both 1954 and 2004.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Hazel, a young cop, Ray Townes, emerges as a hero. There are numerous accounts of his bravery, of the way he battled all night to save those who were trapped in houses swept away by the raging Humber River. His story is featured prominently in the newspapers, thrusting him into the spotlight as a local celebrity.

His wife performs her own small miracles that night. Mary is a nurse at St. Joseph’s Hospital and she treats many of the survivors. The emergency room is overrun; the hallways are slick with river mud: of course, her feats go almost unnoticed. But among the victims she treats there is a woman, disoriented and near death, who reveals mad-seeming details of her ordeal — details that lead Mary to doubt her husband’s heroism.

The officer and the nurse (with a new house, new friends, and plans for a family) try to normalize their life together in a shell-shocked city, but Mary also searches for the truth about her husband. Is he simply the tired hero who stares out at her from the cover of the Globe and Mail, or is it a much darker figure who sits across the table from her at breakfast?

Definitive answers are elusive . . . Fifty years later, when a reporter comes knocking, wanting to revisit that violent night, the missing details finally surface — and threaten to destroy them.

The Carnivore by Mark Sinnett. ECW Press, Sept. 2009, hc.

“In the beginning there was only darkness and heavy rain.” Such is the opening sentence of The Carnivore, and it sets the story perfectly.

When Jen Knoch at ECW Press asked me if The Carnivore was a book I’d be interested in, I jumped at my chance to score a copy so I could participate in their upcoming book club. I enjoy reading CanLit that interprets major events in our history, and Hurricane Hazel in Toronto in 1954 was pretty major.

Not too long ago, a patient called the naturopathic clinic where I work, asking if we helped people deal with post-traumatic stress. In the spring, this area suffered a strange influx of murders, and these unlikely but nevertheless shockingly real occurrences had a deep impact on this woman. Imagine, then, what a major natural disaster, and the loss that accompanies such a thing, does not only on a large, sweeping scale but to each individual who experiences it. Imagine what it can do to their psyches, their relationships, the way they think and conduct daily life. Mark Sinnett‘s book The Carnivore is a taut and chilling glimpse at this very thing. As in Tsiolkas’s The Slap, a single yet significant event sets the course for irrevocable decline and forever changes the lives of those who witnessed and lived the event.

Because I consider these things part of a reader’s experience, I must first tell you my impressions of the novel when it arrived in the mail. Out from the envelope slipped a rather slim, heavy hardcover with a beautifully designed jacket (Bill Douglas is the designer. He did Anansi’s Annabel by Kathleen Winter, too. My review for that is here. I admit I did not appreciate Annabel‘s cover until I read that the caribou, which is featured on the jacket, is the only deer species in which both males and females grow antlers. Huh. Clever).

The Carnivore‘s pages smell heavenly, the way a book should: rather sweet, warm, not vinegary and sharp—it’s the kind of fragrance that at once takes you back to your English degree days, when your shelves were spilling over with yellowed NCL books and you attended fall writers festivals in earthy cords and long skirts and handed over sweaty copies of your favourite novels to be signed by Ondaatje, Shields, Atwood, and boozy Richler.

At 253 pages, The Carnivore is not long, but the length is exactly right, no more, no less needed, and it’s no wonder. In an interview with Open Book Toronto, Sinnett said he wrote the first draft in three months but edited the book over four years. And the result shows that. The story’s brilliant, tight prose and poetic rhythm, in combination with the alternating perspectives of Ray and Mary, keep the novel moving at a clip that spins you in with it, the way a hurricane gathers debris, if you will. It is impossible to be separated from it. In fact, last night, after I finished it, I had the vague sense of having been chewed up and spit out, released, as it were, by the swirling winds of it. I actually tipped back my head and blew out my breath and after a minute held the book to my chest. Dizzy.

Perhaps that was from my marathon sit, but more than likely it was the ability of the narratives to pluck me up and plunk me down in the streets of 1954 Toronto. The stormy October air mirrored our own here in Belleville, and I found myself with hot tea and under a blanket.

But on to the story. It’s just that this was definitely more than just reading a book; I truly was experiencing this one. Sinnett’s talent is mind-blowing, and if you never read past this sentence, I hope by now you’ve at least got the impression that I highly recommend his book. I admired the way Sinnett was able to capture both male and female, no one voice stronger or better or more believable than the other. Mary’s acerbic (but also often dryly humorous) tone reminded me quite pleasantly of Carol Shields‘s writing, not that Shields or her characters were bitter, but it was rather how Mary thought, what and how she observed, how she expressed herself as memory softened her until she came back to reality.  Both characters were honest and raw and unafraid of admitting their deepest feelings, and one gets the impression that after all their years of pretending, there is no choice but to let everything out. Now senior, they are forced to come to terms with the past as time runs out. Ray writes to Mary once he discovers she’s found his journal, and holds back nothing. He has nothing to lose, and neither does she. In the end, Mary simply waits to be released.

What gripped me most were Mary’s and Ray’s memories of the hurricane and its events, as well as of their marriage at the time. Through these flashbacks, other Canadiana was also brilliantly, not laboriously, revealed, vividly and effectively marking setting and time for us and also carrying such tension and thrill that it was impossible to stop turning the pages. Sixteen-year-old swimmer Marilyn Bell‘s crossing of Lake Ontario was one of those notable bits, and it was these things, mentions of the CBC, streets in Toronto, and other events, that lent the book its distinct Canadian flavour. And the way he painted the past, with the clothes and streets and dialogue, you’d think Sinnett was there. No—it’s as though you are there.

But what got to me most was the horrible, ugly state of Ray and Mary’s marriage, their sad and brutal admissions, confessions, the lack of hope that either of them had, and that things only kept getting worse.

You see [Ray writes], if we had separated long ago perhaps I would have lost innumerable moments like this. And given the pain they cause us, the pain they cause me, the infinite regret, I would choose that. Yes, let us consign the beautiful bits to oblivion, I say, rather than have them cower here, fetid little ghost children, illuminating nothing more than this dank shadowland we have picked as our lot in life.

It isn’t genius to observe that the hurricane can work as a metaphor for their destructive relationship. The choice to use this background for the story of a disastrous marriage worked extremely well. What is genius is the way Sinnett allows each character’s story to be carefully revealed in such a way as to show that metaphor. Through each of them, the details of their worsening admissions and their increasing dysfunction are revealed bit by bit, much in the same way personal articles are found lying for all the world to see in the aftermath of tragedy.

A little about the style, which one cannot avoid noticing while reading this book. Sinnett’s prose is not only well paced and poetic but also surprising. His way of writing exposes unexpected adjectives and similes that might make you pause and cock your head. For example, ” The chill of it hit my stomach like a white flower blooming,” or “…and with the doctor’s manipulation the bone retreated beneath the skin like a tortoise gliding back into its shell,” or “I remember perfectly the sensation of his thigh against mine (hot, like a log that has just rolled from the fire….” At first I was thrown off enough that I didn’t like it; it seemed Sinnett was trying a bit too hard. But shortly I began to appreciate these turns of phrases, and found myself smiling when I read them.

Lest one think this novel is utterly depressing, with its catastrophe and downspiralling marriage, there is also humour—more from Mary, I think, but also from Ray. It’s a good balance to the regret and bitterness, the shocking twists and turns. And there is light, too, in their daughter’s relationship, and release, a sense that the horrible storm is over; finally there is hope.

The Carnivore is one of my very favourite CanLit novels. Last night, right after I finished it, I wrote to Jen:

Almost cross-eyed from reading for hours. It’s quarter after midnight now and I just wanted to thank you for thinking of me and sending me The Carnivore. I was trying not to finish it so I could write my review right after, but I failed, unable to help myself. I shifted around in one of my blue chairs by the bookshelves all night because they are not comfortable but this is how amazing, how incredible, how gripping that novel was: I sat in that chair for hours, in various states of discomfort, under a blanket and with tea, and finished every last word because I could not stop.

It is inconceivable that I would dog-ear pages as I read, but this novel was so engrossing I didn’t, indeed couldn’t, interrupt myself to get paper and pen or post-it notes. Instead, I forced those corners down as I read. And I confess, something about that act, and about the ever-growing fullness of the book and softness of the pages as it morphed in the almost 100% humidity, felt oddly satisfying. The novel felt used, appreciated, lived with. The writing was so excellent, the story so beautiful, that I was compelled to not only read the book but also mark it as my own.

Read from The Carnivore.

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11 Comments

  1. Thanks, Reeder! I think you’ll like it. We have a copy at the store, thank goodness, and I hope someone comes in to whom I can recommend it. Not a soul in here right now… :(

    Reply
  2. JK

    Steph, thanks for your incredibly thoughtful and glowing review. I can’t wait for book club to begin. Hopefully others will be inspired by your high praise to join in as well!

    (For the record, I also don’t dog ear, but I do mark in pencil, and pencil only.)

    Reply
  3. Steph Author

    Jen,

    I hope so too! I look forward to it. And no, thank you for bringing it to my attention and giving me the opportunity to read it. I really appreciate it so much. I enjoyed writing the review as much as reading the book.

    Reply
  4. Steph Author

    PS. Now that I think about it, marking in pencil is better, because it doesn’t wreck the book and it will be interesting, later, to see what struck you the first time around.

    Reply
  5. Wow. And a very powerful review. As I said before, it would be nice to find you in The Globe and Mail or something. Your reviews are always much beefier than other published stuff. And I can’t believe YOU! dog-eared!! That says something…

    Reply
  6. Steph Author

    I know!! It was a page-turner, I’m telling you.

    As for the Globe, well, thank you. The only thing that scares me about it is having a deadline or something of that sort, since I have copyediting deadlines and two other jobs.

    Reply

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