Recently I signed up for ECW Press’s Shelf Monkey program, which allows you to submit titles of their books you’d be interested in reading and reviewing. They enter your choices in a draw and if you win they ship the book to you. What, I ask, is better than free books?
Jen Knoch, who runs the Keepin’ It Real Book Club but also happens to work at ECW sent me my first book for review, the aptly named and eerily designed One Bloody Thing After Another by Joey Comeau (who, I have to include here, is a mere 30 years old, dammit). This sort-of-YA book has had rave reviews from Quill & Quire, Globe and Mail, Los Angeles Times, and more, and though I’m not at all a horror fan I thought, sure, whatever. It’s less than 200 pages and the chapters are short.
Boy, was I in for a surprise. Which just goes to show, sometimes you should step out of your comfort zone and try something altogether different. And let me tell you, this book’s definitely different, and it actively avoids being definitively categorized.
It’s rare, I have to admit, that a book takes me so little time to read—a couple of hours, if that—and not only because it’s short.
Last night I was working but Comeau’s book lay invitingly beside me on the table, having just arrived in the mail, and finally I couldn’t deny it anymore and picked it up—just to have a peek, you understand. I’m already reading another book. But better to open this one than to have that black kitten’s eyes boring a hole through the side of my head.
Before I knew it, I was on page 107, the manuscript I had been proofing still on my lap, red pencil still in hand. I couldn’t believe it. I had got so caught up in the story I forgot about everything else. I couldn’t help it. It wasn’t on purpose. Jen told me I had time to read and review it. But talk about an easy read.
I’m not all about horror, as I said. I don’t read it. But this book was so unexpectedly engrossing, so sneaky about the horror bits, subtly, matter-of-factly slipping them in among tender scenes of various forms of love, loss, friendship, and family, that it wasn’t like anything else I’d tried, and therefore not a deterrent. As I said, the novel defies categorization.
And yet, while the supernatural and even gory bits slyly weaved in and out of the story, they commanded quite a presence. I was grossed out, unsettled, chilled, the hairs raising on my arms and back of neck when I put the book down. It was as though as long as I kept reading I would be okay, but when I closed my eyes those horrifying bits became magnified. Which is of course what makes the book great, among other things, like it’s poetic brevity of sentence, paragraph, chapter and the book as a whole. I’ve always enjoyed that spooky thrill a book can give, even when I was very young. Ghost and other supernatural stories were among my favourites.
Comeau’s writing was excellent: the present tense, the characterization, the mixture of humour with horror, the unexpected, the suggestion or ambiguity of many things, the short and powerful sentences, the poignancy, and his masterful choice of words all married to produce an impressive story that in its brevity finds even more power.
The book’s layout was superb as well, and the frisson I felt when I first realized there was that tiny spidery text on the bottom of some pages and what it meant and said — how clever, but more so, how spooky! — was enough to make me love this book. Well, is love the right word? I don’t know; somehow it seems inappropriate for the subject matter. It was compelling, creepy, touching…ultimately haunting.
The first thing I said to Jessica Grant when I met her this evening at the Belleville Public Library was that I was a huge fan. I was sweating, breathing heavily, and highly excited. I was also talking very loudly, so I had a bit of an audience, even though I was early and one of the first to arrive. Okay. Probably frightening.
But I had run from my workplace about ten minutes away, loaded down with bags and books! I had been afraid of being late (I lost my watch somewhere today). To be fair, though, she didn’t know that. For all she knew I was one of those people to watch out for. Oh, those ones. Yes. For all she knew I was…odd.
And I kept gushing but inside, really, I was kicking myself under the table. “I’m a huge fan”? Ugh. I mean, this is not Stephenie Meyer we’re meeting and I’m not 13. No, this is Jessica Grant: calm, cool, genius Jessica Grant, who does not wear her matching sweater to every reading and book signing (I can’t even believe I asked about it). You do not gush like a fool, you do not show off how much you know about her—you beautifully articulate how much you loved her book and why you enjoy her writing. Punto e basta.
But I’d already started off wildly enthused and bumbling and there was no stopping me. In my defence (my poor friends were embarrassed, I think, by my behaviour) I have to say that none of it was exaggerated or dishonest. All day long I had been excited about meeting Grant, the author of Come, Thou Tortoise, my favourite book of the year. I truly felt as though I was in the presence of an amazingly talented woman (well, because I was) who possesses the power (times sixty) to imagine such incredible things and render those things with exactly the right words in unique and wonderful ways that speed their way directly to your heart. I am jealous of this. Time and again while reading I was struck by how beautifully the characters spoke and expressed themselves.
I wondered briefly—as I stumbled over my words and asked her to instead just read my review here on the blog and would she please maybe comment too and also sign my book and also take a photo or two with me—if she thought I was “too much.” She was so gracious and down-to-earth and calm. In comparison, I felt too in her face, too touchy, too scarily enthused, perhaps too strangely unlike most booklovers of literary fiction (you know the type).
To her credit she did not scrunch her face and back away slowly. So, then, meh, what of my geekiness, I decided. This is who I am: in love with this book and her writing, and extremely happy to be immersed in some way in the book culture again. I wish so much that more people would be this supportive, to be honest. Every author needs at least one person who believes in their book this way! If I were a published author, it would mean the world to me, and if someone liked my book I would not want them to be shy. I would not say no to a picture or two.
Anyway. To my disappointment, there were not a lot of people there. Sigh. O Belleville: once again you disappoint me. How can I open a bookshop in this atmosphere? Then I decide, no, this is exactly the atmosphere I want because then I have a heroic mission; I can wake up Belleville and get them excited about our Canadian authors. Excited times ten.
When we finally got started, I found myself desperately wanting Grant to feel comfortable and accepted and appreciated—and I worried for nothing, in spite of the number of people who showed. She was undaunted, good-natured, professional, smooth, and unwavering. She gave us background on the book, answered questions she said people mostly asked her, and then read to us the first two chapters. I wanted her to keep going. I would have sat there till she’d finished all 412 pages, to tell the truth. She read well and elicited much laughter, and later applause. It was almost as though I was hearing the book for the first time.
Then Grant fielded questions from those in the audience. She spoke about her writing insecurities and about certain fears and how she’s transferred some of those fears into the book, particularly flying (which she both loves and fears: imagine being killed by something you love. Imagine that something not loving you back. Imagine). She answered the inevitable autobiographical question (no, Oddly is not anyone in particular but, yes, she shares some characteristics with Grant). She discussed Winnifred and how the irresistible tortoise sort of appeared later as she was writing, and she described the misgivings she had had about writing a talking tortoise (would it be too Walt Disney. No.), and how Winnifred is another (more intimate) look into Oddly and Cliff and Chuck and Linda.
Grant also carefully addressed the relationship between Walter Flowers and Uncle Thoby, asking first for the question to be clarified. What exactly did they want to know? It was obvious Grant did not want to give too much away, did not want to impose any interpretation over another’s, perhaps did not want to enter into a discussion about possibly gay relationships. This was wise on her part, I thought—that is, to deliberately keep things ambiguous. Grant’s mentioned before that the book doesn’t answer all the questions for the reader. Oddly asks some but also doesn’t think to ask others, and as much as Oddly fancies herself a kind of detective, this was no Flavia de Luce novel. Ambiguity, for me, is what makes a book rereadable.
I wish I’d thought more ahead of time about questions to ask, good ones, not silly ones, and I’ll probably think of them later, knowing me. I also wish I’d taken pen and paper so I could have written what she’d said so I could have quoted her here.
But I did find, thankfully, that much of what she said I’d read elsewhere. And because what she expressed is important, I’ll share it with you so you can read it for yourself, in her own words. Below you’ll find links to some of Grant’s National Post guest editor pieces, and also a bonus short story, excellent of course, called “Humanesque.” Plus, I’ve included a link to Random House’s New Face of Fiction page for Jessica. At the bottom is a video in which she says some of what we heard in person tonight. Read, too, on BookLounge’s blog, how one book club honoured Grant and her book.
Oh, and one more (important) thing. Grant is working on a new novel. No, I have no clue what it’s about. She won’t say. And no, it does not have a tortoise in it (yet) and it is not a sequel to Come, Thou Tortoise. I do not know if the wind sings in B flat or if swans search for the bottoms of ponds (Can you see the bottom. No. Can you.) or if there are magical strings of Christmas lights in this new book. I doubt it.
But I can’t doubt there will be cleverness and humour and wordplay and tenderness and beauty in her new book. Even without a tortoise and a girl like Oddly, and even without planes and kissing pilots or horses’ hooves that are like exposed hearts, I would not say no to a new book by Jessica Grant.
Before she left, I did what I felt compelled to do, as I had done with her book when I finished it: I hugged her. Thank you, I said. She said it was nice to meet me. And then, as she walked away, she looked over her shoulder and added, making my night: I’ll never forget you. And I don’t mean that in a bad way.
I just read the best book of the year. Brilliant. Tender. Unique. Innocent. Imaginative. Funny. Heartrending. Beautiful.
If there is only one book you’ll allow yourself this week or this month or even this year, make it Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant. Truly, there is no book like it. With those few words above you might already feel compelled to buy and read it. You might also, as I do, really want a tortoise after.
Come, Thou Tortoise is the story of Audrey (nicknamed Oddly) Flowers. It is also the story of Winnifred, her extraordinary tortoise; Wedge, a rescued mouse; Audrey’s scientist father and her asymmetrical Uncle Thoby; and also others, who for Shakespearean and Grantian reference we’ll call “extras,” though they all play some part in forwarding things along and aren’t really extra at all. The book brilliantly treats past, present, and future, history and biography and science, the personification of animate and inanimate subjects, love and abandonment, light and dark, life and death. Its themes are rich, the characterization richer. Grant’s expression of human emotions and understanding is exquisite. The book is raw yet delicate, humorous yet poignant. And it’s illustrated, which makes it more endearing.
Here I gave my first impression of Grant’s book. Only moments ago I finished Come, Thou Tortoise, with a lump in my throat and the feeling that I want to squeeze the author to me with deep appreciation and thanks and admiration (I may do this on Tuesday when she comes to the library. Will she bring a tortoise. I would if I were her). Instead I put the book to my chest and sense its heartbeat. It feels as though it’s a living, breathing thing I need to take care of, that’s how alive it was. When I flip through it again, wishing it looked more read so she will know that I really read it and not just read it but loved it (that will come in time, I promise you), I scan the bits of praise at the front and find them sadly bland in comparison to how I feel just now. What is wrong with people, I’m thinking. Why do these endorsements all sound the bloody same in every book. At least one of them said “tortoise de force” instead of tour de force.
I enjoy novels all the time. I rarely regret a purchase. But there are those very rare books out there that become priceless and the pittance you paid in comparison to their value makes you feel guilty or weird for even having purchased them in the first place, not regret but as though paying for the item cheapens it, like how I feel looking at Lucy, our dog, when I remember we actually bought her for $550. That’s weird, to pay for a family member so dear.
Not that I feel toward this book the way I do about my dog. But it is definitely my favourite book of the year so far, possibly of several years. I haven’t read a book I felt was perfect in a long time. I’m a critical reader, and a copyeditor, and I’ve read many, many books, for a very long time. So perfect is a word I use carefully, if ever. And this book, I do not hesitate to say, is perfect. Honestly, I can’t think of a thing I’d criticize. Even if there are things. This first time around, I didn’t notice. I was too engrossed. I didn’t care to notice.
I will admit that I didn’t buy this novel the first day I picked it up. For some reason, the title annoyed me (this so totally changes when I understand it that I have to take a moment before I can continue reading), and when I opened the book and read the first few pages, I didn’t think I’d be able to tolerate the style. But when I picked it up again, I remembered my experience with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I had put that book down immediately after reading the first page. But something in me couldn’t resist, and when I picked it up the second time, I ate that book up like it was the best book of the year too. And then it was on Oprah and also won the Pulitzer. I have impeccable taste. What happens is you realize the style is exactly the style it needs to be. It works. It’s…perfect.
At a hefty 412 pages, Come, Thou Tortoise is nothing short of genius to be able to constantly impress and surprise a reader the way Grant does with this book. Her witty and clever wordplay, her well-wrought sentences, her unusual similes and metaphors, her excellent characterization, especially of Audrey and Winnifred, and the things they observe and say and how they surprise you, Audrey’s endearing personification of inanimate objects and how she chats with animals, how absolutely related everything is (there is nothing unnecessary, nothing forgotten, everything is so well tied together), how cleverly wrought—all this makes me want to say this book is perfect. It’s scary, but I don’t take it back. Every bit of the story, as non-linearly told as it is, is so connected, so well woven, that you can hardly remove a sentence to quote without feeling that something will be lost, that the person won’t get it without reading the rest. And yes, this to me is a good thing. Absolutely nothing is irrelevant. It’s tight. 412 pages shocked me because I had no concept of how long it was. It doesn’t look long and it certainly didn’t feel that way.
Many times throughout I marvelled at how well-written this story was, how carefully chosen the words, how perfectly placed the segments and chapters were. Either Grant is a brilliant writer or her copyeditor is a genius. Probably both. Whatever, the book makes me teary with jealousy. How, I asked myself a gazillion times while reading and finally of my husband when I put down the book, did Grant do this her first time? How does a first novel end up so brilliant? How can I do that, too? Because now I know it’s possible.
Come forth, I say! there’s other business for thee:
Come, thou tortoise! when?
I decided to be brave and record my review of Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book. I did it for the Keepin’ It Real Book Club, one of my favourite book blogs to read and one of the only ones I really participate in. They’re currently doing a month-long show of book video reviews for Keep Toronto Reading. My book twin Jen Knoch has written up a flattering introduction to my vid, too. She has kindly ignored my unshoweredness and the funny disembodied hand on my neck (it’s my own, thank goodness). I was leaning my arm across the back of my couch. But anyway. All self-consciousness aside, okay.
People of the Book is one of my favourite novels, and it’s stuck with me for a very long time. It even inspired me to look up book repair courses. I haven’t signed up for them, but anyway. It’s still an interest.
There’s more I could have said, more I could have said much better. I highly recommend this book. It stuck me on such an emotional level that I find it difficult to articulate why I liked it so much. Mainly, my appreciation as a bibliophile for books deepened, and my feelings towards the books on my own shelves also grew, though I didn’t know that was possible. I already think of my books as little souls, but now I see them as characters in my life with their own histories. Who touched my books before I did. What hands did they pass down through, from making to my purchase, especially the second-hand ones. Think about it.
Without further ado, here is the video. I’ll make better ones as I go on, I promise. It will be useful here and for Biblio, when the time comes, which it will.
A while ago I posted about impulse buying Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Piefrom our local grocery store. The cover is what got me first, but also I hadn’t delved into a mystery in eons, though I can’t think of why. Growing up I swallowed mystery novels whole, from Encylopedia Brown, to Trixie Belden, to Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and the Three Investigators, to Agatha Christie and others.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is the first in a series of six mysteries (the second book, The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag, was just released), and is Alan Bradley’s first novel. With only fifteen pages, Bradley attracted Doubleday and now has several other publishers on board for the series. Those same fifteen pages, all he’d written at the time, won him the acclaimed British Crime Writers’ Association’s Debut Dagger Award, and the book has gone on to win many other accolades since.
Now 70 and residing in Malta, where my parents live (had I the cash on hand and the free time, I’d visit my parents and have a chat with him! He’s actually on beautiful Gozo, Malta’s sister island), Bradley has previously authored two non-fiction books—the controversial Ms. Holmes of Baker Street(which apparently suggests Sherlock Holmes was a woman!), and a memoir calledThe Shoebox Bible. After reading Sweetness and feeling a sort of inexplicable kinship with Bradley, I’m sure I’ll read at least his memoir.
Literature is blessedly speckled with headstrong, intelligent, and spunky young girls who are both brilliant and hilarious, and I can’t tell you how much this thrills me. (Another debut novel that promises such a character is Mathilda Savitch, by Viktor Lodato. It’s on my wish list!) But none I can recall, from Harriet the Spy to Nancy Drew, compares with the clever, imaginative, and irresistibly lovable eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, an “aspiring chemist with a passion for poison,” who possesses a level-headedness that shames me and a unique way with words (not to mention, though I’m just about to, her own fan page!). Very soon after I began reading, I was laughing aloud, admiring the turns of phrases and original similes, and thoroughly enjoying our narrator’s extraordinarily mature yet believable voice. At the same time as Flavia is wise beyond her years, Bradley reminds us of our young character’s age with incidences of sibling rivalry, getting into trouble, adventures with her “sidekick” bicycle (affectionately named Gladys), and poignant vulnerability.
Although I thought the mystery well set up, I admit there were several times I was pulled out of the story, being for some reason hyperaware of the author behind the writing. This had nothing to do with Flavia possessing knowledge and a vocabulary beyond her years: I fully accepted that, since her background, independence, and two “weird sisters” lent to the story in this respect, and I very much enjoyed learning from her about chemical compounds and their effects. I think it may have been the fact that I felt things sometimes a tiny bit contrived, as they can be in mysteries. Things might unravel just a little too neatly, or the investigator comes far too easily to conclusions that seem to come out of nowhere. On the other hand, this may have been purposeful: there were indeed times when I felt, along with Flavia, sure of myself in deducing what was going on only to be pleasantly surprised.
I was thrilled, because of my love of England, that the book was set there, in a small village called Bishop’s Lacey,which reminded me of several places I visited in North Yorkshire last year. The particularly English vocabulary and expressions made me smile, and although it is possible for this story to be placed elsewhere, even in Canada, something about it being set in 1950s England gave the novel a distinct flavour that worked very well in terms of history, atmosphere, characterization, and of course subject, since the mystery centres on two valuable English stamps, particularly the Penny Black.
Another thing I very much enjoyed was that the novel was cleverly spotted with all sorts of vagueish literary and cultural references I actually got, endearing me all the more to the gloriously well-educated Flavia (and the author!) but also making me feel quite proud of myself, of course.
I’ve already sung Sweetness‘s praises to several friends, and I’ll sing them here as well. This is a first novel worthy of the attention it’s commanded by being memorable and sweet, intriguing and funny. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, I have to say, is deliciously rich.
Discussions on the Canada Reads book choices are underway, even though the CBC debates haven’t officially begun. I’m finding myself stimulated and wanting to be totally involved, and in reading reviews and listening to these discussions and commenting on other book blogs, I’ve also found myself quite dedicated to Nikolski, as much as I enjoyed a few of the others.
I’m wondering, having read quite a few uncertain reactions to the book, if people aren’t sure what to do with it. It doesn’t fit as neatly into the group of books as the rest of them, being first of all translated (though this isn’t the first translation on Canada Reads), which brings up the question a friend of mine asked about pitting dissimilar books against each other and thus comparing apples to oranges. Canada Reads has even included poetry in the group of books before, and this did leave me puzzled at the time. But I think the debates are not so much about technicalities as concepts and contribution to culture.
In addition to the translation aspect, the literary style of Nikolski seems to be leaving some readers feeling unravelled and lost. Which I have to say is exactly the point, in my mind. The style reflects very well the theme of the book, which is one of the things that make writing so wonderful. Think of how a poem’s structure needs to carefully marry its subject and theme. In the same way, Nikolski‘s looseness, the plot’s so-called elusiveness, mirrors the overriding theme.
In other words, the plot is probably feeling elusive for people at least partly because of how multi-layered the novel was. In the end, I think the book is about searching, belonging, finding purpose, forging identity, elusive things to begin with. I can think of so many other Canadian books with this theme, particularly one I read not too long ago: Nino Ricci’s excellent Origin of Species, also multi-layered and rich. Hmmm, I would have liked to see that book on Canada Reads, actually!
I believe the lack of a satisfying conclusion, another point often brought up, was also purposeful and it works for this book, especially in the sense that literature reflects life. Our stories continue. Any strong conclusion would have seemed too abrupt for me, I imagine. And like many readers, I too greatly anticipated the connected yet parallel characters meeting and when they didn’t it was disappointing, but also rather clever of Dickner. It might have been just too neatly done up for me if they had met. We have enough of that in movies. I’ve finally come to the point at which when authors don’t give me what I expect or want, I like it!
I have to say, this book is the one that sticks out most for me in the selection of Canada Reads books. The others are probably quite well-read by now, except perhaps Good to a Fault, and if there’s any book I would say Canada should be reading of the bunch—which I believe is the main point of the contest, to get Canada reading—it’s Nikolski. The style and prose are masterful, in my opinion, especially exhilarating because this is a debut novel, but the book also really captures the depth of what it apparently means to be Canadian—searching for identity and belonging. And the fact that it’s translated from the French offers up that extra little bit of Canadianness.
I love stories in which various unlikely characters are tied together in some way and often, as the reader hopes, come together, even if only briefly. The ways in which human beings find themselves somehow connected is fascinating to me. Often, too, these stories are told from the perspective of each main character; I’ve always enjoyed this. I can think of several books presented in this way, from Carol Shields‘s brilliant Happenstanceto Julian Barnes’s humourous Talking It Over.
As for the unlikely characters and the strings of objects and/or events linking them together, look at Nick Hornby‘sA Long Way Down, in which four people find themselves surprisingly met in a strange location—the rooftop of Topper’s House in London—where each had previously decided, before they saw the other, to privately commit suicide. More recent is A School of Essential Ingredients, by Erica Bauermeister, in which eight strangers gather together for a cooking class and become transformed and connected through the art of creating and preparing food.
Nikolskiby Nicolas Dickner, the 2008 Governor General’s Award winner for translation, is one of these books in which strings of events, objects (a compass that points only to Nikolski, a Frankenstein of a book with no face, fish, books, and the sea), and themes (namely, archeology and history and pirates), as well as one man, Jonas Doucet, link 3 young people.
Told from the perspective of each, the story unfolds in a surprisingly original way, with humourous yet touching prose as Noah, Joyce, and an unnamed bookseller come from distant places in search of meaning and purpose, but either end up meeting or coming so close as to pass like ships in the night. Added elements of magic realism, which I especially enjoyed, make the story all the more compelling and wondrous. Dickner even acknowledges the unlikely by blatently labelling it so, which adds to the humour (you can tell he was having writerly fun): an apology of sorts without apologizing. The description of the Book with No Face was so excellent I read it aloud to my husband:
The book had followed an unimaginable trajectory. After several decades on the shelves of the library of the University of Liverpool, it had been stolen by a student, been passed from hand to hand, escaped two fires, and then, left to its own devices, returned to the wild. It had crossed thousands of kilometres in various bags, travelled amid the cargo in damp crates, been thrown overboard but continued on its way in the acidic belly of a whale, before being spat out and retrieved by an illiterate deep-sea diver. Jonas Doucet finally won it in a poker game in a Tel Aviv bar one intemperate night.
Its pages were brittle, spotted with countless small rust-coloured specks, and if you buried your nose in it you could detect vegetation patiently endeavouring to colonize the depths of the paper. Not only was this Noah’s one book, but it was also one of a kind, bearing a host of distinctive signs. In the middle of page 58, for instance, there was a large, brownish bloodstain. Between pages 42 and 43, a fossilized mosquito had made its home, a tiny stowaway flattened by surprise. And scribbled in the margin of page 23 was the mysterious word Rokovoko. (Vintage 2009, 28)
Much like the Book with No Face, the story itself is artfully pieced together, layered and complex, weaving in and out of time and space and perspective. We truly get a sense of loss and questing, of disorganization and looseness, of being adrift in the great world without much in the way of guidance. So much of me wanted to see these three people come into their own, find a sense of peace and belonging.
While reading this book I couldn’t help but keep thinking of Nino Ricci’s Origin of Species: I think it was the sense of learning, of myriad facts, of the ever-looming character of water, that caused this. That story, too, though, is richly layered and somewhat similar in theme; perhaps a study of the two would be an interesting paper! (Alas, those days for me are long past.)
I also have a soft spot for translated literature, and this book, masterfully translated from the French by Lazar Lederhendler, blew me away with its beautifully rendered prose. The words seemed so carefully chosen, the text so seamless and smooth, without a trace of awkwardness, that it was though it had been originally written in English. I regret not having kept up with my French enough to be able to read the original work. But I do not feel I’ve missed out in any way. This is one book I’d recommend to anyone.
I bought this book last weekend and started and finished it within less than a day, at least technically speaking. It’s not exactly short, packing 339 pages, so this tells you something right away.
This is the first novel I’ve read by Ferguson (I’m reading his newest non-fiction book Beyond Belfast too, and have been really enjoying it, which is what prompted me to buy Happiness™ in the first place). Happiness™ , once titled Generica, won not only the Leacock Medal for Humour but also the Canadian Fiction Authors Association Award for Fiction. It was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize (Caribbean and Canada region) and has been translated into 26 languages around the world. And it’s published by Penguin Group as one of their (so far?) 15 Celebrations books. How could I resist?
That said, I had high expectations for this novel, and the good news is I wasn’t totally disappointed. I did get off to an uncertain start, however. I’m not sure if it was because perhaps I just wasn’t in the right mood (if so, I was unaware), or whether or not I was too tired (quite possible), but I just couldn’t find flow in the novel at first and I couldn’t pinpoint whether it was me or the author.
I wondered if Ferguson, an experienced and no doubt talented writer, was having a hard time finding his pace or voice, or, rather, the voice of the narrator, this being his first piece of fiction. A few times I confused the narrative voice for Ferguson’s own; I couldn’t quite straighten out the point of view. I wondered if perhaps it was just that I wasn’t getting a clear sense of the protagonist, Edwin de Valu (significant last name??) (not a clear sense at first, anyway, but peeks at his inner thoughts, which were often contrary to his actions, helped develop him). I’m unsure.
A large part of it, I will say, was that I couldn’t read without copyediting (being a copyeditor myself), which I found wholly ironic, since de Valu is an editor. I wish I had written examples to give, but I thought the text definitely needed to be further fine-tuned, which could easily be done without messing with voice or style. I also found myself wondering why this particular book was chosen for one of the few Penguins Celebrations books.
Nevertheless, I didn’t once consider giving up. I just couldn’t stop turning the pages, especially after a certain manuscript turned up on de Valu’s desk and I knew it was going to be significant. The setting itself, a publishing house, and that de Valu was an editor were already reasons I bought the book. My curiosity grew, as did Ferguson’s momentum, and sooner than later I was more easily ignoring all else but the story.
True to its promise, the book did make me laugh aloud at parts. As a humorist, Ferguson is a keener for satire, for self-reflexive fun, and even blatantly pointing the finger at people and things, from the publishing world, to editors, to authors, to particular people, and especially to, of course, the self-help culture and its advocates (here he shows no mercy, and it’s quite funny!). Ferguson’s knack for recognizably hitting the nail on the head but doing it tongue in cheek was impressive and enjoyable.
There were quite a few times I felt that things got a little too ridiculous (sometimes I even felt Ferguson was a little…immature in an attention-grabbing way)—again, I wish I had written down examples to give—but given the premise, that the end of the world begins because a self-help book actually works and everyone becomes happy, the rest is forgivable. Truth is, though everything seemed far-fetched (some things more than others, not even so much the main idea), one can’t ignore the fact that the world is currently run by our unhappiness, our quest for rather than realization of happiness. In that case, how crazy is the idea that if we did all become happy, things would grind to a halt? (You’ll have to read the book to hear the argument! Edwin the editor is quite convincing!)
Not until de Valu makes the crucial decision to hunt down the author of the world-changing self-help book do things truly start to pick up. At this point, I was going for broke; regardless of the time and my increasing nausea (nothing to do with the book, I hasten to add; I get that way when I stay up too late!), I couldn’t put down the book. Dialogue was already strong throughout but when Edwin finally meets the author and confronts him, what follows is an extremely stimulating, thought-provoking, surprising, and clever exchange. By this time, Ferguson has clearly found his stride as a fictional author and is wholeheartedly and successfully showing us what he’s made of.
And while I never doubted his talent (Beyond Belfast is excellent), I’m still relieved to say I am—dare I say it?—happy to include this book on my shelves. I’m quite certain I’ll read it again at some point and give it even more thought. With it’s actually serious religious, economic, philosophic, ethical, and even anthropological insights, this is definitely a book that invites discussion. Accustomed as we are to watching and reading protagonists in films and books save the world from despair and restore happiness, Edwin de Valu, arguing that we need unhappiness to survive, seems the anti-hero. But not so much when during his (excellently written) encounter with Jack he convincingly states:
Who are we, Jack? Who are we? We’re not our bodies. We’re not our possessions or our money or our social status. We are our personalities. Our foibles, our quirks, our eccentricities, our frustrations, and our phobias; remove these and what do you have? Nothing. Just happy, mindless human shells. Blank eyes and bland expressions, Jack. That’s all I see now…Soon everyone will talk the same, smile the same, think the same. Individual personalities are becoming less and less distinct. People are vanishing…You’re a murderer. (original emphasis)
Without doubt, there’s as much exploration of serious themes as humour in Happiness™. Perhaps a great one for your next book club?