book reviews


It’s not unheard of, but it’s not often you come across a marriage in which both partners are published novelists. Probably even less common is finding them published by the same house. Such is the case, however, with Esi Edugyan and Steven Price, who’s also a critically acclaimed poet. I’ve already reviewed Esi’s Half-Blood Blues, which I enjoyed immensely. And now, having also read Steven’s Into that Darkness, I can say that this family is jam-packed with talent. I can’t help but wonder what their baby daughter might produce in the future.

A mere couple of weeks after Japan’s devastating earthquake in March 2011, Into That Darkness was released. Eerily appropriate, considering this novel opens just before a similar cataclysmic event: a major earthquake that causes massive upheaval in BC’s Victoria. But what’s unique about this story is how it’s told, through several perspectives and through characters’ memories, which are presented almost as though the characters had been interviewed about the event many years later, as though we’re listening to old recordings. Memories, perhaps brought on by the earthquake, also serve to provide backstories for the characters, which does not detract or distract from the main plot but rather enriches it.

Arthur Lear is an elderly man when we meet him at the beginning of the novel, moments before disaster strikes. He goes about his normal business that morning, visiting his friend the tobacconist, ordering a coffee at the nearby café to drink in the square across. He notices the time, minute details around him. And when the café owner runs into the street to return his wallet, the first tremor occurs. And then it happens.

One gets the sense that time stands still. I don’t know if this is because of the quiet leadup to the sudden event or something to do with Price’s style, which is spare, poetic, artfully repetitive. Either way, I have goosebumps remembering the event as it happened in the novel.

Price’s writing is so powerful, his images so vivid, the story was almost too difficult to read, but it was also too compelling to put down. He spares us nothing: you will be trapped deep under rubble, you will see and smell a field of dead and decaying bodies, despair at the extent of wreckage, the weariness of emergency crews and volunteers, feel fear and anger when you meet looters and rogues taking the law into their own hands. You will be shocked (yes) by how quickly humanity can transform from civilized to depraved, stagger under the weight of darkness and chaos. You will marvel at Price’s ability to make words so true it’s a though you’re watching them as images rather than reading them.

In the coffee shop, Lear encounters a small boy, the son of the owner. After the earthquake, rescue crews, thinking Lear a doctor, enlist him to help in extracting bodies from under the wreckage. We already know that the boy and his mother are trapped under the café, that the mother is dying, that there is little hope. The rescue is fraught with desperation and danger, but they manage to pull out the boy. His mother is left for dead, and Lear takes the boy, Mason, home with him, where already there is a squatter in the house.

The rest of the story is the quest to find the boy’s sister and mother, since he believes they are alive—as it turns out, his mother is indeed also rescued after Lear has left, though no one can tell them where she is.  What follows is an examination of despair versus hope, corruption versus charity, darkness versus light.  Forms of the word “dark” are very often used throughout the novel. In fact, there were times when the prose style reminded me rather of a sestina, a poem in which the same six words occur throughout but at different points in the stanzas. And a bonus: poets focus on finding the best words possible to use because their space is limited but also for the sake of sound, rhythm, and aesthetics; thus, in this novel, the prose is sharp, flows exceedingly well, and I read several words I did not know.

Most of all Into that Darkness is a compassionate and piercing study of humanity’s instinct for survival and the desperate need to believe in good, redemption, freedom from the past, forgiveness, love, and the fact that it is possible to overcome what seems the very worst: disaster beyond reason and control.

It’s impossible, I think, to not think of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road when reading Into that Darkness. The styles are different but similar in their simplicity and insistence on employing only what is necessary. That’s the poet in Price, the use of concrete imagery and short, unadorned sentences, combined with rhythmic repetition.

He felt it in the small of his back, a sort of shiver. As if the cold teeth of a zipper were swiftly undone down his spine.

His fingers began to ache.

It came on.


It came on and pulsed shuddering up through the woman’s feet and knees and up through her hips and ribs and the woman where she stood leaned pitching in it like a figure in a storm. The café countertop rippling in her grip like so much ribbon in a wind.

There were times I felt the language too deliberate, too controlled, but for the most part, the style worked very well with the story. There is also a story within that’s told almost in a biblical style, an exploration of darkness and light again, the inevitable quest for God in such devastating disaster and depravity, and this too felt somewhat forced to me. Nevertheless, it fits because it serves to at least imaginatively bring forth the unavoidable question, which is always asked—Where is God in all this?—even by unbelievers at such times.

And while I say this book reminded me of McCarthy’s The Road, which I loved but at times felt I was not going to finish because I couldn’t see any hope, the darkness in this book is blended with slightly more obvious light, as is reflected by life in general, if only we learn to see both coexisting side by side.

Something in his voice arrested her and she leaned across and took his big cold hand in hers. Somewhere far off the faint clashing of cathedral bells could be heard. He rubbed at his face as if only just waking. A wind blew scurls of dust through the deepening intersection and a dark cat passed without sound in the street. The old man sat and she sat with him and they waited like that as if guests in a house not of their choosing. Which in a way they were. As are all the living in this world.

As you can probably guess, there is much more in this novel than the earthquake and its aftermath. Both are prominent but also serve as a backdrop for character studies, particularly of Lear. Price delves deeply into human nature, what it means to love and lose, remember and forget, forgive and understand, find purpose in a world where one feels adrift or foreign.

What Into that Darkness ultimately succeeds at is not only a terrifyingly real account of the aftermath of catastrophe, the reconciliation or rather balance between darkness and light, but also a needlesharp insight into the forgery of life as each of us knows it. In this sense, it’s not unlike Price’s spouse’s novel, Half-Blood Blues. Both novels masterfully demonstrate a deep understanding of human struggle and also a wondrous skill in compellingly and powerfully portraying it.


Thank you to Heather at Thomas Allen for generously sending me this book for review. Into that Darkness, by Steven Price, Thomas Allen, March 2011, 240 pp., paper.

book reviews

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?

—Shakespeare, The Tempest

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