April and May 2013 – Part 2

April and May, 2013 (Continued)

The Purchase, Linda Spalding
419, Will Furguson
Seige 13, Tamas Dobozy

Stars in the Triple Crown
In my previous post I mentioned the conundrum presented by two novels telling of the same historical events yet telling two such different stories.
Another challenge I set myself in early April was to read each of the most recent fiction winners of CanLit’s prize season triumvirate: the Giller; the Writer’s Trust; and the Governor General’s Award. I began with the Giller winner, Will Ferguson’s 419, but almost immediately set it aside. It’s not fair at the moment to comment more. I will come back to 419 I know, one day when I’m in the mood for a rattling good yarn, because so many have told me that’s what it is. And perhaps when I get further into it, my own view of it will settle down. Meanwhile, there was so much chopping and changing at the start, so many short scenes — like being fired-at by ping pong balls — that the style sent me running. I am curious to read it, perhaps in the relaxed hammock-days of summer, because I am curious to see what qualities brought this novel Canada’s most highly-touted literary award, particularly when compared with the depth and resonance of the other two stars on last season’s prize-winning tiara….

Tamas Dobozy’s Seige 13, winner of the Writer’s Trust award, (a collection dealing with repercussions — in the past or in the immediate present — of the siege of Budapest by the Red Army in 1944) lured me in almost immediately, though these are difficult stories: choking accounts of past horror and betrayal and of the stain that has spread into the lives of many of today’s Hungarian-Canadians who carry shards and echoes within themselves — guilts and sorrows — reflected or personal and ingrained. And these fictional characters are also often neighbours, I realized, these are friends, this is the inner life of so much of Canada indeed, in its many iterations – not just those with invisible cords leading back to central Europe but to so many other parts of the world.
And what a debt we owe to writers like Tamas Dobozy for leading us, willing or not, into those interior lands with such bravery.

Ah, and again betrayal: this time a well-meaning man’s betrayal of his own religious beliefs and moral code, and (again) the stain that spreads – this time from an almost accidental act (the purchase of a slave) as it brings disaster to his children and grandchildren…. This is Linda Spalding’s The Purchase, which, above all, plunged me into the reality of life on the Virginia frontier in the very early days of the U.S. establishing itself as a country, in circumstances where the right moral decisions can often be as hard to discern as the wooded fields are to plough.
This is a novel studded with moments where the reader wants to say, “Don’t do it,” to the characters (and particularly to Daniel Dickenson, the widowed father caught up in circumstances that are repeatedly almost beyond his control). “Don’t do it!” or “Why did you do it?” as again and again the hardness of his Quaker ethic collides with what seems like simple humanity; and fatal mistakes roll down the generations. It is a novel where even the telling is studded with lacunae, like the gaps in the thought-processes of the characters themselves and in their communication with one-another: the mystery of their ruinous decisions left to bob just under the consciousness the reader, like potent images in a poem.
Of the three awards under discussion, I now note that the Governor General’s is the only one that has the word “literary” in its title, and Spalding’s novel strikes me as embodying important qualities that go beyond even great story-telling, evocative writing, deep human insights, unforgettable scenes, in the way it raises that most human of conundrums: that in life there are always more questions than answers.
And out of all of that Spalding also allows us the satisfaction of a subtle glint of hope, even though slim as the palest trace of moon, “…waiting to take back the sky.”

In my next post I will say just a bit about the remaining novels on my April/May list.
To check out previous posts, please click on the “subject titles” at the very top of this page (in small black type). These are individual clickable links that lead to other “Recent Reading” pages.

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