LAKSHMI GILL's The Third Infinitive (TSAR, 17 3 pages, $12.95 paper) is the first-person portrait of a precocious girl growing up in the Philippines during the 1950s. Jazz, the youngest of three daughters of a well-to-do family, tells about all the things that touch her life, so that the book reads almost like a tour through her own consciousness. Fortunately, there are plenty of ideas and facts and experiences Churning about inside that head. She concerns herself with the history and culture of the Philippines, wealth, boys, class, the Catholic Church, colonialism, and America. The minutiae of the lives of Jazz and her family and friends are exquisitely tendered. Gill makes her Young protagonist exceptionally insightful as well as witty, and just obtuse enough on occasion to be credible (and funny). "Sis One," going through a religious phase heavy with Social Responsibility, explains to Jazz about the generosity of the poor: "'But how do You know so much about the Wretches?' I asked her. I had read Les Miserables and I glorified the poor into Wretches."
The book is constructed as if from a diary, with little discrimination between the trivial and the meaningful, which gives it a degree of verisimilitude, but drams some intensity. Moreover, the structure is tangential and meditative, one fact or action spinning off into a series of related ideas. Thus, though the hook is divided into chapters, it reads more like themes and variations than like a connected narrative.
In the prologue to Victoria Stoett's Wisteria (Mercury, 158 pages, $14.50 cloth) two children wait by a roadside for their mother, who at length joins them, and they begin to walk down the road. The story is, in one sense, a mystery: the reader must he brought to understand what this scene means, how it comes to happen. That means learning who the characters are, and how they are connected to a network of other people. The mother, it turns out, is Loretta, and eventually we learn something about her parents, and about her marriage to Bobby. Then we go back a step, to discover how Loretta came to be as she is, and how Bobby is, and how Bobby came to be that way. The result is an inter-generational tragedy, a tangled web of abuse and betrayal.
This device, a kind of information striptease, gives the book a certain momentum. Carried through an entire novel, however, it does not wear well. Moreover, the Story's Southern US setting is so generalized that it never seems real, which helps to keep the reader at a distance from characters who are already sufficiently dreamlike. Thus, despite its painful subject, I found that the book did not touch me deeply. Having said this, it is necessary to add that Stoett is a fine prose stylist, and that despite its limitations Wisteria is frequently a pleasure to read.
There is no faulting Wilma Riley's Cut-Out (Coteau, 242 pages, $14.95 paper) for lack of narrative. On one level this is a straightforward novel of espionage, set in the 1960s against a background of the struggle to control Algeria. At the centre of the story is Lena I who just happens to be a double for a French operative. Lena, who is very unhappily married, is also very smart, and an accomplished impersonator. When her double -- not surprisingly -- dies, Lena is recruited by the charming leader of the French intelligence team. There is a plot involving a shipment of uranium, secret rendezvous, car chases, and shoot-outs.
Fortunately, this is not the whole story, perhaps not even the main one though it is hard to say which is text and, which subtext. As Lena works to liberate Algeria from its colonial control, she also begins to reflect on herself as a colonized person, married to an abusive (i.e. imperialistic) husband. Riley does not attempt to be subtle. Lena herself thinks in terms directly linking her lives as a spy and as a wife. And its not as though this is an original observation. But the book is inventive in its explicit linking of international and domestic liberation. The novel's twinned plots are creaky, with their mix of predictability and unlikeliness. And the characters are wooden. But there is enough Suspense to keep the pages turning, and it's impossible not to cheer for Lena as she comes to consciousness.
Like Cut-Out, M. P. Martin's A Little Bit of Heaven (Mosaic, 195 pages, $14.95 paper) also blends the political and the personal. Seamus Murphy returns to his Belfast home after 10 years away, to attend the funeral of his younger brother, Patrick Joseph, a recent martyr to what Martin calls "The Cause." It is very soon evident that the murdered brother was a mere thug, duped and controlled by the criminals who are his IRA comrades and superiors. While the reader is exposed through Seamus to the bleak realities of Northern Ireland, the novel's more explicit message is manifested in the character of the boys' father. Francis Murphy had been something of a local hero in the earlier struggle for Irish independence, and it is plain that he was and is a man of ideals and integrity.
While the story holds some sociological and historical interest, it is not impressive as fiction. The use of father and son to symbolize and contrast the older, more idealistic struggle and the current mode of criminal warfare is a bit too bald and obvious. The characters, moreover, do not rise much above their symbolic roles. Finally, and sadly, it is hard for any fiction about Northern Ireland to match the pathos and horror of the news.
The more peaceful setting of Grogan's Cafe (Harbour, 2 3 8 pages, $16.95 paper), by Peter Trower, is the togging camps of the British Columbia coast in the 1950s. In fact, that's more than the setting, it's the book. There is a story of sorts. Young Terry Belshaw accompanies his older brother to his first logging camp. After a time, and some unhappy adventures, they leave that camp, and then split up, and Terry works in another camp, and also at Grogan's Cafe, and has a love affair, and runs afoul of some rough customers, and then somebody gets killed, and Terry helps fight a forest fire, and the book ends. The story, in other words, is just one damn thing after another. But the book is not about the story, it's about the camps and the people who worked in them, and it's about the language of logging. There is, in fact, a glossary of logging terms, and the careful reader would probably be able to pass a written exam on how to be a logger.
Grogan's Cafe is pleasant if not compelting reading, and it does give the reader some sense of what the work must have been like. The characters are not likely to haunt a readers imagination. But as social history with a dollop of fiction to make it palatable, it's pretty good. And Trower, who has published eight books of poetry, uses the words of the job with a gusto that's hard to resist.
Michael Wex's Shlepping the Exile (Mosaic, 137 pages, $14.95 paper) is about growing LIP Jewish In Coalbanks, Alberta. The narrator, Yoine Levkes, is a kid with a smart mouth and a great car for dialogue. He is also a keen observer of the gentile Culture around him, and of the contrast with his own Culture of home and family. Yoine is, in addition, a growing boy with a healthy -- that is to say heated -- interest in sex.
Like a very shaggy dog story, this book takes so many side-trips that at times it's hard to know which is the main stream and which the tributary. One result is that in the end there seems to have been no forward motion -- while Yoine has to endure some of the serious pains of growing Lip, lie doesn't seem to have changed at all. But Wex is a witty, sharp-eyed writer, and the trip itself, not the destination, is surely the point of the book. Wex's free and frequent use of Yiddish may cause difficulties for some readers; tile glossary at the end of the book, though not comprehensive, is a help.
There are some very likeable things about Gillean Chase's Triad Moon (Gynergy/Ragweed, 187 pages, $9.95 paper). It's a story about love and awareness among three women, Brook, Lila, and Helen, each of whom herself drawn to the other two. All three are attractive characters, and their love story is strongly and directly homoerotic without being either defensive or aggressive. But the writing tends frequently towards cliche, and the book's New Age philosophy is so omnipresent and so earnest as to be offputting for the reader who does not share the holistic, witchy faith.