A finalist for the Giller Prize, River Thieves, by Michael Crummey (Doubleday Canada, 335pp, $34.95, ISBN: 0385658109) is a historical novel set in Newfoundland, primarily in the early 1800s. David Buchan, a British naval officer has orders to make friendly contact with the Beothuk Indians, known as Red Indians because they dye their bodies with ochre clay. He approaches the Peyton family for help; John Sr. is a fierce old man known to hate the Indians, while his son John Jr. is sympathetic toward the dwindling numbers of Beothuk. The Peytons clash frequently over what is seen by John Sr. as a weakness in his son. The Peytons housekeeper is the educated and independent Cassie Dure. It is ultimately Cassie's relationships with the three men that are the underpinnings of this fine novel. The climate is like a dominating character in the story, one shivers, feeling the bitter winds, the snow, the ice, the constant chill, and marvels that anyone would want to visit, let alone live there. The first expedition ends in tragedy for Buchan's party. A few years later a second expedition led by John Jr. results in the kidnapping of a Beothuk woman and two murders. Buchan is sent to investigate. At this point we find that a great deal of information has been withheld from the reader. The time line is occasionally difficult to follow. Even though these characters live for years in isolation they do not open up to each other, and their secretive ways are ultimately their undoing. However, Crummey writes elegantly of the lives of these complex characters, and the history of Newfoundland is painlessly disseminated. One of the best and brightest novels of the year.
Another finalist for the Giller is Stanley Park by Timothy Taylor (Knopf Canada, 423pp, $34.95, ISBN: 0676973078) in which there is a very strange conglomeration of almost unrelated events. Jeremy, a young continentally trained chef and looking for his first big break, goes deeply in debt to open his own restaurant, The Monkey's Paw. Meanwhile, Jeremy's father, a somewhat unhinged anthropology professor, is involved in a long-term project that has him living permanently with the homeless in Stanley Park. The villain is named Dante, the owner of Dante's Inferno, a chain of coffee shops very much like Starbucks. The Monkey's Paw is popular but only marginally successful and as debts mount Dante offers to buy Jeremy out. Eventually Jeremy is forced to sell and Dante becomes his employer, redesigning The Monkey's Paw into Gerriamo's, a pretentious yuppified restaurant where everything, including the name and the colors of the food, is determined by market research. Jeremy, who has become enmeshed in his father's eccentric research project involving a real-life case in which two children were actually murdered in Stanley Park in 1947, is a rebel at heart, and in a dazzling climax on opening night at Gerriamo's feeds the rich and snooty a combination of ingredients they are not expecting. The business about Stanley Park then fades into the background; there is a sort of happy ending, that is not believable, but then neither are most of the events in the novel. Bloated at 400+ pages, there are whole chapters and a number of characters that could easily be cut. An odd and quirky novel, competently written, with an equal number of pluses and minuses.
The Confessions of Nipper Mooney by Ed Kavanagh (Killick Press, 322pp, $19.95, ISBN: 1894294289), has a beautiful cover photo by Ned Pratt, and an outstanding cover design by Beth Oberholtzer, both of which are wasted on this huge clichT of a novel. The story follows Nipper Mooney from birth to high school graduation. Nipper is a small town Newfoundland boy attending a Catholic School where some of the priests are violent bullies, where boys break and form alliances, pull pranks, have doubts about religion, and questions about sex. I suspect the author is not a reader of contemporary adult fiction or he would know that this story has been told again and again and again over the years. Banal and unimaginative, I again suspect that only heavy doses of autobiography could make a story so uninteresting.
The God Who Begat A Jackal by Nega Mezlekia (Penguin Books, 275pp, $25.00, ISBN: 0141006625), begins with magic realism as startling as that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but the magic touch fades away quickly and the story becomes one of endless battles among brutal tribal and religious leaders in an African country. As in real life, in these poor, strife-torn countries, it is often difficult to tell who represents the legitimate government and who the insurgents (the book is a fictional retelling of some parts of Ethiopian history) and often it is difficult to care. There is a thread of a plot about two lovers kept apart by class and politics, but even though the writing is quite strong, particularly in the first half, the battles among petty tyrants attacking each other's walled fortresses all blend together.
Tell it Slant by Beth Follett (Coach House Books, 149pp, $17.95, ISBN: 1552450813), has the distinction of having the very worst line of all 2001 first novels: ". . . words like pelted tomatoes smash against the walls of my veins." Old time author and playwright Djuna Barnes appears as a character in this slight, sometimes too poetic novel; readers who do not know of Barnes are left out in the cold. The story takes place in Montreal, where Nora and her lover Robin share an apartment and a troubled, unhappy lesbian relationship. It is not much fun reading about drunken, self-absorbed people who whine a lot and are the cause of their own unhappiness.
It is never truer that one cannot judge a book by its cover than in Rogues & Vagabonds by Marilyn Lightstone (Stoddart, 316pp, $29.95, ISBN: 0773733205), where brilliant jacket design by Eric Graham, Jacket art by Heather Cooper, and Text design by Tannice Goddard supply the best cover of any first novel this year, and maybe the best jacket, period. I really wanted to like this book. Unhappily, the magnificent cover is pretty much wasted on a lackluster story. The plot, beginning in the 1960s, follows a group of young people relating how each becomes enamored of the theater, how they study at a Toronto academy, and perform at a Stratford-like Shakespearian Festival. There are conflicts about hiding one's sexual orientation in less forgiving times. Almost every time a sex scene come along the author becomes coy, and like in a Victorian novel the reader is left unsatisfied. We then move forward to the twentieth anniversary of the festival and see what has become of the characters over the years. The set-up takes far too long and the pace is too slow. With Lightstone, a Genie Award winning actress, coming from a theatrical background it is surprising that much of the dialogue falls off the page like chunks of concrete, and she makes the beginner's mistake of time and again telling us what happened instead of showing us what happened. Except for a final confrontation that ends in a dunking in a fountain most of the dramatic action unforgivably takes place off stage.
"The fate of Greekness is inescapable," says the God Dionysus, a character in Ariadne's Dream by Tess Fragoulis (Thistledown Press, 366pp, $21.95, ISBN: 1894345304), a very ambitious, highly complicated novel that is successful in almost every aspect. Montreal born Ariadne comes to Greece looking for love and adventure, and thinks she has found both when she meets a musician, Yannis, in Athens. But the Gods have other plans for her. We first meet Ariadne Hatzidakis as she steps off a ferry onto the island of Nysas after a ten-hour ride from Athens. She is starting over, heartbroken that her romance with Yannis has ended. She finds a job at a seedy jazz club called The Scat, and settles into wretched accommodations, first in the wine cellar of the club owner's house, then in the home of the town's goatherd who continually spies on her. She is treated like a slave by the club owner, and finds consolation in a few affairs that always end badly because she is still in love with Yannis. We then learn about her time with Yannis, who turns out to be a user in more ways than one. Every so often a narrator, like a Greek chorus, brings the story up to date. When Yannis leaves her for her best friend Medea, Ariadne leaves for Nysas. But the Gods are never satisfied and Yannis travels to Nysas where Ariadne welcomes him with open arms. The ending is not exactly happy, but Zeus is perturbed all the same, "...the young woman's escape from the ancient narrative was definitely part of a trend." The down side is that the novel is often verbose and repetitive, and in desperate need of an editor. Still, Fragoulis provides a memorable reading experience. ò
W. P. Kinsella recently returned from a 45-game Scrabble Tournament in Reno.