If Black Bird

by Michel Basilieres
310 pages,
ISBN: 0676975275


by Alissa York
332 pages,
ISBN: 0679311645

Ten Thousand Lovers

by Edeet Ravel
372 pages,
ISBN: 0755303709

Kalyna's Song

by Lisa Grekul
240 pages,
ISBN: 1550502255

When She Was Electric

by Andrea MacPherson
251 pages,
ISBN: 1551925966

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First Novels
by W.P. Kinsella

Mercy, by Alissa York, (Random House, $32.95, 332 pages, ISBN: 0679311645) is a strange, dark novel about terribly damaged people that has its own chilling charisma. There are two parts to the book and they come very close to being two separate novels. The first, which could be subtitled "Catholic Guilt", begins with a new priest, Father August, coming to the self-consciously named town of Mercy, Manitoba. The priest is a prissy, maladroit prig, the son of a town prostitute. His first duty in Mercy is to marry Mathilde, the orphaned niece of his housekeeper to the town butcher, a decent man who has no idea of the grief he's marrying into. For unfathomable reasons Mathilde is smitten by the priest, forces herself on him, withholds herself from her new husband, becomes pregnant, which sends the priest into hysterical denial. In a series of incredibly melodramatic events Mathilde and the priest succumb separately in a bog outside of town, leaving the baby to be rescued by a drunken scavenger who has built a house out of his empty drink bottles. The symbolism of butchery is as heavy-handed as I have ever encountered. No sooner does Father August tell of a martyr who has her breasts amputated, when his mother dies from breast cancer after successive mastectomies. So ends part one. Fifty-four years later a smarmy evangelical preacher stumbles into the bog, is temporarily blinded, and is captured by Bog Mary, the rescued baby who has lived all her life in the swamp.
The evangelist, who is planning a development that will drain the bog, has a 3-year-old autistic daughter, and the parts of the story she narrates are weak and unbelievable. The evangelist/developer may or may not survive his encounter with Bog Mary since the book ends before we know for sure. There is little sense of place, for in Manitoba where the four seasons are almost winter, winter, still winter, and construction, it is always summer in this story. It spite of its weaknesses, Mercy is well written, with a sense of the ominous always present, and it has a charm that makes these ravaged characters memorable

If Black Bird, by Michel Basilieres (Knopf Canada, $34.95, 310pages, ISBN: 0676975275), were a painting it would be called "Two Solitudes", by Picasso. Set in Montreal this is a giant mulligatawny of a novel, violent one moment, hilarious the next, full of impossible happenings, perhaps closer to the work of Tom Robbins, though influenced by Jarry and Robbe-Grillet.
To begin with, Grandfather is a grave robber. He sells his corpses to a mad Dr. Hyde, who is a Canadian Dr. Frankenstein. Grandfather has a new wife, and a house full of weird relatives. His grandson is a self-absorbed, talentless poet, who, of course, becomes successful. His granddaughter makes bombs and executes kidnappings for the FLQ. They all lives in a drafty Adams Family house, stealing gas and electricity from the funeral home next door. When the new wife realizes she has married into a family of criminals she says something to the effect that true crime doesn't pay. The black bird is a crow named Grace, who pecks out one of grandfather's eyes, though grandfather later learns to see through his glass eye. One of the granddaughter's bombs kills her other grandfather by mistake, causing her mother to go to sleep and stay asleep for months. The granddaughter's seditious political pamphlets get mixed in with the grandson's maudlin poetry and he gets arrested. There is a hit and run committed by the Quebec Premier, and the police, to cover up the event, bring the dead FLQ cell leader, the granddaughter's lover, to the grandfather to dispose of, which he does by selling the body to Dr. Hyde. Things spiral out of control when the Granddaughter kidnaps and murders a British diplomat and hides the body in the basement of Grandfather's house. Wild and unpredictable, crammed with black humor, it reads like a very entertaining fairy tale gone wrong.

When She Was Electric (Polestar, $21.95, 251pages, ISBN: 1551925966) is a delightful, poetic novel, set in the Nicolla Valley near Merritt, byAndrea MacPherson, another graduate of the UBC Writing Program. A granddaughter, Ana, tells stories of her mother, aunt and grandmother, beginning with her own birth in 1924. The grandmother's land adjoins an Indian reserve, and being ahead of their time in terms of both independence and tolerance, both sisters have involvements with men of the reserve, and later Ana also involves herself with an indian boy. The language is beautiful and the complicated emotions of three generations of women are delicately portrayed. My only quibble would be that thought there are many scenes at the old swimming hole, and numerous instances of lovemaking in the great outdoors, there is never a mention of the billions of black flies and mosquitos.

Ten Thousand Lovers, by Edeet Ravel (Review Press, $24.00 est, 372pages, ISBN: 0755303709), tells the story of a young Canadian woman, Lily, who while studying in Israel in the 1970s meets and falls in love with a handsome and charming Israeli man a few years older and a thousand times more worldly. Ami is a former actor, well loved by his friends, so obviously he has a terrible secret. He is is an interrogator for the Israeli army. He is not a soldier but a freelancer; the army makes an exception for him because he is so successful at what he does. He is able to extract information from prisoners through charm and finesse, whereas his colleagues are less successful using violence and torture. He is, of course, distrusted by his colleagues and even his superiors have doubts about him. Ami tries very hard to keep his two lives separate, but as his relationship with Lily becomes more serious he makes plans to find a new occupation. That proves easier said than done. He has been involved in top secret work, and the army is not about to let him go. Ami has a mother who is confined to a mental hospital; she abandoned reality after two of Ami's brothers died within a week of one another. The story begins in the 1990s in London where Lily is visited by her 20-year-old daughter who is studying dance in Belgium, and flashes back to her meeting and romance with Ami 20 years earlier. Throughout the book there are a series of mini lectures on the derivation of Hebrew and English words, which were of mild interest at the time, and I find that a week later I remember only one: Long ago in the Golan Heights there lived a group of thieves and murderers who toked up on hashish before going out on their raids. From hashish comes the word assassin. Ami has a mini breakdown as he repeatedly tries to sever ties with the army. The premise of the novel can be summed by a quote from Hendrik Hertzberg: "...torture is abhorrent not only for what it does to the tortured but for what it makes of the torturer." The writing is powerful and the sense of impending tragedy is ever present. A strong and compelling debut.

Kalyna's Song, by Lisa Grekul (Coteau Books, $18.95, 240 pages, ISBN: 1550502255), is the lively story of Colleen Lutzak growing up in an extended Ukrainian family in rural Alberta. Kalyna of the title is Ukrainian for Colleen, and Kalyna is Colleen's cousin, a mysterious woman who once had a family of her own but suffered a breakdown and now acts like a child. She loves Colleen's music and Colleen feels very protective of Kalyna. The story follows Colleen from a Ukrainian dance festival in Manitoba when she is a teenybopper, through high school, past an abortive attempt at university in Edmonton, to a year long stint as a scholarship student in Swaziland. Colleen is idealistic, hugely proud of her Ukrainian heritage, tough minded when she has to be, but definitely not into sex and drugs, as virtually every teenager has been in the last two years of first novels. She has to learn many of life's lessons the hard way, as she takes a long time to understand that some people are genuinely mean and small-minded. It has been a long time since a book moved me as much as this one. Three times I ended up dripping tears on the manuscript.¨first when Colleen forgets the words to Ave Maria at her music teacher's funeral and substitutes a Ukrainian funeral song, one meant to be sung by everyone, and as she struggles alone, her father, then her mother stand up and join her in song. The second instance was when Colleen is leaving for Swaziland. Her extended family do not really understand or approve of her heading for Africa, but her 7 aunts and six surviving uncles, their residences scattered about Northern alberta, all appear as a group to see her off at the Edmonton Airport. The third time was near the end when Colleen composes a song in honor of Kalyna. Throughout, the characters are very real, and situations are dramatic and touching. Kalyna's Song is the equivalent of 4-hanky movie, and I mean this in the most positive way.

W. P. Kinsella recently finished fourth at the Western Regional scrabble Championships in Reno.

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