“I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue,” is a quote I saw once. I forget who said it but I took it to heart.
The famed Miramichi River—Wayne Curtis’ boyhood milieu and part-time residence to this day—usually provides the setting for his expansive literary output. Its landscapes and inhabitants are Curtis’ regular canvas. The author portrays both the glorious beauty of the surroundings, andtheunrelenting hardships of living in an impoverished rural locale, with understanding, acceptance and a finely developed eye.
The 13 stories of Winter Road offer different interpretations of this duality. Curtis vividly recalls the past using an array of emotions and insights. At the heart of many of these works is a sense of melancholic longing for an alteration of past actions/circumstances. Protagonists rarely experience a more rewarding outcome. Reminiscence and regret are explored through backward glances at missed opportunities and unfulfilled dreams and aspirations.
Three of the stories are linked. They tellingly examine a couple at various stages of their enjoined and then separated lives.
First, they are returning to the narrator’s home town as youthful lovebirds. Later, the marriage has withered and the dreams of the narrator to refurbish his family home are dashed. His estranged wife lives there while he is exiled to a city apartment.
Finally, after decades away, he returns to ponder and consider his life while visiting the now derelict house.
Always, the ever-present beauty of the natural world is minutely, lovingly described by Curtis. Several of the stories have a singular, simple activity—burning potato stalks, picking apples, sleigh-riding at Christmas—as their basis. Curtis imbues them with a finely observed immediacy of nature and simultaneously, the humanity of those involved.
All his stories lay bare the souls of those who call the Miramichi home. They are regretful, unfulfilled, memory-laden and wistful in their telling.
Curtis’ obvious love for the place and the people shines through, sometimes shaded in nostalgia, sometimes burdened and often bloodied by life. But ultimately unbowed.
I’m all for narcissists, so long as they make it interesting. Murray’s protagonist, Milton Ontario, has convinced me that we may be dealing with a coming-of-age typhoon of the self, akin to that Greek hunter from Thespiae in Boeotia who fell in love with his own reflection.
“How such an outrageous idea—becoming a poet—comes to nest in the mind of an altogether, incredibly average man-child living in the middle of absolute nowhere was entirely an accident.”
I could listen to / read about this Milton character all day long.
Loaded with backstory upon backstory and fuelled with the spirit of (Yes Will, you are correct) Vonnegut, plus Hunter S Thompson, Mark Leyner and Will Self, this gigantic novel won’t shut up. We learn of Milton’s sick desire to become a poet and find his hero Leonard Cohen in Montreal, in the optimistic time when the possibility of America’s first Black president was still that—a possibility.
Reading this debut novel was like pulling an all-nighter and running to class without any sleep, with one obvious problem: you aren’t in school anymore and you’re wearing your pajamas, standing outside of the school and it’s the weekend.
Milton wanders ghost-like in Montreal in search of his hero and his sanity. At a job interview, Milton is asked if he has a high tolerance for monotony, to which he replies, “Yes, I’m from Saskatchewan.”
This book would make a great Canadian film starring Michael Cera. Refreshingly backlit with the nostalgia of Obama-era planet Earth, riffing on a myriad of contemporary themes including intergenerational tensions and anxieties, global economic frailty and the pursuit of young desire, Dirty Birds is the perfect misfit read for your next layaway, or when you’re down to your last shot of whisky. It provides days’ worth of warm, weird feelings.
Late last year, I spent a few days in Washington, DC, and was grateful to have the opportunity to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Its many powerful exhibitions walk the visitor from slavery through civil rights and up to present day times. To say “I had no idea,” would be an understatement. I left there changed by what I had learned about what African Americans have endured.
This experience was replicated for me when I read Tyler LeBlanc’s Acadian Driftwood: One Family and the Great Expulsion.
In the same way that I knew racism existed, but didn’t grasp the extent of the brutality suffered by African Americans, I also knew the basic facts of the Acadian Expulsion but really never thought of it as an ethnic cleansing.
Thanks to LeBlanc’s beautifully written book, brought alive in riveting detail, more of us will understand how the British tried to erase a people—the Acadians—from the landscape of the Atlantic region, and the horror these individuals experienced as their homesteads were destroyed and their families torn apart.
LeBlanc’s ancestors were one such family, but the author himself didn’t know of his Acadian roots until well into his adulthood. In his own words, LeBlanc says, “The surprising discovery set in motion a curiosity that plunged me into nearly four years of research and transformed the way I thought about identity, family, and the history of the place I call home.”
Readers will likely appreciate the book’s preface, which is a lovely nod to the Indigenous peoples of Canada, who were here before any of these settlers, Acadian or British. LeBlanc concedes that the story of the Acadian Expulsion is one small part of a much broader history that occurred within Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq people.
Through multiple viewpoints, all of which represent members of his family who were deported from their homeland, Acadian Driftwood sheds light on what happened to his ancestors—the ten children of Francois LeBlanc and Jeanne Hébert.
There was Bénoni, a farmer in Grand Pré in 1755, who was called to a meeting at the local Church along with all other Acadian men of the region. Surrounded by soldiers, the men were imprisoned in the Church for days, then marched to the shore and loaded onto boats while their wives and children watched.
There was Jacques and his wife Catherine, locked in the dark beneath the deck of a ship with hundreds of others, cramped and seasick. After a horrible three-week journey, during which many would have died of smallpox or dysentery, they arrived in Boston where the hostile locals shunted them to the outskirts of the city.
And there was Anne, who was deported by boat and ended up in quarantine in a “pesthouse” outside Philadelphia, where she watched friends and family, including her husband, die from deadly viruses.
This book is a work of creative nonfiction. LeBlanc uses his considerable skills as a writer to fictionalize more unknowable aspects of his relatives’ experiences, such as what they may have been thinking or feeling. The result is a searing and compelling tale that is hard to put down.
Wanting to document the suffering of some of the 15,000 Acadians who have mostly been lost to history, LeBlanc writes: “This is a personal book about ten siblings, all distant ancestors of mine, who found themselves tossed from their quiet pastoral lives into the turbulent world of eighteenth-century geopolitics.”
It’s obvious that this book was a labour of love, written after extensive research. The result? A gorgeous piece of truth-telling, sure to make LeBlanc’s ancestors proud.
It’s always an awkward question, no matter the context. I mean, I wonder if the person asking ever feels like they shouldn’t ask — it’s a need to know thing. So I was a tad confused, not really sure why everyone in this room needed to know how much I weighed. It was the beginning of the school year, and we were in Gym class. Mr. Stephens, the teacher, had us come into the weight room in groups of fives to “See where we’re at,” as he put it. The school’s new wellness policy required health check- ins during gym class. Every student had a file that held information about their height, weight, eye colour, hair colour and so on. I really wasn’t a fan of stepping on a scale and revealing how much I weighed, though. I was with a group of five that included myself, Donny, Lewis, Matthew, and Tyler.
“All right,” Mr. Stephens announced. “Donny, you hit the scale first.”
“Whatever,” Donny said.
Donny was a childhood friend of mine. We grew up together in the North End of Halifax. We were like brothers — though time sometimes put distance be- tween us. He would hang out with the more rebellious teens while I was somewhere in between the shy kid who stood against the walls at school dances and the nerd who sat by himself during lunch. But at least I was brave enough to go to a dance, right?
Donny stepped on the scale. He had much longer hair and darker skin than I did. He was also in great shape but didn’t do a lot with it. Mr. Stephens would often hassle him to play football, and Donny would always ignore him. Donny was more of an artistic guy but not pretentious. He was the most humble, genuine guy I knew.
The numbers on the electronic scale went from zero pounds to 193 pounds.
“Not bad,” Donny said as he stepped off.
“Lewis, you’re next.” Mr. Stephens pointed.
Lewis was an asshole. I hated that guy. He was seventeen, a year older than all the other students in the room. He was held back a year. Now he was in class with us. It wasn’t glamorous for him, so he spent most of his time making my life a living hell like it was his hobby. He was what most girls would call a douchebag. I wasn’t brave enough to say it out loud.
Lewis gave Mr. Stephens a sneer with his stupid face and stepped on the scale with his chubby frame, shaved head, and pale skin. It went from zero pounds to 220 pounds.
“Hmm . . .” Mr. Stephens took note of that in his book. “Yo, what was that ‘hmmm . . .’ about, Mr. Stephens?” “It means we have work to do,” he replied.
“Work on me? What about that fatass over there?” Lewis pointed my way.
Those words were like blades. I wasn’t a fan of being called a fatass, but I couldn’t respond and show weakness. That’s what he’d want.
“That’s enough, Lewis.” Mr. Stephens shook his head.
“No. No, it’s not,” Lewis continued. “How much do you weigh, Adrian?”
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what to say.
“Enough to knock your dumb ass over,” Donny inter- vened.
“Boys. Enough!” Mr. Stephens yelled. “I have six other groups of students to do this with, and I’m not going to be here all day with your petty crap.”
He took a breath. “With that being said, do you want to go next, Adrian?”
“Sure,” I muttered, not really wanting to. But I also want- ed to get it over with. I stepped closer to the scale, walking past Lewis’s stupid grin. I didn’t want to do it. I really didn’t. I put one foot forward and the other followed. Next thing I knew, both feet were planted and the numbers on the scale went from zero pounds to 280 pounds.
“Ha!” Lewis yelled from behind me. I shut my eyes. I knew there was going to be an insult, but it was overshad- owed by a question. It was a question from Mr. Stephens.
“Adrian, what are you eating?” he asked in a voice of disgust.
I didn’t reply. I turned around and ran out of the weight room. I felt ashamed of myself. I shouldn’t have had to disclose my weight to a room full of people — it felt so wrong. I didn’t want everyone in the school knowing how much I weighed. Anxiety made itself at home inside of me, so I had to leave. Outside, there were other students waiting for their turn in the weight room. I walked past all of them with my head down. Two hundred and eighty pounds of fat — I felt gross.
That afternoon, during our lunch hour, I sat with Donny in the cafeteria. He had a mouthful of sandwich while talk- ing to me.
“Yeah, man. Lewis is full of crap. Don’t pay any mind to him. He’s a loser.”
“I know,” I said while taking my lunch out of my back- pack. I had an egg sandwich. It was the type of food you could smell from halfway across the cafeteria.
“I got your back. If he messes with you, then he’ll have to go through me.”
Donny always felt like he had to play the big brother role for me. He kind of was, but if it came to violence or getting in trouble, I knew he would receive a harsher pun- ishment than me. Because he was darker than I was, people saw him as more “dangerous,” when in reality, he was a big, soft goofball. Violence wasn’t really something I planned for when dealing with Lewis.
“Thanks, Donny, but I think everything will be fine. I don’t want you to get in any trouble.”
It was like I jinxed myself because as I said that, Lewis made his way into the cafeteria with that stupid grin on his face. He peered over at me from the entrance and made his way toward us.
“There’s that asshole,” Donny said under his breath.
Before I knew it, Lewis was right there in front of us. I knew it was going to be bad. I knew it was going to be embarrassing. I just wanted to shout, “Leave me alone!” But I didn’t.
“What’s up, Adrian?” he grinned at me.
“Dude, get out of here,” Donny began.
“I’m not talking to you,” Lewis shot back.
“Well I’m talking to you.” Donny stood up.
The tension was pretty high. They weren’t fans of each other.
“Lewis, leave my guy alone. I’m not messing with you,”
I sat there, not knowing what to do or say, then suddenly
I looked at my sandwich and I saw Lewis sticking his finger right through the top and down the bottom.
“Hey, what are you doing?” I demanded.
“It’s not like you need that anyway, fatass,” Lewis sneered at me. “You’re almost three hundred pounds!” He said it loud enough for the entire cafeteria to hear. As soon as he said it, my heart sank into my stomach. I could see students eyeing me. I could feel their whispers lingering around me, and I felt sick. It felt like my biggest secret was now an open one.
“You’re such an asshole, Lewis,” Donny growled. “Aha.” Lewis laughed his stupid laugh.
That was when I snapped. I tore the sandwich from under Lewis’s hand and flung it at him.
“What the hell!” he yelled. Gobs of egg covered his cheeks. I could hear laughs from around the cafeteria.
It didn’t take long for Lewis to get the food off of his face. That was when he threw his fist into mine. I honestly hadn’t known what to expect, but a bruised eye wasn’t it. I hit the ground. Hard. All I heard was a collective gasp from the rest of the students. That was what humiliation felt like. It wasn’t great.
I looked up to see Donny jump across the table at Lewis. They started fighting. Throwing fists full of anger back and forth as everyone in the cafeteria chanted, “Fight! Fight! Fight!”
Security soon came in and broke them up. Once that happened, I ran out of the cafeteria both hurt and embar- rassed. I just wanted to go home. I grabbed my belongings from my locker and fought back tears. I couldn’t cry, I couldn’t let myself be weak, so I hid my misery and made my way home.
I was home before my parents so I had time to think of an explanation for the bruise on my face. I went straight to the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror. It looked pretty bad. I had a huge red mark under my left eye. I couldn’t let that happen again. I couldn’t let Lewis bully me over my weight, I couldn’t allow myself to be his punching bag, and I couldn’t let my parents see me being beat up.
Some People’s Children
prologue, August, 1974
Maggie wakes on the bed. The bedspread is itchy on her bare skin. Smells like cigarettes. She is alone. It is not her bed.
She remembers standing outside the bathroom. Tony’s voice was a hiss: “I thought you said you were seventeen.” She tried to speak around the lump in her throat: “Please.”
Someone walked by and laughed, sharp and small like a bee sting. Tony pulled her into the bedroom.
“But we care about each other.” She kissed his neck. That’s one of the things he likes. He shook her off. He slammed the bedroom door as he left.
She was crying on the bed when the voices started. The party banged on around the edges of the door, but these were new sounds. Mostly barked commands:
Get back in there, my son.
If you don’t, I will.
Get it get it get it.
And then Tony was back. He shut the bedroom door to a rising cheer. She remembers reaching for him. They’d never been inside before—twice in the woods on a blanket, twice in the backseat. She remembers wishing hard for no one to come in. Please let the door be locked.
And now he’s gone. She has to go home. She sits up.
Cecil Jesso stands by the bed. Her jeans and pullover are bunched in his hands. His pale eyes are bulging like marshmallows. His pants are undone to reveal a triangle of white cotton. Matted hair. She buckles into a ball.
“Cec! Get out of here!”
“This is my room.” He points at her. “You’re on my bed.”
She pulls the bedspread up from under her, to cover herself. Cecil clutches her things to his chest with one hand. He reaches out with the other and grabs the bedspread from her hand. “Lemme see,” he whispers. His bottom lip trembles.
“No!” Maggie swipes at his hand. Her naked breast brushes his forearm. She scrambles to the foot of the bed. It is hard to move away and keep herself covered. She hears Cec’s breath suck in, wet and beastly. He moves closer. No no no no. Everything is no. Everything is help. Her guts fold in on themselves. They remember something sweet and sickly from earlier and don’t want it anymore.
Now Cec is gasping mouthfuls of garbled fury. He drops her clothes and puts his hands to his wet face. Maggie wipes her mouth, panting. The smell of her own bile hits her and she’s sick again, this time off the side of the bed. Cec backs out of the room. “Jesus fucking Christ.”
Her hands move without thought, top on, legs in jeans, underwear and bra shoved in pockets. She stands. Her body sways. Get out, get out. The hallway outside the room reeks of cigarettes and rum. Everyone is gone. She half skates down the hallway, through the kitchen. She snatches her shoes from the porch. Cecil stands in the doorway to the living room, rubbing his face with a towel. “You’re a little savage,” he says.
“You’re a piece of shit. You ever touch me again, you’re dead.”
“I never touched you, Maggie Tubbs,” he says. His voice is sooky and slurry.
A half-empty Labatt 50 bottle sits in the porch, like someone left it when they were tying their shoes. Maggie grabs it around its stubby neck and flings it at him. He steps back, missing the splash of beer. It hits the floor and rolls away.
“When Tony finds out, he’s gonna kill you,” she says. “You’re fucking dead, Cecil Jesso.”
Nimbus Publishing and Vagrant Press
CHAPTER ONE: A WAKE-UP CALL AT NIGHT
Housing compound, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Just before midnight, Monday, May 12, 2003
My eyes suddenly fluttered open. Then I heard the sound that had roused me awake: the wail of sirens, lots of sirens. I slipped out of bed and padded down the carpeted stairs in search of my parents. I sighed with relief when I spied them relaxing on the living-room couch. My parents were so engrossed in the TV show they were watching that they didn’t even notice me standing there in my pajamas. I cleared my throat to get their attention.
“What’s up, little chick?” asked Mom, with a look of concern on her face. “Did you have a bad dream, Page?”
“The sirens woke me up. What’s going on?” I asked.
“Maybe ambulances are rushing to a car accident,” offered Dad. “You know how dangerous the driving is here in Riyadh.”
I nodded. The sirens continued to wail.
“Maybe it’s a really bad car accident,” suggested Dad.
“Why don’t you go back to bed? You’ve got school in the morning,” reminded Mom. “Maybe there will be an article in the morning newspaper about what happened,” she added.
“Okay, Mom,” I said. I turned and headed upstairs to my bedroom. The sirens eventually faded away, and I drifted off to sleep.
Early morning, around 5:30 a.m., Tuesday, May 13, 2003
My eyes suddenly fluttered open again…not to the wail of sirens, but to this disturbing sound: deee ehhh errr…deee uh deee uh. The unmistakeable sound of our dial-up internet. Is there any sound more annoying? I thought. My mom was probably checking our email. It was part of her early morning ritual before heading to work. I decided to get up. It was time to get ready anyway, if I wanted to catch the bus. A typical school morning for me involved eating breakfast, dressing in my school uniform, boarding a blue-and-white bus filled with identically clad children from my compound, and travelling across the city to attend a British school. Because we’re Canadian, my parents would have preferred to send me to a Canadian school, but none existed in Riyadh.
As I crawled out of bed, I heard Mom making an inter-net phone call, which was an odd thing for her to do on a Tuesday morning. Because of the time difference, she normally called her family in Canada on our weekend, which was Thursday and Friday in Saudi Arabia.
My mother was born and raised on Prince Edward Island, Canada’s smallest province. Prince Edward Island, commonly referred to by its abbreviation “PEI” or simply as “the Island,” is so small that it is sometimes left off maps—much to the chagrin of its inhabitants, who like to be called “Islanders” with a capital letter “I.” On an accuratemap of Canada—that is, a map depicting all ten provinces and three territories—Prince Edward Island is an island (duh) located on the east coast. Although there are lots of islands on the east coast of Canada, it’s easy to spot which one is Prince Edward Island. It’s the one that looks like a crooked crescent moon…or a bumpy banana…or a jagged smile. Whenever people in Saudi Arabia asked me where I was from, I told them that I was from Canada. And if they asked me where in Canada, I said I was from Prince Edward Island, even though I’d never actually lived there. I knew this answer would stump most people, and I secretly liked the idea of being from a place that no one had ever heard of. I thought it made me sound mysterious. I was always shocked whenever I met someone who had heard of Prince Edward Island. Most often they were aware of its existence because they’d read L. M. Montgomery’s most famous book—and my favourite book of all time—Anne of Green Gables, which was set on the Island.
I groggily shuffled down the stairs, thinking about what I wanted to eat for breakfast. Hmm…maybe some leftover grape leaves stuffed with rice? A strange breakfast choice, I must admit, but that was what I was craving. I froze at the foot of the stairs when I detected distress in Mom’s voice.
“I just received your cryptic email. Why did you ask if we’re still alive? Why would you ask me something like that?” said Mom.
“Pollyanna, I’m so relieved to hear from you! We heard about the car bombings. Was your compound hit? We’ve been beside ourselves with worry!” I recognized the frantic voice. It belonged to Nanna, my maternal grandmother.
“What car bombings?” asked Mom.
“Several Western compounds in Riyadh were attacked a few hours ago. It’s all over the news,” said Nanna.
As soon as Nanna said the words “car bombings,” Dad, who had been making breakfast in the kitchen, zoomed to the television to switch on BBC World. I wandered into the living room and stared at the images of destroyed build-ings and rubble on TV. This explains all those ambulance sirens last night, I thought. When the news announcer identified the compounds, I turned to Dad in panic. I recognized the name of one of them. It adjoined my school, and many of my teachers lived there. “Do you think my teachers are okay?” I asked.
Normally, Dad would have said something comforting to downplay the situation so I wouldn’t worry, but this time he just said, “I don’t know.”
After assuring my grandmother that we weren’t dead, Mom got off the internet phone and joined us in front of the TV. Over the past several months, there had been a few minor car bombings—as if a car bombing could be described as minor—in Riyadh, so this tragic event shouldn’t have been that surprising. Nevertheless, it still came as a shock to us.
A few moments later, Mom said, “Page, there won’t be any school today, but your dad and I still have to go to work. Try not to watch too much news while we’re gone, and stay inside, okay?”
They each gave me a quick hug and hurried to get ready for work. I stood rooted to the spot in front of the TV. As they gathered their things and opened the door to leave, I heard Dad remark, “In Canada, school is cancelled for snowstorms, but here it’s for car bombings.” The door clicked shut before I could hear Mom’s reply.
Nimbus Publishing and Vagrant Press
After 10 long years, Anna (formerly known as Annaka) and her mom are returning to Yarmouth. Although Anna has yearned to return to the life she once knew and loved, the homecoming is not at all what she wanted. Her beloved Grampy has died, and Nan’s Alzheimer’s has turned her into a virtual stranger.
Fortunately, Anna’s best friend Tia welcomes her back with open arms. And then there is Clay, her imaginary friend from childhood who just happens to have been anxiously awaiting her return. It turns out he is able to take her back in time to revisit scenes from her past.
With Clay’s help and Tia’s unwavering support, Anna seeks answers to some of the questions she has about herself and the people she loves. She also struggles to come to terms with the loss of her grandfather, make the most of the time she has with her Nan and make peace with the past.
Andre Fenton’s second novel for young adults, like his first, tackles numerous weighty issues. His protagonist wrestles with grief and loss in a way that feels heartfelt and genuine, and her deep sadness and anxiety about her grandmother’s Alzheimer’s will resonate with anyone who has experience with this terrible illness.
Anna’s frustration with her mother and her desire to meet her father, no matter what that meeting might reveal, are also realistically depicted. The many relationships are believably complex, although the voices of the various characters do not always ring true and are not as distinct as they might have been.
Clay stands out as a delightful character and the magic realism succeeds in adding an original twist to this exploration of family, identity, love and loss.
According to Page 2, Section A, Subsection 5F of my worn out copy of the Beauty Queen 101 Handbook, a piddly 1% of the population has (legally) worn a tiara and sash 24/7 for an entire year. Guess what, you guys? I’m among the
elite blessed few to be in that 1% (My thoughts and prayers go out to those in the 99% who are searching for their life’s purpose—it must totally suck). Thirty-six years ago, I literally beat the odds…I became Miss Nackawic 1981. You heard me—I reigned over the town of Nackawic, NB, for 491 365 days. Let that sink in for a minute. A beauty queen wrote the book you are holding. For reals.
My path in life literally changed on that awesome September night in 1981. Before I became royalty, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be when I grew up. It’s not that my future wasn’t bright—I mean, I was on a bowling team that finished in seventh place, and I was a solid C (ish) student—obviously I could have done anything with my life! Duh. It’s just that I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a professional bowler and yea…my marks were beyond outstanding, but what was the point of university?? Nah. I wanted some-thing more, and once I felt that cold,
diamond-encrusted shiny tiara dig into my feathery bangs I knew what that something was—winning Miss World and total fame! Boom. The universe had spoken and I was listening. According to Page 2, Section A, Subsection 5F.2 of the Miss World handbook, only 0.000000001% of former beauty queens go on to become Miss World, but I intended to beat the odds again. I had the passion and the personality disorder to go all the way to the top, obviously. All I needed was the right pair of sandals and Miss World would never ever be mine for the taking. It felt amazing, at the age of sixteen, to finally have a meaningful purpose!
Since chances are you’ve never been in, much less won a pageant, I’d like to give you a behind-the-scenes glimpse into what it’s really like. Close your eyes and imagine it’s September 3, 1981, the night of the Miss Nackawic pageant. The arena is packed to the rafters with
a custodian plain, regular people, desperate to find out who their new ruler will be. The lights on the stage are blinding and hot, and I’m standing there in my homemade pink, sheer(ish) chiffon gown, wishing I’d worn underwear. Whatever. A bead of sweat trickles down my cheeks, giving me an awesome dewy glow. I silently congratulate myself on my talent portion—an air guitar routine. I know deep down I nailed it even though I was super dizzy from swinging my head so much. I pray that the last-minute cartwheel I almost landed during the evening gown catwalk pays off for me—I did it to show my spontaneity, which is the fifth most desirable trait in a beauty queen according to Page 15, Section B, Subsection 3C of the handbook. Boom.
Next comes the interview portion. My question is: Should more businesses be wheelchair accessible? I answer: Duh. There should definitely be more businesses in Nackawic because I have to drive all the way to Fredericton to shop for shoes and that’s totally unfair! Nailed it. The judges go off to make their decision. The wait feels like twelve million years. Finally, the Master of Ceremonies walks toward the microphone. I’m so nervous I literally almost black out. The pressure makes me wish I was in the audience with the plain people. I take a deep breath. The M.C. opens the judges’ envelope and lets out a funny sound like a dying animal would make. (Weirdo) He shakes his head, shrugs his shoulders, and then says literally the best words I’ve ever heard in my entire life: “Um. This is a joke right?? Well, if you saaayy so…Miss Nackawic 1981 is Colleen Roy.”
The flashes from
my parents’ the paparazzi cameras blind me. I’m literally attacked by my parents the press as they bombard me with praise and questions. At one point, they even bow before me. That’s when things get real—I’d waited my entire life for proof that I was better than everyone, and, when the people bowed, I knew it was true! I was literally the Chosen One and in that instant I knew I was made for a life of waving at peasants, wearing pretty gowns and riding on parade floats.
Can I be honest? After that night, I fully expected my life to spin out of control, but everyone in my town was terrified I’d end up like one of those child-actors-turned-cokeheads, so they really
ignored me respected my time and space. I was too young to understand it at the time, but, looking back, I’m actually relieved I didn’t explode to stardom and turn into a diva. Instead, it was more of a delusion slow burn. I literally shudder to think of what those Hollywood overnight-success kids go through. Back to me now…
This book is my gift to you and the dreamer inside you. It’s the story of a small-town, sixteen-year-old girl with big hair and even bigger dreams—a girl who blossoms into a
wrinkly stunning, middle-aged(ish) woman who wants more out of life but never gets it. It’s the story of one girl’s vision board and her extreme delusion perseverance when faced with reality over three decades’ worth of roadblocks. You too, can have what I have—a future filled with dirty laundry and Hamburger Helper hope that your big dream is just around the next corner.
Put your seatbelt on and enjoy the ride
at my expense. I hope this book makes you feel a whole lot better about your life of emotions. I think it will. I also hope you paid a minimum of $40 for it, because I have bills to pay.Wait. What?? Fourteen dollars and ninety-five measly cents is all you put down for this masterpiece?? Dear Publisher: You’re fired! Wow. Somebody owes me some friggin’ money.
Taslim Burkowicz’s The Desirable Sister describes the lives of sisters bonded by their ethnicity, but cleaved apart by their colour. It surveys a Gujurati family twice removed from their homeland and divided manifold by desire, ego, tradition and all of the accompanying angst that arises out of an identity in disarray.
Sisters Gia and Serena Pirji come of age in the 1990s in homogeneous Burnaby, BC, where Gia’s fair skin enables her to blend into the surrounding whiteness with ease and comfort. Conversely, Serena encounters constant, though often unintended, prejudice as a result of her brown skin. Their grandmother calls them two halves of the same coconut—the sweet, white inside and the coarse brown outside (this is one of the gentler insults that sets the tone for much of the novel).
The story is one of immense intimacy, fleshing out the intricacies of family quarrels. But the narrative never develops tunnel vision; rather, the much broader context of colonized and colonist Indians, diaspora and displacement pervades the novel. Bukowicz sets the Indo-Canadian experience against the relatively unexplored backdrop of Gujarati colonialism in Uganda in the mid-twentieth century, offering an interesting take on the common plight of dispossessed first-generation immigrants. When Serena leaves the family home, embarking on the bland beigeness of the Burnaby condo world, her mother Zeenta surreptitiously plants a bowl of mangoes on the table meant to instill a sense of homesickness. Meanwhile, Kasim, the father of Serena and Gia, considers the futility of the plan since neither of them agrees on what home even means.
Indeed, the question what is home? is one the novel asks relentlessly. The sisters, both eager to flee the family home at different moments, find themselves crashing and visiting in futile attempts to confront a more existential homelessness. Gia finds temporary solace in the tabula rasa of Serena’s Burnaby condo, while Serena—who never checks the depth of the water—dives headfirst into one disastrous romance after another, each time cobbling a toxic relationship into an impermanent home.
Between the Greater Vancouver Area, Nairobi and Goa, the novel makes a point of placing the sisters into awkward cultural conflicts—conflicts usually borne out by the distinction in their skin tones, and ultimately resolved by the bond of sisterhood.
This summer, I took my grandchildren back to the little village in Scotland where I grew up. Dunlop’s population of 700 distinctive souls made it a “wee” village, where everyone knew everyone. As we roamed its streets, my 12-year-old grandson, Alistair, was astonished to learn that as a boy I became a commercial garden digger, under the instruction of the local gravedigger.
“You knew the gravedigger?” he asked.
To a boy raised in the stratified world of Toronto, that sort of inclusive community was unthinkable. And that is precisely the sort of community we plunge into in Lesley Choyce’s fine novel, Broken Man on a Halifax Pier.
Stewart Harbour, on Nova Scotia’s ruggedly unfashionable Eastern Shore, is a backwater village where a few stubborn fisher families hold out against banks too bored to even close them down. It is the town where Charles grew up, and then escaped—just as soon as he could—to Dalhousie, and a King’s journalism degree.
He has never been back, and then, in the dramatic opening scene, everything changes as Charles’ writing career is destroyed by the death of his paper and his savings swindled away. He finds himself, indeed, a broken man gazing morosely into the waters at the end of a Halifax pier, when a woman appears out of the fog. She offers to buy him breakfast. They hit it off, and their lives change.
Her name is Ramona Danforth. A Halifax woman with a history in TV and minor movies, she also has an impressive bank account. But she feels rootless, so Charles takes her, in her Lexus, back to Stewart Harbour, where his father’s old fishing shack still stands, and his old boat still floats.
There, the brave couple encounter more than expected. Although no gravedigger appears, locals remember them, and an unsuspected son emerges from the past. Soon the idyllic return “home” is plagued with problems, situations so serious that Charles and Ramona are compelled, on different occasions, to offer the other a chance to walk away from it all.
The tight, exciting plot allows Choyce, the seaworthy Lawrencetown author, to do his impressive writing: “As a kid I’d seen winter storms with waves towering at thirty feet and winds that could suck your skin off, but you’d never hear a word about those on the news.” And later, he describes a hurricane so terrifying, readers might feel the urge to batten down the hatches.
Choyce has crafted an impressive novel about the power of the sea, the power of community and the power of memory. And he also happens to have told a fine love story.
Lynn Coady used to tell students of writing that “if you’re not having fun writing, you shouldn’t do it because what’s the point?” Since monetary rewards are elusive, a writer should at least write because she enjoys it. For Coady, her latest novel Watching You Without Me poses an exception to that advice. Cutting deeply into noxious literary reservoirs of aging, infirmity and self-doubt, Coady experienced “extended periods of misery” writing her most disturbing and emotionally demanding work yet.
In Watching You Without Me, erstwhile Maritimer Karen Petrie returns to Dartmouth, NS, after her mother’s death to care for her adult sister Kellie who has a severe intellectual disability. The novel is an exceptional examination of guilt and grief of loss and the relationships between mothers and daughters, but it turns the screw with the introduction of Trevor—an emotional vampire driven by anger and self-importance who inserts himself into the sisters’ lives as the ostensible professional caregiver of their late mother. Trevor is a great villain, a kind of junior to the likes of Iago, Stringer Bell and Count Dracula. But rather than dominate the artistic centre of the novel, Coady explains to me that “Trevor is actually Karen’s bogeyman. He’s like the ghost in the house. He is an avatar of all her fear and guilt and feelings of inadequacy. He’s not actually the thing; he’s the Babadook [emphasis added to represent emphatic vocalization].” Like the Babadook, Karen’s ambivalence toward her perceived failure as a daughter and a caregiver takes the shape of a monster—Trevor.
Coady has a profound understanding of the anger of men. Her readers will be accustomed to the violent, addicted, narcissistic men in her past work, and find fresh and unnerving explorations of the subject in Watching You Without Me. Coady explains that “narcissism, entitlement,” and “the need to be the centre of attention, the need to be special” are what drives men’s anger in her novels and short stories. Coady’s deepest dive into toxic masculinity was her 2011 Giller Prize-nominated novel The Antagonist in which Gordon Rankin “Rank” Jr. and his father tour the cavernous but ultimately finite pits of unchecked masculine anger. The reason why Trevor’s manipulation is such a reprehensible sort is not because it explodes spontaneously like Rank’s, but because he is always in control of it; it is constant “beneath the surface, like buried cables, humming with information.” Coady laughs when I ask her about the authorial imagination that is able to summon such an unsettling character, pointing out that Trevor is “calculating all the time. His anger motivates him. It’s behind every gesture he makes toward Karen and Kellie.”
The narrative is arranged in Karen’s mind according to shame. In her reflection, Karen explains that she spent “the days after [her] mother’s funeral flailing around for some kind of cosmic reassurance” that the future she plans for her sister is humane, kind and demanded a sufficient personal sacrifice of her own. She refers to her “pathetic gratitude” to Trevor as the moment for which she is most ashamed. Throughout the novel, Karen pulls back and describes the way her listeners have reacted to the story in previous tellings. “Whenever I get to this part,” and “people always stop when I get to this part,” she says, indicating that even after routine retellings, the story is still a story of shame. After “the scales fall from her eyes” and she has at least initially vanquished Trevor, Karen remains absolutely tethered to her shame.
In a way, the novel saves Karen from her shame. Karen tells us that “Trevor’s identity took precedence” in her narrative, but Coady doesn’t let the story be about him. The story instead focuses on Karen’s emergence as a self-determined identity—neither tragic nor triumphant. Moments of closure, when they do materialize, are “a hideous kind of closure” and “uniformly feel awful.” Karen’s story is about disentangling emotional toil from the work of mourning and grief—the kind of story that is nothing if not gradual and confounding. ■