Review: The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, by Heidi W. Durrow

>>Published: January 2010

>>Finally got around to it: March 2011

When he finally reached the courtyard, he saw that his bird was not a bird at all. His bird was a boy and a girl and a mother and a child.

The mother, the girl, the child. They looked like they were sleeping, eyes closed, listless. The baby was still in her mother’s arms, a gray sticky porridge pouring from the underside of her head. The girl was heaped on top of the boy’s body, a bloody helpless pillow. And yet there was an old mattress, doughy from rain, just ten feet from the bird-boy’s right arm, which was folded like a wing beneath him.

***

Heidi Durrow’s debut—winner of the Bellwether Prize for Fiction—tells the story of a mixed-race family in America in the 1980s; of the Dutch mother of several half-black, half-white children, and her inability to understand and accept without fear the divisive racial issues that plagued—and still plague—such families.

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is told from several perspectives, but the story is Rachel’s. She is the one who survived the nine-storey fall that claimed the remaining lives of her family, save for her father, who feared she would be better off without him in her life.

Thematically transposing themes addressed in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Durrow addresses Rachel’s need to make sense of the world around her as she learns what it means to belong to two worlds, yet feel at home in neither. Throughout the book she struggles to feel accepted by her grandmother, who seeks to readily condemn Rachel’s mother for her suspected suicidal actions; various boyfriends—or boys that would take that mantle only so long as it suits their desires; the girls at school, who look at her and would rather see her whiteness and condemn her for being only a part of what they are.

The mystery surrounding the fall from the rooftop tracks through the entire book, but it is not the novel’s core. It is what encourages Rachel to examine her history, the plagues of drunkenness and self-destruction that she fears will be hers to inherit, and to begin to understand the world her mother came from, and what a stark and unforgiving contrast it bore to the world she entered into when she fell in love with Rachel’s father, Roger.

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is an honest, open wound of a book, addressing in clean, somewhat sparse writing the difficulties faced by a young girl in America growing up with ties to socially divergent backgrounds—a combination still unaccepted by many. However, it also maintains a direct enough style to be approachable by all age groups. Heidi Durrow has written a beautiful gem of a book that, with any luck, will find its way into high school classes around North America alongside The Bluest Eye and To Kill a Mockingbird. It shares a great deal with the aforementioned titles, but still manages to carve a path of its own.

Review: The Illumination, by Kevin Brockmeier

>>Published: February 2011

>>Finally got around to it: March 2011

The world had changed in the wake of the Illumination. No one could disguise his pain anymore. You could hardly step out in public without noticing the white blaze of someone’s impacted heel showing through her slingbacks; and over there, hailing a taxi, a woman with shimmering pressure marks where her pants cut into her gut; and behind her, beneath the awning of the flower shop, a man lit all over in a glory of leukemia.

***

An interesting thing happens when reading Kevin Brockmeier’s The Illumination: you quickly become lost in the painterly way he covers his world in light; using thin needlework stitching, thick roll-on strokes, or igniting someone’s skeleton in a million points of the brightest white imaginable, their core shining through their skin as if stripped clean of their top layer, Brockmeier deceives the reader in a subtle, but immensely affecting way. After so many pages of lovingly constructed imagery you realize, as I’m sure he intended, that you’ve been deriving pleasure from nothing less than the agony and suffering of others—revelling in the one-of-a-kind beauty of experience that is found only through pain, described with carefully constructed and moving use of metaphor.

Adopting a structure similar to David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, The Illumination is a novel told in six modestly connected parts. At exactly 8:17 one Friday night, every wound, every sore, every broken or damaged part of every broken and damaged human on the planet begins to shine from within with a luminous white light. In that instant, all the pain we’ve worked so hard to keep to ourselves—all the agonies, large and small, we fight to bury and repress—is made visible, as obvious as the stars in the night sky. Pain, a constant in everyone’s life to varying degrees, becomes a measurable quantity in the eyes of others.

Structured loosely around a journal of love notes from a husband to his wife that makes its way through the hands of the novel’s six protagonists, The Illumination is a study of expectations and juxtapositions: the journal, an object meant for the two lovers and no one else, remains an artefact of something they’ve lost since the Illumination took hold of the world—the need to express a beauty that is pure and untainted. The journal is ratty, faded, falling apart, yet it retains its original intent—to express love and devotion. The Illumination, on the other hand, is the performance art of an unseen, unspoken higher power—an unexplainable phenomenon gifted to the world as a helping hand, to encourage the expression of one’s inner beauty and repressed pain amongst a society that has forgotten what it means to be open and honest about the terrible, amazing, stunning atrocities we take joy in and feel repulsed by at the same time:

Now the worshippers were on their feet, performing a hymn he knew by heart, their voices flowing just alongside the melody, as if tracing the banks of a stream. And if a bomb were to land on them as they sang so humbly and sincerely, the splendor of their bodies would bathe the town in silver. And if every bomb flew from its arsenal, every body displayed its pain, the globe would catch fire in a Hiroshima of light. And maybe, from somewhere far away, God would notice it and return, and the cinders would receive Him like a hillside washed in the sun.

In some ways, the novel feels a themed mosaic of short narratives. The six lives contained within are drastically different from one another, but as the journal passes through them—either overtly, as an object with life-altering reverence, or subtly, as something that passes through their lives like a metaphor in three-dimensions—Brockmeier uses the Illumination as a counterweight, carving his characters’ pain in swatches, slivers, and harsh-light-of-day strokes. While beautiful in the way they forge connective threads between all people of all races in every corner of the world, the light that shines from within is also disturbing, threatening, and in the end, nowhere near as beautiful as the thousand little ways one man managed to express his love to his wife with nothing but a pen and some paper.

The Illumination is not as spiritual a book as its name might imply. It’s not devoid of such connotations, but its merit is in its artistry—in the way it paints the world as a Terry Riley-esque chance-oriented symphony, the light from within playing against other people, other surfaces, with different chord and key combinations. As one person’s entire being is lit up like the lights at a movie premiere—a power chord to break one’s mind from all distractions—the slow trill of a snake of light arcing through a carefully stitched incision cuts through the cacophony, presenting a light just as bright as any other. Because all pain is not equal, but no amount of pain can be dismissed.

Review: One Day, by David Nicholls

>>Published: June 2009

>>Finally got around to it: March 2011

For a moment, Dexter had a fleeting but perfectly clear memory of himself at his mother’s funeral, curled up on the bathroom floor while Emma held onto him and stroked his hair. Yet somehow he had managed to treat this as nothing, to throw it all away for dross. He followed a little way behind her. ‘Come on, Em, we’re still friends, aren’t we? I know I’ve been a little weird, it’s just…’ She stopped for a moment, but didn’t turn round, and he knew that she was crying. ‘Emma?’

Then very quickly she turned, walked up to him and pulled his face into hers, her cheek warm and wet against his, speaking quickly and quietly in his ear, and for one bright moment he thought he was to be forgiven.

‘Dexter, I love you so much. So, so much, and I probably always will.’ Her lips touched his cheek. ‘I just don’t like you anymore. I’m sorry.’

And then she was gone, and he found himself on the street, standing alone in this back alley trying to imagine what he would possibly do next.

***

Dex and Em, Em and Dex—like a double helix, dance partners criss-crossing in and out of each other’s life at every high, every low, and every moment in between. Whether years have passed apart, in silence, or living within minutes of one another, they are still in each other’s thoughts every day, unable to ever cleanse themselves of the possibly wondrous, possibly terrible truth: they’re meant to be.

David Nicholls’ One Day is, upon first glance, a gimmick: it chronicles the friendship and love of Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morley as they connect, disconnect, grow close, grow apart, find love, lose love, and discover themselves for nearly twenty years, from their first hand-up-the-skirt rendezvous in 1988 to the (almost) present day. Each chapter takes place on July 15th of the following year; the chapters are like postcards, snapping moments in time and taking us through the critical points of where they are, where they’ve been, and what they’ve been through over the past year. A gimmick of this sort is a delicate thing to structure an entire novel around, but Nicholls does a wonderful job by allowing Emma and Dexter to grow naturally into adulthood, succeeding and failing in grand fashion, but never dehumanizing them or pulling them drastically out of sorts to increase tension—their wants, desires and personalities are more than enough to accomplish such a feat. They mature beautifully, realistically, and admirably. These are very human, relatable characters, and they carry what could have been a simple gimmick to a painful, disarming conclusion—painful, yet hopeful for the future.

The personalities of Emma and Dexter—and the family and friends that surround them—are given an additional boost through Nicholls’ writing. He’s given them the voices of reincarnates in trainers and Velcro-strapped shoes: old souls that connect on an intangible, unspeakable level, with wry sarcasm and a finish-each-others-sentences joie de vie, yet still know so little about their own bodies and minds and ambitions that they spend as much time hurting one another as they do falling in love.

One Day is a believable love story. This isn’t Shakespearean: they aren’t star-crossed lovers that fall in love at the first heart-stopping glance; there are no I-saw-her-from-halfway-across-the-world-and-felt-the-spark-in-my-heart moments that could only exist in literature (or the movies). Emma and Dexter’s love is one that blooms with the authenticity that only time can provide. It’s sometimes maddening to watch them connect at the core, embrace one another on the dance floor for three-fourths of a bar, and finish in the arms of others, because you know their arms will link again, and they’ll catch each other’s stare for a moment, and they’ll remember what it is that they’ve spent the better part of two decades trying to forget: that they’re fated for one another.

Review: The Beggar’s Garden, by Michael Christie

>>Published: January 2011

>>Finally got around to it: March 2011

Faces swing into our orbit and out again like comets, trajectories forever altered by Oppie’s generous crack policies and philosophical musings. He is electric and alive. His interest is insatiable. Lecturing as he walks, he relates mind-bending scientific concepts with ease and grace. We are a team. Although nobody recognizes him, I feel proud to be partying with such a distinguished man of science. Prostitutes approach him and he respectfully tells them he has no interest in “erotic labour” but gives them rocks and kind words. He is a gentleman.

***

Michael Christie’s debut collection, The Beggar’s Garden, takes the brightest light and shines it in the one place Vancouverites would most readily ignore: the downtown east side. The darkness, the homelessness, the rampant drug addiction and prostitution of the DTES are shown to their full effect, track-marked warts and all; but Christie also manages a minor miracle with the poverty-stricken setting of his nine linked short stories—the light he shines on the DTES also manages to pick up a great deal of beauty that one might never expect. Not beauty in the traditional sense, but beauty through tender moments of humanity—of history—that each of the characters in his stories manages to exhibit or unearth in the course of their all-too-short journeys.

Humans and locations are treated with equal reverence: whether it is a lonely woman who dials 911, convinced her soul mate is the paramedic that will come to save her life, or a man’s homeless grandson and the life he leads as a routine dumpster diver; be it the Woodwards building in its final, pre-abandonment/SFU makeover days, or the drastically reduced-in-availability of the Riverview institute in Coquitlam, the people and places depicted in Christie’s nine tales are tangible, full-bodied ghosts—remnants of the concentric ring of progress pushing them ever outward, away from Yaletown and the West End and everyone who’d prefer to pretend the DTES belonged to another province or another country altogether, one that mankind was free to forget.

The Beggar’s Garden is written from a place of experience and maturity. Christie, who has spent time working in a homeless shelter and with social outreach programs in the DTES, understands that the layers of complexity between each crust of the socially discarded and forgotten are no less terrible and wonderful than those that make up the rest of the lower mainland’s populace—or the populace of any major city, for that matter. This is a deftly executed collection, and hopefully the start of a long writing career for Michael Christie.

Review: Strangers, by Taichi Yamada

>>Published (Japanese): 1987

>>Published (English): September 2003

>>Finally got around to it: March 2011

A mother and father in their thirties with a 48-year-old son could not be of the real world, of course, but if an imagined world could allow such a relationship to exist, then I was ready to embrace that world. The terror I’d felt before was gone; floating before me were my parents’ joyful smiles welcoming me into their home.

***

Harada is a television screenwriter living in Tokyo. He is divorced, estranged from his son, and his best friend and working partner has dissolved their relationship to pursue Harada’s ex-wife. One day, shortly after meeting what may or may not be the only other person living in his apartment complex—an intriguing young woman named Kei—Harada meets a man at a comedy club. The man is a doppelganger of his father, who passed when Harada was 12. Following this man, Harada is taken deep into his past, where he inexplicably comes face to face with his parents, 36 years after their deaths.

A lot of ghost stories tend to iterate on the theme of being “incomplete”; there’s a hole in the protagonist that can only be filled through exploring of their past, which when translated into an identifiable form or conflict, usually involves a visit from a ghost(s). Strangers is no different in this regard. What Yamada does differently, however, is that he extends the reach of his ghosts into the creation of neighbourhoods that no longer exist, giving his apparitions a real-world presence that others can interact with; he allows the ghostly remains of Harada’s parents to physically alter the subject of their haunting—in this case, Harada himself, who is slowly wasting away, dissolving into a wraith of nothing more than skin and bones.

We’re forced to witness Harada’s pain as he finds such joy in being reunited with his parents after so many years alone, though by giving himself over to their otherworldly love, he allows himself to fall apart, to become a shade of a man on the verge of death. He cannot see the withering effect their presence is having on his life. It is only through a developing relationship with Kei that he can finally see how thin he has become, how lifeless and emaciated he appears to the world.

The happiness he is forced to abandon to save his own life, and the struggle he faces to come to this decision, is certainly evocative of any sort of life-altering addiction. What Harada is addicted to is feeling whole again, for the first time since he was 12. The hole in his heart was one that neither marriage, nor success, nor friendship, nor the birth of his own child could satiate. Finally able to fill that hole gives Harada a sense of joy unlike anything he’s felt, though the feeling of unity he experiences with his parents is paralleled by what he is giving up in the present to come to terms with his past.

Yamada structures the relationship between Harada, his parents, and Kei as a devotion triangle, with Harada in the middle, deciding which world he wants to give himself over to. But as he makes his decision, a larger one looms in the background: does he continue to rely on others to satisfy what’s lacking in his life, or will Harada find enough strength in the journey to fill the hole in his heart on his own?

Strangers is what a ghost story should be—meditative, unpredictable, and emotionally charged. The stakes are life and death masked as happiness and loss, but which option is preferable is an answer the reader is never guided to with complete certainty.

Review: The Colony, by Jillian Weise

>>Published: February 2010

>>Finally got around to it: March 2011

Using human beings as literary guinea pigs is not an unheard of practice—so many authors explore elements of their lives or their world through their writing, things and occurrences that they would have no other way of experiencing—but Jillian Weise takes this conceit into new territory. In her hands, the five test subjects at the core of The Colony are victims to their genetics in ways only magical realism can allow. Magical realism, albeit sparingly used.

In The Colony, we’re introduced to Anne Hatley, a woman born with only one leg—and a mutated gene that, if prodded through science, could allow for her second leg to grow from the stump that already exists. Anne, along with four others, has signed up to be a part of the ambiguous colony of the book’s title, where she and the others will undergo a variety of tests and therapies designed to understand and alter their unique physiologies.

All this would sound like rather straightforward science fiction if not for the fact that each genetic “abnormality” is a thinly veiled, but much toyed with, metaphor. For example: Mercedes, a rail-thin woman who supposedly possesses the obesity gene—no matter what sort of life she leads, at some point she will balloon up to an extreme weight; then there’s Nick, Anne’s would-be lover at the colony, who is in possession of the suicide gene—no matter how happy-as-a-clam he may seem, one day, one moment, Nick’s body will trick him into throwing himself off a building. In Weise’s world, fate has little to say when the intrusiveness of genetics will mark a person’s life in such dramatic ways. Even the treatments they undergo are literary metaphors, with Mercedes’ triggering such happiness and an unfailing jovial attitude that she quite literally becomes lighter than air, floating up into the sky should she neglect her ankle weights.

All this without mentioning Anne’s one-on-one’s with the ever-elusive (and long dead) Charles Darwin.

The Colony is certainly enjoyable, if only to be witness to Weise’s ever-present creativity and wit. A playwright and a poet, Weise is no stranger to economical language. The Colony is a light, quick read; interspersed with chapters detailing the day-to-day lives and relationships of the colonists are snippets of interviews, lab reports, experiments, and various findings that help to flesh out the overall narrative.

That said, I finished The Colony feeling less like I’d taken a journey with Anne and her fellow test subjects, and more like I’d witnessed a series of vignettes designed to guide the reader through a network of allegories used to show us how clever and off the beaten path they all were—not to mention the world they live in, where such a colony could exist. Weise touches on the moral implications that this sort of genetic therapy might prompt, but never with enough veracity to truly impart the potential ramifications on our world and our culture. That feels like a missed opportunity.

The Colony was a charming, satisfying book, but once finished I feel that Anne and Nick and the others have been left behind, so much the same as they were in the beginning, and that Weise has abandoned the moral implications of genetic alteration in much the same way.

Review: Be Good, by Stacey May Fowles

>>Published: November 2007

>>Finally got around to it: February 2011

Despite this generosity, I know she toys with me daily, her laughter piercing and the inaccessibility of her body unforgiving. She will disappear for days and never tell me where she has gone, and I am forced to make love to her with such severity in the hope that my name will be burned inside her so the others will read the ownership like Braille. I find marks on her body, bruises and bites, and I play back the moments we have spent together and I know that another man has planted them there. I count them like inventory and when there are too many I will count them again to be sure, trace them with my fingertips and yet say nothing, constantly afraid that a single word will cause her to walk out the door a final time.

***

Be Good, the bracing 2007 debut from Stacey May Fowles, is a novel internally divided.

And I mean that as the highest praise possible.

Following a small group of twenty-somethings (and one forty-something) as they drink and smoke and fuck and cut and let down and traumatize one another from one end of Canada to the other, Be Good is a novel of experiences—some more pleasant than others, all of them painted with brutal, sometimes-inebriated honesty.

Centred around Hannah and Morgan and their is-there-or-isn’t-there-I-wish-I-knew-what-to-think relationship, Be Good is cut into small snapshot chapters, presented in a non-linear fashion that reads less like a novel and more like a near-abstracted stream of memories—with all sides given voice. What’s even more interesting is the presence of an authorial diction to the narration, as if the memories of these broken-and-pieced-back-together-again individuals are all being filtered through the same lens, coalescing as one unseen narrator’s shared, abusive, neglectful, love-craving set of experiences.

The outcome of this is a work of multiple perspectives that reads as one person’s inability to accept what has happened, refusing to settle on a single, dogmatic perspective of the events at hand. This draws conflicting—but necessary—conclusions to the intentions of the presented voice: to offer an even hand to the relationships presented, showing all sides of how something can fall apart through so much unspoken vitriol; or to further illustrate the confusion and doubt one person can feel about their role—and the role of all others—in the total destruction of a relationship or series of relationships.

Be Good is a sometimes painful, always rewarding read. Fowles repeatedly intoxicates readers with imagery that straddles the tightrope between beautiful and horrific:

It was all so liberating until I held the very human consequences of it inside me like a weight that made me immobile, a weight I decided to name Archangel Gabriel until I felt it cramp and bleed out of me after I drowned it in vodka and disregard.

Abuse through poetic license. Gorgeous and not, all at once.

Which describes Be Good at its core: a beautiful, tightly written work that will cut you with every pass of the merry-go-round of knives and love fucked over.