Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

January 20, 2010

Reading Canada: Nikolski vs Wild Geese

This year I have decided to tackle not one, but two Canada Reads projects – CBC’s mainstream Canada Reads 2010, as well as Kerry Clare’s Canada Reads Independently over at Pickle Me This.  This is less ambitious than it sounds.  As I have mentioned more than once, the CBC’s picks this year were for the most part books I had read before and was indifferent to, so there was room in my reading schedule for a book club marathon which might actually introduce me to some undiscovered Canadian gems.  It also helped that I won a full set of all the Canada Reads books, so I had all this budgeted money to spend!

I started this year with one of each in my reading queue.  In Nikolski and Wild Geese I had, in order, a book I expected to love and a book I expected to hate.  “Quirky magical realism” describes the ultimate in literary enjoyment in my world, while “bleak realism” is pretty much the bane of my existence.  I imagined I’d take time out of the book I didn’t like to indulge in the one I did.  But for better and for worse, neither book conformed to my expectations.

Nikolski is a wide favourite for the Canada Reads 2010 title, as far as the blogosphere seems to suggest, in any case.  It’s fairly obscure (though it DID win the Governor General’s Award for translation as well as a host of awards in the original French), quirky and just a little experimental.  The writing is good, the characters are likable and the imagery is whimsical and evenly-hued, like a Coen Brothers film.

Nautical imagery and themes seep into everything, often, to be frank, at random.  “Spot the ocean metaphor” is an amusing game to a point; that point for me was when I asked why we were being asked to play.  I didn’t find the novel as a whole evoked “the sea” with any particular success.  More success was had in casting the whole episode as An Adventure With Pirates! which I followed with excitement, waiting for the big swashbuckling finale that makes the whole exercise clear.  But, as others have already pointed out, no finale was to be found, no denouement or climax or even conclusion.  The book ends abruptly, something which struck me as simply lazy.  Where some books leave you hanging with a purpose, I got the impression Dickner simply wasn’t sure where he was going with his nautical language game and called it to an end when his time expired.

I didn’t hate the book, but I was certainly disappointed.  Dickner shows great aptitude with words and I really loved his characters – Joyce and Arizna in particular – but I really felt that he didn’t have a lot of control over this work.  Perhaps it was some first-novel syndrome.   He has some cute ideas and some great turns of phrase, but he lazily ended with that, as if some hazy themes carried for a brief time by directionless characters constitutes a story.   The “three headed book” was a particularly interesting meta-presence, but as with much in the book, it failed to realize anything significant.

Meanwhile, Wild Geese was a simply masterful work.  “Bleak” is an unfair assessment of it.  It’s true that Ostenso creates in Caleb Gare a truly terrifying presence, someone who manages to oppress every page of the novel without having to raise a hand or even his voice.  Ostenso’s  feat is even more astonishing today, given that all the tension, leverage and oppression in the book is rooted in societal norms which on the whole no longer exist.  But despite the iron-clad tyranny of Caleb’s regime, the reader is given a lifeline in the form of his youngest daughter Judith, another incredibly crafted, strong female character.  Judith’s strength carries enough hope to the reader that the book is compelling rather than depressing.

Contemporary participants in “Canadian realism” should read Ostenso carefully.  If you’re going to make your reader hurt, you ought to give them some kind of release, otherwise what you’ve created is nothing more than beautifully written suffering porn.  Sometimes I feel that “bleak” novels amount to little more than a contest to see who can compare life to the most inescapable pit-trap.  This is neither realistic nor fair, nor do I think it tells us anything about the human condition, unless you already believe that life is an inescapable pit-trap.  In any case, Ostenso does not punish us in this manner, but instead offers us a very well-considered and beautifully executed climax and conclusion.  I can’t recommend this one enough.

Upwards and onwards!  I’m half way through Marina Endicott’s Good To a Fault and about to start Carrie Snyder’s Hair Hat – so with luck I will be half way through by Canada Reads mountain by this time next week.  Wish me luck!

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