Author Archives: gus

Gordimer fails to personalize the political

No Time Like the Present
By Nadine Gordimer
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
432 pages, $32

Reviewed by Robert Morris

Nadine Gordimer’s new novel No Time Like the Present will challenge most readers. The gnarled, twisted syntax never relents and often frustrates. No page turns without work; this is not a Dickens or Franzen novel: “Over the seasonal get-together drinks at house or church pool in the Suburb it’s not the comrades’ academic who turns within the holiday mood to interrupt . . .” But Gordimer has her reasons, explaining that “South African English [has] inflections which come from the way the language is used by the Babel of citizens, isiZulu, Setswana, Sepedi, isiXhosa, Afrikaans” as well as Hindi, Greek and Yiddish . Yet the difficult prose and hard work needed to wade through it does not reward the reader. Instead, it just creates a layer of indefatigable resistance to engaging with the plot that follows a married couple, Jabulile Gumede and Steven Reed as they pursue their careers.

The novel begins in post-apartheid South Africa, a time rife with conflict that many authors have exploited for content – for example, J. M. Coetzee in his novel Disgrace, which follows a disgraced university professor as he navigates his newly fallen existence through sexual, political, and racial tension as he moves back and forth across the urban/rural divide. Coetzee’s novel succeeds; Gordimer’s does not. While the same motifs and tensions arise, her novel loses the personal in the political. Characters function as vessels for political ideologies and identities (divorced from a person – as in a gay or black person). For example, Steve, like Coetzee’s character, is a white, a university professor, son of a secular Christian and Jewish mother. His wife, Jabulile, is Zulu, black, a lawyer, and the daughter of a Methodist preacher. Both fought for the Umkhonto, the armed wing of the African National Congress, to end apartheid. They consider themselves comrades in the (communist) Struggle, always capitalized. Gordimer introduces these details as summary rather than as scene; she simply informs the reader in an avalanche of identity data that occurs in the first thirty pages. Worse, the reader, whom Gordimer has already buried, than has to contend with even more identity data as Gordimer introduces peripheral characters: a brother who has reclaimed his Jewish heritage and another who is homosexual; yet, for these two peripheral characters, their Jewishness and homosexuality are what is important, and they offer nothing to the plot. Of course, every character in a novel, and in life, will have politics, ethnicity, identity but in Gordimer’s novel the characters do not feel real, or at best they feel secondary to their skin color, sexuality, religion.

With characters buried beneath language, identity markers and politics, the novel’s interpersonal conflict has no dramatic force and doesn’t propel the plot; instead, conflict between ideologies provides narrative energy, however listless (for it seems unattached to any ‘real’ person). What is personal remains unresolved, with plot lines seemingly abandoned. This causes the novel to read like a political tract: it promulgates rather narrates. And while No Time Like the Present certainly reveals some of the contemporary conflicts of South Africa, it remains blind to the idiosyncratic individuals who actually fight them.

Robert Morris is a Victoria resident and UVic student

Collage artist moves beyond words

Vancouver artist Sarah Gee studied creative writing at the University of Victoria but is now known primarily as a visual artist. Lynne Van Luven talked with Gee recently about her creative process. Gee’s current exhibition of collage works, “Stuck,” is showing at the Slide Room Gallery, Vancouver Island School of Art, 2549 Quadra Street. The show, curated by Tyler Hodgins, runs until Feb. 18, 2013.

Sarah, you strike me as someone whose creative life is always evolving, sometimes between really different forms of expression. Can you talk a bit about your shift from studying writing to becoming a practising visual artist?

For a long time, growing up, I assumed I would be a writer. I came from a highly literate family and I seemed to have the knack for it. I received a degree in Creative Writing and loved that protective, isolated environment, but I never wrote seriously after university. Part of that was due to the immediate pressures of life, which meant a series of low-paying jobs. When I first tried making art, it was more text than image, which betrayed a lack of confidence on my part. But it felt wrong – contrived, somehow, a shortcut, maybe even a falsehood, relying on language when what I wanted was beyond language. Maybe it has something to do with being wary of unequivocal expression, I’m not sure. Now my work is about as mute and ambiguous as it’s possible to be. And I don’t have the knack for visual arts the way I had for writing. It’s really hard, and I fail a lot! But it feels right.

In the publicity for your show at the Deluge Contemporary Gallery in Victoria in the summer of 2012, you were quoted as saying: “I use collaged paper to compose what could be called geometric abstraction, but I sometimes think of it as heretical geometry: formalism combined with the psychedelic.” Could you “unpack” that statement a little bit more and discuss the spatial aspects of your vision as an artist?

If I’m using geometry as a kind of utopian language, that seems heretical to me, in a funny sort of way. I’m more of an idealist rather than biographical or political artist, and I’m hoping for a kind of transcendental experience when you look at my work. Most compositions are made of repeated geometric shapes, and because there is something hypnotic about repetition with slight variation, the image can invoke a sort of theta wave response. That’s where the psychedelia comes in. Psychedelia tries to unlock the mind through intense, vibrating colour and radical, often sexualized imagery. It all looks a little silly today, but I appreciate what they were trying to do, and in my own way I’m attempting the same thing. I don’t know if I unpacked that statement or just crammed a lot more junk into it.

How does the “vocabulary” of art differ from that of creative writing? Or does it?

Creation of all kinds demands the same things from the maker. Be honest and accurate. Avoid cliché by knowing the history of your craft. The only thing that may separate the majority of writing with what goes on in the art world is the act of deliberate provocation. The art world is far more addicted to what I call The Grand Startle than the literary world. Visual artists make work that will most certainly be perceived as ugly, unlikable, or just plain confusing. Yes, there are great experimental writers, from James Joyce to Mark Danielewski, but it’s not part of the larger writing culture. Writers, in my opinion, try to orient you to the world, while visual artists try to disorient you. Through disorientation – shock, bafflement, or in my case, the mysteries of abstraction – hopefully you can come to a new kind of thinking.

With your current show in Victoria, are you marking the end of one period of your work and getting ready to segue into another?

I’m not sure my themes or my methods will change in the near future, but any exhibit is a natural end period – you get to see your work for the first time outside the studio, and it feels elegiac somehow. But when I get a bone I don’t let go. Right now I’m obsessed with these horizontal stacked forms, these “totems,” and I can’t seem to make anything else!

What are you reading right now, and does it somehow inform your art?

Being self-taught, I do a lot of reading about the history of art, and right now I’m reading a coffee table book about, of all things, how big tobacco companies in the 40s and 50s collected amazing contemporary art. It’s filled with drool-inducing photos of industrial spaces crammed with Lichtensteins and Picassos, all with a kind of democratic approach to art that seems not only radical, but sadly obsolete now. But by far the bulk of my reading right now is crime fiction. I’ve come to realize there’s a strong correlation between a mystery novel and my own aims as an artist. Both are concerned with bringing disparate elements into harmony, and both expose secret or hidden aspects of life in an attempt to make sense of it all. I find life mostly bewildering and painful, and the idea of a neat resolution is very alluring.


Devious heroine inhabits Tuscan idyll

The Whirling Girl
By Barbara Lambert
Cormorant Books, 395 pages, $22

Reviewed by Vivian Smith

Do you like the board game Clue, in which many suspects are introduced at once and a plateful of red herrings is meant to throw players off the track of whodunit?

Have you been captured by the crafting of Tuscany as an enchanted land of incomparable light, food and ancient villages, as portrayed in pastel movies like Under the Tuscan Sun and books like The Tuscan Year?

Do you enjoy fiction in which a beautiful “Botticelli” heroine from grey, rainy western Washington State (so like Victoria in winter) goes to warm, sunny Italy under mysterious circumstances and the men she encounters are either “alarmingly handsome” or shaggily “leonine” with hints of “petulance” about them?

Would you like the idea of a cream-coloured Mercedes in the rear-view mirror and then later, a turreted castle in which said heroine and the wildly rich owner of said Mercedes (and castle) make love in a great silk bed, because, as we learn early on, such a liaison is foretold?

And do you stand with novels in which every few pages, a series of long questions such as these precedes minuscule plot advancements? Do you appreciate reading some sentences in Italics so you know to pay closer attention?

If you’ve answered yes six times, then this novel will have you as sweetly giddy as if you’d drunk deeply of grappa in a sun-dappled piazza. Me? I felt like a whirling girl myself, at first busily marking plot points and character introductions with yellow sticky-notes so as not to get as lost as one might while hunting through underbrush for Etruscan treasure. That is what protagonist Clare Livingston sets off to do in the olive-groved hills near Cortona. I set down my sticky notes about a quarter of the way in, realizing, through foreshadow as translucent as extra virgin olive oil, that most of it wouldn’t matter in the end anyway.

Clare’s beloved uncle has died, you see, and left her a property in Tuscany, which may – just may – hold ancient artifacts of great worth. He leaves this potential treasure-trove to her “with forgiveness,” which we come to learn has to do with their early relationship as professor/mentor and lonely child. Decades later, Clare’s devotion to her work as a botanical artist, described in rich, meticulous detail for which I was grateful, seems to be the best part of her. Otherwise, I found Clare to be a hard-to-love heroine who determinedly lies to the world about how she researched her own book. She also wreaks vengeance on her ex-husband for his infidelity, after having been the other woman during his own earlier marriage; and she has a role in the ruin of her uncle. And her lover Mr. Mercedes? Gianni, sure enough, is married, too. I did glean one possibly useful insight into the mind of a plagiarist, though, as Clare excuses her huge professional fib as an act of self-indulgence. Never heard that one before.

Clare is, of course, the whirling girl of the title, a woman still spinning inside old lies as she makes up new ones on her Italian adventure, until even she cannot lie any more. The image comes from the kind of Etruscan artifact that her uncle taught her to love: a “dancing woman wearing pointed shoes, whirling, the movement evident in her whipping sleeves, a seven-tiered incense-burner balanced on her head.” I would like to have seen that girl on the cover, rather than a dark painting of a woman at a party, as handsome as the Charles Pachter artwork is.

If, as the book’s front flap suggests, you find in these pages a vivid exploration of what conditions “foster art, or love and the unearthing of civilization’s buried stories,” then you are perhaps a more romantic and forgiving narrative excavator than I.

Vivian Smith is a Victoria-based journalist, writing coach and magazine editor. She is also an occasional sessional instructor in the Department of Writing.




Why I use a Kindle

Rant By Will Johnson

Photo by Darby Jack

My girlfriend bought me a Kindle for my birthday last year.

I was pretty ambivalent about it for the first while, and it sat unused in its box for nearly three weeks before I decided to tinker with it. Like so many other people, I was reluctant to give up the tactile experience of holding a book in my hands. My most cherished novels were dog-eared, maybe water-stained, with notes scribbled in the margins and unrecognizable brown stains in the corners. They were vehicles of instant nostalgia. How could that be replaced by this tiny gray machine?

But after learning how many Hemingway novels I could download for free, my love affair with this gadget began.

The first book I read was The Antagonist by Lynn Coady, and right away I liked the way it updated me on my progress (7% done, 12% done) as I read and the way I could slip it into my coat pocket while rushing out to the bus. By the time I started The Hunger Games trilogy, it had become an irremovable part of my daily life.

Then I discovered the Clippings function, which meant I could highlight choice passages and save them for later. My Clippings file is now a compilation of hundreds of quotes from authors like Christopher Hitchens, David Mitchell and Kurt Vonnegut all thrown together at random.

But perhaps my favorite feature? Every time I reach a word I don’t understand, all I have to do is click over to it and the dictionary will pop up with a definition. This is especially helpful when reading short stories by David Foster Wallace.

My new word for today, learned while lounging in a soapy bath: Contrail.

(If you don’t know already, a contrail is the mist-like vapor that streaks across the sky when planes pass overhead. I never knew what to call those before. Cool, right?)

Then there are the daily deals. At first, I was annoyed by the constant advertising, but for every shitty mystery novel or random shaving gel, there’s a chance to get a classic book for less than three bucks. The other day I downloaded Requiem for a Dream by Hubert Selby Junior for 99 cents!!!! (Sorry, I felt like one exclamation mark wasn’t quite enough there…)

Also, I find I can switch between books with ease. Buying Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond does not seem as daunting when it’s simply another bullet point in a list of titles. And though reading it sometimes feel likes a scholarly chore, on a Kindle I can dip into it for one grueling chapter, and then switch back to a Tom Clancy thriller to give my brain a rest.

I still read and buy normal books, but I’m finding my patience with them is starting to wear thin. I was working my way through the hefty hardcover of Dear Life by Alice Munro the other day, and I was frustrated that I couldn’t tap my finger on the page to find the definition for “bilious,” “commensurate” or “irascible.” What was I supposed to do? Go find a dictionary? And if I find a beautiful passage that I’d like to remember, which happens every page of two with Alice Munro, do I need to resort to a highlighter? Or maybe I could scribble it down on a notepad?

My Kindle has irrevocably changed the way I interact with literature. It has been a boon to my reading life, has probably saved me hundreds of dollars and it expands my vocabulary every day. Rather than having random piles of unread books lying around my bedroom and stacked on every windowsill, I have this little gray companion that fits comfortably into my bag.

I take it with me everywhere I go.

Will Johnson, a UVIC graduate, is completing his MFA in creative writing at UBC.

Obituaries provide lively reading

Working the Dead Beat: 50 Lives that Changed Canada
By Sandra Martin
House of Anansi Press, 429 pages, $29.95

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

The first thing I noticed about this impressive book was its cover. I can’t remember the last time I saw a hardback embossed in an intricate gold-leaf design. The second thing I noticed was the publisher: House of Anansi Press. This, I thought, promises to be a memorable read.

I wasn’t disappointed.

In Working the Dead Beat, Sandra Martin, the Globe and Mail journalist sometimes referred to as the “Obit Queen of Canada,” resurrects the dead, sets them in the context of their times, and delivers—not eulogies—but, rather, complex and nuanced assessments of their lives and characters, “warts and all,” as she has been known to say.

These short biographies of Canadians who died between 2000 and 2010 demonstrate the art of obituary writing and go beyond it. They are not the published obituaries of the persons who are included, but, rather, expanded portraits based on those “first drafts.” Not all of the original obituaries were written by Martin—though most of them were—but all of the artfully-drawn accounts included in the book are the product of the writing skills she has developed over the past half-century or so she has been observing life in Canada.

The stories are neatly divided into five categories of 10 lives each, many of whom the reader will recognize. “Icons” includes such notables as Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, writer Jane Jacobs and economist John Kenneth Galbraith. “Builders” encompasses stories of the lives of such notable figures as historian J.M.S. Careless, Celia Franca, the founder of the National Ballet of Canada, and former Supreme Court Judge Bertha Wilson.

Some of the lives memorialized are notable because they are deliciously spicy. Included in the category “Rogues, Rascals, and Romantics,” for instance, are the spy Gordon Lunan, the bank robber Paddy Mitchell and exotic dancer, filmmaker and writer Lindalee Tracey.

Another category, “Private Lives, Public Impact” shines a spotlight on lesser-known Canadians, such as Ralph Lung Kee Lee, a Chinese Head-Tax survivor, who, at age 106, was one of six Chinese men who sat in the visitors’ gallery of the House of Commons as Prime Minister Stephen Harper rose to offer a formal apology on behalf of Canada for its treatment of Chinese men during the early part of the 20th century.

In the final category, Martin writes of 10 people who devoted their lives to “Service.” Found in this chapter are accounts of the lives of, among others, journalist Helen Allen, who helped children find adoptive families, and Ernest Alvia (“Smokey”) Smith, who was, at the time of his death in 2005, the last living winner of the Victoria Cross.

Adding to the value of this well-researched book is Martin’s introduction debunking five myths about the “dead beat;” introductions to each of the five categories that reveal facets of the history of obituary writing itself; and a final concluding chapter that assesses the changes taking place as technology advances.

If you enjoy vividly-drawn, incisive portraits of individuals, you will enjoy this book. If you appreciate social history that speaks to the way Canada has matured as a nation, you will enjoy this book. If you are fascinated by the developments that led to the rise of newspapers in general or of the tradition of obituary writing in particular, you will enjoy this book.

Joy Fisher is a fourth year creative writing student at UVic.


Novel’s politics undermine its art

By Bradley Somer
Nightwood Editions,
256 pages, $21.95

Review by Sushil Saini

“The idea of political art is a monstrous thing,” [sic] argued Bertolt Brecht referring to works of art that are lauded for their political message rather than the integrity of the art itself. Great art can be political, but political art cannot be great. So it goes with Bradley Somer’s novel Imperfections, a meditation on our society’s fascination with youth and beauty. To be clear, I am a fan of Somer’s point of view and welcome any book that asks us to critically reflect on how ludicrous and tragic our collective obsession with beauty has become. However, Somer is more in love with making his point than making his story. The result is a sometimes-clever read with a strong point of view like the line of perspective on a flat horizon.

Meet Richard Trench – a lonely skinny man-child who remembers his parents’ rejection of his imperfections from the moment of birth. His childhood, and subsequent rise to modeling superstardom during the 80s and 90s, is rife with pop culture references. To his credit, Somer cunningly incorporates seminal moments in our society’s recent beauty revolution into the tale. Characters discuss events like Vanessa Williams as the first black Miss America and the rise of the undernourished waif as a beauty ideal. For anyone over the age of 35, these references add resonance and much-needed depth to the story.

Trench’s career peaks around the millennial turn over and his descent into idleness and insecurity would be more compelling if his character were more sympathetic. His choices are more befuddling than amusing. And when he finally finds love, his low self-esteem provides the plot twist that leads to his grotesque downfall.

The tone of the book oscillates between Can Lit sad childhood tropes and a French farce. Characters make the author’s points through ponderous commentary on beauty and perfection, but they are rendered one-dimensional by their role as mouthpieces rather than people. From the alcoholic mother looking for the perfect life to the creepy plastic surgeon offering the perfect look, there is no fresh air to breathe life into these characters.

After my first read, I thought that maybe I just didn’t get it. Maybe Somer was actually attempting a higher concept book, one that reflected his points in form as well as content. Could the one-dimensional characters represent the superficiality of physical beauty? Perhaps the farcical plot twists were supposed to mirror the preposterous paths this obsession can take. Possibly the tragic results of this obsession are supposed to be exemplified in Trench’s horrifying end.

If this was Somer’s intention then he succeeded, but the results are unsatisfying. Politically, Imperfections is a valid and sometimes insightful social commentary. As a novel it is far from perfect.

Sushil Saini is a bibliophile based in Victoria, B.C.


A novel to break your heart

The Round House
By Louise Erdrich
Published by Harper Collins, 317 pages $27.99

Reviewed by Arleen Pare

Louise Erdrich is a fine American writer. With over twenty-five books to her name, she is also prolific. Nor is she limited to one genre, besides her fourteen novels, three works of non-fiction, one collection of stories, six books of children’s literature, Erdrich has published three collections of poetry. Her writing is diverse and literary.

She is among my favourite novelists, which is not to say that everything she writes is perfect, though many of her novels come close. Erdrich is an expert craftswoman. She can shift novelistic techniques from book to book to meet the demands of the story. Her primary fictional territory is Ojibwa country, North Dakota (Erdrich is part Ojibwa). Her characters are mainly Ojibwa, often related contemporaneously or from generation to generation. Her literary opus spans centuries.

In her latest novel, The Round House, Erdrich tells a difficult and complex story about a violent rape that shakes up a small upstanding family living on the reserve. The fact that the exact whereabouts of the incident is clouded, and that the perpetrator is non-native, complicates the legalities of crime, prolonging the crime’s unfortunate aftermath. Because the story pivots on this bitter legal detail, an inheritance from the colonial history of American Indians, Erdrich’s novel must also be understood as an admirably political text.

The Round House is told from the point of view of Joe Coutts, the thirteen-year-old son of the woman who has been raped. He is also the son of the reservation’s court judge. Still a boy, Joe is both innocent and troubled, trying to come to terms with the world and the violence that rocks his mother and father. This adolescent POV shapes the novel, at least partly, into a coming-of-age story. Joe is a typical adolescent boy; his friends are too. They sneak cigarettes, beer, marijuana; they are interested in sex and they ride their busted-up bicycles everywhere. But they become embroiled in the crime’s mystery, the whodunit, the revenge. In this way The Round House takes on the flavour of a crime novel. Erdrich is covering a lot of ground in The Round House and tackles a number of important issues. Each issue is covered sensitively, accurately (her research is impeccable), and convincingly. The story’s action unfolds with appropriate drama, the voice is consistent, and best of all, her writing is poignant, eloquent, lucid.

In the bedtime scene that follows the rape, Joe’s mother isolates herself in the bedroom. Joe observes the sadness: “My father was looking so intently at the head of the stairs as he climbed, step by deliberate step, that I crept around the couch to see what he was peering at – a light from beneath the bedroom door, perhaps. From the foot of the stairs, I watched him shuffle to the bedroom door, which was outlined in black. He paused there and went past . . . . He opened the door to the cold little room my mother used for sewing. There was a daybed in that room, but it was only for guests. . . . The sewing room door shut. I heard my father rustling about in there and hoped that he’d emerge again. Hoped he had been looking for something. But then the bed creaked. There was silence.”

These are the details that can break readers’ hearts. Be prepared to have your heart broken.

Arleen Pare is a frequent reviewer for Coastal Spectator.

B.C. poet explores her construction days

Vancouver poet and creative writing teacher Kate Braid talked via email recently with Lynne Van Luven about her new memoir, Journeywoman: Swinging A Hammer in a Man’s World, published in 2012 by Caitlin Press. She was frank about how little progress women have actually made in the trades over the past 30 years. Braid is working on a new book, which she suspects will be a book of essays.

Kate, you were a pioneer among women labourers in B.C. Does that designation feel foreign to you?

In spite of warnings in high school about “long-term goals,” my life has been basically one step after the other, mostly guided by gut instinct. In hindsight, that’s served me well – no way, as a girl growing up in the ‘50s, I could have ever planned to be a carpenter. So when people started using the word “pioneer,” I had to look over my own shoulder. Who? Now, I’m not sure if the word is a compliment or a curse. It tends to put people on pedestals, which makes me uncomfortable mostly because it says, “You (Person On Pedestal) can do that but I never could,” and my work since I started in the trades in 1977 has been to encourage more women (and men) to join me.

Do you think the status of women in trades has improved since the 1970s when you first began as a carpenter?

Alas, I know it hasn’t. The number of women in trades in BC in the ‘70s was 3%. The number of women in trades now (if you exclude chefs and hairdressers) is 3%. Same in the U.S. That, in spite of Affirmative Action laws (in the US), Human Rights and Charter laws (in Canada), role models, special groups and courses for women, etc. The number of women in traditionally male white-collar jobs like medicine and law and even engineering, is far higher, so clearly there’s something harder about breaking into blue collar work – and, I dare say, more resistance on the part of the men.

Often in your book, despite all the struggles you recount, you talk about how “empowering” it felt to be a woman who earned her living by the strength of her muscles and the sweat of her brow. Can you comment on that feeling?

It’s amazing, the confidence that being able to put up your own shelf gives you, let alone the confidence that comes from building your own house. As a woman, I knew I could enjoy my body for sex (though even this was not said overtly – mostly we were supposed to feel ashamed). And I could use my body below the wrists and above the neck for clerical work or teaching. But I was never told I could be physically strong, competent. I also learned – by going through the wonderful training called apprenticeship – that anyone can learn this. It isn’t a secret code men are born with; it’s a skill – like cooking – that even I could learn. Totally exciting!

You have taught carpentry and you have taught English and creative writing. What similarities have you found between the disciplines? What differences?

After 15 years of building, the hardest thing for me when I started teaching (initially, construction to BCIT carpenter apprentices) was not having a physical measure of what they’d learned at the end of a day. I used to literally want to take their heads between my hands and shake them, ask, “What’s in there? Did you get it? Anything?”

However, I’d always written. I kept copious journals throughout the construction years, loved poetry, and when instinct sent me back to school to take Creative Writing at UBC, I was more familiar with the implied, the almost, the unspoken – though the hardest thing for me there, was the ambiguous. Very funny for a poet, who dwells in the ambiguous! And in fact, that’s what I came to love most about teaching creative writing. As a carpenter, you build in a traditional, time-honoured, tested way, the same every time, though in fact the changes in conditions are endless so it’s always challenging. But there’s something about the physical groundedness of the work that’s deeply satisfying. Creative writing is different. Every word can take you in a different direction. It’s all ambiguity and suggestion, which is another form of truth. And both – carpentry and creative writing – are highly creative.

If you could wave your magical carpenter’s hammer, what change would you like to see for labourers in the province of British Columbia?

By “labourers,” do you mean construction workers? I’d want every student in the province to get their hands on blue-collar tools before they leave high school so they could seriously ask themselves before they graduate, “Is this something I’d love to do?” I’d like young women in particular to ask themselves this question.

Someone at BCIT once told me their biggest recruiting ground is a student in first-year university courses – young people who never thought of trades as a career, or who thought it was beneath them. If you want physical work, it’s fabulously rewarding, challenging and well paid. Tradespeople – good ones – have to be smart, and there’s a kind of quiet pride among them because at the end of the day, they can see exactly what they’ve done, how important it is, how long it will last. I loved that.


Shoe image dances life into novel

The Apple House
By Gillian Campbell
Brindle & Glass, 240 pages, $19.95

Reviewed by Jennifer Kingsley

I loved the shoes! They are everywhere in this charming story about life on the West Island near Montreal, Quebec, and they will make you pay attention to footwear everywhere you go. In the novel, shoes spark new love, beckon the unknown, weather the years like old friends and represent a time when handmade objects held real value. The shoes are perfect for a story that centres on Imogen Jackson’s life and love affair with the town cobbler, Thomas Laviolette. When Thomas’ death is foretold in the first few pages, Imogen must sort out the family shoe store and come to grips with her future and her past.

B.C. author Gillian Campbell fills The Apple House with life-affirming details that ground this 1970s story in reality. The Apple House itself is a clapboard building that sits down the street from Imogen’s childhood home. This house was the site of early childhood romps and raids for the protagonist and her friends. It resurfaces as the fixer-upper she and Thomas planned to live in before his death by car accident. It takes on further meaning when Thomas’s trouble making friend moves in after Thomas’s death.

The house helps to connect the narrative, which unfolds in three interwoven time periods. Although the reader may find the multiple narratives and shifting points of view (Campbell uses first, second and third person) confusing at the outset, Campbell soon trains you to shift from place to place. For me, the childhood narrative sometimes lagged behind the others, but the different threads allowed compelling and diverse scenes to emerge. The funeral of an old man, for example, is replete with sharp details that would only be remembered by a child. The shoe store, on the other hand, evokes anxieties that we only encounter in adulthood.

The Apple House draws out the contrasts of life in small-town Canada, and that is one of its greatest strengths. While life-long relationships build a strong community, they also make it hard for characters to change. Misunderstandings can last for years. Also, small objects and a shared landscape create a culture that is unique to each town — whether it is a French and English village from 40 years ago or the communities we live in now.

Campbell has embedded worth in her first novel by using a tiny geography to sketch the drama of a close-knit community, thereby reminding us of the power of everyday objects.

Jennifer Kingsley is a writer and broadcaster based in the small town of Almonte, Ontario.