Courage from the Outliers

Michelle Butler Hallett's latest novel is Constant Nobody, and we've got three copies up for giveaway right now.

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*****

I’m often plagued by self-doubt when writing, when trying to serve a story and give it what it needs, however strange, upsetting, or just plain weird that might be. Sometimes I borrow courage from aesthetic and thematic outliers.

*

A Stone Diary, by Pat Lowther

A Stone Diary is such a strong collection, one that takes many risks with subject, themes, and form with confidence and control. Lowther’s often slant perspective is compelling, almost hypnotic—in “Craneflies in Their Season,” for example, and “It Happens Every Day.” Many of the poems examine violence, intimate and state-induced, from “I.D.” to “Chacabuco, The Pit.” Violence is still something of a taboo subject for women writers now, let alone in in the 1970s. I admire how Lowther portrays violence: harrowing, yet never gratuitous, allowing space to acknowledge, consider, and recognize the full truths of being human.

*

Book Cover A Season in the Life of Emmanuel

A Season in the Life of Emmanuel,  by Marie-Claire Blais, translated by Derek Coltman

The first mainland-Canadian novel I read that reminded me of my home province, Newfoundland and Labrador, A Season in the Life of Emmanuel can be dismissed by clueless urban anglophones as mere Grand Guignol. I’m reminded of Flannery O’Connor’s talk “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction”: “I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.” So much for clueless urban anglophones. Blais defies and refuses the dominance of the terroir novel, of the Church, of patriarchy, of the cultural lies Quebec was telling itself—again, reminding me of the island of Newfoundland. It’s not a “friendly” novel. It’s not a “nice” novel. It’s not what anyone would expect from a well brought-up Quebecoise, and that is very much its point. Blais remains uncompromising with her vision, as evidenced by her recent, more experimental novels, and I admire her courage.

*

Book Cover Verbatim

Verbatim: A Novel, by Jeff Bursey

Told entirely in memos, inter-office letters, and Hansard transcriptions, Verbatim: A Novel tackles not just the practice but the very idea of realism in fiction. Like William Gaddis, Bursey creates a hyper-realism which functions as satire without apparent authorial intervention as the characters—politicians and civil servants, oh, the very guardians of parliamentary democracy—reveal themselves. This is show-don’t-tell taken to an extreme. Bursey risks losing the interest of a reader who expects, and only ever wants, a conventional narrative, but with Verbatim: A Novel he reaches for a stark intellectual honesty, asking us about the lies politicians might tell us and the lies a citizenry might tell itself about how our societies function.

*

Book Cover Two Tragedies in 429 Breaths

Two Tragedies in 429 Breaths, by Susan Paddon

I got a copy of this book of poems after Kitty McKay Lewis of Brick Books noticed my Facebook post about having a crush on Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. It’s a literary crush (ooh, those short stories) and a physical crush (ooh, those eyes). It’s a silly thing. What’s not silly is Susan Paddon’s pairing of the slow death of her mother with the slow death of Chekhov. One might wonder how we can equate one obscure Canadian woman with a Famous Great Writer—but of course we can, because they’re both human beings deserving of empathy and dignity,  especially as they suffer. Family dynamics, character flaws, mortality and grace are all explored, and the risk in the pairing becomes one of the themes: none of us escapes sorrow and death, and none of us escapes beauty.

*

Book Cover S., A novel in [XXX] Dreeams

S., A novel in [XXX] Dreams, by  Lee D. Thompson

“Magic realism” is just the start. Thompson’s episodic, impressionistic scenes are, yes, dreamy, just not in the comforting marshmallow-clouds sense. I won’t pretend I understand everything that’s going on here. Reality, and characters’ understanding of it, can be unstable in Thompson’s fiction as he fearlessly embraces questions of just how and why fiction can work.

*

Book Coevr Various Persons Named Kevin O’Brien

Various Persons Named Kevin O’Brien, by Alden Nowlan

Alden Nowlan is better remembered as a major poet, a reputation he richly deserves. As far as I know, Various Persons Named Kevin O’Brien is his only novel, and here in part he plays with, or at least wants a reader to think he’s playing with, ideas of autobiographical fiction. It’s tempting, and far too easy, to assume Kevin is Alden—yet he might be. And if he is, then what do we now think of Alden? Does it matter? Nowlan’s prose is as immediate and startling as his poetry—I often felt ambushed—and the novel is also a meditation on identity and community. I can easily imagine a conversation between Various Persons Named Kevin O’Brien and Joel Thomas Hynes’s Down to the Dirt.

*

Book Cover Lives of Short Duration

Lives of Short Duration, by David Adams Richards

Multiple timelines, multiple characters with the same name, inter-generational trauma and connection, and a sensation of currents and cross-currents, as if the Miramichi itself shapes the story: Lives of Short Duration takes enough risks there. Where it gets even more interesting is in how it builds, then demands, a complex empathy for characters who are often hard to like or “root for.” Empathy is far more than sympathy; it contains the recognition that yes, that apparently daft mouthy woman is worthy of love and respect, that yes, that violent arsehole is still a human being. Richards is not interested in apologizing for his characters; he is interested in why they do what they do. I admire the complexity of emotion and narration here, and I care about each and every one of those characters. I don’t have to like them all—or worse, think I am in a position to “approve” of them—to care.

*

The Speed of Mercy,  by Christy Ann Conlin

I’ve reviewed this novel at The Miramichi Reader, and while I can’t yet say I’ve borrowed courage from it as I tackle my own work, I can say I expect I will in the future. The Speed of Mercy is told on tidal currents, with two timelines, as we circle closer and closer to the horror at its centre. Like Richards and Blais, Conlin crafts and then demands empathy and dignity for characters who are usually marginalized—here, mentally ill older women—while also demanding we stare down not just their trauma but the evils behind it. This novel is far from hopeless, and it is emotionally and intellectually honest about women’s experiences with—and despite—the corrosive poison of patriarchy.

*

Learn more about Constant Nobody:

The time is 1937. The place: the Basque Country, embroiled in the Spanish Civil War. Polyglot and British intelligence agent Temerity West encounters Kostya Nikto, a Soviet secret police agent. Kostya has been dispatched to assassinate a doctor as part of the suppression of a rogue communist faction. When Kostya finds his victim in the company of Temerity, she expects Kostya to execute her—instead, he spares her.

Several weeks later, Temerity is reassigned to Moscow. When she is arrested by the secret police, she once again encounters Kostya. His judgement impaired by pain, morphine, and alcohol, he extricates her from a dangerous situation and takes her to his flat. In the morning, they both awaken to the realities of what Kostya has done. Although Kostya wants to keep Temerity safe, the cost will be high. And Temerity must decide where her loyalties lie.

Writing about violence with an unusual grace, Michelle Butler Hallett tells a story of complicity, love, tyranny, and identity. Constant Nobody is a thrilling novel that asks how far an individual will go to protect another—whether out of love or fear.

April 12, 2021
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