2017 Amazon First Novel Award FinalistsBy 49thShelf
Physician Richard Berringer, his wife, Ann, and their thirteen-year-old son, Torquil, have abandoned their home in Nova Scotia and moved to Sierra Leone, despite warnings that the West African country is in a civil war. Two months on, things are not going well. Tensions are rising between Richard and his boss; Torquil—who hates Sierra Leone almost as much as he hates his father—has launched a hunger strike; and Ann is bedridden with illnesses that Richard believes are all in her head. While …
Accordéon is an experimental novel, a piercing deconstruction of Québécois culture, an ode to Montréal--a city where everything happens at once and all realities exist simultaneously. Against a satirical Ministry of Culture set on quotas, preservation and containment according to its own cultural code, Kaie Kellough weaves voices and images from the margins to probe collective fantasies of Québec old and new.
Olive Kitteridge meets Room and The Lovely Bones in this stunning first novel about the unexpected reverberations the abduction of a young woman has on a small community.
When Catherine Reindeer mysteriously vanishes from the parking lot outside the restaurant where she works, an entire community is shattered. Her fellow waitress now sees danger all around her. Her mother desperately seeks comfort in saying her name over and over again. Her professor thinks of her obsessively. Her husband refuse …
It seems disloyal after all these years, but I’ve got to start buying different mascara. The Lancôme one I’ve always used wears so nice and soft—heavy makeup makes a woman my age look like a harridan—but it isn’t waterproof, and I’ve been crying all spring.
When Catherine first disappeared in March, everything was still frozen, but within a week the spring melt began. Rivers of slush ran down the edges of every street and the police came again and again, tracking dirty slush into my foyer. They doubted that an adult, a grown woman with a job and a husband, could be taken—as if such violence were kiddie stuff, or showed a lack of willpower. They kept asking questions about any unhappiness with Grey, an affair, secrets I can’t imagine my daughter would keep from me. Or him. I can’t imagine any of it. And so, helpless, clueless, I wept and wept.
After four weeks, the police don’t feel the need to visit anymore. Like with a bad boyfriend, I call them if I think of anything new to tell them or just to check in, but they never call me. Things are changing, the world is stuttering forward, and these constant tears have to stop.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I can cry at night, alone in my big bed full of pillows—perhaps I always will. But I’ve got to be stronger during the day. It will be a relief, maybe even a blessing, as Seva would say, to be back at work, thinking and talking and making people’s lives slightly easier by helping them with their banking. I want to spend the day with people who have never had the person they love most snatched away from a parking lot; I want to pretend to be one of them.
I’ve been such a reliable employee for so many years that Janie has been generous about my leave of absence, even coming by for tea with some of the other girls from the branch. Not that anyone knows what to say, but they’ve come over the past three Friday afternoons, bearing pumpkin loaves and coconut brownies, little bits of news from work, and encouraging smiles. If Catherine had died, if she’d had a straightforward car accident on an icy night or a fall while hiking in the mountains, there would have been some discussion of God, I’m sure—all of that “everything happens for a reason” nonsense, but it would have filled in the silences. I’m not religious, and Seva and Leanne know that, but it’s what they rely on in bad times, and I rely on them. We’ve all been working at the same branch since the strip mall opened.
Even if it had been a more uncomfortable thing, a drug overdose or driving under the influence—and we have certainly had our share of such tragic idiocies around here—there are things you can say. About forgiveness, about moving on, about appreciating the time we had. About never doubting the value of memories.
But Catherine’s disappearance is nothing but doubt. No one knows who would do her harm, but equally no one knows why she would run off. Both options are impossible, and there is no third. There is nothing to say, no question left to ask. I read the poetry Catherine likes—the book she forgot on the sofa, and another by the same poet that I got from the library. The poems are about plates of pasta, cats in the dark, vegetable gardens—nothing to do with me, but they are something that she loved. And they are something to think about other than the empty space where my daughter used to be. No one wants to talk about that, but my colleagues aren’t that interested in poetry either. So on this, the fourth Friday since my daughter disappeared, I ask the ladies about mascara.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I wait until they’re gone and I’m at the sink washing dishes before I let myself follow my thoughts as far as they’ll go. It’s dangerous to think of Catherine too much, especially when I’m alone. If Grey were here, we’d pick one little topic and go over every detail—how she could never be bothered to blow-dry her thick, heavy hair, how even at the end of the day when she took down her ponytail there would still be a trace of damp. Or that woman poet she liked so much—or maybe she didn’t like her, but she was reading her books over and over in the weeks before . . . before. She was like that, so much energy, you didn’t always know what she loved and what she just felt strongly about. We can talk and talk about Catherine, Grey and I, and almost always manage to stop before one of us breaks down. We can do that because we both love her equally, if such a thing is possible.
Alone, I worry I’ll go too far, think too much, and then not be able to get up off the floor. But remembering my beautiful girl is devastatingly tempting. Oh, my Catherine. So interesting. So lovely to think about. Her strange theories of how the world works. The rare moments when she wouldn’t do the expected, “normal” thing. Her refusal to get a student loan, so horrified of debt that she took only the courses she could pay for in cash, which was why her degree was stretching out into its seventh year. Her contempt for her friends who competed in figure-skating competitions. Her childhood terror at the idea of French immersion.
She was only four when the neighbourhood school mailed me a flyer about French immersion classes—it seemed a wonderful opportunity to me. One night on the back porch as we played shadow puppets I told her that next year, when she went to school, she would get to learn French. In fact, I had the bunny shadow say it, hopping up and down the crumbling brick of our back wall. I even improvised a French accent, told her she would love French, mais oui.
But Catherine unclasped her hands from making the goose shape and squawked angrily, “No, I will not. I will not learn French.”
I was baffled—still so inexperienced as a mother even after four years. Though Wayne had never contributed much in the way of parenting, he had left only six months earlier and I was feeling especially unmoored. I tried to explain the benefits of learning a new language, something different and exciting, something I myself would have loved to have done. And Catherine in her pink-and-white overalls just plopped right down on her bottom and wailed. I can still picture her hot wet face, sobbing that she would never “say that stuff,” that she only wanted to say “true words.” I never found out where she got the impression that French was a scary language or even where she learned that French was a language.
Years later, she laughed at the story and claimed not to remember her tantrum. When I pressed, she said, “Iria’s a pretty small place, Mom, and I’d never been anywhere. I probably thought I’d have to move away to learn another language.” She was giggling—I hope I laughed too, although I can’t remember that part. The memory of Cat is clear, though—I recall her grinning pink-lipstick mouth as clearly as I recall her childish panic. My memories come into clearer focus every day—I suppose it’s the longing that makes me conjure her so strongly.
They would have let me say all this and more, Seva, Leanne, Janie— they would have listened all afternoon and been glad to. But so much has been taken from me, I have to keep some memories for myself.
Winner of the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize
Finalist for the 2017 Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award
How can you stand up to tyranny when your own identity is in turmoil?
Vietnam is a haunted country, and Dr. Nguyen Georges-Minh is a haunted man. In 1908, the French rule Saigon, but uneasily; dissent whispers through the corridors of the city. Each day, more Vietnamese rebels are paraded through the streets towards the gleaming blade of the guillotine, now a permanent fixture i …
Killing a man is easy. Life is fragile, for one. And the world is poisonous, for two. How poisonous? Cobras, mushrooms, stonefish, apple seeds. Consider the datura plant. Datura stramonium. White flowers the shape of a trumpet and the size of a human heart. The seeds, crushed with a mortar and pestle, are easily processed. Thieves and prostitutes favour its killing properties. Georges-Minh has seen the results in his practice and he has such a flower blooming in his courtyard.
Five men plotted in a circle. Five men, none of them yet thirty. Five men, cross-legged on Georges-Minh’s bed, which took up half the room, no mattress in the Chinese style, carved from the rarest red wood, Georges-Minh’s command centre, where he ate, slept, played cards, and officiated the meetings he held at his house twice a month.
“Mysterious Scent of the Mountains,” said Khieu, who owned an inn with his wife and spent his spare time painting poetry onto the inside of rice-paper sun hats. Had it not been for winter, / the falling snow / might have been cherry blossoms. One day he would close the inn and just sell the hats whose words could be read only when they were raised to the rays of the sun.
His suit was the same type of linen as Georges-Minh’s except that Georges-Minh’s was ironed. His knees sloped, and the collar of his white shirt, where it met the dark line of his stubble, was wrinkled like the rings of a pineapple tree. Smaller than Georges-Minh’s, his thin mouth appeared somewhat lecherous. His powdered hair smelled like jasmine.
He sat to Georges-Minh’s right, so close their knees touched. Georges-Minh stared at his best friend’s thick betel-nut-coloured hands rolling a cigarette as he shielded the tobacco from the wind of a small oscillating fan, wondering why he hadn’t spoken of his wife in so many months.
“No, no, no. I still like Fighting Dragon,” said Trinh Van Phuc, the musician of the group, in an accent that sounded like he was chopping vegetables. Rumour was he’d been married, though he never talked about his wife.
“Or, like I said before,” Khieu said, staring straight at Georges-Minh, “we can make a poison.” He looked at the back of his hand, examined his nails.
Georges-Minh’s cheeks grew hot. “How’s your brood, Khieu?” Georges-Minh asked nervously, trying to change the subject.
“Don’t know.” Khieu lowered his gaze, picked up his hand of cards.
“Mysterious Scent of the … whatever is too … too …” Phuc waved his teacup, trying to catch the right word.
“Haven’t seen Mai in months,” Khieu said sheepishly.
“Perfume sounds like something from a song,” Phuc said. “We’re a revolutionary group—not minstrels.”
“Perfumes are transcendent,” the third man, a horticulturalist, said. The fellows called him Bao, though at his shop he responded with equal ease to Bao or Victor or Mr. Le.
“Not even the kids?” Georges-Minh said. Mostly they kept their private affairs private. Still, the revelation shocked him because Khieu had been married to his wife, Mai, for seven years; they had three children together.
“These things happen,” Phuc said and shrugged.
How did they happen? Like a storm that washed your memory of a family the way a rain washed a road in a sudden burst? Or did they happen the way a thief with a bludgeon attacked a family, leaving death in his wake? He imagined Mai running the inn alone, looked down at his cards as if it was his hand that troubled him.
“How many soldiers can there be?”
“Thirty or forty?”
“I heard fifty,” said Khieu.
“You’re both wrong. The exact number is eighty.”
“Do you know nothing? They number over two hundred!”
“We will drive out the French bandits.”
“We will restore Vietnam.”
“We will create a democratic republic.”
“No, a monarchy.”
Their hearts were in the right places, these members of the MFYM, Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains, who didn’t yet have a name, perhaps because most of their meetings were spent drinking and playing cards. They discussed lofty ideals. Drank. Outlined what a free and democratic Vietnam would look like. Drank. Compared international political systems. Drank. Cited historical precedents. Cursed the French.
Each man held some playing cards and a glass of mulberry wine. They were teacups, not wine glasses, and none of them matched, but Georges-Minh wanted people to believe he didn’t care about such trifling details. He could have afforded matching wine glasses, but only shallow men cared about such worldly things.
“If we can’t agree, let’s move on,” suggested Bao, who raised moonflowers and other exotic flora for an exclusive clientele.
Le Bao Victor’s father was the junior minister of the Annamese cabinet of Cochin China. As a child Bao had travelled with his father to the Dutch East Indies and France, when his father had still thought he might follow in his footsteps and enter the cabinet himself. But the junior minister’s power was in name alone. Had the family any jurisdiction at all, perhaps only the alleys knew it. The jackfruit trees. The sewers and opium dens. Delinquents with slingshots. Women at the market. Shoeshine boys.
The Les flaunted their material wealth as if in spite. Tennis lessons for the children. Rowing. Elocution. Music appreciation.
Bao’s wife, Mimi, married him not because she wanted a better life. Not only because. But if she’d known a few rooms next to a flower shop awaited her? He turned his back on politics two years after their marriage. Began wearing a bicycle chain for a belt. Fell in love with orchids, chrysanthemums, bellflowers, hibiscus. After reuniting with his elementary-school mates Georges-Minh and Khieu in a bar.
“Let’s talk about what we’re actually here for,” Bao said, “as our esteemed colleague Khieu suggested when he brought up a rather interesting idea. Why don’t we talk about that?”
Khieu and Georges-Minh had been best friends since grade school, when they’d run loose around Saigon’s back alleys, climbing trees and scaring cats.
Khieu, whose family lived in one of the many shacks built over the river, hated the sellout, the collaboration of his family with the enemy that included his Christian name, Henri, but he stopped short of hating the urchins who called to him across the alleyways of Cholon—“Hon-riii, Hon-riii, give us a tien, give us your school tie”—who worshipped anything French, giving themselves French nicknames for fun.
“Chosen well, a good name helps define a group’s beliefs, bestows desired traits,” Georges-Minh said, because Khieu was the kind of person who as a child had given away his pencils and schoolbooks to those same urchins, and now sat with a cracked teacup of wine in his hand goading him. Even as a child Khieu had cared about things. Georges-Minh couldn’t have cared less. Georges-Minh was too busy lusting after a new mechanical boat or model train. Khieu, who’d had nothing, had ideals, and hadn’t even wanted his French name. Georges-Minh shrugged. “Look at all the fuss and divination that goes into choosing a child’s name.” He would go to as much trouble when he named his son. When he had a son. When he found a woman. When he got married. Which he would. Any day now.
“Not a monarchy, a republic,” Khieu said. “Haven’t you read Rousseau?”
“They should die like dogs.”
“They should die like a snake under a rickshaw driver’s wheels.”
“They should die a bad death. Not a ‘death in the house and home’ but a ‘death in the street.’ ”
“They should die like an iguana in the mouth of a hungry dog, swelling at head and tail until they burst under the pressure of his powerful jaws.”
“Poison the lieutenant colonel of the garrison with gan cong mak coc, liver of a peacock, bile of a frog.”
“No. People should use a beautiful woman to kill a king.”
“Yes, love them to death.”
“You’re suggesting a strategy?”
“Poison doesn’t always kill. Did you hear about the guy who was dying? Of cancer. So he took liver and bile and the poison started to cure his cancer.”
“They can die like a lover in the arms of a woman,” Khieu said. “I don’t care. So long as they die.”
Making a poison strong enough to kill a man is easy. Remove the seeds from the stamen. Crush with a mortar and pestle until the dry seeds stop crackling. The powder is now so fine as to be invisible and weightless. Season chicken, shrimp, or buffalo with the dust. Steeped in fish sauce, the poison is tasteless.
Because he was a little drunk, Georges-Minh fell against Khieu. He righted himself and dabbed with his thumb at the spilled wine on the wooden bed slat. “I don’t mind talking about the group name some more. A thing becomes its name and vice versa. Can you imagine a militant group with the word ‘bananas’ in its moniker?”
“Bananas is definitely out.”
“This is absurd.”
“What was that name you said? Mysterious perfume …”
“No, it was mysterious scent, but I like perfume better.”
“Perfume then,” said Chang. Chang was an ethnic Chinese, born in Cholon, a court translator and lover of books. “But mysterious is the important part, because it’s how we must remain. Elusive. Who said elusive? As in impossible to catch. By soldiers, police, any and all enemies.”
“Well, perfumes are important, too,” said Bao, who would have said such a thing. “And sweet, right, because that’s what we want to be. But the transcendence. That’s the part that’s important. When something becomes a perfume it transcends its lot as a fragrance to become something else. See?”
“Maybe you’re not that much of a blockhead,” said Chang, the translator with the thick and beautiful lips. “Sweet as a flower that rises in the spring. In the spring there’s hope. Especially in the north.”
“Where at present,” said Georges-Minh, striking a serious face, “the news is one in three women are now prostitutes because of the regime. Did you know they’re starving in Tonkin? Picking individual grains of fallen rice from between stones with their fingers. Eating farm animals dead of disease.”
The men sympathized with silent nods.
“Invisible as a fragrance,” Chang continued. “Invisible as hope, invisible as a guerrilla fighter. Mountains, of course, are a symbol of strength. Where were we then, mountains?”
“Don’t forget, prayers are invisible, too,” Phuc said, chain-smoking. The rich ate, the poor smoked.
“True,” said Georges-Minh.
“Like the fart I just let out?” Phuc said.
“God, Phuc. Will you ever grow up?” Bao said.
Khieu took a sip of his wine, then drained the cup, avoiding the chip on the rim. After lighting a cigarette he said, “If we’re not going to move on to the poison until after we choose a name then I say let’s add ‘yellow’—Mysterious Perfume of the Yellow Mountains. Makes us sound more poetic.”
Was Khieu playing it straight with the group? Yellow? Georges-Minh couldn’t tell much about the man these days. Khieu had always dreamed of travelling to distant places, Africa, Borneo, and Antarctica, and carried maps with him wherever he went. Then one day he’d thrown them in the river. He had recently started growing his hair long again, like some of the Hindu holy men in the marketplace. He had discarded his topknot and traditional turban in favour of clipped hair long ago, but now he no longer kept it sleek, no longer washed it. He wore his hair unkempt and ran around the marketplace pushing a broom or borrowing rickshaws that didn’t belong to him. This, in itself, wasn’t completely new. But he’d changed since the hauling of those French contraptions of horror into the square, the guillotines.
Georges-Minh hated the French—he could say those words. But could he write someone’s name in poison? Georges-Minh didn’t know if he could kill a man. Maybe one man. But could he poison a whole garrison? Poison. Khieu’s earlier words hung in the air along with his cigarette smoke, waiting for Georges-Minh’s response.
The truth was, ever since that day as a schoolboy, when Khieu with his one green eye that emphasized his craziness had stood nearly naked in the marketplace in Cholon, Georges-Minh had admired him because he was everything Georges-Minh was incapable of being by nature, lacking the inner rigour. Or thought he had admired him because at least he stood for something. A few years later, as a teenager, when Khieu stole a driver’s rickshaw one afternoon and pretended he was a coolie, returning the rickshaw and all his earnings to the rightful owner that evening, Georges-Minh had wanted to be him. Khieu, who had a neck as solid as an ironwood tree, was strong. Even now, as an adult, when he returned to Cholon and swept the streets with a broom or collected garbage with his hands, barefoot as a peasant—for the love of work or to prove a political point, Georges-Minh wasn’t exactly sure—everyone knew him by name. Now Khieu was looking at him and Georges-Minh could feel whatever small admiration he’d built up for himself in Khieu’s eyes over the years slipping away by degrees like a small village down a waterlogged hillside during the monsoon rains. Khieu, looking again with that provocation in his eyes Georges-Minh decided was his friend’s way of mocking him, for being weaker than him, teasing him for his reluctance to get involved. Provoking him into being more than the wimp he always was. Taking a stand.
Khieu still enjoyed mathematics, detective novels, astronomy, searching with his telescope for alien life in the skies, but another part of him had evolved into something Georges-Minh no longer recognized after hearing men screech nationalist slogans, watching the blade fall, heads tumbling into baskets. The heads were collected and mounted onto spikes as warnings to others. Punishments were distributed to Vietnamese who tried to remove the heads too soon. Even as he sat there now, with Khieu waiting for his response—would he or would he not make a poison to kill the soldiers stationed at the French garrison of Saigon?—he knew he was disappointing his friend. And his country by extension.
He was the natural choice. The doctor of the group. Private doctor to the lieutenant colonel of the garrison.
Georges-Minh looked out the window. Subterfuge. An irrational ploy. Smile and no one will bother you. Look away and what you don’t want to see turns invisible. Gazing at the river that flowed out back. Now the shade of a ball bearing. Now the shade of dirty cotton. Now the shade of belly button lint. He could pretend the river was something fleeting. A minnow, a swordfish, a dragon. Then the dreaded thing happened. It must. It had to.
“Yes, of course. He could make the poison.”
“Naturally, he’s a doctor,” Bao said, scratching his eyes. His lids were swollen again. Last night, he’d gotten drunk and sat with the cuttings, singing to them. “March to victory, sway, sway.” Using the wine bottle as a door knocker, he’d tried to wake Mimi. She, angry as usual, had refused to join him in the room where he nurtured the rooted plants, encouraging them to grow.
Who knew this was something he’d be good at? If sore eyes was the price? He stumbled to each pot, ensured the proper mix of soil versus food. His own blend of which he was proud. Sang to them, while Mimi hollered he would wake the dead.
“What do you say?” Phuc said.
“Aren’t you listening?” Phuc said.
“Could you or couldn’t you?”
“No, I was paying attention. Poison.”
“There are many ways to poison a man.”
Georges-Minh stared into Khieu’s one green eye. Mulberry wine made all the fish in the near dark leap out of the river and hover over the water. They spun and danced and galloped through the air, a synchronized ripple, the way the water puppets shimmer and perform boisterous art over Saigon River currents.
Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction Finalist
Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award Finalist
McNally Robinson Book of the Year Finalist
A Canada Reads 2017 finalist
2016 Governor General’s Literary Award Finalist
2016 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize Finalist
National Post 99 Best Books of the Year
CBC Best Canadian Debut Novels 2016
Globe and Mail Best 100 Books of 2016
Quill & Quire Book of the Year
Kobo Best Books of the Year
Walrus Magazine The Best Books of 2016
49th Shelf Books of …