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Over Land, Over Seas: Canadian Books Set Elsewhere
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Over Land, Over Seas: Canadian Books Set Elsewhere

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Recent and acclaimed fiction set outside of Canada.
The Parcel

The Parcel

edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
tagged : literary

Finalist for the Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and for the Governor General's Literary Award, this powerful new work, about a transgender sex worker in the red-light district of Bombay who is given an unexpected task, is a gripping literary page-turner--difficult and moving, surprising and tender. Anosh Irani's best novel yet, and his first with Knopf Canada.
The Parcel's astonishing heart, soul and unforgettable voice is Madhu--born a boy, but a eunuch by choice--who has spent most of her life i …

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Prologue
I go by many names, none of my own choosing. 
   I am called Ali, Aravani, Nau Number, Sixer, Mamu, Gandu, Napunsak, Kinnar, Kojja—the list goes on and on like a politician’s promise. There is a term for me in almost every Indian language. I am reviled and revered, deemed to have been blessed, and cursed, with sacred powers. Parents think of me as a kidnapper, shopkeepers as a lucky charm, and married couples as a fertility expert. To passengers in taxis, I am but a nuisance. I am shooed away like a crow. 
   Everyone has their version of what I am. Or what they want me to be. 
   My least favourite is what they call my kind in Tamil: Thirunangai. 
   "Mister Woman." 
   Oddly, the only ones to get it right were my parents. They named their boy Madhu. A name so gloriously unisex, I slipped in and out of its skin until I was fourteen. But then, in one fine stroke, that thing between my legs was relieved of its duties. With the very knife that I hold in my hand right now, I became a eunuch. 
   Perhaps my parents had smelled the strangeness in the air when I was born, the stench of the pain and humiliation to follow. At the least, they must have felt a deep stirring in the marrow of their bones to prepare them for the fact that their child was different. 
   Neither here nor there, neither desert nor forest, neither earth nor sky, neither man nor woman. 
   The calling of names I made my peace with years ago. 
   The one I am most comfortable with, the most accurate of them, is also the most common: hijra. The word is Urdu for "migration," and we hijras have made it our own because its meaning makes sense to us. 
   I am indeed a migrant, a wanderer. For almost three decades, I have floated through the city’s red-light district like a ghost. But this home of mine, this garden of rejects—fourteen lanes that for the rest of the city do not exist—I want it to remember me. I want it to remember even though the district is dissolving, just like I am, like the hot vapour of chai. 
   Come on. Who am I fooling? I don’t taste like chai. I am anything but delectable. I have been born and brewed to mortify. At forty, all I have left is a knife dipped in the moon and a five-rupee coin given to me by my mother. 
   But mark my words: I will make myself a household name. I will spread my name like butter on these battered streets.

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By Gaslight

By Gaslight

edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover

Longlisted for the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize
No. 1 National Bestseller
Globe and Mail's "20 Books to Read in 2016," Maclean's bestseller, Toronto Star bestseller, Ottawa Citizen's "Best on the Shelf," Huffington Post's "Best Fall 2016 Books," Publishers Weekly "Books of the Week," National Post bestseller, Vanity Fair 2016 "Must Read Books of the Fall"

"A dark tale of love, betrayal and murder that reaches from the slums of Victorian London to the diamond mines in South Africa, to the America …

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From The Woman in the Thames: Part One
1885
London

He was the oldest son.
     He wore his black moustaches long in the manner of an outlaw and his right thumb hooked at his hip where a Colt Navy should have hung. He was not yet forty but already his left knee went stiff in a damp cold from an explod­ing Confederate shell at Antietam. He had been sixteen then and the shrapnel had stood out from his knee like a knuckle of extra bone while the dirt heaved and sprayed around him. Since that day he had twice been thought killed and twice come upon his would-be killers like an avenging spectre. He had shot twenty-three men and one boy outlaws all and only the boy’s death did not trouble him. He entered banks with his head low, his eyebrows drawn close, his huge menacing hands empty as if fixed for strangling. When he lurched aboard crowded street­cars men instinctively pulled away and women followed him with their eyelashes, bonnets tipped low. He had not been at home more than a month at a stretch for five years now though he loved his wife and daughters, loved them with the fear a powerful man feels who is given to breaking things. He had long yellow teeth, a wide face, sunken eyes, pupils as dark as the twist of a man’s intestines.
     So.
     He loathed London. Its cobbled streets were filthy even to a man whose business was filth, who would take a saddle over a bed and huddle all night in a brothel’s privy with his Colt drawn
until the right arse stumbled in. Here he had seen nothing green in a month that was not holly or a cut bough carted in from a countryside he could not imagine. On Christmas he had watched the poor swarm a man in daylight, all clutched rags and greed; on New Year’s he had seen a lady kick a watercress girl from the step of a carriage, then curse the child’s blood spotting her laces. A rot ate its way through London, a wretchedness older and more brutal than any he had known in Chicago.
He was not the law. No matter. In America there was not a thief who did not fear him. By his own measure he feared no man living and only one man dead and that man his father.
 
It was a bitter January and that father six months buried when he descended at last into Bermondsey in search of an old opera­tive of his father’s, an old friend. Wading through the night’s fog, another man’s blood barnacling his knuckles, his own busi­ness in London nearly done.
     He was dressed like a gentleman though he had lost his gloves and he clutched his walking stick in one fist like a cudgel. A stain spotted his cuffs that might have been soot or mud but was not either. He had been waiting for what passed for morn­ing in this miserable winter and paused now in a narrow alley at the back of Snow Fields, opera hat collapsed in one hand, frost creaking in the timbers of the shopfronts, not sure it had come. Fog spilled over the cobblestones, foul and yellow and thick with coal fumes and a bitter stink that crusted the nos­trils, scalded the back of the throat. That fog was everywhere, always, drifting through the streets and pulling apart low to the ground, a living thing. Some nights it gave off a low hiss, like steam escaping a valve.
     Six weeks ago he had come to this city to interrogate a woman who last night after a long pursuit across Blackfriars Bridge had leaped the railing and vanished into the river. He thought of the darkness, the black water foaming outward, the slapping of the Yard sergeants’ boots on the granite setts.

He could still feel the wet scrape of the bridge bollards against his wrists.
     She had been living lawful in this city as if to pass for respectable and in this way absolve herself of a complicated life but as with anything it had not helped. She had been calling herself LeRoche but her real name was Reckitt and ten years earlier she had been an associate of the notorious cracksman and thief Edward Shade. That man Shade was the one he really hunted and until last night the Reckitt woman had been his one certain lead. She’d had small sharp teeth, long white fingers, a voice low and vicious and lovely.
     The night faded, the streets began to fill. In the upper windows of the building across the street a pale sky glinted, reflected the watery silhouettes below, the passing shadows of the early horses hauling their waggons, the huddled cloth caps and woollens of the outsides perched on their sacks. The iron-shod wheels chittering and squeaking in the cold. He coughed and lit a cigar and smoked in silence, his small deep-set eyes predatory as any cutthroat’s.
     After a time he ground the cigar under one heel and punched out his hat and put it on. He withdrew a revolver from his pocket and clicked it open and dialed through its chambers for something to do and when he could wait no longer he hitched up one shoulder and started across.
 
 
If asked he would say he had never met a dead nail didn’t want to go straight. He would say no man on the blob met his own shadow and did not flinch. He would run a hand along his unshaved jaw and glower down at whatever reporter swayed in front of him and mutter some unprintable blasphemy in flash dialect and then he would lean over and casually rip that page from the reporter’s ring-coil notebook. He would say lack of education is the beginning of the criminal underclass and both rights and laws are failing the country. A man is worth more than a horse any day though you would never guess it to see it. The cleverest jake he’d ever met was a sharper and the kindest jill a whore and the world takes all types. Only the soft-headed think a thing looks like what it is.
     In truth he was about as square as a broken jaw but then he’d never met a cop any different so what was the problem and whose business was it anyway.

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Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains

Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains

edition:Paperback

Winner of the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize
Winner of the 2017 City of Victoria Butler Book 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 gleam …

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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.
      “Don’t know?”
      “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.”
      “Actually?”
      “Actually.”
      “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.”
      “I second.”
      “Third.”
      “Obviously.”
      “This is absurd.”
      “What was that name you said? Mysterious perfume …”
      “Mysterious smell.”
      “Fragrance.”
      “No, it was mysterious scent, but I like perfume better.”
      “Me too.”
      “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.
      “Georges-Minh?”
      “Aren’t you listening?” Phuc said.
      “He’s drunk.”
      “Could you or couldn’t you?”
      “Daydreaming.”
      “No, I was paying attention. Poison.”
      “Well?”
      “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.

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The Water Beetles

The Water Beetles

edition:eBook

Shortlisted, 2017 Governor General's Award for Fiction

The Leung family leads a life of secluded luxury in Hong Kong. But in December 1941, the Empire of Japan invades the colony. The family is quickly dragged into a spiral of violence, repression, and starvation. To survive, they entomb themselves and their friends in the Leung mansion. But this is only a temporary reprieve, and the Leungs are forced to send their children away. The youngest boy, Chung-Man, escapes with some of his siblings, and …

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This Marlowe

This Marlowe

edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover eBook

"Complex, lyrical, and with a profound sense of a world long passed and humanity’s eternal motivations." — Quill & Quire

"In Butler Hallett’s hands, Kit comes off as a fascinating and contradictory figure, part martyred freethinker and part unscrupulous opportunist." — Winnipeg Review

"Perfectly paced and gracefully wrought." — Toronto Star

1593. Queen Elizabeth still reigns but grows old. Two rival spymasters — Sir Robert Cecil and the Earl of Essex — plot from the shadows. Their goa …

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Uncertain Weights and Measures

Uncertain Weights and Measures

edition:eBook
also available: Paperback

Shortlisted, 2017 Governor General's Award for Fiction

Moscow, 1921. Tatiana and Sasha meet in a bookstore the night it is bombed. In the aftermath of the explosion, Sasha grabs Tatiana's hand and together they run to safety. They fall in love.

A promising young scientist, Tatiana follows her mentor, Dr. Bekhterev, to the Institut Mozga, established to study the source of genius. She thrives in the state-sponsored research institute, but Sasha, an artist, feels left behind in this new world where …

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Yiddish for Pirates

Yiddish for Pirates

edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover

Shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and nominated for the Governor-General's Award for Literature, a hilarious, swashbuckling yet powerful tale of pirates, buried treasure and a search for the Fountain of Youth, told in the ribald, philosophical voice of a 500-year-old Jewish parrot.

Set in the years around 1492, Yiddish for Pirates recounts the compelling story of Moishe, a Bar Mitzvah boy who leaves home to join a ship's crew, where he meets Aaron, the polyglot parrot who becomes his n …

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Chapter One

Moishe as a child. He told me stories. Some were true. 
   At fourteen, he left the shtetl near Vilnius for the sea. How? First one leg out the window then the other. Like anyone else. Before first light. Before the wailing of his mother. 
   A boychik with big ideas, his kop—his head—bigger than his body. He would travel beyond the scrawny map of himself, and beyond the shtetl. He’d travel the ocean. There were Jews—he’d heard stories—that were something. Not rag-and-bones shmatte-men like his father, Chaim, always following the dreck of their nag around the same small world. Doctors. Court astronomers. Spanish lords. Tax farmers. Learned men of the world. The mapmakers of Majorca. They were Jews. Rich and powerful, they were respected by everyone. They could read the sky. They knew what was on the horizon and what was over the horizon. Jews had trickled through the cracks of the world and had rained upon the lands. 
   He’d travel the globe. He’d travel to the unknown edges of the maps, to where the lost tribes had built their golden cities, where they knew the secrets of the waters and of the sky. 
   And nu, perhaps along the way there might be a zaftik maideleh or two, or his true love, who knew secrets also. 
   So this Moishe put the cartographer before the horse and left. 
   Luftmensch, they say. Someone who lives on air, someone whose head floats in the clouds of a sky whose only use is to make the sea blue.
The world is wide because the ocean is wide. So, nu, he’d had his Bar Mitzvah, why shouldn’t the boychik sail west on a merchant ship, some kind of cabin boy, learning not to be sick with the waves? A one-way Odyssey away from home, his mother weaving only tears. 
   And where had he heard the stories? On the shmatte cart, making the rounds with his father. The sun rising, they travelled from home. They didn’t fall off the edge of their world, they circled around it, until by nightfall they were home again. Moishe’s old father, the bent and childless man who had taken in the drownedling, spoke to him of the great world that they shared. Moishe’s father, grey beard, wide black hat, stooped back. The world, he said, was a book. A great scroll. Like the Torah, when it ended, it began again. 
   Everything began again. Each week with its Shabbos of silver candlesticks and braided challah. Each year with its seasons, festivals, Torah readings. Child, father, child. It was a Moebius strip. At the end of the story, the story begins again and so we live forever, his father said. His father was a mensch. His mother also. Good people. But though they spoke of it, they never tried to find out "and then what happened?" They knew. Second verse same as the first, a little bit more oysgemutshet worn out, a little bit worse. 
   Before he climbed out the window, Moishe left a letter for his parents. 
   If the world is a book, I must read it all. 
   He had packed only his few clothes, some food, a knife, a book he had often examined when alone, and two silver coins that he took from where his mother had hidden them behind a stone of the hearth. He sewed these into the waist of his pants. 
   He had come across the book by accident, this book that had a beginning and an end. Playing at a game of catch-and-wrestle with his friend Pinchas, Moishe had slid under his parents’ bed and pushed himself against the wall where he hoped he would be invisible behind the curtain of the embroidered bedspread. Breathing hard, attempting to remain quiet and undetected, Moishe felt its shape beneath his hip. When he was eventually discovered—after he’d deliberately released a prodigious and satisfying greps, a gaseous shofar-call alerting his friend to his location—he left whatever-it-was beneath the bed to be disinterred and examined later. He knew it was somehow important and secret, so better to wait until he was alone and his mother out at the mikveh.
   When he unwrapped the old tallis—a prayer shawl—that surrounded it, Moishe was surprised to discover a book. An ancient book. Grainy brown leather with faded gold lettering and pages the colour of an old man’s hands. The script looked like Hebrew but it was the language of some parallel world, gibberish or the writing of a sorcerer. 
   Most intriguing were the strange drawings. Charts that seemed to diagram the architecture of heavenly palaces or the dance steps of ten-footed angels. Mysterious arrays of letters, the unspeakable and obsidian incantations of demons. And, most captivating of all, what appeared to be maps of the parallel world itself, filled with ring upon ring of concentric circles, rippling out from the beginning of creation and the centre of everything, as if one fine morning God had cannonballed down from everywhere and nowhere and into the exact middle of the primordial sea.
   But perhaps, Moishe wondered, these maps represented the actual earth, the alef-beys of cryptic markings, boats floating upon the waves of a vast ocean, searching for the edges of hidden knowledge. 
   It was as if Adam and his wife, Eve, had found a map instead of an apple, there in the centre of the garden. Instead of good and evil, they had discovered a map of Eden, the geography, the secrets, the true limits of Paradise and the Paradise that lies beyond.
Maybe that is why his father kept this book hidden where no one—not the rabbis or the shammes or the other men—could find it. 
   So Moishe took the book and left.

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Us Conductors

Us Conductors

edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback Paperback

Winner of the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize
A beautiful, haunting novel inspired by the true life and loves of the famed Russian scientist, inventor and spy Lev Termen – creator of the theremin.
Us Conductors takes us from the glamour of Jazz Age New York to the gulags and science prisons of the Soviet Union. On a ship steaming its way from Manhattan back to Leningrad, Lev Termen writes a letter to his “one true love”, Clara Rockmore, telling her the story of his life. Imprisoned in his ca …

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