Pros: Surreal, beautiful, engaging
Cons: Difficult subject matter, depressing
Rating: 4 out of 5
First published 7/2/2001
Ahh, here I am back at the keyboard again after almost a month without submitting a single review. I’d say that this was because we moved to a new state recently, but really it’s because our last service provider completely screwed us over. And this is where this book comes in. I needed something to keep me from thinking about all of the many sites that will have removed their links to us, all of the people who think we’re dead in the water, all of the mailing lists I will have been removed from, all of the long months it will take us to build our traffic back up again. Next to the problems the characters in this book have, my troubles look blessedly miniscule and insignificant.
Where We’re At
Most of this book takes place in Canada in the first half of the twentieth century. This novel weaves a rich tapestry of cultures and people: Lebanese families, Jewish families, Protestants, Catholics, Irish, Scottish, Africans… there’s a little bit of everyone in here. Strangely, it doesn’t overwhelm or feel contrived. It’s a time when many people are moving to North America, and you really do get a feel of the hopes and lost dreams that go with that. The Depression, the wars. You feel their impact on the lives of people, not in major earth-shaking ways, but in the small ways that change people.
The book follows one certain family, from before the elopement of the parents (a girl from a Catholic Lebanese family and a young man from an Irish Protestant family) through the lives of two of their grandchildren.
Dark and Depressing
This book is not for people who want to be uplifted and cheered by their reading material. People do awful things to each other. There are a couple of reasonably explicit scenes of rape/incest. There are a couple of homosexual love scenes (I count those among the more cheering and uplifting parts of the book, but not everyone is interested in reading such scenes).
However, one of the things I love best about this book is that there really are very, very few characters in this book who could be considered wholly good or wholly bad. They’re all distressingly realistic. Even the characters you want to hate, you can’t really – they still do good things sometimes. Even the characters you want to love, you still can’t – they do terrible things to people sometimes.
Yet it all makes sense. It isn’t senseless violence or senseless manipulation. There’s always a good emotional reason for what happens, such as Frances, who says things to make her younger sister Lily cry because it makes her feel good when Lily gets distressed about her welfare.
This really is a beautifully complex book. There are themes that stretch out across the entirety of its 508 pages, settling back and then resurfacing later. There are themes of race and color, religion, love, sex, family, marriage, and more.
My only complaint is that there were a few brief plot lines that could have been easily axed without making a single difference in the plotline. They were gratuitous, didn’t change any of the characters, and didn’t tell us anything particularly new about the characters. Death, depression and terrible things that affect people and their lives can make for interesting reading. Death and terrible things that happen without reason start to look a bit sensationalistic. Luckily there were very few plots that seemed gratuitous in this way.
Ultimately this is a beautiful book. The writing is a little surreal, a little magical. It does something that I’ve always loved, which is to throw just enough little weird things in that you’re never sure whether there’s something slightly supernatural going on in the world.
To be honest, this isn’t my usual sort of book. I prefer genre books – science fiction, horror, fantasy, and so on. This is a very literary book about a single fictional family. Yet I enjoyed reading it, and it certainly captivated my attention. The people are complex and interesting. The themes are treated well. The style of writing is unusual, in places almost a little stream-of-consciousness. The author is bold in what she chooses to depict and how. The book is long, but I never felt bored.
Unfortunately the dark nature of the plots, the relentless terrible things that happen with only brief moments of happiness, the explicit themes of rape, incest and sexuality, will cause quite a few people to avoid this book. Which is a shame, really, because it is well worth reading.