I have spent the greater part of my summer reading. A luxury I haven't had in a very long time. Now of course, by the very nature of what I do, reading is a daily task (and sometimes quite the chore...like what I'm reading now: Lawrence Grossberg's philosophical analysis of communications and cultural studies -- which I am stubbornly going to get through before the end of August... grrr). The difference is that I wanted to read these novels strictly for the pleasure, no note taking, no fancy literary analysis. Just me and the printed word, and the potential it has to tickle my fancy. Here are the titles I have read so far:
Iced Under; Nadine Doolittle
Behind the Face of Winter; H. Nigel Thomas
Out of my Skin; Tessa McWatt
The Enemy Within; Nalini Warriar
Cockroach; Rawi Hage
The Obituary; Gail Scott
If I had to group them, Hage's Cockroach would be in the same category as McWatt's Out of my Skin and Thomas' Behind the Face of Winter would more easily be associated with Warriar's The Enemy Within and Doolittle's Iced Under. Scott's The Obituary stands alone for a few reasons, but mostly because of its incredibly experimental nature which renders the exercise of my somewhat detached summer reading into a more laborious effort. But before I go any further, a bit of background.
I can't claim to be the composer of this reading list. With the exception of Doolittle's Iced Under, the list was put together by my supervisor Lianne Moyes, and will constitute, along with other titles, the core of a class she will be teaching this fall on Anglo-Québécois literature. The course will (very-short-and-curt-description-that-does-not-do-it-justice coming up here) look at how these authors express cultural mixité in their writing.
I, however, will simply comment on my impression of these novels, a lighter sort of reviewing... the kind you can read with a morning coffee in hand and not sweat over during an evening graduate-level course.
For the most part, the voices of these novels are represented by immigrants (most living in the city of Montreal).The main character in Out of my Skin, Daphne Baird/Muriel Eyre, has recently escaped Toronto, where she was raised by her adoptive family, to come to Montreal; but her background situates her somewhere in the Caribbean, just like the character Perdro Moore in Behind the Face of Winter. Sita, the main character of The Enemy Within, arrived in Quebec City as a young bride from the city of Aluvha, in Kerala, on the south-west coast of India. The main character in Cockroach -- who considers himself a cockroach in the true sense of the term, not the figurative one -- hails from the Middle East and his name is nowhere to be found. In the case of Iced Under, the main character is from Toronto and has moved to a small Quebec border town to escape a messy divorce. In The Obituary, the main character observes many different immigrants (and non-immigrants) in the neighbourhood of Mile End, but I am unsure how to classify her.
The vast differences of origins and identity, as well as the actual stories themselves, make this round-up of novels look like more of a big hodge pogde of (almost) "migrant literature". But strangely, the writing in all these books give off a certain cohesiveness, one to which I alluded a couple paragraphs ago with different groupings based in part on the "voice" of the novel.
Group 1. This first grouping includes the novels with a surreal, mentally unstable quality in their characters. Reality is skewed by their vision of themselves and the outside world, like a filter through which experiences, social and individual, pass in order to be understood or perhaps simply just to be stacked away for later observation.
In the case of Daphne (Out of my Skin), she seems to make a breakthrough at the end of the novel, past this fabricated inner world where she explores her family past through her mentally unstable natural grandfather's diaries. But all through the novel, she comes off more like a teenager or a young adult than a thirty-something woman.
In Cockroach, the main character has a habit of entering other people's apartments to look at and steal objects (of no monetary value). It's the way he enters that is interesting: he turns into a cockroach and climbs into drain pipes and through cracks to enter the premises. The story ends by his disappearing down a drain, just like a cockroach… I won't say anything more here, don't want to mess with the ending.
Throughout both novels in this group, the concept of integration into normal life is challenged regularly, in part due to this "foreign" identity. But somehow, I do not get the impression that the goal for either of the characters was ultimately integration by seeking the approval of society (at large). It's all about an inner journey. The outside world, and gaining a footing in it, is not the point, ultimately.
Group 2. The next grouping is based in part on the length of time depicted in the stories and the narration of continuous hardships in the task of breaking through and succeeding in life, i.e. integration into society, malgré the (migratory) provenance.
In Behind the Face of WInter, Pedro literally fights his way into a place of acceptance with all required compromising, but not quite the way his mother (or grandmother) had traced out for him. The nostalgic ending makes one give off a sigh and set eyes on the horizon… the kind of ending that did not, in my mind, do any justice to the preceding chapters of the book. But if I think about it, I'm not quite sure how else one could have ended the novel.
The actual title of this next book, The Enemy Within, rested ominously in the back of my mind throughout the whole reading; and its ominous premonition, lying in wait for the right moment, never seemed to materialize until… sorry, this is where I stop. Go read it to find out. The character's depiction of her life as a housewife, mother of two children studying her way into a meaningful career is set-off by the horrible marriage she maintains, sort of like way of clinging to her roots, guilt-suffering her way through life.
The novel Iced Under definitely has its place in this group, even though its "immigrant status" hails from the province next door and not the other side of the planet. Here we are confronted with a distraught Toronto divorcée who seeks refuge from a nasty divorce. Along with her two daughters, she moves to a dilapidated cabin she inherited on the shores of a lake near a small town in Quebec. There is a child disappearance, a murder, hence, the makings of a mystery novel. But the whole notion of "it's better after the struggle", or in other words, the quintessential happy ending where everyone gets along (i.e. integration), permeate the story near the end. Of course, it's all in the crime-solving.
Now, here is where I seem to need the most help -- The Obituary. This is one book that requires some hand-holding and probably belongs in a group of its own. I want very badly to "get it", but time and time again, I find that I cannot stitch the whole thing together. I get bits and pieces of it, and when I do, it's brilliant. But most of the time, I read words that I am unable to connect to the whole story line, which seems to be a stream of consciousness recording of the life of Rosine. Some events in her life are connected to other events and I cannot make out how, or why. It's like the best inside joke ever and I am totally incapable of grasping what it's about, never mind what happens to be funny about it; I kind of feel like a third-grader reading Joyce's Ulysses; I know it's amazing, but I just can't figure out how. Help.
But this is not all I have been reading this summer. Although I forgot it in Montreal, Peter Dubé's The City Gates is so a propos with all the student strikes that I absolutely have to finish it illico presto when I get back. Anne Chudobiak even mentioned it in the Gazette this summer: Peter Dubé's protest fiction is well timed
And also, Mordecai Richler. I love Mordecai Richler. I read Barney's Version as well as Foran's Mordecai: The Life and Times back to back. And it turned out to be a neat little experiment in distinguishing between fiction and non-fiction.