Let me tell you something. Between 9-5 in an office, chasing a toddler, producing literary events, and coordinating volunteers at the Blue Met festival this year, I have barely had enough time to breathe lately, let alone read. Let alone write any words about books that I’m reading.
Yet. Somehow (probably in the time I was supposed to be breathing) I managed to actually finish a few books in May. Let me tell you about them.
First, Janie Chang’s Dragon Springs Road. I read most of this book on the train from Montreal to Toronto and back. And it was a PERFECT train book. The story of a young girl–abandoned by her mother, raised as a sort of servant in her adoptive home, the choices that she has, the choices that she doesn’t–was told in a tone that is both tender and matter-of-fact. Not indulging in sentiment, but not brutally realist either.
Of particular interest is the character of Fox, an animal spirit (mostly hanging out in different human woman forms) who lives on Dragon Springs Road and takes care of her various female companions. This supernatural element, rather than being relegated to the realm of a fictional flourish, is actually a major driving force in the novel’s plot.
Any book prefacing itself with the claim that “to understand this novel, readers must listen to ‘Little Earthquakes’ [by Tori Amos] and ‘Pointant le nord’ [by Pierre LaPointe]” is a book that already has the deck stacked significantly in its favour for me. There is probably a lot to love about a book for whom “Both songs might just be the ideal preface.”
That said, knowing the oeuvre of Tori Amos and Pierre LaPointe is not absolutely necessary to enjoying the book, although the continual refrain of “Little Earthquakes” is certainly illuminating, for it is a book about the ways in which the little and large tragedies of childhood–most of which are not even visible to the surrounding adults–create a lifelong trembling in the soul. It is not a novel of childhood trauma per se, and because most of its sadnesses are of a relatively familiar nature, the reader is brought wholeheartedly into this world of coldness and cod, separation and separatism, firsts and forests. There is nothing so common in childhood as the feeling of loneliness, and it is because of this that even the reader boasting one of those so-called happy childhoods can so deeply identify with the young narrator’s deep hunger for affection.
I am not entirely sure of the truth claims here. Are we in the realm of autofiction? If a memoir, then the book certainly stretches the genre beyond its usual parameters. At times very reminiscent of the long tradition of stories about childhood in rural Quebec, and at other times verging on a comic, post-modern-ish, semi-magical realist tale of leave-taking, it’s a book that is irrevocably rooted in its surroundings and yet constantly reaching toward the outside world, with Romanian Olympic stars and Belgian songwriters taking up prime real estate in the cultural atmosphere.
In Sigal Samuel’s recent novel The Mystics of Mile End everyone is looking for a message. There’s the Meyer family, with David interpreting the vague murmurs of his erratic heart; his son Lev deciphering the flower caught in his teacher’s bicycle; and his daughter Samara seeking keys to climb the Tree of Life in order to fulfill her Kabbalistic journey. Lev and Samara’s childhood friend Alex listens to everything from stars to dishwashers in the attempt to intercept messages from extraterrestrial life. And Mr. Katz hooks up a series of tin can telephones in his old oak tree presumably in order to receive messages from God.
What drives this novel is not necessarily religious crisis, but rather a crisis of interpretation. No one is stricken with lack of faith per se, that ever-present theme of Protestantism. (Even budding astronomer Alex, an atheist, is portrayed as a most unshakable believer in life beyond planet Earth.) Instead, they employ their faith in God, logic, intellectual discovery, scientific instruments, etc., to decode symbols they encounter. The question is not “Is there a God?” but rather, can we ever reliably interpret the messages we receive? Follow-up question, do those messages ever lead to some understanding of what lies beyond us?