||A Circle Of Clarity
by Nino Ricci
Nino Ricci`s Lives of the Saints, published by Cormorant Books, is the winner of the W.H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award for 1990. The novel, which also won the 1990 Governor General`s Award for Fiction in English, was the clear choice of our panel of judges.
Lives of the Saints is set in an isolated village in Italy`s Apennine mountains, where even the recently concluded Second World War has made little change in traditional ways of life. The novel`s events are seen through the eyes of seven-year-old Vittorio Innocente, whose father has emigrated to the United States, and whose mother, Cristina, is carrying on an affair with another man. The ensuing conflict between the rigidly conventional attitudes of the villagers and Cristina`s firm determination to live her own life slowly builds to an explosive climax; and in the tragic aftermath of these developments, Vittorio must face an uncertain future alone. Throughout the narrative, it is the poignant acuity of Vittorio`s perceptions, and the verbal richness with which they are expressed, that draw the reader into a totally engrossing fictional world.
"Lives of the Saints began as an idea for a novel about a relationship between a brother and sister," Ricci explains. "In imagining a history for that brother and sister, I conceived the character of Cristina, Vittorio`s mother, whose story seemed to demand a novel of its own. And so my project expanded from a single novel to a trilogy. I`m now completing the second volume." Here are the judge`s comments on Lives of the Saints and the five other novels selected for the short list:
Ann Copeland: Nino Ricci`s Lives of the Saints is a first-rate novel, an elegant book. Full of atmosphere and colour, light and tenderness, it pulls the reader into the world of a small Italian village in the Appenines, Valle del Sole, after the Second World War, and above all into the deeply felt and troubled world of seven-year-old Vittorio Innocente.
What happens when a sensitive intelligent child of seven faces a mystery centred in the spirit and body of the one he loves best - his mother? What happens when that mother, beautiful, passionate, witty, and intelligent Cristina, stands her ground in a progressively more hostile environment; a village world of piety, superstition, family tension, and neighbourly web? In such a world, no act is single, detached, self-contained. It is impossible, therefore, to protect Vitro from the encircling consequences of his mother`s sin. Impossible also to explain to him why this should be. He must feel his way - if not toward full understanding, at least toward a larger sense of the darkness that is the adult world.
At one point, Vitro sneaks out at night from his grandfather`s house to perform a magic ritual: burning a beheaded chicken accompanied by certain incantations. Surely this, he hopes, will appease the spirits, ward off the possibility of the snake-headed baby that the village bullies have predicted, return his world to normal, and win back his mother - and his life - to wholeness:
Outside, not a single light shone along via San Giuseppe, not even up at DeLucci`s where card games often went on long into the night. It was strange to think of the other villagers asleep in their beds while I stood alone and unwatched in the street, all the village stilled and quiet, as if God himself had gone to sleep; some secret village seemed to be lurking there in the darkness, one that could not be seen in the light of day, as if it huddled itself away then against the noise and light. Under the light of the moon I crept down the steps next to our house and through the garden into the bramble-choked darkness of the ravine, making my way by touch now, like a blind person, feeling for the break in the bushes 1 had made earlier in the day. Finally 1 stumbled into empty space, so black and void it might have been limitless; though when 1 lit my lamp, keeping the flame low and squat, bright enough merely to light a small private circle of clarity around me, 1 found myself safely in the clearing and under the chestnut tree, everything as 1 had left it, the pile of leaves and branches, the circle of cleared earth.
This scene might stand for the rare achievement of Lives of the Saints. In a setting as rooted and earthy as that of the chestnut tree, Vitto pilots his own small, shifting circle of light - by feel, by touch -through the ever-widening mystery that envelops him. He watches his pregnant mother withdraw into a silent, unreachable place; sees his grandfather, once the mayor and a respected elder, shrink to a bitter old man; endures the mocking voices and eyes of his schoolmates; bears his teacher`s pity as she reads him stories of the saints after school. Through it all, he longs to understand. But he does not understand these things; he feels them, and survives them.
Ricci`s fine achievement is to make the reader feel them also. This book is far greater than the sum of its deceptively simple parts. Again and again, without sacrificing the palpable concreteness of the world he creates, the narrator suggests, by a simple "as if` or a "seem," other, unseen, realities -"some secret village lurking there in the darkness" - a darkness where radiant saints, the evil eye, troublemaking spirits, and the Snake-Devil may dwell.
With a tenderness that avoids sentimentality, an eye for the telling gesture, and a respect for the contradictoriness of his characters, Nino Ricci invites us out of the void into a small private circle of clarity. He renders a world complete, vital, detailed, and radiant. With rare modesty, the narrator of this elegant and moving book finds ways continually to remind us, even as he claims and holds our attention, that the circle of cleared earth he illumines is just that -small, moving, and imagined.
This is a beautifully realized fiction.
In Dark Jewels, Rita Donovan skilfully weaves the many strands of Murdoch Macfarland`s story into a rich, muted tapestry of human longing, betrayal, desire, pain, and partial triumph, This is a book of fragments, of separate overlapping stories told in the many voices of Murdoch and his family, and those they touch most directly. In less capable hands such a structure would dilute a subject, but Donovan manages to make these fragments dramatize the iron grip of circumstance as well as the fragile strength of family. Each character longs for something he or she cannot achieve or have. Escape is the dream, entrapment the reality. Perhaps their deepest hunger is for human communion. Certainly, the most sharply articulated theme in this book is that we are fools to suppose we control our own lives.
Donovan offers the patient reader significant return for following the threads: this book builds to power and leaves one with a haunting sense of struggling people for whom desire is the last thing to die.
Sniper`s Moon is a strong book with a timely subject. Carsten Stroud dextrously weaves together three complex plot lines, sustaining and intensifying suspense and surprise to provide an entertaining and satisfying novel. His eye for detail, his sure handling of scenes, his ability to render and differentiate character, and above all his willingness to tackle a complex human question make Sniper`s Moon more than a murder mystery - though that it certainly is. Forms of physical violence - murder, drownings, dismemberings, exotic stranglings, torture, etc. - abound in this novel about a sniper in the SWAT unit of the New York City Police Department. With wit, sympathy, and a critical eye, Stroud dramatizes how men in such a setting bond with and betray one another.
The deeper question Stroud explores is important: how does killing from a distance affect a man? At what human cost does one - in this case, a Vietnam soldier and a professional sniper - develop the necessary inner distance that enables him to kill and feel good about it? "That cold blue space where the actual killing got done` is a familiar place for Frank Keogh: "Days after a clean surgical kill, Frank would feel a stillness in him, a kind of sweet sadness!
As it did for his father, John Keogh, also a member of the NYPD, this inner quiet achieved through killing becomes for Frank a problem that infects his whole life, professional and domestic. External distance from a victim - with all that it implies about felt superiority and moral blamelessness becomes a metaphor for the deeper problem of interior distancing, the silencing of the human heart, disdain for tenderness. To his credit, Stroud does not flinch from exploring his subject. Here, no one is innocent. This serious and disturbing novel poses questions palpably relevant for us in days of "surgical strikes"
In 45-year-old Joanne Kilbourn, the protagonist of Deadly Appearances, Gail Bowen has created a narrator who is bright, thoughtful, wryly entertaining, and warm without being sappy. As a single parent she is convincing; as the widow of a murdered man, she is haunted by the randomness of evil, and seeks now not merely to blame but to understand. In her search to re-establish order in her world, she is intelligent, literate, and discriminating.
Hear her on one simple-minded, pious character:
Lori Evanson seemed to float in a little globe of uncomplicated and undifferentiated joy. She was as filled with delight at a girlfriend`s cute new school bag as she was when a thin, freckled boy told her that since June his cancer had been in remission, or with the news that the pie of the day at Disciples was deep dish green apple.
Such wry observations pepper this book.
Bowen knows how to reveal characters through dialogue that is often bright, clipped, and funny. She resists oversimplifying characters for the sake of a clever or suspenseful narrative line. Thus, although she easily sustains suspense, she takes on the explication of complex characters - Eva, the Protean, baffling widow of murdered Andy Boychuk; Soren Eames, the homosexual chaplain of Wolf River Bible College; Rick Spenser, television personality and would-be lover; and others. Bowen`s dextrous unravelling of the complex network of sexual, financial, and political intrigue behind the murder of Andy Boychuk is suspenseful, entertaining, and one good read.
The story of John Hislop`s final summer at Grace Lake is often touching and has moments of singular grace. Glen Huser writes with an eye for detail and a telling sense of the natural world. He writes as well with a realistic sense of how teenage boys talk and act, their crudeness, cruelty, forms of bonding, and the colours of their private language.
It is difficult to make a life of repression the subject of a novel. Huser makes the reader grasp the power of attraction (to Malcolm, to the Native boy), "the kinship" of "sexual brotherhood" as he calls it, and the pain of denial. The problem of the book, though, is that it is too interior. Too much of it is remembered. Regret, after all, looks toward the past. And since Hislop is dying, that regret cannot be transformed into change or action. This keeps the narrative from moving forward. The balance of remembered events and interior analysis to external events is, I believe, excessive.
The final dramatic scene of Salome and Herod is hilariously accurate as a depiction of teenage irreverence. But I think it fails as a dramatic climax, because what actually happens to Hislop, is blurred and becomes melodramatic. Nonetheless, in this book Huser tackles a difficult subject and comes close to making it work. I hope his next book has a stronger narrative drive forward.
Margot Livesey`s Homework promises more than it delivers. It strains to create a sense of evil but succeeds only in describing a sense of perplexity. The central problem of the book how can I make the daughter of the man I love like me? - is somewhat banal. One could argue that this is not the central problem. The narrator presses the reader to agree that this child may be evil, and that this possibility is the central problem. Yet nothing, to my mind, really works to convey a sense of evil. Despite narrative assertions, the situation is dramatized as problematic, not mysterious.
The structure of the book is carefully thought out: too carefully. The architecture becomes exposed, felt, as you read. Flashbacks (too many) are carefully arranged as Celia attempts to understand jenny, her lover`s child. The chief method Celia uses is flashback to her own childhood: this child feels shocked and rejected because her mother and father split. So did 1. Flashback. This child may be a victim of her classmates. So was 1. Flashback. This child wants to win the attention of her father at the price of alienating his love. So did 1. Flashback. And so on.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty lies with the narrator. Though Celia is an editor, she shows little sense of how to turn a phrase. Her diction is flat; she is dull, a bit self-pitying, and unimaginative. Therefore she does not create interesting analogies and her attempts to render feeling, in particular, fall flat.
I have the sense that if Livesey loosened up a bit, trusted her instincts more, worked on developing a sense of metaphor, and tackled her next novel with less anxiety, she could produce a much better book. Competence is there. She should aim for daring. Keith Maillard: I do not fully approve of literary contests. Writing fiction has never appeared to me to have anything at all to do with competition, and being asked to decide whether a particular book is better than another - when the books in question are as dissimilar as (to choose my two favourites from this year`s short list) Homework and Lives of the Saints - is like being asked to judge which was a better piece of fruit: this pomegranate or that banana. It is hard enough to write a good book review, but to pass judgement upon a novel is a devilish business indeed; the temptation is to write as though there were a model of "novelness" known to all educated people of good will, a paradigm that all novelists aspire to emulate, and then to deliver, in the most firm and oracular of tones, opinions based upon this undefined paradigm. But, alas, there exists no such generally accepted paradigm, and a literary contest is not really an exercise in pure literary judgement anyway; it is a publicity event. Canadian writers need all the publicity they can get, so I have consented to play judge, but I will not pretend that what I am delivering here is anything other than my own taste - a taste that has been shaped by writing fiction, and attempting to help others to write it - but, ultimately, my bloody taste: idiosyncratic, somewhat old-fashioned, and occasionally quirky as it may be.
With the exception of Carsten Stroud`s Sniper`s Moon, which should never have been placed on the short list, all of the books this year are "good" ones - if I may use such a bland, general, and neutral word -that is, I would recommend them to friends, although sometimes with the proviso "if you like that sort of thing" Deadly Appearances is an intelligent thriller; it works both as a mystery (I was not able to guess who the murderer was before the end) and as an absorbing novel (there was sufficiently more going on than the mere thriller plot). Both Grace Lake and Dark Jewels are resonant and accomplished first novels filled with many lovely passages; readers more attracted to intensely interior fiction, in which atmosphere and "fine writing" are far more important than narrative drive, might like them better than I did. Nino Ricci`s Lives of the Saints is an absolutely splendid book that I cannot praise too highly. It is clear, forceful, and vigorous; it has a fast opening, a compelling narrative motion, characters who spring wildly and weirdly to life, and an authenticity so powerful that the question of whether the author has fully realized the fictional landscape does not even begin to arise. Lives of the Saints was not my first choice, however, not because of any defects, but because of the merits of the book I finally chose as my winner.
Margot Livesey`s Homework is an astonishing work. It is not without problems; it is too long, and most of the excess is at the beginning, which makes it less attractive in its opening chapters than it needs to be. The dust-jacket hype is, for once, accurate in comparing the book to Henry James`s The Turn of the Screw, but the comparison should have been extended beyond the matter of ambiance-, the published text of Homework suggests to me that, like The Turn of the Screw, it should have been a "novelette?`- that difficult, compact form that combines the compression of the short story with the depth and complexity of the novel. Novelettes, however, are impossible to publish on their
own (they are usually tacked onto short-story collections); and, if Homework had been cut as much as I think it needed, we might never have seen it. To readers who get bogged down in the opening and are tempted to stop, I would say: persist, it`s worth it.
The main thing that attracts me to Homework is its subtlety. There is a plot - and a damn good one too; by three-quarters of the way in it is driving as hard as that of any commercial thriller - but it is not the plot that makes the book. If one were to summarize the plot in the style of a grade-eight book report (or, for that matter, a newspaper review - these two forms being often indistinguishable), it would suggest something more to the liking of Stephen King than the backbone of a literary novel; yet never is the plot milked, exploited, pushed over the top - and, oh, the temptations must have been enormous! It is Livesey`s exquisite restraint that convinces us: this is reality - as pungent, immediate, messy, and live as a fictional world can get - we know these people; in fact, we just had dinner with them last week; in fact, with just a minor twist or turn, they`re us.
One of the most difficult effects a novelist can attempt is the use of the untrustworthy narrator. It is difficult enough even when the narrator is as much of a patent, self-deluding idiot as the one who tries to lead us down the garden path in Ford Madox Ford`s The Good Soldier. The effect Livesey achieves is smaller, far more difficult, for her narrator is not exactly untrustworthy: Celia is doing her best, God knows; consciousness for her is an achievement, and she shares it fully with us; it is not that we ever stop trusting her intentions - but, gradually, we become aware that we can`t quite trust her perceptions; there`s a certain myopia on her part, a faint lack of focus. Although she is telling us her story, we can see that she is caught in a soft and growing delusion; we are almost caught right along with her. But something else is emerging - dim, hard to make out - another way to read the characters, to read the story itself The strength, the demand, and the achievement of the book is this: the reader must participate in this fiction to complete it.
Now that is exactly the kind of ponderous pronouncement I was trying my best to avoid. I am afraid I have made Homework sound like a Rubik`s Cube - which it is not. Let me put it another way. "The solution to the mystery," Borges wrote, "is always inferior to the mystery." Livesey leaves us with the mystery intact; it is, finally, our own mystery. You see, I told you I was old-fashioned: the novels I like best are those which make no claims to be self-contained but, instead, dribble out into the world itself - and inform it. I was entertained by Homework, but I was also changed by it. I can`t ask any more from a novel than that. If we must have a winner, and I gather we must, then Homework is clearly mine. Irene McGuire: My choice for the W.H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award is Nino Ricci`s Lives of the Saints. This novel is so richly imagined and so carefully drawn that one cannot imagine adding or deleting any episode or detail. The lives of the characters and the life of the village accrue slowly, day by day, layer upon layer, belief by belief We see both the outward manifestations and inner, eternal workings of cycles and myths. The novel gives the appearance of great simplicity with a strong, continuous voice. There are no fashionable postmodernist structural/narrative devices, but instead the richness and truth of lives carefully drawn. Lives of the Saints is not a brilliant first novel, it is a brilliant novel.
As I read each of the six novels on this year`s short list, I was struck by the fact that for each of them, guilt was the predominant theme: sexual guilt, betrayal, remorse, the guilt of responsibility, the loss of innocence, the violation of laws; the too easy acceptance of guilt and the steadfast refusal to acknowledge it.
Cristina, bitten by a snake in the opening chapter of Lives of the Saints, refuses to accept the required guilt for her adultery; her neighbours carry the guilt for her and refuse her prideful denials. It is her pride and the subsequent repercussions that force her to leave the village with her son and to begin her trip to North America to her distant husband. In her refusal to accept her guilt, Cristina calls into question the entire system of pagan, moral, and Christian beliefs that binds the village together.
Dark Jewels, by Rita Donovan, is an ambitious novel that portrays the bleak lives of coal miners in Cape Breton during and after the First World War. The novel unfolds through the voices of the Macfarlands (William, Morag, Allen, Holly, and Murdoch) and two others deeply involved with the Macfarlands, Rife Tamer and Helena Krol. Each voice brings to the narrative a chorus of repetition, nuance, and harmony. The guilt in Dark Jewels is manifestly pervasive in the hopeless chain of poverty, but it is the secret of a sexual transgression, as it is slowly and dramatically revealed, that affects each life. I found Dark Jewels a deeply affecting novel, and Rita Donovan`s empathy with the harsh Cape Breton landscape and its inhabitants abundantly evident. I look forward to her next book.
Margot Livesey`s Homework explores the dark territory of childhood innocence in the relationship between the narrator, Celia, and her lover`s daughter, jenny. Homework sometimes captures those chilling moments when you suspect that something is wrong but have no real evidence. The hole in a new sweater, money missing from the wallet, numerous incidents of small doubts that leave Celia, the victim, feeling sorry for herself and guilty for suspecting the child. We know who is guilty, and as events multiplied I lost patience with Celia for allowing herself to be victimized again. I was less taken with questions of jenny`s innocence or guilt in the various incidents of domestic disharmony that comprise the plot of the novel, than I was by Celia`s easy victimization. Whether during her affair with the duplicitous Lewis or in the domestic arrangements with Stephan and Jenny, Celia appears to be the victim responsible for another`s guilt.
Grace Lake, by Glen Huser, offers no relief for us or for John Hislop who, facing death, must acknowledge his homosexuality. That John does this during his last summer at Grace Lake - a boy`s camp, scene of the accidental death by drowning of a beautiful young camper many years ago - raises questions of his responsibility for that death. I found this novel, an extended short story, marred by Hislop`s imminent death. The novel opens with "his last summer," and I kept wondering how death would occur: on-Stage, off-stage, on shore, at the cabin, alone, etc., etc.
For the remaining two novels, the question of guilt is inherent in the genre. Deadly Appearances is a murder mystery for which the question of guilt involves more than finding the murderer. In this well-plotted and enjoyable novel, Gail Bowen takes the reader behind the scenes of provincial politics to the murder of the recently elected leader of the opposition. There are many motives and just as many red herrings: sexual obsession, secret finds, family secrets, and another murder attempt. Joanne Kilbourn, speechwriter for the dead leader, is the amateur sleuth and narrator. She is likeable and intelligent. Gail Bowen knows what she is doing, even if she is too heavy-handed with "If I knew then..."
In Sniper`s Moon, the mystery/thriller by Carsten Stroud, everyone is guilty and some are innocent. In a non-stop plot that twists and turns through crimes and retribution, this novel shows guilt and innocence, not as polar opposites, or two sides of the same coin, but similar shades of grey.