||2002łAnother Batch of Winning Fiction. The Amazon.com/Books in Canada First Novel Award Shortlist
by W.P. Kinsella
Three of the finalists were reviewed in my first 2002 first novels column. I had hoped this would be a spectacular year, but unfortunately the quality didn't quite hold up. Looking the year over, the overall quality of the 2002 novels differed little from that of 2001. The best books were world class, the worst left me wondering why I subject myself to reading 50/60 first novels a year.
Last year, 2001, was the year of the boarding school novel, most of them pretty awful. The 400lb clichT in 2002 was the low-life-girl novel, and there were plenty of them. There must be something in the ether that caused so many people to write novels on the same subject. The best, Heave, by Christy Ann Conlin made the short list, The Sudden Weight of Snow by Laisha Rosnau received an Honorable Mention, yet another received one of my Bottom Drawer Awards as one of the worst novels of the year. What am I looking for when reading the plethora of novels that come my way? I love to be surprised.
There are so few surprises in current fiction. Three of the finalists had wonderful surprises in them, two at the beginning, one a quarter of the way into the book. I want characters and events that will stay with me for years. Most books are forgotten within hours of being read. What characters and images have stayed with me for years?
I remember the Ellen James Society from John Irving's The World According to Garp; I remember Enoch Emery, the strange boy in the gorilla suit in Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood; I remember the plucky little girl, Ellen Foster, in Kaye Gibbons's novel of the same name; I remember the opening of Sex and Sunsets by Tim Sandlin where a bride on her way into the church, picks up an errant football and punts it over the rectory, causing a young man passing by to fall hopelessly in love with her; and most of all I remember the flatfooted, mysterious Ida Johnson in what is probably my favorite Canadian novel, The True Story of Ida Johnson by Sharon Riis. I like something Carmine Starnino said when he was judging first novels. He said, "I look for real people, real places, real emotions," and that seems to be an excellent criteria. Reading these novels I also look for things that I have felt, but never quite known. Most of the dust jackets this year were unspectacular, however C. S. Richardson designed some very powerful covers including those for Spelling Mississippi, and Heave. I have complained bitterly in the past about poor editing, or lack of editing. Happily, the quality of editing improved greatly in 2002. Is this luck? Or do publishers read my column?
THE HONORABLE MENTIONS
Once again there were a group of novels that just missed the short list, and since reviewing is always subjective, they might well have made the list if someone else was doing the choosing.
Back Flip, by Anne Denoon (Porcupine's Quill), follows an Altmanesque cast of characters in the Toronto art scene for a few months in 1967. A wicked and humorous satire of pretentious artists, gallery owners and patrons.
In Astral Projection, by Edward O'Connor (Random House), a boy with violent, alcoholic parents finds solace in the guitar and a father-figure in his down-at-the-heels instructor.
Arms, by Madeline Sonik (Nightwood Editions) is a strange, surreal, magical story about a girl whose arms are amputated by flying shingles when her home actually explodes because of the emotional volatility of her parents. Almost incomprehensible at times, but extremely memorable.
How the Blessed Live, by Susannah M. Smith, (Coach House Books) offers hauntingly beautiful language. With the lyrical voice of a poet, Smith carries off this retelling of the Isis/Osiris myth. The story holds the reader's interest from start to finish.
The Sudden Weight of Snow, by Laisha Rosnau, (M&S) is a tale of a troubled British Columbia teenage girl who is into sex, drugs and rock and roll. Powerful writing makes Rosnau a storyteller to watch. If she has the stamina I predict big things in her future.
Porcupines and China Dolls, by Robert Arthur Alexie (Stoddart). The title refers to how native residential school children saw themselves after they had been sheared and sanitized to the standards of the white world. With some caustic and humorous asides Alexie provides what are probably the best descriptions of the native bar scene to date.
Rush Home Road, by Lori Lansens (Knopf Canada). A lengthy, tear-jerking tale of suffering. Could become a 5-hankie movie starring Oprah.
Since I do not participate in the judging; the finalists are presented here in alphabetical order by author.
Heave, by Christy Ann Conlin (Doubleday Canada, $29.95, 322pages, ISBN: 0385658079), has the best opening of the year as Seraphina Sullivan, a 20-year-old alcoholic with serious self-destructive tendencies takes a friend's advice to "Go tits to the wind," and bolts her wedding, running through the countryside disgorging pieces of her wedding outfit as she does so. This is the best of the low-life-girl novels because Seraphina has a real reason for her appalling behavior. Seraphina could have been a much more sympathetic character had her secret been revealed sooner.
Stay, by Aislinn Hunter, (Polestar, $21.95, 269Pages, ISBN: 1551925680), is a story of a complicated relationship between a Canadian girl and a much older Irishman. A tale of love, loss, abandonment, failure and hope all skillfully twined together. With stunning depictions of the sights, sounds, tastes, feel and smell, Hunter captures rural Ireland, the damp cold, the fog, the eccentric people. She has a wonderful sense of humor that seeps into even the most sepulchral scenes. Brilliantly written. A feast for the senses.
The Beautiful Dead End, by Clint Hutzulak, (Anvil Press, $14.95, 202pages, ISBN: 1895636396). Originality and audacity abound in this tale of a low-life named Stace who returns to his old stomping ground only to fall into something that is part Twilight Zone, part ghost story, part glimpse of hell. Mark Jarman succinctly described this novel as "barbed wire noir." Powerful, sexual, scary, existential in scope. Hutzulak is a writer to watch and possibly fear.
Crow Lake, by Mary Lawson (Knopf Canada, $24.95, 294 pages, ISBN: 0676974791), is a spellbinding tale of four children in Northern Ontario and what happens to them after their parents are killed in a car accident. The bitter land and climate are like extra characters. Very moving and involving. More than once I wanted to reach into the story, grab a character by the collar and say, "Don't do that."
Cumberland, by Michael V. Smith (Cormorant Books, $22.95, 293pages, ISBN: 1896951368), a novel about five very lonely people living in a dying industrial town in Ontario, is produced by another of the fine graduates of the UBC Writing Program. The characters are well developed and situations are full of dramatic possibilities. The author loses some control in the latter stages of the story and doesn't fulfill the promise of the first three-quarters of the book. Still, an excellent debut.
Spelling Mississippi, by Marnie Woodrow (Knopf Canada, $34.95, 386 pages, ISBN: 0676974317). In another brilliant opening, Cleo Savoy, a Canadian holidaying in new Orleans, is sitting on a dark pier after midnight when a woman in an evening dress complete with tiara, runs down the pier, leaps over Cleo and disappears into the Mississippi. This is a sweet, eccentric love story that is original, sexy and presents an unforgettable portrait of New Orleans.
W. P. KINSELLA'S BOTTOM DRAWER
Authors will shop around their terrible manuscripts to dozens of publishers, and it is the job of those publishers to protect the reading public from such atrocities. These are my awards for books that should have stayed in the bottom drawer with the empty bottles, orange peels and condom wrappers.
The big kahuna:
Falling Backwards, by James Eke (Ekstasis Editions). The protagonist is a mean, selfish, lazy, user and abuser, whose pretentious insights are inane in the extreme.
The runner-up: Swimming in the Ocean, by Catherine Jenkins (Insomniac Press). A nameless woman recalls her pitiful life, whiningly recounting her endless love affairs and one night stands with men she picks up at an underground bar.
Icarus, by Louise Young (Thomas Allen Publishers). Eight nasty and unlikable people set out to find the legendary Lost Lemon Mine. Contains the worst line of the year: "Lattices of complex paradigms blister Icarus's bloodshot corneas."
The Syllabus, by Mike Barnes (Porcupine's Quill). A boring and unoriginal book written as e-mails about a trite, generic, middle class Canadian upbringing.
Some Girls Do, by Teresa McWhirter (Polestar). Many plotless loose ends thrown together; this is the worst of the many girl low-life novels. The characters are drunks and druggies, parasites, pimples on the ass of society, and are terminally unsympathetic.
W. P. Kinsella recently placed second in his division in both the Early Bird and Main Event at the Western Regional Scrabble Championships in Reno.