Sunday, January 25, 2009

Bill Gaston's Sointula, Rebecca Godfrey's The Torn Skirt and Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life

Quite a few posts back, Mardel commented that she was reading a book set in what she realized must be my homeplace, Nanaimo. I was a bit surprised to learn that, as Bill Gaston, while certainly a fine, critically-appreciated Canadian writer, is scarcely a household name here, and I didn't anticipate the coincidence of an American East Coast reader having his book on her nightstand at the same time I did. In fact, I'd left Sointula there for too long, despite very much enjoying his The Order of Good Cheer. So knowing Mardel was reading it, I picked Sointula up again -- first of all, I was very pleased to see two of my neighbours thanked in the acknowledgements, but more, I wondered how I'd ended up putting the book down after beginning it months earlier. This time, I quickly got caught up in the story of a wife gone AWOL and absorbed in following her journey up the coast of Vancouver Island by kayak. How satisfying it is, somehow, to recognize our own place in a book's pages; I don't know what longing that meets, but I see it regularly in students to whom I introduce work written about our coast. Perhaps because we're hanging off the edge of the map, we're especially pleased to see that we've been charted in words, or perhaps it's a more widely-shared experience.

The novel is a fairly typical contemporary quest narrative, but the ending is far from trite, and there are several surprises along the way. His characters blend curiosity and intelligence and quirky social skills and sensitivity and pain in a way that makes them credible and engaging. As well, there's something so appealing in the fantasy of stepping into a kayak and paddling one stroke further north after another, stopping to find food and cook it along the way -- the vision he presents of a nurturing nature but a nature clearly at risk is both tempting and challenging. The whales he describes are a potent totem of this vision, and he manages to make them a powerful symbol without unduly romanticizing them.

I've also just finished reading again for teaching purposes Rebecca Godfrey's novel, The Torn Skirt. Although in many ways this reads like a young adult novel, my 4th-year students found much here to engage them, and again, were particularly captured by getting to see their nearest big city, Victoria, represented. I could say much more about the book -- the way it presents that sense of isolation and impatience that is part of adolescence, especially for young girls in small-ish places far from any supposed action and with a limited sense of their possibilities; the way it maps the city to highlight those areas that never make the tourist maps; the clever use of colour throughout; the disturbing ways the young women fill the vacuum in their lives; the solidarity they experience in surprising places -- but I'm going to content myself with this brief sketch for the sake of efficiency in my blogging life!

And right now, I'm reading Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, on the recommendation of my brilliant and friendly Paris hotelier, Jennifer. It's a wonderful book, stylish and exuberant and sardonic and ambitious -- and just fun, really! Incorporates a stunning array of references to 20th-century pop culture and colonial/postcolonial history (of the Caribbean, especially).


  1. Oh you are ahead of me again. the Junot Diaz book has been on my list for what seems like forever.

  2. Mardel: Unfortunately, I'm having trouble getting any further as I've suddenly got to work hard to stay ahead of the reading I've assigned my students! It's an exuberant romp, though, so I know I'll get pulled back into it.