When David and Annie first meet their new neighbour Lila they are children; it is 1935 in Cape Breton and they are among the only families in their home of Glace Bay not feeling the extreme crunch of the Depression. Too young to understand the disadvantages of her background they only know that she is different, and that they are drawn to her, and they immediately adopt the orphaned Lila as their ‘kin’ and begin a complex weave of relationships that Crewe follows from childhood to old age, in Round Island in 2011.
I am a Cape Bretoner, and a history buff. My grandparents and their siblings grew up on the island (granted – the other side of the island) in the same time period. Their day-to-day lives could have been very similar. I was very excited to see this book show up in my mailbox, and could not wait to read it.
I have never read Lesley Crewe before. I actually have one of her other novels, but it is in my ever-growing ‘to-be-read’ pile. So I had no idea what to expect. Still, if you’ll forgive the contradiction, this was not what I expected. I somehow thought it would be lighter, more of a feel-good, down-home romance-y story. The cover was pretty. The title suggests happy family connections. All of that was there, but there was more. Far from dark, Kin was still not a light easy read. Its characters were complex, the action unexpected.
Kin follows three generations of families through more than seven decades in and around industrial Cape Breton, and as far away as Halifax and Montreal. The cast of characters is long, but it is the first three – Annie, David and Lila that the plot centres around. I loved Annie through and through, as I expect I was supposed to. Even her frustrating choices were completely understandable. And I fell in love with Henry right along with her. Actually, much quicker than she did. I won’t ruin the story for you, but I do want to say I was disappointed with how her story ended. (It seemed abrupt, and didn’t fit the rest of the story well. Perhaps that’s just me? I’d love to hear what other readers think.)
David and Lila were harder to deal with. I struggled to understand their relationship mostly because it was so believable; it’s the hopeless childhood love story we have all seen time and again in various forms: full of passion and chemistry but little substance, and if not given the chance to mature, doomed for failure. Numerous times I wanted to throw the book across the room as they made their heartbreaking decisions.
Kin did a fabulous job of capturing the ties of family and friendship in a small community, while also portraying how these ties can be limiting and destructive. It was engaging and at times humourous. If there is a criticism, I think it could have ended quicker – not earlier in time, but just with less detail. Near the end it felt like Crewe was desperate to wrap up all the little details, but I like to have at least a few open to my imagination. (I feel like I say this a lot. If I ever do get around to writing a book, someone kindly remind me of this and make sure I wrap it up efficiently.) Still, I greatly enjoyed the story and will be moving her other novels up in my ‘to-be-read’ list.
Paperback: 416 pages
Publisher: Nimbus Publishing (Sep 4 2012)
Liz Crane lives a solitary (if not lonely life) on what remains of her family’s Southern Ontario fruit farm; she spends her days as an en entomologist studying monarch butterfly migrations, and the rest f her time haunted by family catastrophes: the long ago disappearance of her Uncle Stanley, and the more recent death of her cousin Mandy while serving in Afghanistan with the Canadian Army.
Liz reproaches herself for not understanding her cousin better, for not sympathizing with her destructive and consuming affair with a married senior officer. She has isolated herself in the house they once shared, reading her cousin’s poetry books and reliving long forgotten memories. The process brings much more back to her, including her uncle’s disappearance, the strained family relationships, and her own first love – the son of migrant farm workers.
The crux of the novel is the reason for her uncle’s disappearing, and while I won’t reveal what it was, I will say that I had guessed it early on, which took much of the anticipation out of the reading. Yet I still very much enjoyed the book. The characters were well crafted, their actions and motives believable. I also (much to the chagrin of my book club friends) have a thing for novels about biologists, novels in which the author seems to share my fascination for how society mirrors nature, how human relations are not always so different from their animal counterparts.
I did find – as someone who would have had little patience for Mandy’s love-life myself – that this subplot was least interesting to me, and at times felt forced. I was far more interested in the family history, the past loves and losses, and of course – the butterflies. Yet Urquhart brought this around in the end in a satisfying if perhaps implausible way. The romance that sounded hopeless and desperate may have been so, but it also had its own beauty and passion.
Sanctuary Line is a reflection on migration: human, and insect. Read it for a touching story, for interesting use of metaphor, but do not look for a happy ending.
Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart; First edition (August 31, 2010)
Is it fate or circumstance that brings two lovers together? Romantics would argue the first, the more pragmatic like me, the second. The Emperor of Paris makes the pragmatic romantic, weaving magic into the story of the decades-long sequence of events which brings two unlikely characters together. This novel is much more than just a love story. It is a love letter – to Paris, to books and to circumstance.
Perhaps the most beautiful line I’ve read in years was the simple sentence which ended the novel. “Tell me how we came to this,” Isabeau says to Octavio. And suddenly you want to start all over again at page one, to rediscover how the disfigured daughter of an esteemed Paris fashion designer comes to fall in love with the illiterate book-loving baker.
Told in two times, the story alternates between the present, as Octavio rushes home to his burning bakery, and the past, filled with charming and melancholy characters whose actions contribute to bringing the lovers together.
The Emperor of Paris is a novel to be savoured. Read it slowly. Appreciate the words, the personalities and the images created. This is wonderful writing.
I feel like I ought to say more, but it doesn’t feel right to say too much. The book is quiet and unassuming. It is beautiful. You need to read it for yourself.
Long-listed for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: Doubleday Canada (Aug 14 2012)
*** On a side note – I’m back! My apologies for taking a month to update my supposedly weekly blog. All I can say is life got a little crazy for a time, and something had to give. As this blog is neither family nor work, it was temporarily de-prioritized. All is well, just had a lot of things to sort out, including an upcoming move. I will do my best to make up for the missed weeks with some double postings over the next while. ***