Allow me to take the time today to tell you about some books I have read in recent months by fellow authors in Montreal. What I have to say about each will be in the form of a response crossed with a critique. I have liked all these books, mind you, so no one is getting e-viscerated in this blog post. Without further adieu, here goes:
Serafim and Claire, by Mark Lavorato
This book is by Montreal-based author Mark Lavorato, and it is excellent. It is the story of a Portuguese photographer, Serafim, and a Montreal born-and-raised burlesque dancer, Claire, who meet meet in 1920s Montreal. Serafim leaves Portugal for Montreal and meets Claire, and the two end up sharing some wild misadventures given their mutual propensity for bad luck and poor decision-making. The story is told by way of chapters from each perspective, starting with hers, then cutting to his, and back and forth, all through the book. Preceding each chapter is a description of one of Seraphim’s photographs as if it were professionally curated, or of a letter to Claire from a family member, or some kind of applicable detail such as a shopping list, depending on which protagonist the following chapter concerns, and what happens in the chapter. This is an interesting and effective structure, and provides a rhythm for the book that urges the story along naturally along with the writing itself, which is also strong and full of memorable turns of phrase. One thing that I like about the book is that both characters are very engaging, yet neither is particularly likeable. When they get themselves into serious trouble late in the book, this quality has the curious effect of producing suspense tinged with schadenfreude. Sort of like watching someone in a horror movie open the creaking door to the basement and step down into the darkness….waiting to see, with a not entirely concealed hint of delight, what awful end it is they are about to meet. I like this mixed effect.
Overall, the book paints an evocative picture of Montreal in the 1920s, concerns two interesting and convincing characters, and tells an interesting story that takes unexpected turns. Well worth reading, and makes me want to read Lavorato’s other books.
The Lava in My Bones, by Barry Webster
This is a unique book. Think magic realism, Newfie-style. In it, Sam, a geologist from Laborador, undergoes a sexual reawakening while at a conference in Switzerland. He discovers that he prefers men, and that he can also eat and metabolize rocks as he grows into his new confidence (this works symbolically, trust me.) Meanwhile, his sister Sue, a high school student back home in Labrador, begins mysteriously leaking honey from her pores as she too undergoes the sorts of changes and awakenings that adolescence brings, and attracts a large cloud of bees to the town, which causes various complications. Meanwhile, Sam’s mother, an angry holy roller who refuses to understand the trials and tribulations of her children, is determined to put an end to this madness. Various adventures in the novel include an escape from a mental hospital, a character being tormented by eyes in the sky that follow him wherever he goes, and a bizarre extended set-piece on an ocean liner involving (possibly) sanctified urine.
Webster is a very gifted writer, who writes (in this novel, anyway) in a baroque, lavish and poetic style using all sorts of wild and often metaphors appropriate to the story. The story itself is insightful, empathetic to (most of) its characters, and often hilarious in a madcap way. Highly recommended.
Blind Spot, by Laurence Miall
This novel involves Luke, a failed actor and sociopathic asshole, who learns near the beginning of the story that his parents have been killed in a car crash. Returning home to Edmonton from Vancouver, and using this as an excuse to leave his girlfriend, Luke proceeds to move into the old family home in order to refurbish it for the purpose of selling it, while alienating everyone he knows and meets throughout the book through various deceits undertaken for various self-involved and often short-sighted reasons. The present story is laced with lengthy flashbacks which illustrate that, in fact, he has always been an asshole (eg. helping a friend to rob his own family’s home while he was a teenager, and getting into unnecessary trouble on a family trip to Montreal.) While back in Edmonton, he uncovers the possibility that his parents’s death was perhaps not quite an accident.
Overall, I enjoyed this book. The story is well paced and structured, and the author writes in a clean, perceptive and detached style laced with insight into human behaviour and motivations. While Luke reveals himself to be a detached and unlikable person unable to form or sustain meaningful relationships, the author and narrator show the other characters’ faults as well. As well, the book is really funny in a dark sort of way, and it builds inexorably to a culmination of social disasters that are predictable, but only predictable according to the reader’s growing understanding of the likeably unlikeable protagonist. I say “likeably unlikeable,” because his unlikeability allows him to do things most people would never do, and this is always interesting (for me, anyway) in books and movies. If you like to hate the hero, this might be the book for you. My only complaint? It’s over before you know it–given the book’s fast moving, page-turning quality, I was left wanting more. Just one more betrayal, letdown, comeuppance or lie….