Books to make an ex-pat homesick

By  Dorothy Cummings, Catholic Register Special
  • November 25, 2007

{mosimage}Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill (HarperCollins, 330 pages, $17.50).

Soucouyant by David Chariandy (Arsenal, 200 pages, $19.95).

Helpless by Barbara Gowdy (HarperCollins, 306 pages, $32.95).

Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje (McClelland and Stewart, 273 pages, $34.99).

The Assassin’s Song by M.G. Vassanji (Doubleday Canada, 314 pages, $34.95).
While studying theology in Boston I felt so homesick I thought I’d go crazy. I would delay the journey back to Canada as long as I could, but then I’d snap, call an airline agent or rush to South Station. If I flew to Toronto, I’d watch out the car window leaving the airport for the first Canadian flag. If I crossed the Quebec border, I’d long to hug the surly customs officers. I couldn’t do that, of course, so I spoke French to them instead.

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“Ou habitez-vous?” they would drone, bored stiff.


“Ou allez-vous?”

“A Toronto.”

The last time I arrived home, I knelt in the front yard and kissed the good Canadian ground. It smelled deliciously of green grass.

When I was homesick, books were dust. But now that I am home, books have their charm again. And what better way to celebrate Canada than to read through the five finalists for the Governor General’s Award for English Fiction? Perhaps somewhere amid the doom, gloom, dead mothers and kinky sex that characterize contemporary Canadian literature I might find an expression of the feeling that moved me to snuffle happily in the dirt.

Lullabies for Little Criminals is by a new novelist, a young woman named Heather O’Neill. Its setting is Montreal in the 1980s, and its protagonist is a pretty girl named Baby.

Baby’s parents were 15 when she was born, and her mother died soon after. Now Baby follows her 27-year-old father from dive to dive. Her world is the red light district of Montreal, from which her father, a heroin addict, does not protect her. Almost inevitably she falls under the sway of Alphonse, a charismatic pimp. At the age of 13, Baby becomes a prostitute.

The book is devoid of self-pity. Baby is matter-of-fact about her life in the red light district, in foster homes, in juvenile detention. Yet at the same time, she is extraordinarily attentive and intelligent. In Baby’s voice, O’Neill expresses some brutal truths, including “No matter how scuzzy and crazy their parents are, kids still try to make them feel good about themselves.”

O’Neill is an excellent writer, but she has one literary tic: she overuses similes and metaphors. Most of them are inventive and helpful, but others invite disbelief. She speaks of footprints in the snow looking like characters on a Chinese menu. I thought about Chinese menus and decided, “No, they don’t.”

Speaking of inviting disbelief, David Chariandy’s Soucouyant grabbed mine. Also a first novel, Soucouyant is the story of a young man who abandons his Trinidadian mother when her early-onset dementia becomes too much for him. He returns later to find her with a mysterious caregiver. A soucouyant is a female vampire, and I am unsure whether the poor mother, dementia or racism is supposed to be the monster of the title.

The book does not capture the sufferings of the confused, frightened woman as well as it expresses the sufferings of the male protagonist. The book is full of self-pity. It is also a libel upon those who lived near the Scarborough bluffs in the 1970s and 1980s. The narrator does not distinguish between perceived “racism” and obvious racism, and thereby loses the trust of the reader. Even worse, Chariandy invents cartoon racists. He seems to confuse Heritage Day with the Heritage Front. Toronto’s social reality has never been as simple as white versus black and brown. Chariandy will be a better writer when he loses that chip on his shoulder.

Barbara Gowdy’s Toronto is a Toronto I recognize. Unfortunately, this is the Toronto where small children go missing and are found dead. Helpless is a literary thriller — one with characters so believable readers will suffer with them. There is Celia, a single mother who scrapes together a living as a clerk by day and a singer by night. There is her daughter Rachel, a beautiful mixed-race child who keeps asking black strangers if they know her father in New York. There is Mika, their kindly Finnish landlord. There is Ron, the appliance repairman who lurks outside schoolyards and “falls in love” with a nine-year-old. Finally, there is Nancy, Ron’s girlfriend, whose longing for a husband and child clouds her better judgment.

Gowdy’s earliest stories featured bizarre characters and situations. This mature work shows a development in her skill, although she retains her ability to shock. Now the shock is slow in developing. When the tension of her story was resolved, I felt nauseous. Whether this was from horror or relief, you will have to discover for yourselves.

I didn’t think the next book could be better than Helpless, but Torontonian Michael Ondaatje astonished me with his brilliant Divisadero. There is not a single mention of Canada in the book. Nevertheless, the interwoven stories of three Californians, a 19th-century French poet and a 20th-century French family may well be compelling enough to win a Canadian literary award.

Anna and Claire live in the California wilderness with their father and his young hired man, Coop. Anna and Coop fall in love and, in a shocking scene, are separated. The violence of the separation propels Anna into a life of solitude and Coop into a life of professional gambling. Anna becomes a scholar of French literature and rents a house in the French countryside which once belonged to the poet Lucien Segura. She meets a guitarist named Rafael who, when he was a little boy, knew Segura as an old man.

The themes of Divisidero include art and loss, about which Ondaatje writes beautifully. As Anna reflects, “I come from Divisadero Street. Divisadero:might derive from the word divisar, meaning ‛to gaze at something from a distance.’ :Thus a point from which you can look far into the distance. It is what I do with my work, I suppose. I look into the distance for those I have lost, so I see them everywhere.”

My only quibble with Ondaatje is that he moves his plot along with scenes of brutal violence and increasingly explicit sex. He is a great writer, but I think he would be even greater if he rose above the conventions of our pornographic age.

I ended my journey with the best book of all: M.G. Vassanji’s The Assassin’s Song. Like Ondaatje, Vassanji is on his way to becoming a Grand Old Man of Canadian letters. He has given the world a wonderful story of a boy born in the Gujurat province of India. Karsan’s father is the local avatar or representative of God. Karsan is to be his successor, and he struggles to discover his identity within his proscribed fate. He greatly admires his Bapu-ji, who preaches their sect’s ancient belief in tolerance and unity, but he is downcast by the disappointments of his childhood. Karsan reads the Bible and is struck by the story of Abraham’s son Isaac. Like Isaac, Karsan has no say in his life. Then, almost miraculously, he is offered a scholarship by Harvard University.

Although the book is only tangentially about life in Canada (where Karsan lives for some years), it is an important book for Canadians. Canada shares with India both memories of British colonization and fears over increasing sectarian violence. In one brilliant passage, Vassanji mentions both the ghost of Lady Curzon (wife of a former British viceroy) and the spectre of “9/11 happening in our country.” The Assassin’s Song celebrates tolerance and explains the rise of Hindu and Muslim fundamentalism. It also helped me to understand my homesickness for Canada.

Karsan, escaping the constrained world of his village, falls in love with the freedom and intellectual riches of Boston-Cambridge. But I, born and raised in a cosmopolitan Canadian city, know of freedom and riches even greater than those of Harvard. That a Canadian woman can find her mirror reflection in a guru’s son is truly evidence of Vassanji’s genius.

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