Governor General's Awards - Shortlist coincides with troubles of the day

By  Maura Hanrahan, Catholic Register Special
  • December 1, 2006

As always, five English-language books were shortlisted for this year's Governor General's prize for fiction. The majority deal with war. As Canadians struggle with the tragedy of Afghanistan and our military's foggy role in it, this is not likely a coincidence.

"War is for thugs," declares Bassam, the narrator and one of two protagonists in Rawi Hage's De Niro's Game — quite accurately. In The Fearsome Particles by Trevor Cole, promising student Kyle Woodlore quits his upper middle class life for a Canadian Forces camp in dusty Afghanistan. In Peter Behrens' The Law of Dreams, a long, hard war is being waged against the Irish through deprivation and forced migration in the mid-1800s. Emigrant Martin Coole asks angrily, "How is it that Irish beasts are being shipped for England while Irish people starve?"

War is clearly on the minds of these writers — and on the judges' minds, and on mine as well. How can it not be when we see young bodies come home in flag-draped caskets week after week and do not understand why?

I'm glad writers are tackling war in all its manifestations. But I'm not sure that Behrens says anything new about Ireland during the Great Famine. One could argue, though, that there can never be too many stories of social injustice and that would be a point worth considering.

Behrens' central character is Fergus, the product of a tenant farm family, who watches his siblings drop off one by one and then sees his childhood home burned down by the landlord. It's off to the workhouse for young Fergus, but he doesn't stay there.

This novel is Fergus' odyssey, through Ireland, to Britain and across the wicked Atlantic waves in a death ship to the New World. The Law of Dreams is a sprawling story, an adventure that has at least something in common with Edward Rutherford's Irish epics, The Princes of Ireland and The Rebels of Ireland.

The immigrant ships land at Grosse Isle, near Montreal, where the Irish are "dying like shad flies" that year. In some ways the book is a tribute to the quarantined and dead here. Like all settlement narratives, it is part myth-making. When an older man teases a younger one, "We'll find you a pretty Blackfoot wife up the country," I felt like I was reading one of dozens of settlement tales, mainly from south of the border.

De Niro's Game is Rawi Hage's first novel and it is written in his third language — Arabic and French coming before English. That is no mean feat, and I think it helps to explain the clear flow of the writing.

The author is not playing with words here — amusing himself, rather than his readers, as so many postmodern lyrical writers do. Happily for us, he is telling a story. His book is somewhat unusual. There is little of the redemption for which readers often thirst. But that, I think, is part of Hage's simple point — that war damages and destroys people.

Bassam wants to leave war-torn Beirut and will do anything to do so. His mafioso friend George wants to remain. After all, "Thugs never wait in line." The absence of sympathetic characters in any novel can turn reading into a chore, if not a punishment. Thankfully, Hage's fluid writing style prevents this, but sometimes only just.

De Niro's Game is named after the Russian roulette scene in The Deer Hunter. The book is brave in that it doesn't shy away from the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees by Christian militia. This is a bleak world of AK-47s, spies and secret identities. Hage frequently reminds us that war is big and dominant. Compellingly, he writes of 10,000 cigarettes, 10,000 needles penetrating a woman's arm, and 10,000 bombs "splitting the wind."

The Fearsome Particles brings micro-worlds and macro-worlds together and in so doing provides insightful commentary on North American ambition — or the American dream as lived out in Southern Ontario — and, again, war. But author Trevor Cole stays away from polemic. In fact, he is quite funny, which is, alas, not common enough in Canadian fiction.

The Fearsome Particles, told from three points of view, is about control. Window-screen executive Gerald Woodlore needs to be in control. His luxury home-stager wife, Vicki, is the ultimate good girl-Martha Stewart combo, trapped by her need to deny everything she doesn't want to see. The couple learns tough lessons when their son Kyle cannot finish his contract in Afghanistan and mysteriously returns home.

As Cole has said in interviews, "the thing you most want to control and protect, and the thing most likely to resist that control, is a child."

Cole has given us memorable characters. Gerald is aware of his inadequacies as he tries to be a good father. He is real and human. Kyle is withdrawn and badly damaged, but also sweet. His friendship with the cocky Legg is the emotional core of the story.

Cole has done his research, too. That's something more Canadian authors should do. The camp in Afghanistan is very well-drawn. It comes as no surprise that Cole spent time in Bosnia-Herzegovina and then talked to many soldiers who had been stationed in Afghanistan.

I had more trouble with the other two short-listed books, The Dodecahedron or A Frame for Frames by Paul Glennon and Gargoyles by Bill Gaston. These are both books of short stories and, although it is standard practice in awards, I wonder why they are competing with novels. True, both are fiction, but in my experience writing novels and writing short stories each require their own approaches and skill sets.

I am not keen on books with gimmicks. Glennon's consists of "12 narratives, 12 narrators, 12 genres, 12 fictional worlds." In his afterword, Glennon writes, "I wrote a book based. . . on the geometry of the dodecahedron." I looked the word up to find that a dodecahedron is a polyhedron, which I then found out is a geometric shape. The book is also, Glennon writes, constructed on "mildly" Oulipian principles — a reference to the Ouvroir de la Littérature Potentielle. OuLiPo are mostly French authors who write based on highly arbitrary constraints they invent.

By coming up with stories related to each other, like the sides of a dodecahedron, Glennon set an ambitious task for himself. He is obviously very smart, but he is too clever for me.

This is not to say his stories are without merit. "Why are there no penguins?" the tale of a hallucinating sailor stranded on Arctic ice, stayed with me — especially the image of the boy. At first I found the writing cold (pun intended) and almost too stark. But I can see that this serves to convey the horror of the man's situation, as well as the futility of early polar exploration.

In Gaston's book, the stories are crafted around the notion of gargoyles. I'm not sure why such stunts are necessary. Shouldn't a good story stand on its own? As some of these do.

In "The Night Window" you meet the wise child of a troubled mother: "Tyler saw how he could fall into an easy hate of his mother's boyfriend." Gaston could have been Tyler, his voice is that convincing.

But there is too much writing for the author's amusement in this collection. More and more Canadian novelists write like this now, heavily influenced by poetry and favouring language over plot and character — Michael Ondaatje and Anne Michaels being among the high-profile offenders. Language should serve character development and plot, not the other way around. I don't think books that do otherwise will be remembered in the long run.

Those of us who want a good story and unforgettable characters increasingly have to look elsewhere: to Britain, home of Kate Atkinson, Andrea Levy, Tony Parsons, Monica Ali and Nick Hornby. Or we look stateside to Anita Diamant and Alice Sebold. Or we can wait for Canada's own Miriam Toews, Joan Clark, Bernice Morgan, Stephen Heighton and Ann Marie McDonald to write more books (shorter next time please, Ann Marie).

I would shorten the Governor General's English fiction list to the novelists Hage, Behrens and Cole.

These books are not without flaws. Cole is given to overly long sentences. Behrens has a penchant for sentence fragments, which can get annoying. And, in the postmodern style, Hage eschews quotation marks so you have to stop and remind yourself when you are reading dialogue. But all three are serious writers, unintimidated by large themes and at ease with all the dimensions of their craft. They give us memorable characters, too, especially Cole. For that reason, my vote goes to The Fearsome Particles for this year's GG.

A nation at war needs novels grounded in that reality.

(Hanrahan is a best-selling author whose writing has won awards in Canada, Britain and the United States. Days after Hanrahan read and reviewed all five books the judges defied her wishes and chose Peter Behrens The Law of Dreams as this year's winner of the Governor General's prize for fiction.)

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