Writings / Reviews

Essay & Fiction Reviews

Amanda Tripp

Between Books (The Writer’s Time)
by Monique Larue
Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 2010.
54 pp. $14.95

As part of the University of Moncton’s Antoine-Maillet - Northrop Frye lecture series, Monique Larue’s transcribed lecture, Between Books falls, perhaps appropriately, somewhere between the seductive aural quality of spoken verse, and the playful mastery of the written word. As her lecture progresses, Larue’s voice resonates passionately across the page, fleshing out a lecture that is part storytelling magic, part critical theory, part manifesto.

The story of her road to fiction brings out the special experience of the unique temporal realm between books. In this way, Larue manages to express what is inarticulable in the writer’s experience of writing - that time which he or she cannot directly share with the reader of the art-in-process. Though she is in some ways advocating for writing as a lifestyle craft, one that takes a writer over almost forcefully, body and soul, Larue resists a career-based insistence, tacitly refusing to default to her success as sufficient evidence for the relevance of her art. Instead she weaves a life’s story that explores her many selves, her changes of heart, her challenges and her continual evolutions, so that Between Books is as much as personal story, with characters coming to life on the page, as it is a considered explanation of what she calls The Writer’s Time.

Much like the timescape she calls into being, Larue’s lecture meanders, crawling into the nooks and crannies of her experiences as a reader, a philosopher, a woman, a writer, a mother, as a friend, giving each one weight as it is incorporated into a larger if still mutable identity. While the lecture is artfully written, readers will surely wish they could hear these sections spoken aloud, so as to see the woman before them alter (if even so slightly) before their eyes as her many faces come to life and compose her. There is a shimmering quality to this writing, an aliveness that is rare in critical theory, and inherently denied the completed text, which is necessarily so far gone beyond its composition. Personable and vivid, Larue’s voice hovers at the edges of the printed words, as if she had only just spoken them. Perhaps it is because she seems to be giving something of herself by sharing this liminal experience in this equally liminal manner, that the lecture’s first person format requires both speaker and listener/reader to use their imagination if they are to connect with each other in a meaningful way, or perhaps it is that Larue as writer is so thankfully human in her Living phase, that we too can see ourselves as harboring the seeds of good stories in our own lives, in our own most mundane and so universal experiences. For a writer of her magnitude and obvious skill, Larue offers her readers an accessible and welcoming inroad to the experience of writing which is also living.

Every Lost Country
by Steven Heighton
Toronto, ON: Knopf Canada, 2010
330 pp. $29.95

Heighton’s Every Lost Country begins mid-expedition to the top of an insurmountable mountain, well above the perils of the Tibetan, Nepali and Chinese people so far below its peaks, where the air is full of politics and oxygen, where consequences ricochet like machine gun rounds across the hills and valleys of human struggles. Up high, climb leader Wade Lawson is only interested in the victory documentary that will jump-start his comeback to the elite circles of British Columbia’s climbing community, far away from the political dramas unfolding on the ground below, which only threaten to distract the media world from his life’s climax. Though Lawson seems an unlikely catalyst for any story of value, Heighton surrounds him with supporting characters, who become increasingly human as Lawson systematically gains and then loses his humanity in an ultimately unexpected way. Unlike Lawson, Dr. Lewis Book, his daughter Sophie, and Lawson’s intended filmmaker, Amaris McCrae, are not above getting pulled into the lives of Tibetan refugees, to whom a comeback means much more than renewed public approval. Against the backdrop of border wars and the crisis of human involvement, Lawson’s battle becomes a personal battle against his own temptation to care. Thankfully, Heighton has more up his sleeve than the painfully self-interested internal crisis of one this lost hero-in-waiting - the journey below is a compelling and increasingly elegant story that more than makes up for the novel’s perhaps uncertain beginning.

Heighton’s own artistic development becomes evident after the first chapters, and as the writing gains confidence with momentum it takes on a playful quality that is a pleasure to read. Not unlike his characters’ journey, Heighton’s novel gets off to a somewhat rocky start. Like the air at this altitude, the characters of Every Lost Country initially seem a bit thin, as if the lack of oxygen they suffer from is actually affecting their ability to take on fictional flesh and blood. Perhaps it is instead that their internal monologues and soap opera backstories cannot compete with the very living landscape that Heighton crafts with skill: a landscape vivid despite its incapacity to sustain life, the intense purity of that place derived from an energy that is as mineral as it is cosmic, scarcely pausing to completely disregard the human dramas that pepper its nooks and crannies. Heighton’s characters pick up stride when their present social crisis gains speed, with the most compelling cast of characters escaping Chinese imprisonment along the Tibetan border. Though they predictably navigate their individual pasts through more universal crises of emotional oppression and miscommunication, they retreat less and less into the past as they come to terms with their participation in the present of another people, whose daily struggles put the suburban plights of a few privileged individuals to well-deserved shame.

This may be the central problem that readers face when tackling Every Lost Country. The average reader with no doubt recognize themselves in the early petty concerns of the main characters - who for the most part assess each other without any exceptional self-consciousness - but the identification won’t be pleasant. As if to relieve the pressure of this dynamic, Heighton splits the narration up between the four main characters with unusual elegance, occasionally introducing a nameless fifth third person narrator and a sixth voice that compensates for the others’ sightlessness with an effective second person narration. Partway through the novel however, the characters, including the unlikely Lawson, develop uncannily natural complexity: they mature imperfectly, but with a rather impressive balance of believable individuality and meaningful insight. Lewis Book, specifically, is worth the wait. The peekaboo moments of his poignant humanity and humility stand out in sharp contrast against a backdrop of character types that sometimes do seem to be working hard to escape their own clichés. And yet, despite this initial resistance to what seems like a novel’s most compelling element - the human one -Heighton delivers an altogether exciting and truly enjoyable drama. His story is a process - readers will undoubtedly come to care for a few key characters in a sincere and lasting way. Perhaps Heighton’s greatest accomplishment in Every Lost Country is the story’s capacity for humor, which it refuses to be afraid of, despite the weight of its serious subject matter. Though characters like the bespectacled Irish-inflected English-speaking Tibetan nun read more like fairy tale logic than quirk, these same instances nevertheless clamp onto the warmth of human relations and insist that it take precedence over an ostensibly safe, if socially lethal, privacy of self-defense, and for this Heighton must sincerely be commended.

The Good Mayor
by Andrew Nicoll
Toronto, ON: Vintage Canada, 2009
340 pp. $19.95

In the good town of Dot lives the Good Mayor of Dot, Tibo Krovic. Across from the desk of the Good Mayor, through the wall of his City Hall office, sits the woman he loves uncontrollably, who goes through his mail every morning, before returning home to her churlish husband every night. Across the good town of Dot, these two good people lie alone at night, dreamily composing the fantasies that are reserved for unrequited love, particularly poignant because they are so tragically modest. And because the Good Mayor and the Mayor’s good secretary are so very good, their happiness in this matter is very much at risk.

Certainly this might sound like the beginning to most conventional love stories, but Tibo Krovic and Mrs. Agathe Stopak are about to embark an energizing and life-affirming romance that is as refreshing as it is familiar, warmly fundamental and yet, somehow unexpected. The Good Mayor will make you laugh, despite its threat to break your heart; but above all, it will very sincerely remind you of what it is like to be in love, for the first time, and for forever. There’s more to Nicoll’s achievement here than this however. The Good Mayor reminded me exactly what I loved about novels as a wide-eyed kid, as an emotionally turbulent adolescent, and what I forgot a little of in studying them: the love you feel for a really good story, first read for pleasure, and then hungrily, with an insatiable appetite, as you roll its words over in your mouth, your head, tasting them, weighing them. The Good Mayor is a lesson in the love of reading, something we too quickly give over for the love of significance - and while Nicoll’s book is full of that as well, it never compromises its kindly gifts to the reader in the process of becoming important.

It is certainly hard to believe that The Good Mayor is Andrew Nicoll’s first novel; it is, in fact, even more difficult to remember that Nicoll spent his years leading up to this debut novel as a journalist (and in fact wrote the novel on his way to work over the course of 18 months), for there is nothing efficient or objective about his storytelling style,which is heaped with personality. More sensual that cerebral, The Good Mayor is so full to bursting with pleasure, that it’s actually hard to believe that anyone wrote it at all. Nicoll has captured the rich and flavorful quality of long-loved fairy-tales and adult bedtime stories that make up the fabric of communities and families. Like childhood memories, The Good Mayor takes up residence in your heart, and nestles in to stay, quietly waiting until it is needed.

Perhaps the most incredible thing about Nicoll’s love story is that it evades the cliches of romance novels gracefully, with just the right degree of self-consciousness, tempered with a healthy dose of indulgence; after all, love stories tend to follow certain patterns for a very good reason. That being said, this is, in surprising ways, far from your average love story - perhaps in part because it revels in its very averageness, giving in to the minutia that dominates the mind of a truly besotted, if hapless, lover. And in this way, as readers we too begin to give in to the sensual nature of everyday occurrences, of coincidences, of too-infrequently-used beautiful words. Nicoll’s vocabulary is courageous and exploratory, lending the most banal moments of human interaction and thought a magical quality that readers will begin to yearn for like a lover themselves. With patient dedication, Nicoll unveils the beauty and shine of everyday life, until it seems patently clear that no human interaction has the capacity for insignificance, no thought or question ever less than extraordinary in its very existence. And so it comes as no surprise when quirky contemplations about the nature of goodness, of law, and of love itself tuck themselves into the corners of this romance, their weight softened by the eternal relevance of simple and relatable human beings. Nicoll is graceful in his philosophy, never moralizing despite the narrative’s flirtatious dance with religion and politics. Instead, his novel makes the traditionally complicated and overwrought seem quite simple, while the things we take for granted swell under Nicoll’s gentle touch, taking on a depth and liveliness that is as cinematic as it is poetic. The Good Mayor is a joy to read, and will leave you eagerly awaiting his forthcoming second novel.

About The Author


Amanda Tripp is studied English at the Masters level at McGill University, having completed her undergraduate work in Cultural Studies where she specialized in genre and gender studies in cinema. She is currently working on suppressed Family Gothic narratives in contemporary American film.

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