Writings / Reviews

Fiction Reviews

Tom Ue

Beatrice & Virgil
By Yann Martel
New York: Knopf-Random, 2010
197 pp. $29.95

I met Yann Martel for the first time at a book signing for Beatrice & Virgil in Montreal. Back then, I was rereading and preparing to write a book chapter on Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and I showed him my book, which he had read some years back. The irony of an established novelist conversing with a novice about a work in development had, at that time, escaped me, since I had not read Martel’s book yet. Following the successes of his short story collection The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and of the 2002 Man Booker Prize winning novel Life of Pi, Martel faces a lot of pressure from readers with this new book, and he delivers one of much narrative interest indeed.

At first, the story reverberates with biographical resonances. After the enormous success of a novel, Henry researches for and tries to write a book about the Holocaust that uses an approach different from the more or less realistic one by which the historical event is usually described. Here, the biographical parallels end. As Henry becomes overwhelmed by this challenge – Martel clearly isn’t – he receives a part of a play, a short story, and a request from a reader for help. Henry visits and his life gradually becomes enveloped by this writer, who turns out to be a skilled taxidermist struggling to do, as Henry will discover, a similar task.

Henry helps the taxidermist with his play about the donkey Beatrice and the howler monkey Virgil, yet it becomes apparent, as the novel progresses, is the taxidermist’s disturbingly impersonal demeanour and its perseverance nature even as Henry gets to know him better. Readers of Martel’s newest book are in for an engaging read. His clear prose style is consistently engaging, and the novel forces the reader, as it did Henry the novelist, to think about issues of complicity and responsibility. The embedded narrative of the play, made up mostly of conversations between Beatrice and Virgil, is at times humorous but more often disturbing, as we learn more about the animals’ sufferings, even if these are revealed to us fairly on in the novel.

When faced with such difficult content and a project not dissimilar to Henry’s and the taxidermist’s, Martel’s use of a Chinese box narrative approach invites us to be more attuned to the different narrators and their relative levels of reliability. A prevalent reading of the process of writing is that it lends a kind of catharsis. Still, as Beatrice & Virgil repeatedly asks, does everyone deserve relief and, more importantly, redemption? Martel is clearly a skilful writer, and his novel is consistently provocative for the questions about both art and ethics that it poses. I, for one, will be looking forward to his next book.

Cities of Refuge
By Michael Helm
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2010
400 pp. $32.99

Cities of Refuge is the third novel by Michael Helm, who has authored In the Place of Last Things (2005), finalist for the regional Commonwealth Prize, Best Book category, and The Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and The Projectionist (2006), finalist for the Giller Prize and the Trillium Book Award. The novel begins on a summer night when, on her way to work, Kim Lystrander is attacked in a side street in downtown Toronto. Kim’s volunteer work in GROUND, a non-profit agency that works with refugees whose claims have been rejected, makes her father Harold suspect that she was attacked by one. What begins as a mystery quickly morphs into a web of interconnected stories that explore issues of racial and social prejudice, and immigration policy, focusing on Harold, Kim’s ailing mother Marian, the Father André Rowe, the illegal immigrant Rodrigo Cantero, and Rosemary Yates. This final character’s unconditional faith moves her into providing asylum and assistance for many who have been found guilty and refused even by GROUND. Yet, as Helm’s novel repeatedly asks: who does the judging, and what gives him or her the right to decide on the fate of another?

During the months that follow the attack, Kim attempts to relive her experiences by writing them and, sometimes, she just reads:

Some days were blind and she didn’t want to write. Then the best she could do was read novels and feel herself manipulated for her pleasure. Nothing predictable. She needed to get lost and feel the author’s presence, some gravity bending the light in her, letting him lead her through. Sometimes she cried at the endings like a sap, not always for the characters but because her trust had been rewarded. (141)

Our process of reading Helm’s novel is analogous to Kim’s. He asks for our trust, and like Kim, we are richly rewarded. He focuses as much on the characters as he does on Toronto’s history, geography, and people, and thus switches our focus from what might have been a whodunit novel to one that celebrates this city’s multicultural identity. Helm vividly creates many locations in Toronto including St. James Town, “the most densely populated area in the country” (168). Situated in the northeast corner of downtown Toronto, this neighbourhood is composed of nineteen high-rise buildings that house approximately 17,000 people. Still, until Helm’s novel, St. James Town has rarely found a place in Canadian literature.

Helm is a very skillful prose writer, and his cadence, lyricism, and attention to detail makes this novel a good read. He makes us think and care more about the city, and advocates the importance of fiction as an effective means of bringing together all of these ingredients. Helm ultimately pens a love letter to Toronto, one that reminds us that there are no easy answers, and of the enduring importance of not attempting to read important social issues in mono-causal ways.

The Lizard and Other Stories
by Michael Bryson
Ottawa: Chaudiere Books, 2009
118 pp. $20.00

Michael Bryson’s stories have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies for over a decade. He is the author of two previous collections, Thirteen Shades of Black and White (Turnstone Press, 1999) and Only A Lower Paradise (Boheme Press, 2000). In the words of the book jacket, The Lizard and other Stories “probes hearts in conflict”; “Love and the frailties of existence are the obsessions of this collection. The stories showcase absurdity, humour and tremendous sensitivity.” The stories in this collection certainly speak to the twin obsessions spelled out in this blurb. The collection ends with a trilogy of stores, “Hard Core Life,” “Flight,” and “Isn’t It Pretty to Think So” that speak to and explore different ways of grieving about the events of September 11th. Indeed, many of the stories in the collection seem haunted by this international tragedy. Bryson is at his best when he is most specific. Take this opening of the short story “Hit,” for example:

John put me up to it. I must have been sixteen or seventeen. Grade eleven or twelve. John[,] my best friend, the team’s leading scorer. I could make third line centre, he told me. I didn’t make it past the first cuts. This was no heartbreak; I was small, had no appetite for raised elbows and would never be able to dig the puck out of the corner quick enough for the coach. But John pleaded my case until the team said it would dress me for its exhibition games. On my third shift[,] I was flattened by an over-eager two-hundred pound fifteen-year-old. I remember lying on the ice, my insides crushed, a sharp pain pulsing in my guts as the team trainer skidded across the ice toward me. “You’ve got to learn to take a hit, son,” he said as [he] knelt beside me. Later[,] I managed to pick up an assist on one of John’s two goals. I had a bruise on my hip the next day the size of a watermelon. I told the coach I wouldn’t be back. (7)

With very few words, in short emphatic sentences, Bryson sets up some of the tensions in the often-strained friendship between the narrator and his friend John, one that reminds us of Dustan’s and Boy’s in Robertson Davies’ The Deptford Trilogy. Bryson’s attention to human relations also recalls the stories in Michael Redhill’s collection Fidelity, but what makes Bryson’s stories unique is his writing style. His minimalist approach is not for everyone, and it takes getting used to, yet his style contributes significantly to the facets of postmodern and urban environments to which his stories repeatedly turn.
It is difficult to identify with the many unattractive characters in The Lizard and other Stories, though, in the context of postmodern writing, character identification is perhaps less important. The copy editing can benefit from a rereading. Bryson gives us a lot to think about: he is quite skilful in writing stories, and his writing reverberates with literary echoes. In sum, Bryson delivers a solid and ultimately promising collection.

About The Author


Tom Ue Tom Ue is a graduate student in the Department of English at McGill University, where he holds a Joseph-Amand Bombardier CGS Masterís Scholarship and a Provostís Graduate Fellowship. He researches in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British literature. His Masterís thesis focuses on the influence Charles Dickens had on Alphonse Daudet and George Gissingís fiction. He begins a phD at the University College London shortly.

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