Fiction writers are always striving for originality. Admittedly, in a crowded field where so much has already been accomplished, imitation is hard to avoid. It’s also hard to resist the temptation to imitate oneself: if something worked well in the past, why not do it again? But most writers don’t want to follow a well-trod path to someplace they’ve visited before, or where countless other writers have already been. There’s nothing new to see and it’s boring, not only for the writer but for the reader as well. As writers trying to carve out a niche for ourselves, we would prefer our vision to be distinct, our voice recognizable, our ideas uniquely our own. Every time they open a book we’ve written, our readers deserve a new experience. We want them drawn to our fiction because they can find something there that they can’t find anywhere else.
The goal of every writer is to tell a good story, but to do so in a manner that’s never been done before is exceedingly difficult. Lots of writers experiment with their work. They toy with form and structure; they dispense with conventional language; they throw characters into surreal or abstract worlds or place them in outlandish situations.
But with innovation comes risk, and all too often overt experimentation only alienates the reader. In extreme cases it can come across as self-indulgent: it seems as if the writer is having fun at the reader’s expense. The reader feels like she’s on the outside looking in, the target of an elaborate joke.
Finding new ways to tell familiar stories—finding new stories to tell: that’s where the challenge and the danger lies. It’s okay to test the reader, but ultimately the writer must engage the reader’s head and heart. Fail at one or the other and you’ve violated the time-honoured contract that fiction writers agree to when they put pen to paper: to awaken the reader’s mind to new ways of seeing and to do so in an entertaining manner.
All of the books on my 2018 Best Reads list are ground-breaking in one way or another. Language, structure, a skewed vision of reality—everything’s up for grabs. But it means these books are not simple or easy. They extend the art of storytelling in new directions and add tools to the fiction writer’s arsenal. They deliberately shake the foundations of established forms. They address topics head on that fiction usually ignores. Some of the authors are new, others will be familiar. But the thing they have in common is that the books they’ve written take the reader places they’ve never been before. Enjoy the ride.
In his latest collection of short stories, Richard Cumyn demonstrates, once again, his absolute mastery of the form. In these nine pieces, he presents diverse characters—male, female, old, young, of various backgrounds, social strata and levels of education—charting a wary course through life’s minefields. These are people we meet every day: our friends, colleagues, neighbours and relatives. They are us. Their worries are familiar and ordinary: love, work, children, parents, health, finances. But the special skill this author brings to the game is making the familiar and ordinary not just interesting, but fascinating. Richard Cumyn excels at depicting the drama at the heart of everyday life, the personal quandary in the quotidian. In these stories, he zeroes in on the point of friction chafing at a marriage, seeks out the emotionally charged backstory that prevents people from saying what they mean, gives us a moment of realization that, with the force of epiphany, blows a fragile relationship to pieces. His men are often confused and purposeless, beset by wayward impulses, looking for direction in a world that changes too fast and refuses to give them a break. Outwardly, his women appear confident, but their reality is often disappointment, lingering regret and indecision. Richard Cumyn’s fiction is undeniably challenging and has always addressed serious themes. This new book is no exception. But once again the stories are narrated in a boisterous, engaging, even playful manner. Endlessly inventive, Cumyn’s prose is filled with sly metaphors, imaginative wordplay and wry observations on contemporary life. He can be counted on to discover the comic moment in the midst of disaster. The Sign for Migrant Soul delivers proof that the short story is not just alive and well, but changing and evolving, and, further, that Richard Cumyn is not just another gifted writer of prose fiction but arguably one of the best currently working in Canada. Fans of the contemporary short story will find much to enjoy and admire in these pages.
An unsettling and utterly original work of genius, Owls Do Cry heralded the arrival of Janet Frame on the international literary scene and kicked off a period of staggering creativity in which she would publish nine novels in fifteen years. Owls Do Cry chronicles the lives of the Withers siblings, Daphne, Chicks (Teresa), Toby and Francie. Growing up in coastal Waimaru (based on Frame’s home town of Oamaru), the children are raised by their well-meaning, unsophisticated parents in a home with few luxuries and in a time and place where Toby’s epileptic seizures are considered shameful and frightening and a sign of weakness. The first part of the novel tells of their fascination with the local rubbish dump, where they often go to search for treasure, and ends with a tragic accident. Subsequent sections take place “twenty years after” and follow the three remaining Withers siblings as they suffer setbacks and struggle to remain connected and yet establish independent identities and lives of their own. Most powerful is the section on Daphne, who has been committed to a mental institution and regards her surroundings through a drugged and fragmented haze. The reality of these scenes is fluid and hard to nail down—hospital staff are monsters, a wall is a mountain—but it is in this section that Frame’s prose and narrative imagery achieve the vivid and poetic heights for which she was to become famous. One cannot help reading Daphne’s scenes through the prism of what we know of the author’s life: her own institutionalization and narrow escape from brain surgery as psychiatric therapy. Though there are flashes of humour, the prevailing tone of the novel is tragic, and yet one reaches the end with a sense that hope is not entirely lost. In 1957, Owls Do Cry appeared without literary antecedents, leaving critics of the time with virtually no points of comparison. Sixty years later it remains a deeply affecting work of startling originality. The courage of its author, one of the most daring stylists of twentieth-century English prose, is undeniable.
In the early chapters of Emma Healey’s confident and polished first novel, Elizabeth is Missing, Maud, who is in her 80s and suffers from dementia, lives alone in the family home where she grew up and has resided independently since the death of her husband. Her daughter Helen has engaged carers to look in on her and help her with basic tasks, but her condition has deteriorated to the point where she is easily confused and disoriented, so much so that she stuffs her pockets full of notes to remind her where she is going and what she is supposed to do when she gets there. In addition, her spotty recollection of recent events is leaving gaps in her memory for events from the distant past to leak in and cause even more confusion. Maud has always been obsessed with the fate of her older sister, Sukey, who disappeared without a trace shortly after the end of World War II. More recently, Maud finds that her friend Elizabeth has disappeared as well, and as her condition worsens the dementia causes the two mysteries to become conflated in her mind. Healey’s novel chronicles the gradual breakdown of Maud’s ability to separate reality from memory. In a series of poignant, painful, sometimes bizarre and occasionally humorous scenes filled with miscommunications and misunderstandings, Maud fumbles her way toward answers to both of the questions weighing on her mind. Healey fleshes out the novel with numerous flashbacks to Maud’s post-war life with her mother and father, compelling and deftly drawn scenes that take place immediately before and for several months after Sukey’s disappearance and which describe Maud’s attempts as an adolescent to get to the bottom of what happened to her sister. In composing this book, Healey faced enormous challenges that would have sunk a less talented writer. The masterstroke here is her evocative and convincing rendering of the thought processes of a dementia sufferer. Over and over again, she shows us Maud’s mind drifting as the past asserts itself in the present, as she fails to recognize someone with whom she was just carrying on a conversation, as she loses the thread of what she is trying to say mid-sentence. Maud’s reaction to these situations is sometimes frustration with herself, but just as often she sticks to her guns and denounces the people around her as daft and foolish. Moving, sometimes distressing, but always gripping and entertaining, Elizabeth is Missing is a different kind of suspense novel. To say that it is a triumph of empathy is to sell it far short. What Healey accomplishes in these pages is astonishing. Winner of the 2014 Costa Book Award prize for first novel.
In David Huebert’s inaugural collection of short stories, we encounter a variety of characters standing on the edge of lives in the process of transformation. Huebert writes emotion like a raw wound—throbbing and bloody. With astounding and sometimes alarming ease, he peels back his characters’ protective carapace to reveal the naked, trembling flesh beneath. The CBC Short Story Prize winning “Enigma,” which opens the volume, is a powerful case in point. In this story the young narrator is facing the imminent loss of her beloved horse. The animal is lame, the situation is only going to worsen, and the narrator’s love is not strong enough to save either of them. In “Sitzpinkler,” Miles is heading out to sea on a submarine for 105 days, one of a crew of 58; the assignment: to defend the sovereignty of Canada’s 200-mile offshore limit. Miles comes from a family of eccentrics (his pet name for his father is “the old Nazi” and his mother has recently succumbed to Botox poisoning). For Miles, emotional support has been hard to come by and life often takes the opportunity to remind him of his shortcomings. And though he worries about what could go wrong on a vessel submerged under tons of sea water, as any right-thinking individual would, it turns out that the greatest danger he faces is not the crushing pressure of the ocean, but the risk that while confined in close quarters he will accidentally let down his guard and reveal his foolish private self. Elsewhere we encounter a lonely and mistrustful prison guard with a hopeless crush on an inmate (“Maxi”), a pregnant woman who sneaks drinks and then struggles with her guilt (“Horse People”), and a young woman who, amidst a series of minor calamities, is struggling to find direction (“How Your Life”). The centrepiece of the collection is the 60-page title story, in which we witness three snapshot episodes in the life of Gavin that extend from his teenage years to young adulthood. Like Miles, Gavin’s life is coloured by regret and dominated by a fear that his baser instincts and the fact that he has no idea what it takes to live a decent and productive life will be exposed for all to see. This story is also a heartbreaking love song to Gavin’s (and the author’s) home province of Nova Scotia, but one that doesn’t hold back when it comes to enumerating the love object’s faults and failures. Overall, the collection is a triumph. In each story Huebert creates complex characters and a complete world for them to inhabit. His writing is urgent, uninhibited, packed with minute but relevant detail, and often very funny. Peninsula Sinking is a noteworthy debut that heralds the arrival of a singular literary voice, one that many of us will be eagerly awaiting to hear from again.
Early in Mohsin Hamid’s challenging, sometimes brutal, and often profoundly moving novel, Exit West, as we are getting to know the two main characters Nadia and Saeed, we are abruptly lifted out of their story and taken to Australia, where a woman asleep in her bedroom in a Sydney suburb does not awaken when a man crawls out of her closet, a dark man “with dark skin and dark, woolly hair,” whose emergence suggests a difficult birthing, and who stands and looks around him in perplexity and then slips silently out the window and into the night. It is a disorienting moment, not just for the man but for the reader as well, who is being roughly initiated into the world of a novel in which the status quo is crumbling and borders mean little. Nadia and Saeed meet in a night class. Both are living productive lives, employed and with a more-or-less settled sense of who they are and what they want. Saeed, semi-devout, prays fitfully. Nadia, who covers herself with a black robe but does not pray, enjoys playing vinyl records and using mushrooms to get high. Their tragedy is living in a city that is on the brink of war, that is filling with refugees and under threat of insurgency. When the radicals defeat the government forces and take control of the city, and with murderous zeal impose a violent form of religious law on the stricken populace, Nadia and Saeed make the painful decision to leave home and family and go elsewhere. They are not alone: in Hamid’s vividly imagined alternative universe, the world order is being tested by a relentless flow of populations from one place to another by means that can only be described as magical. The remainder of the novel follows Nadia and Saeed as they journey together through stages of intimacy and gradual separation, as they and their circumstances shift and evolve, and as they each arrive at a new understanding of what they want from life that is bittersweet but seemingly inevitable. Hamid’s novel is narrated with plain-spoken yet lilting gravitas, suggesting that we are witness to something elemental and necessary. A quick read, the novel engages the reader with a touching personal story, but its subject is the human condition in a volatile and unpredictable modern world. A highly original treatment of a familiar subject, Exit West gives us much to ponder.
What is it like, to be forced from the only home you have ever known by some force or event beyond your control: armed conflict, famine, fear of persecution? What is it like to leave your family behind with no idea of the fate that awaits them, or, indeed, to barely escape with your own life after seeing them murdered? What is it like to embark upon a journey that offers no guarantee of survival and makes no promise that once you reach your destination, you will be allowed to stay? Though we see or hear news reports about the refugee crisis almost daily, most of us in the West have no concept of the hardship, humiliation, and discrimination that displaced people must endure, and the official intransigence, obstructive bureaucracy and psychological scars that stand in the way of making a new life in a new country. In Go, Went, Gone, German author Jenny Erpenbeck addresses this gap in our knowledge, depicting what happens to a group of immigrants who have arrived in Berlin from a variety of African states. The novel is narrated from the perspective of Richard, a widowed professor of Classics who, when we meet him, is cleaning out his office after retiring from his long-standing teaching post. Richard, self-sufficient, emotionally reticent, philosophically inclined, and finding himself with time on his hands, is pulled into a chaotic situation that local bureaucrats are making a botch of when he hears of new immigrants to the city staging a hunger strike—their demand: that they be permitted to work. Curious about their plight and embarrassed by his own ignorance, he begins his inquiry as any academic would, by reading, before approaching the men, in groups and individually, in order to speak and connect with them. Gradually, over many months, his empathy awakened, he inserts himself into their midst, learns their stories, their interests, their ambitions, and welcomes them into his home and his life, which becomes all the richer for it. Erpenbeck’s profound and unsentimental novel (ably translated by Susan Bernofsky) puts a face on a 21-Century human tragedy. For Richard, and for us, the lessons these young men can teach are indispensable to understanding the world we are living in as well as our own humanness.
The stories in Paige Cooper’s surprising and unsettling debut collection are boldly inventive, cryptic, eerie, and challenging. Reading these stories is a bit like watching the approach of a distant object as it comes slowly into focus, or staring at an abstract-impressionist painting and experiencing the revelatory moment when a haphazard arrangement of blobs, splotches and squiggles offers up its meaning. After reading these stories, however, one could be excused for suspecting that the author is not particularly concerned with meaning, or focus either, and certainly not with anything so boring as message or theme. What seems to matter most in these pages is the act of writing/reading as risk-taking and discovery. These are stories that openly defy narrative convention and thumb their nose at reader expectation. Each story seems to venture farther out on the limb than the one that precedes it. These are courageous and elusive fictions that challenge us to put aside our misgivings and follow their lead, forget about what we already know and give ourselves over to something unapologetically strange and baffling. Though it’s certainly true that bizarre, disorienting fiction is not exactly revolutionary, rarely do we encounter a writer who renders their off-kilter personal vision with such clarity and poise. Cooper’s astounding verbal fluency and uncanny powers of description are given prominent display on every page. Nothing in the book seems tossed off or slack. Her prose is mature, sophisticated and visually precise, her stories tightly constructed with sentences that have heft and depth. It is no exaggeration to say that Zolitude is one of the more auspicious literary debuts in recent memory, disturbing, memorable and uncompromising. Adventurous readers with a hankering for something off-beat will find their craving more than satisfied.