By orders of Prince Regent Michael I am now a Knight of the Sovereign Military Order of Sealand!
Arise Sir John Richard Brookes OMS ;)
Sealand will be the penultimate stop on my world literary journey!
Certificate, seal and Official Documents arrived in the post today.
By orders of Prince Regent Michael I am now a Knight of the Sovereign Military Order of Sealand!
Arise Sir John Richard Brookes OMS ;)
Sealand will be the penultimate stop on my world literary journey!
I'd love to live here! Would have to be '1984' for me...
Link to story.
‘I Remember You’ feels like a slightly unnecessary addition to the Nordic noir bandwagon, tacking on an element of scary-child supernatural horror to the genre’s usual ingredients – a tortured detective figure, distracting knitwear, frozen landscapes and the stench of corruption. This bestselling novel (now a film) by the ‘queen of Icelandic crime fiction’, Yrsa Sigurđardóttir, opens with a grisly discovery – the body of a 71-year-old woman found hanged in a church with crosses cut into her back. The only doctor available to examine the corpse is a troubled psychiatrist (Freyr) from the small fishing port of Ísaforþur, whose eight-year-old son vanished a few years earlier. Meanwhile, in a seemingly separate narrative, a hopelessly underprepared young couple (Garðar and Katrin) and Líf, their newly widowed, and rather eccentric, friend plan to renovate a creepy old house in the western fjords, and open it as a B&B in the long abandoned village of Hesteyri (an actual place), but are plagued by visions of a young boy...
But just when you think you’ve stepped into a page-turning procedural thriller, the clues linking the disparate storylines begin to point to an unearthly culprit.
The trouble is none of these narrative lines actually come together until the very end, in a rather anti-climactic finale. Yes, the themes of the ghostly boy sightings, strange deaths etc connect them but many of the main protagonists never meet; leading to a rather disjointed experience for the reader.
The flow of the novel is somewhat worsened by Sigurđardóttir’s tendency to over describe, sometimes in unnecessary detail: a habit that breaks up the flow of the action… lines such as “he opened the door but there was nobody in the cupboard, just an old mop that fell directly out and to the left of him” or “he suddenly realised it was cold in the room, he had arrived with his winter jacket on and so had opened the window as the air conditioning was switched off at this time of year. However, he had not taken his jacket off and so only now realised how cold the room had become” … ok! We get it: he opened the office window and now it’s cold – did that need a paragraph?
Maybe it’s a matter of personal taste, but for me the supernatural explanation felt like a plot cop-out. Despite the actual settings and supposedly creepy story I just didn’t find it scary. Maybe I’ve been immunised by too many Stephen King books as a child. Or perhaps the book simply lacks a truly shocking moment of horror: jump-scares along the lines of loud bangs, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it ghostly glimpses, loud whispers etc may be entertaining enough in an okay horror/thriller film, but they certainly didn’t have me reaching for a cushion whilst reading this book.
The worse thing is, none of these characters are particularly likable. From Freyr, the psychiatrist who left his distraught wife after their son went missing, in case her madness was catching (a strange proposition from a mental health professional!), to the stereotypical ‘leave it to me I’m a man’ character of Garðar and the ineffectual and quite possibly bonkers Líf. Ultimately, I found it hard to care about their tribulations and survival… Brusque policewoman Dagny could have been interesting, but her character just seems to be making up the numbers here. A shame.
But this is just my opinion. All the reviews of this book (and the film, which I haven’t seen) have raved at its scariness and cleverness in combining Scandi-noir with the supernatural (it’s not unique in this by the way). One review screamed “A dark and terrifying MASTERPIECE!” on its headline. Steady on...
There have even been hysterical reports of people needing counselling after reading the book… really? I suspect if that’s the case they were probably in need of a few sessions before they read the book.
The best I can do is say I enjoyed some of the descriptions of the desolation surrounding both locales in the book, but as a horror/crime book? Nope, not for me…
So, another book that is more miss than hit as I continue the home straight and descend from the Arctic. Having now started the Faroese entry in my journey ‘Buzz Aldin: What Happened To You in All The Confusion?’ I have a much better feeling that this is one of those books – quirky and unique – that I will savour until the final page. But more of that later…
I take a bus down the east coast (there are plenty of them) to the port of Seyðisfjörður. From there I take the rather luxurious overnight ferry to Faroe Islands, leaving at 8.00pm and arriving at 3pm the next day into the Faroese capital Tórshavn, boasting a population of 13,000. The MS Norröna, which departs once a week, appears to have aspirations to be a luxury liner – boasting restaurants, cafes, a cinema, shopping centres and free wifi (sadly, the swimming pool and hot tubs are closed for winter).
The spacious king-bed cabin comes with a fruit bowl, free soft drink minibar and spectacular views of the sea, sky and occasional whale. A bargain at € 160 one-way, and I arrive nicely rested despite the choppy crossing…
However my rest does not last long, and I awake in the company of my host, Mattias, a Buzz Adrin-obssessed Norwegian gardener who, after a series of personal and professional disasters, finds himself lying on a rain-soaked road in the desolate, treeless Faroe Islands, population only a few thousand, a wad of bills in his pocket and no memory of how he had come to be there…
PLEASE NOTE: SPOILER ALERT
In the interest of fairness, I’ll tie my colours to the mast from the outset here – A Girl Called Wolf by Stephen Swartz is possibly one of the most dire books I have ever read… and I’ve read a few.
What makes things worse for this coming-of-age novel - “inspired by true life” (what does that even mean?) of a young Inuit girl, Wolf , raised in isolation by her mother in the wilds of Greenland - is that it’s actually pretty good for the first third.
It effectively blends dark magic and natural mysticism with the harsh reality of life in the Arctic, hunting and hunted by both wild animals and equally wild humans. This life gets harsher for Wolf when her ‘mama’ dies, and scenes of this young child stubbornly trying to exist alone in her world, with only her dwindling dog pack for company and survival, are heartbreaking.
Inevitably modern life, of sorts, intrudes from the small village (yet a metropolis to Wolf) of Tasiilaq – whose inhabitants come first to abuse her, and others later to try to ‘save’ by taking her to the relative civilisation of the village. Unable to adapt Wolf rebels and is eventually shipped off to a Danish Catholic mission in Greenland by the exacerbated villagers. Again, her gradual growing awareness that her old life is gone, coupled with her telling the youngsters tales of her previous life in the Arctic which they can only comprehend as fantasies, has its poignancy. Then one day a letter arrives, addressed to her, that radically changes her life once more.
At this point the plot, the narrative, the quality all take a sudden and bizarre nosedive. Her emergence into ‘big city’ life could be fascinating but here all other elements of the plot are pushed to the background as the novel becomes a series of in-depth descriptions of her and her peers increasingly adventurous sex life. Whilst I have no issue with diversity of sexual expression and do not believe in judging and denigrating individual life choices of any sort, I do have an issue with bad writing! I just felt this particular strand dominated the rest of the book – it was as if someone else had taken over the authorship at this point, or the editor had resigned! Following this litany - and believe me, after the eighth or ninth repetitive description of cunnilingus it does become a litany! - where Wolf becomes pregnant with the gay man in her bisexual ‘menage a trois’ of lovers, and moves in with her sister who has a baby by an unknown Chinese father, who took part in one of her and her husband’s regular (presumably unprotected) orgies, the narrative takes a few attempts at bringing an extra dimension to Wolf as a mother. The rest of the book. However, flails around in an embarrassing series of increasingly unlikely events – its tone veering from Raging Bull to John Le Carre at his least believable - which stretch the tagline ‘based on true life’ until it snaps…
As you can tell, I really didn’t like the book at all, especially as it showed such promise, leaving the reader feel even more short-changed at the end. It’s only other saving grace is that the increasingly demented narrative feels rushed, almost dashed off, as if the author was as keen to get the book over with as I was. I was relieved when the book was finally put out of its misery.
There you go, can’t win them all. As the number of remaining books on my journey dwindle to single figures I am hoping for better in my last stretch….
Next up is Iceland, where I’ll be splitting my stay between the remote port of Ísaforþur and Hesteyri, an abandoned and remote fishing village in the northwestern fjords, with the supernatural-tinged Icelandic noir novel I Remember You, by Yrsa Sigurdardottir.
Having prudently considered time and money (although not environmental) constraints by travelling via various anonymous airports recently, I decide to push the boat out and take one of a growing number of ‘luxury’ Arctic cruises departing Greenland and its neighbours.
I fork out an eye-watering € 7,201 for a 15-day cruise on the MS Bremen travelling from Port Sisimuit in Kangerlussuaq to Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik. The cruise is worthwhile; a reminder that the journey is as important as the destination – perhaps something I recently lost sight of. There is a map of the cruise route below.
The cabins are luxurious given my recent trip across the Arctic and the panoramic windows give a great - and fully heated! – view as we skirt the coast of Greenland down the East and up a sizeable stretch of the West. MS Bremen is a German ship so travel literature is in German but all the staff and presenters speak fluent English. There are also limitless soft drinks for the minibar…
You can watch the spectacular scenery up close from the onboard cameras or get amongst things such as the ice fjord – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – where glistening ice masses tower into the sky. At Disko Bay, I take time to experience the “water ballet” of drifting icebergs, which have broken off from the local glacier, up-close on a Zodiac ride.
The downsides of modern encroachment can be seen at Arsukfjord and its abandoned mine, counterpointed with natural beauty at Prins Christian Sund. We even drop anchor briefly at Tasiilaq, the tiny settlement where Wolf made her way after her mama’s death. There is the usual contrived, zoo-like display of the native inhabitants of Ittoqqortoormiit, one of Greenland’s most isolated settlements. The inhabitants provide insights into their lives and traditions, but there’s a tinge of sadness, exploitation even, here – harsh and difficult lives presented for the entertainment of rich tourists; I feel uncomfortable in being part of this uneven interaction – repeated with indigenous peoples the world over.
From there more zodiac rides through the glaciers and fjords and then we head out of the Arctic circle once more for the two-day trip to Iceland’s biggest city Reykjavik (133,000 inhabitants). The small town I am visiting is further north to the north than the capital – isafjordur, population 2,600. Once a thriving fishing port, the town still has a working harbour for ferries and the odd cruise ship. Whilst not on our itinerary the captain is good enough to drop anchor as we have made up time on the sea crossing. I put ashore on a zodiac and make my way up into this quaint-looking town. It looks like I am just in time, as dark clouds are forming, and freezing gusts blow snow particles into my face. I have a feeling I am about to see why Iceland got its name…
A nice surprise in my inbox today - in recognition of including the disputed territory of Sealand in my list of sovereign states on my reading trip i have been made a Knight of the Sovereign Military Order of Sealand by Prince Regent Michael 😀 i'll send pics of actual deed when it arrives... Sealand is a micronation that claims Roughs Tower, an offshore platform in the North Sea approximately 12 kilometres off the coast of Suffolk, as its territory. Roughs Tower is a disused Sea Fort, built as an anti-aircraft gun platform by the British during World War II.
Since 1967, the decommissioned fort has been occupied by family and associates of ex-British Army Major Paddy Roy Bates, and later his son Michael, who claim that it is an independent sovereign state. It will form the penultimate stop on my travels.
Ellesmere Island lies in the far north of Nunavut Province in the high Arctic North. Almost within touching distance of Greenland this, the tenth largest island in the world is an unforgiving land, dwarfing its couple of hundred – mainly Inuit – inhabitants, who exist in a land of dark icy winters and perpetual daylight of snowbound summers… it is perhaps no surprise then that I find myself arriving via a small four-seater Cessna plane: buffeted by winds and snow, we nevertheless make it down in one piece!
Not being a huge fan of potboiler detective series novels, I have tended to meet protagonists into the second or third book of their series. The Bone Seeker is one of those books, however I found it worked just as well as a standalone novel as a series episode.
The protagonist in question here is Edie Kiglatuk. This half-Inuit heroine isn’t really a detective, she’s a hunter and a tracker, but this summer she’s working as a schoolteacher in Kuujuaq, a settlement on the south shore of the island, due west of her own hometown of Autisaq.
Her teaching stint ends when 15-year-old schoolgirl Martha Salliaq’s body is found in remote Turngaluk, known to the Inuit as Lake of the Bad Spirits. Now Sargeant Derek Palliser, the senior of the two members of the Ellesmere Island Native Police (75,000 square miles), needs Edie’s help and promptly deputises her... (hmmm)
Although the government in Ottawa sees him as a Nunavut native, the Inuit consider Palliser (who is a Cree), as a qalunaat, an outsider. Edie serves as his link to the people who can help him solve Martha’s murder, starting with the girl's father, Charlie Salliaq. Although Edie is only half Inuit, she still has access to Charlie, whom she addresses as avasirngulik, in deference to his position as tribal chief.
But Edie is plagued by doubts about her ability to help Derek solve the case, about her relationship with Chip Muloon, a researcher from the University of Calgary, and about how her role as deputy will affect her relations with the rest of the native population. Those doubts persist even after two unataqti (Canadian soldiers) are charged with Martha’s murder. Something in the speed with which Army camp Colonel Al Klinsman seems willing to jail two of his own - and his hostility to Sonia Gutierrez, the Salliaqs' lawyer - makes Edie think the case isn't as simple as Camp Nanook’s commanding officer suggests.
Interestingly for a murder mystery, the victim Martha is rather pushed to the side at this point – her death serving more as a catalyst for the much wider investigations that follow.
The Army Camp in question is Camp Nanook, just outside Kuujuaq, a Canadian forces base. The soldiers there are about to begin cleaning up a contaminated area around an old early warning radar station used by the Canadian and US military during the Cold War. The place is considered by the Inuit to harbour bad spirits – even tundra birds avoid it.
Meanwhile, a second plotline involves Martha’s father Charlie Salliaq. The old man has hired a lawyer called Sonia Gutierrez who has come up from Ottawa to make sure the military keep to the government’s promise to clean up the contamination. Gutierrez thinks the authorities have more to hide.
It seems she’s right – they are reluctant to send a forensics specialist up to do Martha’s autopsy, and later on the corpse is actually seized by Canada’s Defence Department. Old Charlie falls ill with grief, but luckily Derek progresses with the investigation. A pair of roughneck soldiers called Namagoose and Saxby were seen drinking with Martha just before she disappeared. Palliser and local opinion are ready to put the jacket on the jarheads, and so is their commanding officer Colonel Klinsman.
But Edie and Gutierrez suspect a cover-up. So, if the soldiers aren’t sadistic killers, who did do it and is Martha’s death connected to the Defence Department’s nefarious activities?
MJ McGrath recreates the High Arctic setting and the strange, lonely, barren feel of this settlement on the fringe very well, and the way she presents Edie’s interactions with Derek Palliser is one of the highlights of The Bone Seeker. He is an interesting, flawed but well-rounded, character who maintains a sense of duty, even though he’s treated as an inferior by Klinsman and the Inuit he deals with, because he has Cree blood.
The Inuit ways and customs, from eating slices of walrus head to their spiritual beliefs, make a fine backdrop for the story, which is liberally sprinkled with native words and phrases.
This is a book with flaws though, enjoyable as it was. The formulaic thriller genre gets in the way of McGrath’s serious points on the treatment of the Inuit by ‘southern’ Canadian – certain ‘derring-do’ scenes where characters suddenly learn to abseil, fly planes etc come across as thrown in to allow for marketing as an action filled book.
It is the ending that I find the hardest to swallow. Whilst much of the novel, albeit occasionally OTT, makes serious points of inter and intra Inuit prejudice and exploitation of land, the final chapter lets it down in my opinion… I won’t give the ending away but, for me, it was as sickly sweet as bathful of treacle with a bucket of sugar cubes thrown in…
I'm now leaving behind the Arctic wilderness of Canada but whilst I leave the country the weather is coming with me! I head off on an even more rickety plane than I arrived in, and – after a mercifully short helicopter transfer – I land in a white desert of snow and ice called, ironically, Greenland, with A Girl Called Wolf by Stephen Swartz.
Set against the landscape of rural Acadia, I Am a Truck is a funny and moving tale about the possibilities and impossibilities of love and loyalty…
Agathe and Réjean Lapointe are very much in love.
After close to 20 years of marriage, they still blow each other kisses and make each other gifts. As teens, Chevy-truck-obsessed Réjean already had a chest "as big as a rain barrel" and hands "like a bunch of bananas," and Agathe was "pretty enough to be a newscaster or figure skater." Through a lifetime together their affection has evolved into something simultaneously tender and intense – full of concern, affection, lust and even a touch of fiery jealousy. They are a team of two, largely secluded from the rest of the world by choice – a point underlined by their Francophone speech in a largely English-speaking area..
"Their physical relationship had flourished over the years, despite the normalcy and tedium innate in all couples," writes debut novelist Michelle Winters of her fictional pair. "For him, she would always be the girl who had awakened his soul that July day at the marché when they were teenagers."
Yet regardless of that rare and passionate solidity, in spite of that enduring love, something just feels wrong. There is a kind of groping desperation to their union, a need and a fear that becomes even more pronounced when the police show up at the door of their secluded cottage and inform Agathe that Réjean's prized Chevy Silverado has been abandoned, the driver’s door still open, and that her true love is nowhere to be found.
Agathe, Réjean and their offbeat brand of passion exist at the centre of I Am a Truck – and this abrupt separation has profound effects upon Agathe. Set in the rural Acadia region of New Brunswick province, and featuring both French and English dialogue, Winters does a lot on the page and packs a great deal of charm into this brief, very human little book. In fact, it is Winters's economical knack for the short story that shines through; she's got a talent for beautifully vivid details (occasionally bordering on the absurd – such as Martin, their Chevy-truck dealer who guiltily drives a Ford which he hides several blocks away, pretending he doesn’t have a car at all), and sets a quick pace from scene to scene. And though there is a great deal of the mundane day to day here, somehow Winters makes magic with it. Interestingly this seems to be a common theme across my Canadian stopovers – the mundanity and matter-of-factness of life in the face of mystery, intrigue and tragedy. Perhaps this reflects the bleak Arctic landscapes and prairies – monotonous in themselves but thinly veiling the promise of magic just beyond the treeline…
While there is no obvious explanation for Réjean's disappearance, it doesn't look as if he's been kidnapped or harmed, but instead that he's left of his own free will. Consumed by grief, Agathe assumes her mountain of a man has deserted her, perhaps through some fault of her own, perhaps for another woman. From there the book evolves into a mystery of sorts, but not in any sort of traditional page-turner sense. We are treated to flashbacks to flesh out what exactly did happen to the devoted Réjean, but they are actually less interesting than the focus on Agathe and what happens when she finds herself alone without explanation.
In Réjean's absence, Agathe initially wallows – "it was hard to know whether to start moving on or continue loving him in his absence." She sits in his chair, chain-smokes cigarettes and is full of grief for her lost love. She does manage to pull herself together in part by getting a job at Stereoblast, a used-electronics store, and by befriending effervescent co-worker Debbie. Days and nights become full of distracting rock 'n' roll, drinks and driving lessons, and in turn, Agathe gains a new sense of identity and solidity.
Add to the narrative mix Chevy dealer Martin Bureau, a man with some perhaps obsessive feelings for Réjean of his own, a cheese-making gun dealer hidden in the woods, a military man – a possible but unfulfilled love-interest who sets in chain a series of events he is completely unaware of simply by his presence - the random appearance of a Stereoblast bat mascot named Beatrice (heavy with symbolism) and the I Am a Truck ensemble transports our tale deep into the off-kilter weird and wonderful.
"The Silverado was a living metaphor for Réjean, a physical manifestation of the man who wasn't coming home. Why wasn't he coming home?"
This book is a compressed yet somehow expansive read, its characters vivid and its drama racing – although Réjean remains an enigma, almost mute in his taciturnity (and Agathe is not exactly talkative). Quirky and fun, I Am a Truck feels like a departure from the usual romantic / self-discovery fare, and that's a very good thing.
Totally at home despite its small stature – both in publishing house and page count – this novel, whilst not without its flaws, offers something fresh and unexpected.
I now trek north by a rickety Cessna 2-seater plane, into the true Arctic region of Canada's North in the Nunavet province, to remote Ellesmere Island, where I find mystery and murder among the Inuit communities in my final port of call in Canada.
I now venture further East into Canada, arriving in the French-speaking province of Quebec…with a coming of age story of familiar themes and Western issues, set against the ubiquitous bleak wintery landscape of Canada.
Set in small-town Chicoutimi-Nord, Quebec, Geneviève Pettersen’s first book is a downbeat coming-of-age novel about a teenage girl whose life quickly spins out of control. A bestseller in its original French, The Goddess of Fireflies is narrated by Catherine as she navigates the eventful year between her fourteenth and fifteenth birthdays, a year full of change, violence, sex, substance abuse, and star-crossed romance.
The novel opens at Catherine’s fourteenth birthday party, where her inebriated father spontaneously gives her a cheque for a thousand dollars before totalling her mother’s jeep. Catherine is unaffected by the scene, using it instead as an opportunity to introduce the reader to her father, a crooked lawyer, and her mother, a former model. The pair have been bitterly and violently arguing for as long as she could remember.
While her parents’ marriage implodes, Catherine begins hanging out at the mall, “the hole,” and other hideaways in the surrounding forest for underage drinking and debauchery. Her portrayals of the kids she encounters are one-dimensional, but that’s not to say they aren’t authentically teenaged. There’s Melanie the bully, Pascal the heartthrob, Kevin the cool loner and Eve the bad apple. These characters are sweet and selfish by turn, and Catherine’s loyalties change quickly.
But while her friendships are disposable, Catherine remains devoted to the PCP-variant mesc, which she first tries at a party in the woods. Soon, her life is ruled by her appetite for the narcotic, and she lovingly describes the different varieties she ingests. Along with drugs, the novel is full of sex and music, with many references to nineties’ pop-punk bands like Lagwagon, NOFX, and The Offspring, and alternative rock such as Sonic Youth and Les Wampas. These are bands that reflect Catherine’s alienation, offering a discordant soundtrack to her drug-fuelled bacchanalias and teen romances. The music references increase as she falls for Kevin, a music and horror film obsessive with a pompadour and tight jeans.
Rather than being narrated from a distance, Catherine’s voice comes to the reader almost in real time, relaying each event immediately after it takes place. As a result, the novel has a breathless pace, moving at the frantic speed of an addicted fourteen-year-old’s mind. Divided into short chapters, The Goddess of Fireflies offers few moments of pause or reflection. Instead of depth, the reader gets perpetual digressions, and there are several stories-within-stories of Chicoutimi teen lore in each chapter.
In the original French, Pettersen prioritised using words and expressions particular to the Saguenay. Whilst we necessarily lose access to this unique local dialect in the English version, Neil Smith ably translates the novel into a more universal English teenage-speak. The original, like the translation, is liberally peppered with swearing, as well as offensive remarks against Indigenous people, women, and homosexuals, all the more effective in their casual use. Perhaps intended to shock, and likely true to the diction of a Saguenay teenager in the late twentieth century, this aspect of the novel nevertheless becomes pretty irritating.
After the death of a friend and the discovery of her habit by her parents, Catherine faces the consequences of her wild year. But even so she shows little remorse. However, during a fishing trip with her father on her fifteenth birthday we begin to see the first signs that Catherine might be changing for the better. As the pair return to Chicoutimi, they witness the Saguenay flood at its height.
The book, for me, ends a little too abruptly…perhaps there is a metaphor I am missing here, or maybe Pettersen was going for a sense that there is no resolution to be had – as in the sudden ending of Bret Easton Ellis’ similar depiction of rather more privileged Generation X-ers in Less Than Zero.
Whatever, if the previous book Six Metres of Pavement was almost too pat in its resolution, here I felt a little short-changed; though I note a sequel is in the offing…
That said, as a glimpse into the casual nature – and consequences – of small-town teenage sex, drug use and disenchantment, Goddess of Fireflies hits its mark.
From here I travel to the most easterly point on my Canadian venture, to the remote Acadian region in the New Brunswick Province. This area is one of four provinces that make up Canada’s Atlantic Region and is the only province in the region that is officially bilingual (around two thirds anglophone to one third francophone). Not keen to endure the 16-hour road journey, I get a taxi to Chicoutimi airport and take the 4-hour 17 minute flight to St John. the largest city in New Brunswick and oldest in Canada, I then hire a car and travel the 200 miles to the much more remote and rural area of Acadia. I arrive a little tired, but having had enough time to brush up on my college level French for the next book I Am A Truck, written mainly in English but with a good amount of untranslated French/franglais too…
[A bit of a milestone here – book number 300 of my Reading the World voyage! Only 19 more to go….]
I’m sure, being honest, every parent or custodian of a toddler has experienced moments of lapsed focus while caring for their little ones.
Distractions are all around. A ring tone, the doorbell, a hectic schedule, and the next thing you know, your charge has shovelled sand into their mouths, are teetering precariously on the top step, has sprained an ankle jumping into a shallow pool (that was my lapse!) or worse.
When it comes to toddler care, distractions happen. In most cases, thankfully, tragedy is averted. Scolding themselves, parents pledge to keep a closer eye and then move on.
But what happens when tragedy isn't averted, and the guilt-ridden parent can't move on? This is the subject of Farzana Doctor's excruciatingly honest, yet matter of fact second novel, Six Metres of Pavement.
Life was good for new father and husband Ismail Boxwala until one warm summer morning in Toronto when, through a change in routine, he inadvertently forgot Zubi, his snoozing 18-month-old, strapped into her car seat. After hours in the baking sun, the vehicle's interior becomes superheated. Zubi suffers heat stroke and perishes.
This single moment of inattention all but destroys Ismail's life. Overwhelmed by causing Zubi's death, 20 years on, Ismail has experienced only a "complicated, incomplete healing." Resolution finally begins when Ismail has two chance encounters, one with the newly widowed Celia Sousa, the other with Fatima Khan, a university student caught in the throes of domestic turmoil. In restoring themselves, this unlikely threesome must start to face their pasts, their emotional issues.
To Doctor's credit, the characters come across as genuine, to the point of mundanity despite each one’s traumatic past and present. Ismail Boxwala is an alcoholic, middle-aged engineer working for the City of Toronto. The once budding family man now spends his days filled with regret, slogging despondently between work, home, and the neighbourhood bar. Then he meets Celia, the Portuguese widow who’s moved in across the street. Celia suffers from her own tragedy: she lost her husband and then found out he’d gambled away all their money. At 50, she realizes she’s lost herself as well; relegated to mourning black and living under sufferance in her married daughter’s converted basement.
Ismail and Celia’s problems begin to disappear as soon as they finally connect, after spying on each other for almost a year. Celia trades in her black widow’s garb for sexy colours and says goodbye to the hallucinations she’s been having of her dead husband. Likewise, Ismail stops frequenting his local bar. “He didn’t step foot into the Merry Pint once and he didn’t miss it,” Doctor writes. “Instead, he courted Celia.”
When he takes the young and troubled Fatima Khan under his wing – she having been disowned by her parents for coming out as gay in an article in her college magazine, bringing ‘shame’ on them – the strange, ramshackle but somehow workable family-type unit is complete.
Unfortunately, Doctor’s simplistic take on the nature of addiction and how people recover from tragedy is hackneyed and, in many cases doesn’t ring true. There is a strangely muted feel to the narrative – especially filtered through that of the rather staid, but good-natured Ishmail. Whilst it may reflect his emotional numbness through trauma it is strangely distancing, like seeing the world from behind dim glass.
The novel’s other glaring flaw is its conspicuously inapt diction. There’s overdressed prose and distracting metaphor aplenty: spring doesn’t start, it “asserts itself”; Ismail and his ex-wife “choke on their own unexpressed words”; sex is “an egalitarian round of strip poker.”
In the last 100 pages, Doctor takes each of the novel’s loose ends and rather conveniently ties them up in their various unconventional ways. Whilst I am not against resolutions in novels, the ending feels just too perfect, too tidy, too impossible. With it, Doctor betrays the power and potential of her own premise.
Cold Hands opens in present-day Florida, our narrator clearly a haunted man, forced to relive his horrors in writing by his therapist, because "it might help if I could stand to write it all down". He's scarred, grey-haired, exhausted – and then we shift to the snowy plains of Saskatchewan, Canada, two years earlier.
Donnie wants to be a screenwriter but actually writes fawning film reviews for the local paper, run by his wife, Sammy. They are rich, complacent, happy, but their son, Walt, is upset because their dog is lost. "We'll start with the dog," Donnie tells us, and we do: Herby is found in the snow, utterly eviscerated, and the tension ratchets up to screaming point from there, as snow and menace and murder gather outside their perfect home.
Donnie's first-person narrative is, rather obviously, scattered with literary asides: he has read Updike and Ballard, has learned – we are told in case we haven't got "the message" – about "ironic distance" and the "unreliable narrator". This is to make the contrast with the interspersed story of young Donnie, uneducated, dirt poor, and part, as a child growing up in Scotland, of something Very, Very Bad. Is the past he thought he'd left behind catching up with him? Well, yes, in the tradition of many a good thriller, it just might be. The Henry VI quote used as an epigraph – "if I digged up thy forefathers' graves, and hung their rotten coffins up in chains, it could not slake mine ire, nor ease my heart" – is very apt here.
Niven knows how to write a haunting, suspenseful and disturbing story. His big "reveal" is not the most surprising however, and his writing and metaphors are occasionally rather clunky (Walt's "mittens dangled on strings from his sleeves, hung men, ghost hands echoing the real ones").
Ultimately though, for me, the change of gear in Cold Hands – from psychological study in guilt and paranoia to all-out violence – is too abrupt; as if Niven got to a point where he’d exhausted the notions of past and reinvention, and so decided instead to go full-on bonkers with the second half of the novel.
There are wilfully sadistic scenes here, with Donnie’s desperation to protect his family against impossible odds reminiscent of the equally disturbing Austrian movie Funny Games… and it is here that the Canadian wilderness comes into its own, as the characters find themselves playing out the denouement in a remote cabin, in the middle of a night-time blizzard that even helicopters struggle to reach…
All in all an okay thriller if you like that sort of thing, that plays out as expected. Trainspotting author and fellow Scot Irvine Welsh, declared it to be the "most cleverly constructed and incendiary thriller" he's ever read in the publisher's blurb. Really? I think Welsh must have imbibed some of the substances his protagonists are so fond of when he wrote that…
Right now, I push on eastwards, to Toronto in the Ontario Province. This is a stark contract to the remote wilderness settings previously explored, being the most populous city in Canada at nearly three million (indeed it is often mistaken for Canada’s capital, which is actually Ottowa).
Rather than a pricey three days bus/train trip I get a direct flight from Regina straight to Toronto in just three hours. I shall spend my time in Toronto courtesy of the novel Six Metres of Pavement by Farzana Doctor, winner of the 2012 LAMBDA Literary Award for Best Lesbian Fiction and of the 2011 Rainbow Awards. A sense of the novel can be found in this Library Thing review:
“Six Metres of Pavement tells the story of divorced Ismail Boxwala, who continues to struggle with the role he played in his daughter's accidental death two decades ago. He drinks too much, and is largely isolated from his community. Slowly, he regains happiness through two women: Fatima, a young woman shunned by her family because of her sexual orientation, and Celia, a widow who moves in with her daughter across the street. This is a story about friendship and chosen families.”
It sounds like an interesting and poignant set of character studies. We shall see…
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