Tuesday, September 06, 2011

a bit on the side

In On Canaan’s Side we find ourselves at the mercy of another confessional novel.  Lilly’s days (and chapters) may be ordered and consecutive but her memories roam far and wide.  Always a comforting travelling companion, she leads safely us through time as well as across the miles. 

‘To remember sometimes is a great sorrow, but when the remembering has been done, there comes afterwards a very curious peacefulness.  Because you have planted your flag on the summit of sorrow.  You have climbed it.’

From her childhood and her subsequent escape to America, her early days there as troubled as those she left behind.  The usual wide-eyed wonder (‘How were there ladders long enough to get bricks up so high?’) balanced by the later perspective of someone who has seen many years of life pass them by (‘Tears have a better character cried alone.’). Powerful set pieces (like the rollercoaster scene) are peppered with little details about her day-to-day life, visitors and doctors appointments.

Sebastian Barry addresses issues many of us will face, the real stuff of human life, but always manages to spotlight them in striking and poetic ways.  And it is his character creation that enables him to do this – in the process challenging my assumptions about spending so much time in the narrative company of a little old lady.  That she could be holding such a story, such truth, at times so brutal never ceased to amaze me.  I’m glad I’ve bumped into Barry again (we first met a few Bookers back), and through him Lilly – I hope others do too.

introducing the band

Like the Edwards novel Half Blood Blues is a story built upon seemingly minor actions and their eventual undesirable consequences.  We see seeds of trouble sown early – jealousy over a woman, shame in front of one’s peers, rivalry both personal and professional. 

Through Sid Edugyan quickly fills us in on how things were in both Paris and Berlin during the Second World War, particularly if you were black or part black.  This was one of those novels where you are presented a scene you think you are familiar with, then told to look more closely, at a detail you’d previously overlooked – and there the story lies.  Perhaps a lazy comparison, but Levy’s Small Island came to mind – although that achieved it’s aim better for me.

Initially I was impressed – I felt like I was getting a decent dose of story-telling.  Sid swiftly sketching an outline of what happened and then we would wait for the details to be filled in, the characters to be fleshed out.  But sadly this never quite happened - few of the cast were as strongly defined as Sid.  A group of characters was clearly needed to support the storyline, but I was surprised that the star they all revolved around, Heiro, stayed largely superficial to the reader.

In addition and perhaps inevitably the novel relied quite heavily on the appeal of the jazz scene, which whilst atmospherically rendered (‘We sat at the knifed-up chairs, while he snapped a tan handkerchief out of his front pocket and whisked the nutshells and cigarette butts to the floor.  His eyes glistened like beetles.’) never has quite the same appeal that audible music holds, especially not for a reader who doesn’t happen to be a jazz fan.