Unconditional Love

By Shanna Bernier

I have lofty goals of nurturing kind children who will make the world a better place. In my personal and professional life I seek to create spaces where kids and teens feel loved and free to express their true selves without fear of condemnation. This past week I attended a conference on community care and youth mental health. It was a weekend-long gathering with workshops, discussions, playful exploration, and resource sharing. I feel really bolstered by this experience and all the wonderful humans working to make beautiful spaces for young people to figure out the world. The weekend was essentially a “user’s guide” to being a better adult in a world characterized by a lot of systems where people cannot fully access what they need to healthy.

The public library is an example of a place where people are working hard to make spaces for people on the margins. Access to free books, and computers, community learning and a warm spot to rest is a massively important thing. Moreover, it is a huge gift to be a part of a library community that helps people to move through the world just a bit more easily.

We live in a highly individualistic society; we put a lot of value on a person’s ability to succeed on their own and get all the “things” we use to define success. We also want everyone to fit into the mainstream, and deviations or differences are often shut down. These differences could be in physical ability, mental health, racial or cultural identity, gender expression and others. We want everyone to grow up and be successful on their own, yet we want them to be all the same. This is a really hard ask. And it is no easy task try to dismantle the way of life we have which centres on these values. However, we can resist is members of a community. We can teach kids that their story is allowed to be different and that this difference is a beautiful thing.

goodreads-shanna     From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea is written by Kai Cheng Thom and illustrated by Kai Yun Ching and Wai-Yant Li. It tells the story of a child who can change into any shape they can imagine. The only problem is that they can’t decide what to be: a boy or a girl? A bird or a fish? A flower or a shooting star? They begin school in the book, where they must endure inquisitive looks and difficult questions from the other children, and have trouble finding friends who will accept them for who they are. But they find comfort in the loving arms of their mother, who offers them a constant refrain: “Whatever you dream of / I believe you can be / from the stars in the sky to the fish in the sea.” This book offers as a snapshot of how hard it is for a child to find a safe community when they deviate from the norm. It could be about gender presentation, it could be about neurodiversity (how our brains work differently) or any other kind of difference. This book shows us a great role model in the mother who never dismisses her child’s concerns, but is a constant source of comfort and love. Loving someone unconditionally is hard. Parents, caregivers, teachers, youth leaders and all the other adults in a child’s life have a choice to be sources of love or sources of harm. Boundaries are important, but we can always send love towards a kid in our circle, even if that love is different from parental or familial love. A child who feels left out or marginalized might see themselves in this story and be hopeful. This book has beautiful art and a delightful poetic message.

The other book I wish to highlight on this theme is an older one, first published in 1997, “I love you Stinky-Face” by  Lisa McCourt and Cyd Moore. This book is a beautifully woven and reassuring tale of the love and affection of a parent, even in the face of relentless questioning and “what ifs”. Can we love our children even if there are a meat-eating dinosaur or a really stinky skunk? Can we still love our kids if they are interested in something really outside our comfort zone, or if they come out to us, or if they have autism or if they challenge our belief system? The answer is yes. That doesn’t mean we won’t have to adapt or change or feel challenged, but we must love the children in our lives no matter what. The world depends on it.

So share a moment of love and joy with the small person in your life with a cozy beautiful book. Remind them that you love them no matter what, and that they can dream big dreams and be who they are with you by their side.

Shanna Bernier

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The Royal Game and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig

By Stephen SheeranRoyal Game Woodcut_Schachnovelle_Stefan_Zweig.jpg

Stefan Zweig is probably the most famous writer that you have never heard of. He was one of the best-known and most widely translated international authors in the years between the two world wars, at one point being compared favourably with James Joyce.  Yet, in spite of recent efforts to revive his reputation, he is still a virtual unknown.  Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Herman Hesse—these names ring plenty of bells thanks to a bump in popularity in the 1960s. But Zweig?  Not so much.

Zweig was born in 1880s Vienna into a secular Jewish family, and he came to prominence in the early 1900s with a prolific output of biographies, novels, and novellas. As the Austro-Hungarian Empire drew to a close, Vienna was home to a cultured and wealthy middle and upper class, and a vibrant intellectual and artistic community. Think Freud, Wittgenstein, Klimt, Loos, Schoenberg, Mahler.  Biographers note that Zweig  always considered himself an internationalist—a citizen of the world—so it is not surprising that the rise of National Socialism in Germany forced him into exile, first to England (1934) then The United States (1940) and then to Brazil in the same year. In February of 1942 he committed suicide with these as his parting words: “Exhausted by the long years of homeless wandering… I greet all my friends! May they live to see the dawn after the long night! Impatient, I am going ahead of you.”

All of Zweig’s stories are disconcerting, reflecting a society in which traditional structures are being challenged and swept aside by modernity and by the increasing encroachments of Nazism. Characters are restless, unfulfilled, wounded, and trying to adapt to instability. “The Royal Game” (“Schachnovelle” in the original German) was completed in 1941. The setting of the story is an ocean liner which is on its way from New York to Buenos Aires around 1939. Immediately we detect the substrate of brink-of-war anxiety in the odd assortment of characters who are randomly assembled on the voyage. We are introduced to an affable and gregarious narrator, and through his eyes we see the drama unfold. Essentially it is a conflict that centres on an impromptu chess tournament. On one side of the board is a bizarre chess master, Mirko Czentovic. He is a savant—brilliant in chess, but illiterate, uncouth, arrogant, and condescending. On the other side is Dr. B, the nervous survivor of a Nazi interrogation centre. Accused of colluding with the Catholic Church and the Austrian royal family, he has been subjected to months of solitary confinement, sensory deprivation, grinding interrogation. His only relief has come from a purloined copy of 150 championship chess games which he has played through ad infinitum. In his solitude he has developed a black ego and a white ego in order to run simulated games in his mind. In any case, the few games played on the ocean liner pit rationality against insanity, and the outcome is fraught with contradictions.

Unfortunately, this bare-bones summary cannot begin to convey the depth and complexity of Zweig’s narrative power. Scenes are rendered with precision, with extraordinary attention given to the slightest detail. Dialogue is breathless and fragmented as the characters insist, deny, demur, obfuscate. As with most novellas, the characters cannot be developed with any detail; however, there is ample scope in each story for one main obsession or fixation. And within that limiting format Zweig is able to craft plots of amazing interest and curiosity. If you were to look for comparisons, Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis or Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice would figure. Zweig is also experimental in his narrative techniques. Sometimes, in moments of panic or delirium, the past tense is abandoned in favour of the narrative present.

The other novellas in this collection are drawn from earlier in his career, yet they all bear a similar stamp. Zweig tends to hitch his narrative cart to the oddest ponies!   “Amok” is narrated by a dissolute doctor who is devoted to the desperate mission of protecting the reputation of a socialite whom he has attempted to rape when she comes to him for an illegal abortion.  “The Burning Secret” is related from the perspective of a 12-year-old boy who finds himself embroiled in a bizarre love triangle with his mother and a Lothario who is trying to seduce her. (It should come as no surprise that Zweig befriended Sigmund Freud, and like James Joyce, was influenced by his works. In every story there is some homage paid to trauma and obsessive attachment.) In “Fear” an adulteress is the focus of attention as she is blackmailed to the point of madness.  In sum, this collection of stories is disturbing and thought provoking, and does raise the question of why Zweig languishes in obscurity. Current reception is divided. Writer and poet Michael Hofmann pans him, yet novelist John Fowles was an avid fan. I leave it for you to decide.

The Royal Game was realized in a 1960 film called Brainwashed, starring Curt Jürgens. The screenplay inflicted violence on the basic plot, but the overall feel of the story is maintained. The Royal Game and Other Stories will soon be available at the Lennoxville Library.

 

 

 

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A Well Deserved Exile: Stalin’s Englishman by Andrew Lownie

review by Vince Cuddihy

Stalin’s Englishman, Andrew Lownie’s 2015 biography of Guy Burgess, a key member of the Cambridge 5 spy ring, has received many awards and honours, including the St. Ermin’s Intelligence Book of the Year and the BBC History Book of the Year, among several others. Lownie runs a very successful literary agency. He is also president of the Biographer’s Club.

CaptureLownie had been working on Burgess’s story on and off for 30 years. A key part of this work is that he found some of the Russians who had been Burgess’s handlers while he was aiding the Soviet secret service.

The picture Lownie paints of Burgess is that of a truly magnetic character: depending on which pole one approached him from, he came across as attractive or repulsive. Nobody was indifferent to him; where some people found a handsome, witty and charming lothario, others saw a grubby, slovenly drunk. But even though he was notoriously indiscreet, he was also clever enough to keep from being exposed for what he really was for many years.

Lownie takes us through Burgess’s early life as the son of a naval officer who did not distinguish himself. Guy attended Dartmouth Naval Training College, but was unpopular with his classmates and graduated from Eton. Lownie suggests these early rebukes created the sense of alienation that made Burgess susceptible to the offers to betray his country that the Soviets later presented. During his undergraduate days, Burgess joined the Communist Party and also took up his devotion to homosexual practices that were destined to become an important part of his espionage activities.

Kim Philby was the first of the Cambridge 5 to be recruited in 1934, followed by Donald Maclean and then Burgess. Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross followed later. One of the first things the Soviets asked them to do was to quit their membership in the British Communist Party. Burgess even wrote articles and letters to editors explaining why he thought Communism was a fraud and doomed to failure. At first, the recruits were just asked to find responsible jobs which would allow them to fit in well with the UK establishment. The important thing was to cultivate contacts with ambitious people who would eventually be in a position to have access to important information.

It is ironic that the Soviets did not really trust Burgess and took most of what he told them with a large grain of salt. He had the reputation of being a drunk and a BS artist, so the Soviets were sceptical of stories that Burgess claimed to have heard. Burgess also regaled the Russians with stories of how British counterintelligence had turned German spies into sources of disinformation by feeding lies to them. How could the Russians be sure that the British were not using Burgess the same way? The Soviets also asked Burgess to provide the names of British spies who were active in the USSR the way he provided names of spies who were operating in German controlled territory. He never delivered because after the Germans attacked the Soviet Union and the Soviets became Britain’s allies, the British thought it would be bad form to spy on their new friends and deactivated any spies they had.

Most British sources felt that Burgess had not done much harm because he was rarely in a position to have access to vital information. He certainly supplied the Soviets with large volumes of intel. At one stage he was taking suitcases full of documents out of his colleagues’ files and handing them to his contacts. His reputation as a boozer came in handy as an explanation for the three hour lunch hours that it took for the Soviets to copy the material at the London embassy. But the poor Soviets could not find the nuggets of good intel buried in the mass of paper that Burgess had supplied. When he finally arrived in Moscow, he found shelves full of material that he had smuggled out years earlier, still untranslated and never read by anyone in the upper echelons of the Soviet intelligence network.

Lownie’s Russian sources asserted that Burgess was very important, not because of the information he provided, but because of the people he gave them access to. As a promiscuous homosexual, he had liaisons with many men who rose to key positions in the British government and the private sector. Many of them later wrote him letters in reaction to what was still a criminal act. Burgess hung onto all these letters, actively supported these men in their bids for critical offices and recommended them for promotions, knowing that he had evidence that he could provide to his Soviet handlers that could be used to blackmail these targets.

Burgess spent the last 12 years of his life in the USSR, having fled with Maclean, who knew he was being watched, in 1951. Without the excitement of spying, his time there seems to have been rather boring. The big events for him were visits by friends from England, some of whom were bringing orders from his tailor or shirt maker. In the end, he wound up back in England, buried in the Hampshire village of West Meon, next to his father.  

Stalin’s Englishman is a fascinating story which provides strong insight into why these men acted the way they did and how they got away with it for so long. It would help non-British readers to understand where these spies fitted in if Lownie provided a clearer picture of how the UK government bureaucracy was organized 70 years ago.

Stalin’s Englishman is available at the Lennoxville Library.

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HOMES by Abu Bakr Al Rabeeah with Winnie Yeung

Review by Michele Murray

 

Homes looks like a small, unassuming book. Not so. This is, in fact, a HUGE story, with multiple layers. There is much to move you within its 217 pages.Capture

Homes tells the story of the Al Rabeeah family—an Iraqi family of 10 (two parents, five daughters and three sons)—who, because of persecution in Iraq, move to the city of Homs, in northern Syria and then eventually to Edmonton, Canada, as refugees. The title, Homes, is a clever play on words. ‘Homs’ is pronounced ‘homes’, and at the heart of the book is the question: What is home?

What is ‘home’ to a displaced family that must leave everything behind multiple times? What is home, when you are a teenage boy growing up in the chaos of war? What is home, when you must leave everything familiar, and come to a new land, a new culture, and a new language?

The story of the Al Rabeeah family is told from the perspective of Abu Bakr, the second of the three sons. Bakr, as he is known, tells how his family, because of persecution in Iraq (they were Sunni Muslims in a predominantly Shiite Muslim world) flees to Syria—to settle in Homs—when he is nine, in December of 2010. By March of 2011, when Bakr has turned 10, the people of Syria begin peaceful demonstrations calling for national unity and democracy, and by April of 2011, the Syrian government begins to respond with increasing violence. The steady descent into vicious civil war—first, with what seemed like random, one-off incidents of government snipers shooting at people leaving mosques on Friday afternoons, to focused, deliberate and wider-spread raids of the areas of Homs in which demonstrators lived—is told through the eyes of this young boy.

We hear about the suffering: how Bakr, his parents and siblings, and other regular Muslims, were caught in the middle of the war. We in Canada received reports of what was happening in Syria, and it quickly became difficult for us to understand who was fighting whom. What this book makes clear is that this was not apparent for the people on the ground, either. “When the grenades exploded or machine guns rattled, you never knew if the attack was coming from the government or the anti-government militias that fought to control the streets of Homs” (p. 19). It was utter chaos, and Bakr, and his family, were caught in the middle.

We hear of how Bakr lived through the turmoil of war, and how they became used to it.

“After three years of living in civil war, we had become strangely numb to the random violence that bubbled up around us” (pp. 19-20).  

Bakr talks about how he and his friends would get mops and buckets to rid the streets of pieces of human flesh and bone stuck to the sidewalks; how he buried a man’s jaw, found on the roof of his family’s chicken coop. Not usual activities for a 13-year-old boy, but, activities that, out of necessity, he and his friends became accustomed to doing.

He tells how he learned to fall asleep, to what he calls the “strange lullaby” of the “singing” sniper rifles, the “chorus of machine guns,” and “the soprano screech and baritone tremor of the mortars” (pp. 62-63).

How resilient we humans can be. That’s one of the many ways this book will move you.

But Bakr also tells about how he and his cousins made games out of used bullet shells, how they played soccer in makeshift fields—sometimes having to stop playing and seek shelter when gunshots flew—and how, in Damascus, one of his cousins suggested they make kites out of scraps of rice bags and twigs—a suggestion that embarrassed Bakr, since flying a kite was for younger children, not for 12-year-old boys, and certainly not with the makeshift items used. But, because he and his cousins were bored out of their minds (they were not in school, and so had to find some way to pass the time), he agreed and spent many happy hours flying his kite over the city of Damascus.

The teenage years are difficult enough without the challenges that Bakr faced. You will be moved by the manner in which this young man matures in the four years covered in this book.

In December of 2014, the Al Rabeeahs arrive in Edmonton as refugees. The final chapters of Homes describe the relief—but also the loneliness, the “islands of grief”—that each member of the family experiences as they try to learn English and find their way in Canada. The words of Bakr’s father anchor the family: “Life must always go on, Bakr. Death doesn’t matter. Money doesn’t matter. What matters is living your life with your family, with the people you love. What we face, we face together” (p. 44).

Wherever loved ones are, is home.

It is Winnie Yeung, one of Bakr’s high school ESL teachers—and a first-generation Canadian herself—who connects with Bakr and slowly (since his English is not strong) hears his incredible story. Trust develops between the two, and Winnie begins to write down the story of this family. And so Homes came to be.

Together, Yeung and Al Rabeeah have written this story so that other Canadians can know it. So they can be inspired by it.

You will be.

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“By Chance Alone” by Max Eisen

review by Stephanie McCully

Why is By Chance Alone by Max Eisen, ‘the one book to move you’? Why should we care about a work that tells a story that took place almost 75 years ago? Why is what Max has to say important and relevant to our lives today? Elie Wiesel, Holocaust Survivor, writer and Nobel Peace Prize Winner once said, “Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere.” If that is true then this is why we must read this book and remember what happened.

Max Eisen was born in 1929 in Moldava, Czechoslovakia. He lived with his family on a farm and enjoyed a happy, normal childhood. Max begins his story by telling us about his childhood adventures, family and town. In 1939, the area that Max lived in was annexed by Hungary and his family began to endure the many anti-semitic laws of the Nazi allied government of Hungary. Despite this, Max and his family managed to continue to live their lives relatively unscathed until 1944 when he and his parents, 3 young siblings, uncle, aunt, and his grandparents were abruptly removed from their home and taken by cattle car to the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi extermination camp where over 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, were murdered between 1942 and 1945.

In the book, Max describes the horror of the 3-day transport locked in a train car with no food or water, unaware of what awaited him and his family. He tells of a chaotic arrival – lights, yelling, a terrible smell, confusion and selection – his grandparents, aunt, mother, two little brothers and infant sister, all sent to one line, he, his father and uncle sent to another.  Max was 15; he writes simply, “There were no goodbyes spoken here.” What Max didn’t realize was that his mother and the others were sent immediately to a gas chamber where they were murdered.

The story continues to detail Max’s survival in Auschwitz I, where, when he arrived in May 1944, he became one of the Jews chosen for slave labour. He, his father, and uncle worked as field labourers until July when Max’s father and uncle also were “selected” and disappeared. In just a few short months Max, at age 15, was left alone, starving and worked nearly to death. He describes his life in the camp and its many horrors. Through a series of events Max eventually found himself working as an assistant in the camp’s hospital under a doctor who was also a Polish political prisoner there. Max explains that the kindness the doctor showed him was a major factor in his survival.

In 1945, with the Red Army approaching Auschwitz from the East and the German Army retreating, Max and other surviving prisoners were submitted to a “death march” – forced to walk without food or proper clothing, driven westward towards German concentration camps until, finally, at one of the camps he was liberated by the Allies.

What is also interesting about Max’s memoir is that he does not just tell of his survival as a Nazi prisoner but also about how difficult it was to reclaim some sort of life and health after liberation. Many people do not know what survivors experienced after their traumatic incarceration during the Holocaust, having suffered the total loss of family, home, health and trust.

This book is written simply, the language is not flowery or elaborate. Max tells his story in a straightforward, chronological way, the writing very contained, and at times the voice lacks emotion. However, this is understandable as to tell such a story must take great fortitude; to relive the loss of what turns out to be his entire immediate family, and the terrible conditions he is forced to live through, is nothing short of heroic. In 1998 Max retired and began to share his story with students in and around Toronto. Because his father implored him “if you survive, you must tell the world what happened here,” he realized that sharing his story, writing it down, was to live up to that promise. Survivors are aging, soon we will lose them. We must listen to their stories, pay attention, while we can. It is his story alone, he cannot tell the stories of the other millions murdered by hate. But we can listen to him and remember the others. As Max says, “We must be alert to the dangers of hatred, speak out against discrimination, and defend the fairness and openness of a free and democratic society with rules of law to sustain it.”by chance

So to come back to my original questions about why we should consider this book as one to move us.  Very recently, 50 people were killed, Muslims, by a shooter in New Zealand who was fuelled by hate, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant beliefs. In October, 11 people, Jews, were shot in a Philadelphia synagogue by an armed man shouting anti-Semitic slurs. In January 2017, a man shot and killed 6 Muslims while they worshipped in a Quebec City Mosque, motivated by hate and racism. The US anti-defamation League logged a 57 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in 2017.  In France, offences against Jews have increased by 74% in recent years. In North America, Europe, and the world, the fact is that hate is on the the rise. If what Elie Wiesel said is true, that “to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time”, it is our individual responsibility to ensure that our eyes are open to the message of this book. We must remember the most terrible crime of the Shoah, remember the people who were murdered, hear the stories of the survivors and allow those stories, Max’s story, to change us.

 

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Brother by David Chariandry

review by Wade Lynch

In the first sentence of the acknowledgments section of his book, Brother, David Chariandry writes, “This short book took me a long time to write”. Brother is a substantial read and its brevity is not an indication of its depth. Rather, this carefully crafted novel, detailing ten years in a family’s life, is spare specifically because its characters are so confined by the grief and prejudice and poverty surrounding them that they have lost their ability to move forward. Brother is a story in stasis. There is not a lot to tell, but what there is, is heartbreaking.

Brother is the story of an immigrant family living on the outskirts of 1990’s Toronto amid that city’s burgeoning hip-hop scene. Scarborough (or, as it is otherwise called in the book, Scar-bro or Scarberia or Scarlem or Scarbistan ) is an unlikely Eden sought by West Indian parents; a better place to raise their new-Canadian boys than amid the poverty of their homeland. Their dreams are scuttled when the decaying concrete project apartment home they inhabit becomes fatherless and the two young boys are left to be raised by their mother amid ever-diminishing circumstances.

Michael is the younger of the two brothers and the adult narrator of the story. He is a reluctant survivor, unable to heal as his scab of grief is repeatedly picked away by the people and circumstances that link him, inexorably, to two tragic incidents, ten years apart. He is caretaker to his increasingly failing mother and cannot risk losing the job he despises for fear of further jeopardizing their tenuous social and financial conditions. Francis is the ‘brother’ of the title, a thoughtful teenaged boy, too soon burdened with the mantel of adult responsibility. Aware and resentful of his role as father figure to his younger sibling, he struggles to equip Michael with the skills and sensibilities needed to survive a context that suspects (and too often hates) his gender and colour and social status. Francis is profoundly loyal and instinctively protective of those he loves. His efforts to ensure that Michael learn the unfathomable rules of acceptable male conduct, fostered in a community devoid of any positive examples, are hard to witness; hard to read. The lessons Francis offers his brother in male and macho and black are at odds with the intense, unspoken love he has for Jelly, his best friend and partner in hip-hop ambitions. It is sadly unsurprising that those two elements, same-sex love and the hip-hop music scene, conspire in the genesis of the novel’s great tragedy.

There are elements of Holden Caulfield in Brother; Duddy Kravitz too. We recognize the pain of young men who want to change their circumstances and who don’t possess the skills to do so. Chariandry, through the character of Michael, observes Francis’ keen gift of perception;

From the age of seven, Francis could read. He read books, of course, regularly and well into his teens. But he could also read the many signs and gestures around us. He could read the faces of the neighbourhood youth hanging around outside 7-11 and know when to offer a nod or else a sly joke or else just to keep moving and not just then attempt to meet a bruised pair of eyes. But especially, Francis could read our mother. He recognized her pride, but also the routes and tolls of her labours.

The brothers’ relationship with their mother is strained; an unquestionable love made difficult by her pride and necessary absence.  She is a woman confined by poverty and guilt, determined to be both parents to her boys and, according to Chariandry, “… one of those black mothers, unwilling to either seek or accept help from others…though it meant leaving her two boys alone at home.”

The other significant character in the novel is the city of Scarborough, mythologized beyond its other guise as a suburb one needs to get through in order to get to Toronto. In the same way that Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion forever changes a reader’s impression of the Bloor Street viaduct, Brother will chronicle how an act of racist violence can change “a wasteland on the outskirts of a sprawling city” into the face of ugly humanity where the “stucco of a low-rise looked like the sole of an unwashed child; the rust on the balcony railings and fire exits of an apartment tower looked ugly and contagious, a bubbling rash.”

Brother succeeds on two levels. On one it is a disturbing record of the immigrant experience in urban Canada which, although primarily set in the 1990’s, is painfully reflected in today’s headlines. Bigotry, fear and racial profiling are everyday elements in Brother’s Scarborough, but they could just as easily define the Christchurch and Quebec and Charleston and Toronto of 2019. This novel will long live as an equal among its contemporaries like The Book of Negroes and Indian Horse, fictionalized versions of truths most Canadian don’t want to, but need to know.

On another level, Brother is a staggering example of literary beauty. It is not so much written as it is carved. There is no excess; no extra words. Chariandry crafts his sentences and chapters in precise, economical units that, when they don’t carry the narrative forward, comment on atmosphere. They provide context in exquisite and spare detail.  

Brother does not provide us with a happy ending. It would be misleading, however, to say it doesn’t provide us with hope, though you really have to look for it. There is a lesson, too; a lesson about remembering and learning what Michael tells us on the first page, that “Memory’s got nothing to do with the old and grey and faraway gone. Memory’s the muscle-sting of now.”

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Suzanne by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette, translated by Rhonda Mullins

goodreads captureReview by Claire Grogan

 

Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette never knew her grandmother on her mother’s side. Curious to understand why this grandmother, Suzanne, a sometime painter and poet associated with Les Automatistes, a movement of dissident artists that included Paul-Émile Borduas, abandoned her husband and young family, Barbeau-Lavalette hired a private detective to piece together Suzanne’s life.

The result is a fictionalized life story entitled Suzanne that is crafted around a range of verifiable facts: places, people, publications, poems and paintings.

The novel opens using the imaginative viewpoint of the granddaughter/author. In eight brief vignettes, presented as discrete paragraphs on clean pages, we read about the early encounters between Grandmother and Granddaughter. The narrator, imagining the first encounter, has just been born—the grandmother Suzanne briefly enters the hospital room at St Justine’s, looks at her daughter and at the newborn baby before summarily departing

The next vignette describes how our narrator (now 10), recalls looking out of the apartment window “my breath melting the lacy frost on the pane” and spotting an elderly woman who “crosses the street in long strides” and “slides a small book into the mailbox before slipping off”. This elusive figure, who has so clearly abandoned and hurt her daughter (the narrator’s beloved mother) is a figure of fascination to the granddaughter.

We then read about their surprise visit to the mother/grandmother who lives in Ottawa… everything seems cordial enough—albeit perfunctory, but once they have left the grandmother telephones to warn her daughter never to surprise her in such a way again. The heartbreak is palpable and characterizes the entire work in which the daughter’s love for her own mother is projected from that mother to the grandmother but it is hardly ever reciprocated.

The rest of the novel, divided up chronologically, takes us through Suzanne’s life in an attempt to persuade the reader to discover, if not sympathize, with the protagonist’s life choices. Suzanne is a belligerent, audacious young girl, who unlike her sister Claire, chafes at all the constraints placed up or against her. A feisty child who is contrary by nature and then by choice, she makes the reader laugh at her unconventional ways –

When at confession Suzanne admits

“I committed obscene acts, Father.”

But to his question “On yourself or on someone else?”

She replies

“On you Father”

You smile. You like the silence that follows. (50)

 

There follows a catalogue of thinly veiled attempts to get a response, to shock, to startle, to generally just be noticed amongst an ever expanding number of siblings and a family in economic decline. When the father, Achilles, loses his job as a teacher, we learn about the Programme de restauration social (1933), under which he is put to work collecting and burning dandelions. In this way Barbeau-Lavalette informs us about the social and economic programs in Quebec under Duplessis and then his successors.

Suzanne momentarily escapes from this grinding poverty and grimness when she reads about “The Meteor from Montreal. The Canadian Comet”, Quebec sprinter Hilda Strike. From this discovery we note light allusions to this remarkable young woman whom Suzanne imagines literally running away from her life. Hilda Strike becomes the motif for Suzanne’s own life choices- firstly in her move away from her family to participate in a speaking competition in Montreal, and then in her entry into the alternative and unconventional artistic world of the Automatistes. Through the ensuing pages we learn how Suzanne absorbs these free-flowing ideas, embraces her own sexuality and artistic desires. An early marriage to a painter, Marcus, one child and then another, however, slowly shatter the illusion of freedom and see Suzanne abandon her children to travel on alone.

Though she travels to Europe and England, however, she doesn’t really move or develop as an individual. She keeps circling back through the central men in her life, and it is an abortion that finally returns her to Canada.

One presumes Barbeau-Lavalette hopes to atone for Suzanne’s abandoning of her own children, but there follows a sordid retelling of trysts, betrayals, agonized phone calls to her abandoned daughter (now 4, now 6) noticeable for their silence. Barbeau-Lavalette hopes to fill those silences but has the honesty not to contradict her own mother’s recollection of the grandmother’s persistent silence; this falls well short of exonerating or even (for this particular reader) offering any real  motivation or ambition in Suzanne. Responsibilities are too much, she has too little interest, and she moves through people and situations as though through water with little concern for anyone’s wellbeing or feelings. Abandoning her children to a foster home, then her husband to New York, she casually links up with a variety of men who allow her to escape from the realities of life. The novel eventually brings her back to Canada and full circle to the opening vignettes.

While there are some beautiful passages, some poignant observations, the novel, by so cursorily brushing over and through so many places and people, leaves the reader with a sense of Suzanne’s vacuousness rather than of a woman struggling against social conventions of mid 20th century Quebec. She comes across as a lost, drifting individual who laments her choices but is condemned to keep repeating them. There is limited development of her character or thoughts. In fact, the young author granddaughter is the one projecting depth and sensitivity onto a fairly cruel and selfish grandmother –she wants it to be otherwise and if only on the pages of a novel has written it to convince us that it is so.

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