Posts Tagged ‘Magical Realism’

monkey beach eden robinsonMonkey Beach by Eden Robinson ~ 2000. This edition: Vintage Canada, 2001. Softcover. ISBN: 0676973221. 377 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10.

Fabulous writer, this Eden Robinson.

Part of the time (most of the time) the words flow effortlessly and reading them is like riding the crest of a perfect wave; occasionally the reader is tumbled out of complacence and, gasping a bit from the shock, needs to go back over what has just been read, to readjust to what’s just been thrown at you.

This would have been a solid 10, but I docked the half point because the story fell into cliché right near the end, after brilliantly flouting expectations most of the way through.

Picking snippets at random from the first page of a Google search on Monkey Beach yields these comments: “(C)ombines both joy and tragedy in a harrowing yet restrained story of grief and survival…”; “(F)illed with intense landscapes…”; “(A)ddresses issues related to race, historic oppression, and the clash between cultures in a coming-of-age ghost story…”; “(A) story about childhood, family, loss, grief and life on a 21st century Native-Canadian reserve…”

Ooh, sounds all deep and Can-Lit dark, doesn’t it? But the story transcends these sound-bite assessments. Already at the bottom of the first page I couldn’t look away; I read eagerly to the end (flagging just a little when the author stubbed her toe on the possible-but-slightly-contrived reason for her brother’s motivations regarding that trip out onto the ocean); completely accepted the rather vague ending scenario (who’s really alive? dead? what does it all mean?); and eagerly pressed it into my husband’s hands: “You must read this book!” (And he did, and he loved it, too.)

A surprisingly funny and, yes, cheerful (in places) sort of book for all of the tragedies it describes.

The internet is seething with reviews on this one; I missed it when it first came out, but apparently it was a Giller Prize finalist and a Governor General’s Award finalist in 2000. It apparently made quite a stir, and in the thirteen years since first publication has become a Can-Lit high school/college standard; likely because (cynicism alert!) of its First Nations author, characters, and themes. And (of course!) because it’s a well-written and cleverly complex tale; lots of room for exploration, and the generation of many words of student “analysis”.

I was going to give you a quickie overview, but instead I’m about to cheat big time and refer you to the Canadian Literature Quarterly of Spring 2001, to the article Beauty and Substance by Jennifer Andrews, which nicely sums things up.

Eden Robinson’s Giller-Prize nominated Monkey Beach … [creates] a darkly comic narrative about the life of Lisamarie Hill, a woman who returns to memories of her childhood and adolescence in order to cope with the disappearance of her brother, Jimmy. Robinson, a mixed-blood Haisla and Heiltsuk woman raised near the Haisla village of Kitamaat, has previously published a collection of short stories, Traplines (1996), that won the Winifred Holtby Prize, the Prism International Prize for Short Fiction, and was selected as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Like Robinson, the protagonist, Lisamarie—named after Elvis Presley’s daughter—negotiates various worlds while growing up in Kitamaat. She moves between the eclectically traditional ways of her grandmother, Ma-ma-moo, who educates Lisamarie by sharing her passion for television soap operas and teaching her the Haisla language, and the New World activism of her Uncle Mick. A complex web of contradictions, Mick is a survivor of the residential school system, a Native activist who once belonged to the American Indian Movement, a nomad who can never rest, and an Elvis fan whose passion for the “King” knows no bounds. He offers another dimension of experience to Lisamarie by encouraging her to express herself politically. After losing both Mick and Ma-ma-moo, Lisamarie must figure out a way to put her life back together and come to terms with these ghosts from her past.

The novel traces Lisamarie’s journey to discover the fate of her brother, a boat ride that gives her the time and space to recount her story. The narrative is rooted in the beauty and mystery of place, particularly Monkey Beach, a site of family outings and rumoured sasquatch sightings. Robinson’s ability to evoke characters through dialogue and create vivid images of the community, coupled with her awareness of the intricate links between individuals and the land they live on gives the novel a richly layered texture that conveys the significance of Lisamarie’s mixed-blood heritage (Haisla, Heiltsuk, and European). Although the structure of the novel suspends the immediate action of the story, a risky strategy, Robinson’s narrative weaves together multiple plot lines with subtlety and grace, delicately responding to readers’ desire to know the fate of Lisamarie’s brother and the need to recount her past. Moreover, the comic aspects of the novel provide a wonderful counterbalance to the bleakness of Lisamarie’s life, particularly when she ends up living on the streets of East Vancouver. Robinson creates a novel in which humour may lighten the moment but irony ensures that the full weight of tribal histories of colonization and genocide remains a potent force in the text. This is one case in which beauty and substance join together, creating a novel that delivers what it promises.

What else can I add? If you come across this book, pick it up and start reading. If it hooks you, go on. Its early promise holds up remarkably well.

Then, when you’ve read it, check out the author biography and interview at B.C. Book World.

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away jane urquhart 001Away by Jane Urquhart ~ 1993. This edition: McLelland & Stewart, 1997. Softcover. ISBN: 0-7710-8650-4. 356 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10


What a beautifully written novel this one is. I am quite in awe of Urquhart’s lyrically gifted writer’s voice. But, I find myself musing, maybe a bit too much of a good thing? There is a story in this book as well, a normal narrative tale about an Irish family’s migration from the Old to the New World, which is in and of itself interesting and compelling, but which loses some of its power because of the gauzy, mystical clouds which the author shrouds her every scene in.

Away is a hybrid of historical fiction and magical realism, both genres which are notoriously hard to master all on their own, let alone in combination, as Urquhart has attempted ambitiously and generally successfully here.  The twin threads in this case do work surprisingly well. But – and here’s my biggest objection – so much is thrown at the reader both plot- and style-wise that it tends to dull one’s appreciation of the more delicate nuances of the intricate prose after a while.

Does one concentrate on the sober narrative for the story, or does one allow oneself to be swept away into the mystical bits? I tried to do both, but it felt an awful lot like work by mid-novel. I’m glad I read Away, because now I can tick it off my Must-Read Can Lit list, and I appreciated it as a work of art, but I’m not sure I will be re-reading it any time soon, if ever. I am definitely open to reading more by Jane Urquhart, but it would need to be at a time in my life when I could block off the necessary uninterrupted time to really concentrate and fully embrace the experience. Not quite sure when this magical time would be, though!


The three most short-lived traces: the trace of a bird on a branch, the trace of a fish on a pool, and the trace of a man on a woman.

                                                                 -an Irish triad

The novel begins at the end of the story, with an elderly woman bidding farewell to her Ontario lakeshore home as it is about to be erased by the relentless expansion of a limestone quarry. As she wanders through the rooms of her doomed house, we see glimpses of artifacts of her life and the lives of her family and her ancestors. The author steps us back in time, one hundred and forty years before and thousands of miles away, to the storm-washed shores of an Irish island, where a teenage girl is about to stumble upon a scene which will mark her and her descendents irretrievably deeply, hence confounding the third line of the triad quoted at the beginning of the tale.

Irish Mary wades into the surf to pull out the body of a beautiful young man, barely alive and about to die. Before he expires, he opens his eyes and whispers a name – “Moira” – which the enchanted Mary embraces as her rightful new own. And when, some time later, Mary-now-Moira is found sleeping in the embrace of the dead man on the beach, she does not respond to the people around her, being lost in a dazed trance. The obvious explanation is that she has been bewitched by a daemon lover, and has lost her true soul, which has wandered “away” into the faery realm. She must be treated with care and compassion, in order that her soul may return to her one day.

Which it does, with the help of the local priest, who also sets her up with a suitably inclined husband, Moira-turned-back-to-Mary settles back into her normal life, though the edges of the other world are always visible to her. Mary has a son, and, when the potato famine inevitably strikes, sets sail for Canada with her husband and child. They go through all of the usual miseries, and fetch up eventually in the vast Canadian forest, where fellow immigrants surreally materialize from the woods to build the new family’s first shelter for them in a sort of dream sequence.

The family is successful in their new life, and a daughter joins the son, but Mary is being called by her other world once again, and one day slips away for good, following the call of the water wherein dwells her spirit lover.

More predictable historically fictional bits follow, as Mary’s children grow into adults and set off on lives of their own. Her son pragmatically moves ahead without bothering too much about the mystical heritage of his mother, but the daughter is a true creature of both worlds, and she finds her own beautiful young man, a charismatic Fenian rebel who has sworn himself to dance out the story of the Irish immigrants’ woes to the politicians deciding their fates. As may be supposed, this all ends most badly, but the line of daughters continues on, until we are back again in the doomed house with the rattlings of the quarry blastings shaking its foundations and its lone last inhabitant, Mary’s great-granddaughter.


Is Away a book all Canadians should read? From the number of high school and college reading lists this one now appears on, it would seem that the powers-that-be would think so.

I don’t.

It’s certainly a gorgeous thing as a piece of literary art, but a rarefied type of read, I suspect best appreciated by those open to the fantastical elements so liberally used here. As a piece of historical fiction, the tale is flawed in that it assumes the reader will be coming to it from a place of prior knowledge, and is perhaps rather unreliable in its narration of actual events. It somehow misses feeling quite real. It could be tough going for many, especially those without the knowledge of context to separate fact from fantasy, or to fully appreciate the inferences the author relies on throughout.

Wonderfully lush and truly lovely, but too rich and paradoxically vague for everyday and everyperson consumption, I’m thinking.


On to Lisa Moore’s February, for which I hold high hopes.

At present, here are my personal picks for the Canada Reads rankings.

For #1 spot, a tie between Indian Horse and Away. I may revise this once I’ve had some thinking time, but I’d better decide quickly, if I want to beat the debates!

Two Solitudes, in its half-read state, follows. It is rather too much of a period piece, but it is not necessarily a bad book, more of a product of its time in its earnest dullness.

The Age of Hope is at the bottom of the pile. It’s a common little thing, engaging and interesting enough, I willingly admit, but not worthy of the Canada Reads top laurels, in my opinion.

Dark horse February may shake things up.

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henrietta's house elizabeth goudge 001Henrietta’s House by Elizabeth Goudge ~ 1942Alternate American title: The Blue Hills. This edition: Puffin (Penguin), 1972. Illustrated by Anthony Maitland. Paperback. ISBN: 0-1403.0520-3. 191 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10. I’ve been playing amidst the juvenilia these past few days, and last night settled in to read this much-anticipated slender story. No surprises here, but no disappointments, either. Elizabeth Goudge lets herself go in full imaginative flight in this gentle and beautifully written juvenile adventure/fairy tale/moralistic tale.

Contains elements of her other two better-known juveniles, The Little White Horse, and especially Linnets and Valerians. Best approached with a willingness to surrender disbelief and just go with it! The usual Goudge theological and philosophical debate is present, but in this case makes more sense and is easier to digest than in some of her other books; two statues/church carvings, a laughing imp and a crying child, appear and reappear as analogies to the “mockery of Providence and the cringing human soul”, which sounds rather deep but which makes complete sense as one works one’s way through this multi-layered story.

This is a less common Goudge title, and I went to some trouble to acquire it. I suspect it is much more abundant in British used bookshops and libraries; used paperback copies on ABE start at $20 (with shipping) and hardcovers climb steeply into the $60s and $70s.

A must-read for the Goudge collector; one to share with a bookish child who is open to a good old-fashioned story. The fictional children are gloriously real, all expected flaws and faults fully present, though they are supremely fortunate in the adults in their lives!

This edition has extremely well drawn pen-and-ink illustrations by Anthony Maitland; I’d love to find this in a larger hardcover one day.


henrietta's house elizabeth goudge 5 001Young Henrietta, first introduced in The City of Bells as a poet’s daughter living with her adopted family in the cathedral city of Torminster – her father is alive and well, but is off roaming the world unencumbered by such prosaic details such as the housing, feeding and clothing of his offspring – is waiting on the railway platform for her beloved companion, Hugh Anthony, to return from his first term at boarding school.

Hugh`s birthday is impending, and a gala rural picnic is planned; what happens on the way to the picnic is told, in vivid detail, in this novel.

The birthday party leaves Torminster in five different equipages, and due to their varying rates of speed, soon lose sight of each other. Only one arrives at the designated rendezvous; the other four parties take the long way round and have some strange adventures before everyone finds each other in a completely unplanned-for common destination. Several extra guests add an unexpected dimension.

And that’s all I’m going to tell you, as the details of the adventures and the reference of the title are best discovered by the reader. Because this is, as the author declares at the close, a fairy tale, everything works out perfectly and a happy ending for all is assured.

Elizabeth Goudge is not for everyone, but if you’ve been exposed and find that she has “taken”, you will appreciate this slightly fantastical outing. A prior acquaintance with the characters (who also appear in The City of Bells and The Sister of the Angels) will add to your appreciation, but is not at all necessary; the story works beautifully as a stand-alone as well.henrietta's house elizabeth goudge 1 001


I am here including a slightly edited review of Henrietta’s House from the Elizabeth Goudge Society website, which gives some background information on the author and the inspiration for the book. This is best read after reading the novel, so the references will make sense.

The dedication reads: ” For Dorothy Pope. There were once two little girls, and one had fair hair and lived in the Cathedral Close of Torminster and the other had dark hair and lived in the Blue Hills above the city, and they were friends. And now that they are grown up they are still friends, and the one who lived in Torminster dedicates this book to the one who lived in the Blue Hills, because it was she who saw the White Fishes in the cave. ”

The fair-haired child who lived in the city is obviously Elizabeth herself, and her friend Dorothy the template for Henrietta. I find it comforting to think that they remained in contact throughout their lives. It is an indication of Elizabeth’s loyalty and commitment. Elizabeth herself says that she never revisited any of the places she lived in because she wanted to remember them how they had been and not how they had become. So perhaps they corresponded with each other as she did with so many friends and admirers, a habit inherited from her Father.

It is a gentle story, a sequel to Sister of Angels and City of Bells, a tapestry woven with words around the charm of an Edwardian summer, when, as Elizabeth says “this story is set at the beginning of the present century, and in those days the world was often silent and sleepy, and not the bustling, noisy place that it is today.” (She is of course referring to the 20th century and not the 21st.)

In 1941 as the story was being written, British troops were fighting in the desert against Rommel, the Germans were taking on the might of Russia and the Americans were about to enter the war after the massacre at Pearl Harbour. A gloomy time, with no end of the war in sight and on the home front the introduction of clothes rationing. What better place and time to escape to than the opulence of Wells in a time before either World Wars had blighted her generation’s life.

The story starts with Henrietta waiting on the platform for Hugh Anthony to return for the holidays from boarding school ending their first separation from each other, and chronicles the delights of a summer in the countryside surrounding the tiny city where Elizabeth lived out the first few years of her life.

It contains many of her childhood memories from the way that hat elastic hurts the chin, to stately picnics in the hills. The story is as pedestrian as the procession of carts that convey the party to the picnic, and therein lies its charm. We are not hurried on to the next piece of drama, but have time to observe that “(t)he canterbury bells, and sweet williams, the roses and the sweet peas, the delphiniums and the syringa were a blaze of colour and scent in the gardens and all the birds were singing.”

Hills for Elizabeth were, as for so many of us, a place of heightened spirituality. They house the gods, myths and legends. They are the place of the solitary, the Hermit, the Wise Man. We ascend above the valleys and plains of every day life and looking back and down are able to see the bigger picture, to view where we have come from and how far we have travelled to get here: “Looking back he could see the great grey rock of the Cathedral and the old twisted roofs of Torminster, dwarfed by distance into a toy town that a child might have played with, and looking ahead, far up against the sky, he could see the blue hills growing in power and might as they drew nearer to them. He felt for a moment gripped between the grey rock of the Cathedral and the grandeur of the hills, two mighty things that time did not touch.”

All of the people invited on Hugh Anthony’s birthday picnic end up getting “lost”.  None of them with the exception of Grandmother’s party arrive at their preordained destination. But all of them are enriched by their experiences, they all attain something vital to their well-being, even if, like the Dean, they didn’t at first know that this was necessary.

henrietta's house elizabeth goudge 2 001

The Dean recaptures his innocence and love of his fellow man, Hugh Anthony loses some of his pride and arrogance. Grandfather rescues another soul in distress, Jocelyn and Felicity lose their car and find fairy land, and Henrietta, well – Henrietta finds her heart’s desire.

The strange figures sitting on top of the gateposts are explained as they come from the Cathedral at Wells and must have captured the young Elizabeth’s imagination. The explanation of their meaning given in the story by Henrietta’s Grandfather sounds as if it had originally been told to Elizabeth by her father. “Replicas of those two figures in the chantry in the south choir aisle … the cringing human soul and the mockery of Providence.” Elizabeth herself was to call her future Devonshire home Providence Cottage, so the Symbology obviously stuck with her.

I thought at first that the caves Elizabeth writes about so vividly were the ones at Wookey Hole, especially as the Old Man in the ruined house could have been a metaphor for the Witch of Wookey. with his wax figurines and pins. But there are no recorded sightings of cave fish in Wookey, and the caves themselves weren’t open to the public in the time that Elizabeth lived here.

henrietta's house elizabeth goudge 3 001

Cheddar gorge however is close and one of the caves there is actually called the Cathedral cave for its stunning similarity to a cathedral interior. I love the idea of being able to look up inside rabbit burrows and see the rabbits looking back at you in astonishment, a picture an imaginative child would conjure up. Cheddar too has its underground river complete with little rowing boat, its vast system of unseen caves riddling the Mendip hills like a honeycomb.

I have been unable to find the fish, all sources telling me that the lead content in the water, (the hills have been mined for lead since before the Romans arrived,) is too high for fish to survive. So maybe, the fish were flashes of light reflected back by a carried lamp, a code between friends for a shared magical experience. But I like to think the girls saw them on that long ago Edwardian afternoon. “Look!” cried Hugh Anthony excitedly, kneeling beside the still, inky pool, “There are white fishes here. Quite white. Like Ghosts.” The Dean put his oil lamp on the ground and knelt beside him and together they watched fascinated as the strange white shapes swam round and round in the black water, their ghostly bodies rippling back and forth as though they were weaving some never-ending pattern upon the black loom of the water.”

The story was written at a time when the bells of all the churches and cathedrals of England were silenced, only to be rung in a time of national emergency. They were to signal the devastating news that we had been invaded by Germany. How people must have dreaded the thought of hearing them ring. It would have been an especial sadness for Elizabeth, whose life so far had been lived and to a large extent regulated by the bells of the cathedrals her father worked in. No wonder she wanted to transport herself and her readership back to a time of innocence, when the bells would have rung out for worship and celebration as they were intended to be.

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