Tag Archives: Scotiabank Giller Prize

A Novel Which Crafts Elements of the Human Condition | Review of “Bellevue Square” (2017 Doubleday Canada) by Michael Redhill

Bellevue

We have all viewed people with mental illnesses of some sort. And we all have had that little voice inside of us that have wondered about our own state of mind. Yet do we ever really considered mental health in regards to the human condition at all? Michael Redhill has certainly given us all something to think about with his novel Bellevue Square.

Page 32

We  all know that bad things are coming. Advice: don’t get too comfortable. Read short books, don’t see your doctor too often. Example of this: on one of my visits to my old GP, Gary Pass, I learned the name for the bony protrusions that had started to poke out of my skull. They were aneurysmal bone cysts, benign. (1997) Then Pass pronounced I had polyps. They flourished in such places as my armpits (2001, 2006, 2010). my cervix (2007), and my rectum (2012). It’s no small thing to have a half-dozen growths fried off your cervix, but I would take that over two in the fundament. Paula, my sister, called the second operation “Fire Below.” She’s been allowed, since 2007, to make fun of my aches and pains because she has a case of the brain tumours. Paula used to live in Phoenix with her husband, Chase, but now she and chase are quits and she lives alone in Phoenix, convalescing or dying. Mine years after diagnosis, the tumour has doubled in size, but she lives on. It’s inoperable. We keep our Skypes on and I have a huge data plan on my phone, which means I can talk to her while I walk down the street if I want. I’m all she has now. Our deadbeat father dies last year, and our mother alternates between Toronto and Key West, where she cures herself to kid leather six months out of the year. Once in a while she’ll go see Paula, but my mother has a life. She says you shouldn’t have to take care of your kids past their eighteenth birthdays.

Redhill has crafted a unique journey for us readers as we follow protagonist Jean Mason in her search for her doppelganger. Her unknown identical twin haunts her thoughts and she begins an obsession to find more about this person. Jean’s journey takes her through a downtown Toronto market and into a park (known as Bellevue Square) where she gets to know the regulars in order to find out more about this mysterious double.

Page 65

Pee, Dog turds, and decomposing mice are only some of the fragrances of Bellevue Square in the springtime. I’d long ago stopped noticing these undertones to the market’s stinky chiaroscuro, but it can be a challenge for first-timers, and when we walked into the park, Ian pulled his head back, as if he could save his nose from going in. “That’s  . . . fucking foul,” he said

Miriam greeted us as we entered.

“Friend of yours?” Ian asked.

“A local,” I said.

“That makes you . . . ?”

“I told you, I got to know a few people over the weeks-”

Months”

“-that I’ve been coming here.” I told him Miriam was a Turkish lady who’d  worked her corner since 1995. I told him how she was the market wet nurse. Ritt wasn’t around from what I could see, and now Cullen had been missing for the better part of a month. The last few things Cullen had talked about before he vanished had unsettled me. He claimed to have invented a drug that allowed him to upload his thoughts into a computer.

This is the first of a “triptych” of novels that Redhill is writing as part of his Modern Ghosts series. And with it he has captured an element of the human condition that; exists, is somewhat undefinable and takes on twists and turns we all at times witness yet do not discuss. This is certainly one of those reads I recommend that should be pondered over and not rushed through in order to appreciate it’s depth.

Page 156

The society of the mad contains primarily other sick people, as well as doctors and nurses. Some family if you’re lucky. I’ve learned that many people here have been here before and will return again. Out in the world they’re burning fuses, a danger sometimes to themselves or others. In here, they shamble, their legs confused on anti-seizure drugs; they wince at their thoughts; their lot in life is revealed to them over and over. They are poor and sick and shabby and hungry.

Michael Redhill has certainly crafted an element of the human condition in his novel Bellevue Square. It is a bold read and one that should be pondered over. In short, a great piece of literature.

*****

Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s website for Bellevue Square

 

Exploring the Mysteries of the Arctic | Review of “Minds of Winter” by Ed O’Loughlin (2017) House of Anansi

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There is a certain mystery to the human condition. Time and place draws upon our psyche making us act in strange ways. And asking ourselves why we do what we do and why has a certain introspective beauty to it as well. And that is certainly the simple truth that Ed O’Loughlin documents in his complex novel Minds of Winter.

Page 4 North West Territories

They were driving on the sea ice a mile from the shore when a little brown creature ran out in front of them. It was heading out to sea, but the headlights confused it and it dithered in their beam. Nelson stood on the brakes and the car lurched to a stop, throwing Fay against her seat belt.

‘What is it?’ she said. And Nelson, who found he wanted to impress her, got out of the car and stood over the little animal. I had tied to hide under a tongue of drift snow but they could both see it plainly, the size of a hamster, its fur turned grey by the veneer of snow.

Nelson put on his gloves and picked it up.

‘What is it?’ she said again, and he turned and held it up to her.

‘It’s a lemming. They live under the snow.’

She joined him in the funnel of the lights. I’m standing on the open sea, she thought. It’s the Arctic winter, a month of night, and I’m standing on a frozen ocean, and that man is holding a lemming.

The little rodent stopped struggling and sat quiet in Nelson’s palm, its nose twitching, staring at her with tiny black eyes. She reached out her hand then quickly withdrew it.

​’What`s it doing out here on the ice?’

‘I don’t know.’ He turned a full circle, studying the problem. A mile to the south the North American mainland came to its end, a low snow-covered hump on the snow-covered sea. A timber fishing cabin, shuttered for the winter, sat on its edge, the only visible detail. To the north the sea ice stretched off to infinity, its snow carved by wind into motionless ripples. But there was no wind today, just a tremendous cold, silent apart from their idling engine.

I keep forgetting my own rule that good books should be read in quiet, reflective moments and they should be pondered over. As award season came upon us readers, I rushed out to buy this book and began to read it. But as I rushed through the second chapter, I began to have my doubts that book was worth my time. I threw it in my back thinking I would try it later. My week became even more busy and this 474-page volume always was popping up in my way – in my book bag, on my desk, in my bed – and I finally decided to find a quiet few moments and read this book. I am glad that I finally took the time to properly read and admire it.

Pages 66-67 Lancaster Sound 1848

This private letter is intended only for you eyes, and for our friends in Room 38, so I shall not trouble here with any detailed account of the ruin of the North West Passage Expedition. You will find all you need on this point in the papers of Erebus and Terror, which I ordered Captain FitzJames to inter in the cairn at Point Victory after we gave up our ships. I also include with this letter some surplus instruments that I took from the ships and that I believe might be useful to Room 38. It is to be hoped that my whimsical cairn, built of food tins and gravel, will preserve them intact from the cold and the damp. I have little doubt, James, that you will be the first to come and search for us, and thus the first to open my cairn on Beechey Island. Perhaps you are already near, leading the search for your old friends and shipmates. I wish that I could wait for you, but an opportunity is afforded to me to make a great journey, and if I do not seize it now it will not come again.

To explain myself I must begin with a singular event that occurred in April of this year, but of which you will find no mention in the logs of either ship: I was careful to omit it from my own records, and by that time Captain FitzJames, having become as disordered as most of the men, had ceased keeping his own. We had just passed our second winter beset in the ice off King William Land, stores were running low, game could not be found for hunting, and the crews despaired of the ice ever breaking. The men were near mutiny, and disease and scurvy had reduced our numbers to only one hundred. Our ships no longer kept naval watch, except for a few good men who could still be trusted to stay on deck to keep a look-out. thus my boatswain was alone on deck on the evening of April 18th when I heard him hail me as I worked below on my magnetic records.

There are several different narratives that occur in this book but the beauty of the story is the draw of the Arctic to people. There is a lure of exploring the tundra in the cold winter darkness that is almost undefinable. Is there something in our nature that calls to us for the solitude and emptiness of the north? And is that draw fatalistic for us? O’Loughlin’s well-crafted words explore that mysterious concept in rapt detail in several of the stories.

Page 367 Fort McPherson, North West Territories, July 1931

His sisters had made him paddle to bring on his first long canoe trip. He dipped it in the water a few strokes at a time, aping the motions of his mother in the prow. The swarming black flies had driven them from the slack water under the bank and his mother strained against the strong current mid-stream. From time to time, switching sides with her paddle, she would glance back at her son, sat up on their bundle of furs. His efforts with the paddle threw off her rhythm, dripped water on their cargo, but she never complained. This was how he would learn.

It was just past noon and the day was hot. The canoe came around a wooded bend and there at last was Fort McPherson, a few tin and shingle roofs on a ridge above the Peel.  His mother, who had never been this far south before, rested her paddle, looking for a gap in the alders which grew on the riverbank under the ridge.

The sun smoked off the water, and as the canoe turned broadside to the current the child glimpsed a shape in the heat-haze. It might have been a waterbird holding its wings out to dry, or a sail boat with only its upper sails spread, but as his mother started paddling again the shape turned into a raft made of logs lashed with willows. On it stood a man with a long-handled paddle. He was a white man – his blond-brown hair showed this from tow hundred yards away – but he was travelling light; the boy could see a burlap sack tied to his back but there was no gear on the raft, ono pack or rifle, not even an axe.

Ed O`Loughlin has certainly crafted a great piece of literature with Minds of Winter. Readers should not race through this hefty book but appreciate the tones and the mysteries of the human condition that he documents in it. In short a worthy read done in a few reflective moments.

*****

Link to House of Anansi`s website for Minds of Winter

Link to Ed O’Loughlin’s website