Tag Archives: Zoe Whittall

Exploring Elements of the Human Condition in a ‘Rapid Read’ | Review of “The Middle Ground” by Zoe Whittall (2010) Orca Books

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Since the release of Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People a few months ago (link to my review), people in my circles have not only been talking about her book but also their own actions and desires in comparison to that story. So it seems fitting that some of her other writings need to be explored, especially her work for Orca Book’s Rapid Reads series entitled The Middle Ground.

Pages 1-2

When he put the gun to my neck, I closed my eyes. A simple reflex. I imagined the cold metal tip was really just a magic marker, a wet cat’s nose, or the small superball my son was always losing behind the couch cushions.

What happens when you feel the graze of a gun against your skin? Either you die or your whole life is changed.

I’d been doing this thing while drinking black coffee. I would close my eyes so I could pretend it still had cream in it. Apparently, you can lose five pounds in a month just by giving up the half-and-half. I’d been trying to psych myself out. Eyes shut, I’d imagine it all differently.

It didn’t work with the gun either.

Whittall knows what great literature is suppose to do, give readers pause to consider the ‘human condition.’ And she manages to do it with this small story about Missy Turner.  Readers are vaulted into Missy’s ordinary life – a good job, a great husband and a teenage son who is a great kid – but all that is ruined in one bad day, and as we follow the narrative, we share Missy’s emotions and heartache through the story. Then the man with the gun appears and a rush of chaos and confusion envelops us all.

Page 29-30

Instead of quietly backing toward the door or trying to dial 9-1-1 on my cell phone – I kept it turned off and buried under all my purse crap -I walked around the counter and stood beside Christina. Maybe it was the look of complete terror on her face. Or the fact that I had held her as a squirming pink newborn. Or the whimper she made as she dropped the book and fumbled with the cash register.

He let go of her necklace and placed both hands on the small pistol.

“Don’t hurt her,” I heard myself saying. “She’s just a girl. Whole life ahead of her.”

“Shut up, lady, and get back around to this side of the counter, all right? Don’t push any buttons. Just vie me the money, and I’ll be on my way.” He tapped his foot, like he was impatiently waiting at the bank on any non-felony errand.

The scene was nothing like on TV, where the music starts, cueing your heart to speed up. It felt slow, like molasses pouring from a cup. Christina handed him a handful of bills. He stuffed them into a yellow bag advertising the new superstore on the outskirts of town. It couldn’t have been more than a hundred bucks.

The plot moves fast here but it is filled with detail and emotion. And no flowery prose or psychological definitions. Missy Turner could be easy one of us or our neighbours. Whittall has documented an element of the human condition in detail for us here while keeping the guidelines of the Rapid Reads series in check.

Page 54-55

I tried to pretend everything was normal. But one moment I’d see the scene in the kitchen that I’d stumbled into that morning, the next I’d feel the gun on my neck. The house didn’t feel my own anymore. The walls made me anxious. The sound of the clock ticking loomed. Outside, a car backfired, and my skin was instantly covered in sweat.

I’d rarely felt the house so empty without Mike and Dale. I normally relished the rare opportunity to be alone, but the quiet was unnerving. I kept seeing Christina yelp and the drop her book. I felt the pressure of the robber’s arm against my neck.

I heated up some leftover pasta but couldn’t eat it. I didn’t want to be alone but couldn’t bear the thought of calling anyone either. The phone rang and rang, and the answering machine filled with messages from nosy neighbors and Mr. Harlowe and Jackie and my mom. Everyone who had heard about what happened. I turned on the TV but only paced in front of it, until the coverage of the robbery came on. It was a very short clip, mostly Christina, with me standing beside her like a goofy, useless tree. Is that what I really look like now? So old. I used to be stylish and young. How did I start dressing like a mother who had given up?

Zoe Whittall is an excellent novelist whose works clearly document the human condition we can all relate to. And her contribution to the Rapid Reads series entitled The Middle Ground, clearly and simply does that. A unique read and a good one to ponder over.

*****

Link to Orca Books website for The Middle Ground

Link to Zoe Whittall’s website

Link to my Q&A with Ruth Linka –“Rapid Reads . . . aims to have excellent writing, great stories, well-known authors, all the things we value in longer fiction, but in a shorter, more accessible form.” | Q&A with Ruth Linka of the Rapid Reads program at Orca Books

When That One Person Appears to Fail Us | Review of “The Best Kind of People” by Zoe Whittall (2016) House of Anansi

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We all rely on that one person. Be it a family member or a trained professional or even a politician. We need them to be strong people who support and care for us. Yet when that one person even gives the appearance of faltering or failing us, our whole world falls apart and we are sometimes too stunned to move. That element of the human condition is what Zoe Whittall brilliantly documents in her novel The Best Kind of People.

Page 20-21

Sadie felt a brief moment of birthday excitement, and then the house seemed to shake with a pounding on the front door, followed by an insistent baritone call: “We’re looking for George Alistair Woodbury!”

“What’s going on?” Sadie said, peering through the kitchen entrance and down the hall to the foyer. Red and blue flashed through the open windows, a light show for the symphony of cicadas. She approached the door tentatively. George sat back down at the table, staring into his glass of wine.

“Sadie, don’t. I’ll get it,” Joan said as she approached the door, peering through the peephole cautiously. She opened it slowly to find two plainclothes detectives and several uniformed officers.

“Hello, ma’am, is your husband home?”

They made it only a few feet down the front hall before spotting him through the living room, still at the kitchen table. He stood, knocking over his glass. It pooled, then slowly dripped onto the kitchen floor.

For months Joan would replay this moment, trying to decipher the look on her husband’s face. Was it guilt? Confusion? Indignation? Stoicism? Acting? But nothing, not even a revolving camera of omniscience, a floating momentary opportunity to narrate, would allow anyone to truly understand the truth about George. He became a hard statue, an obstacle, a symbol.

The father and the husband, from that moment, had been transformed.

The brilliance of this novel is that the main character is rarely allowed to make an appearance or speak. We have George Woodbury – teacher, husband and father – whisked away and arrested for sexual impropriety at the local school. Each member of his family must endure the community’s scorn while dealing with their own questions of his guilt or innocence. A whole wash of thoughts and emotions are dealt with as we read through the book.

Page 202-203

The next afternoon, she drove thirty-six miles to the Woodbridge health clinic that hosted the support group for women with partners in prison. She arrived half an hour early, sat in the car, and watched women park their cars and go in through the side door. It was windy, and she put her hat in the glove compartment lest it blow away but then didn’t get out of the car. More women arrived, some in minivans, others in compact cars; a few walked from the busy stop. She felt the same way she had felt when she was young and travelled to different countries: surprised that the world still looked familiar. The parks in Sweden and Morocco looked like regular parks she’d seen at home. The women who parked their cars and walked into the centre looked like anyone. It’s not as though she expected them to be wearing neon signs that said Married to a Pervert, but she had expected to see something that would give away their status, an indication however subtle, some sort of obvious physical sign of weakness. She looked at her phone, turned it to silent, and applied some Carmex to her lips. They were dry and flaking, no matter how much water she drank. The stress showed on her face. Every step felt heavy as she made her way inside.

Joan lingered outside in the basement hallway in front of a display of health pamphlets. She pretended to be interested in the details of diabetes treatment, as though she couldn’t have written the entire pamphlet herself from memory. She waited so long to actually enter that she was a few minutes late, and walked in while a woman was speaking.

“The way I see it, he’s sick. It’s a sickness. You can’t control what you’re born with, right? My one kid’s got the Down’s syndrome. He can’t help that neither. Now he’s been found out and he can get help and he wants to get help. Who am I to leave now? I believe in second chances.”

The woman who was talking resembled a pug dog; she had one of those smooshed-up faces. Joan took one of the two empty seats around the circle and couldn’t stop herself from thinking that if the woman didn’t hang on to this guy, she’d probably have a hard time finding some other man to replace him. then she felt awful for thinking that.

Whittall does an excellent job of going through the thoughts of a wide-range characters and describing their range of emotions. The prose she uses in a everyday kind of language, making the book easy to understand. But make no mistake, this isn’t a type of book that should be rushed through either. There is well-crafted detail and thought put in here and any reader should ponder the well-chosen words carefully.

Page 146

“Thanks,” Andrew said, watching Stuart take another paranoid scan. “I’m sorry for snapping. It’s happened really quickly and I’ve been buried in legal documents and I don’t really have perspective, you. My dad and I, we were starting to get close again. It’s so fuckin’ weird.

“Yeah . . .”

Andrew started back towards the door. Stuart called after him.

“I just wanted you to know that you really were my true love . . . ”

Andrew turned. Stuart was standing close to him now. He could smell hours of beer on his breath and was slightly revolted, yet at the same time he felt a familiar wave of nostalgic attraction. Stuart leaned in to kiss Andrew, holding his hands at the waist like they were kids at a school dance. The kiss was gentle, and Andrew pulled back before it got sloppy, or before he tried to draw him into a hug. the smell of Stuart’s cologne and cigarettes was enough to make Andrew feel as though he could fall over from the associated emotions.

The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall is a brilliant, modern novel dealing with important elements of the human condition. It is well-thought out and well written. In short a great read to ponder over.

*****

Link to Zoe Whittall’s website

Link to House of Anansi’s website for The Best Kind of People

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