Sunday 27 November 2016

Retreating to Ruth Ware's In a Dark, Dark Wood

This review, that originally appeared in Critics at Large, is reproduced here because as a psychological mystery, it is about a cohort of mid-twenty-year olds who attend a hen party in which a line of darkness is crossed.

Ruth Ware's debut novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood, was published last summer by Simon & Schuster. (Photo: Ollie Grove)

In the week before the recent American election, I was feeling anxious – with good reason, as it turned out. Despite the polls, I felt a need to escape the tumult about the election. The World Series did not particularly interest me so I decided to dip into an absorbing page turner that would distract me. I found that Ruth Ware’s debut novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood (Simon & Schuster, 2015), satisfied my needs.

The narrator, Leonora Shaw, a reclusive crime writer, receives an email from someone she has not met inviting her to attend a hen weekend (a bachelorette weekend, in North American parlance) to celebrate the upcoming wedding of an old college friend at a house in the Northumberland English countryside. Nora – the various names that she and others affix to her are an important ingredient of the plot – living alone in London and valuing her privacy, has no interest in spending time with people she does not or hardly knows. Nora is uncertain as to why she has been invited since she and the bride-to-be, Clare, once best friends, now estranged, haven’t seen each other since college ten years earlier. Furthermore, she has not been invited to the wedding. She doesn’t even know who Clare is marrying and she does not ask. If Nora had, she would not have attended the party – but then there would have been no novel, or a very different one. (This question is raised at one point in the story.) But maid of honour, Flo, is insistent that Clare wants her there, and maybe it would be pleasurable to reconnect after all these years. Reluctantly, Nora agrees, but as soon as she arrives at this remote, modernist glass house, we know that this is not the kind of getaway that she anticipated. Things go terribly wrong: old tensions arise, tempers fray, painful secrets from the past spill out, an ominous shotgun hangs on the fireplace wall, and an intruder enters followed by a tragedy.

Sunday 13 November 2016

The Power of Music and Remembering in Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing

This review, originally posted in Critics at Large, is reproduced on this site because of both the horrific transgressions perpetrated by  the Chinese government in the last century and how artists were able to provide moments of humanity through music and storytelling.

Madeleine Thien’s novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing won the Scotiabank Giller Prize on Nov 7. (Photo: Roberto Ricciuti)

 “Music which is so dear to me, and without which, more than likely, I couldn’t live a day.” 
– Dmitri Shostakovich, quoted by Madeline Thien.

Montreal-based writer Madeleine Thien’s new novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Knopf Canada, 2016), has garnered a passel of accolades – including winning this year’s Governor General’s award for fiction, the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize and being shortlisted for the Man Booker Award. I am pleased to report that the novel’s enthusiastic reception is warranted for several reasons. Thien’s vividly-drawn characters spans three generations against a panoramic backdrop of more than sixty years of tumultuous Chinese history: the civil era of the late 1940s, land reform and the hare-brained scheme of the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s that through famine cost the lives of thirty five million,  the fanaticism engendered by the decade-long Cultural Revolution from the mid-1960s,  and the hopeful expectations of the 1989 pro-democracy protests followed by the tragic massacres in Tiananmen Square. Thien’s writing of these last two periods is especially gripping. A magisterial novel, Thien’s third and most ambitious in scope, speaks to the enduring influence of music – in this case, Western classical music – when a change in official tastes can render that music and its practitioners dangerously bourgeois. Finally, it is a reminder of storytelling’s power, particularly in a state where the historical narrative has been altered or suppressed to suit the dictates of the regime’s shifting political permutations.

At the novel’s outset, the narrator of the chapters set in the present, Marie or Ma-li, a Canadian-Chinese mathematician, recalls her father’s death by suicide in Hong Kong when she was ten years old following the brutal suppression of the student occupation of Tiananmen Square. Within a short time, Ai-ming, the nineteen-year-old daughter of her father’s teacher before the Cultural Revolution, arrives in Vancouver, forced to flee those same terrible events.