You may remember that back in October I took part in the Shadow Giller, which meant reading all the books on the shortlist, plus the extra one we included, before the official announcement on November 5. As it turns out, I also read a couple from the longlist. Unfortunately, I never quite got around to writing reviews for all the Giller Prize nominees that I read. So, just for the record — and to ease my conscience before the year ends — here's two quick reviews of the ones I missed out on:
Craig Davidson's Cataract City may possibly be the most male book I've ever read — and certainly the most male book I read this year. Think of a male sporting pursuit — go-karting, wrestling, bare knuckle fist fighting, greyhound racing and dog fighting — and it will be mentioned here.
The story is set in the working class neighbourhood of Niagra Falls, the Cataract City of the title, where Owen Stuckey and Duncan Diggs grew up together but slowly drifted apart — Owen is now a police officer, Duncan has just got out of jail following an eight-year stint — and follows their lives from childhood through to the present day. The central hub of the novel is Dunk's involvement in a cross-border cigarette smuggling operation that goes drastically wrong — but can his best friend save him?
There's no doubt that Davidson is a great storyteller, but this is a relentlessly bleak and often violent book. And the ending, which mirrors the beginning — the two characters spend an inordinately long time lost in the wilderness — became so preposterous, I was tempted to throw the book across the room.
That said, I do think this novel throws up plenty of questions — to what extent does our background influence our lives?; can we ever escape our working class roots?; how important is male friendship and what bonds men together? — which elevates it from being a lot more than just a boys' own adventure tale, though it certainly has all the right ingredients to make a terrific film — a tension between good and evil, a crime or two, and plenty of action.
While stories about angry men are a dime-a-dozen, it's not often we get to read about angry women — and for that reason alone Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs stands out from the crowd. The protagonist, Nora Eldridge, is one of those people that has always done the right thing by everyone but now, 42, single and with no dependents, she's beginning to wonder what good it did her. Instead of pursuing her dream to become a full-time artist, she's settled for a life as an elementary school teacher — and this is now eating away at her.
But she is shaken out of her ennui by the arrival of a new student, eight-year-old Reza Shahid, whom she develops very fond feelings for, almost as if he was the son she never had. Before long she is enthral to his equally beguiling parents — Skandar, an academic from Lebanon, and Sirena, an installation artist from Italy — whom have moved from Paris to Massachusetts for a year. Together, Nora and Sirena agree to co-rent an artists' studio so that they can work on their individual projects, and at last it seems as if Nora can finally pursue her real passion.
The story is narrated five years after the arrival of the Shahids and it's clear that much of Nora's latent anger results from them. But what is it about this family, with whom she was so infatuated, that has left her feeling so used and betrayed? The reason isn't for me to share here — you'll have to read the book to find out — but let's just say I didn't truly understand the fuss.
But that's kind of how I felt about this story in general — it features great character development, and there's plenty of momentum in the narrative to keep one turning the pages, but I just didn't care about any of these people — not the angelic boy, not the patronising academic, not the cool and detached Italian artist and especially not the contrary, self-pitying narrator at its heart. It's an entertaining enough read — and thought-provoking, too — and yet, despite expecting to strongly identify with Nora (I'm of a similar age), I found her immensely infuriating and whiny.
I think Messud's greatest achievement is in provoking such a strong response in the reader, for it's not very often that I dislike a character so strongly. The thing I've been mulling over ever since is this: is Nora a victim or just very good at making bad decisions?
I read both these books in October as part of the Shadow Giller Prize 2013. Note that Cataract City has not yet been published in the UK — it's due for publication by Atlantic books in February. My copy was kindly sent to me from Canada by KevinfromCanada.