The Origin of Species, by Nino Ricci

Ricci's fifth novel presents an interesting conundrum. Throughout the book I found myself wondering if I should keep reading because the prose is so well-crafted or toss it aside because the main character is so unpleasant.

A graduate student in Montreal in the 1980s, Alex is a mess. His apartment is a shambles, full of boxes he's never bothered to unpack. Constantly short of money, he seems incapable of feeding himself or otherwise attending to the basics of life. Late for the tutoring sessions he is supposed to lead, he is equally unprepared for his own classes. He cannot get started on his dissertation, having lost the impetus of his original notion of tying evolutionary theory to theories of narrative. He is haunted by the memory of the trip to Galapagos that started him down that path. He has no close friends, terrified as he is that someone will expose him for the fraud he believes himself to be. He cannot accept responsibility even for himself much less for the effect of his actions on others.

In the lobby of his apartment building, Alex meets Esther, a young woman trembling on her cane who asks him for a cigarette. She has none of the self-consciousness that plagues Alex, and immediately subjects him to a stream of personal information. It's not all give, though. She's equally intense about listening to Alex go on about his problems. Although it makes him late for his counseling session with Dr. Klein, whom he has been seeing since the breakup with his girlfriend, Liz, and a little put off by Esther's emotional neediness, Alex nevertheless spends several hours with her, going for a cappuccino and then shopping.

I can remember a time when I was as self-conscious as Alex, holding back in social situations to see what others did first, so wrapped up in my own insecurities that I could not begin to imagine what was going on in the other person's head. However, that was when I was a teenager, not in my mid-thirties like Alex. Reading this book, I could summon no sympathy for his maudlin narcissism. Alex squirms his way through life, casually and thoughtlessly damaging everyone he meets. Even the final redemption promised by one reviewer fails to convince; there is no reason to believe that he will begin to recognise that other people actually exist, not just as minor characters in his personal drama, but as stars in their own right.

And yet, there's the writing. Ricci's prose is not poetic, like Anne Michaels'. Rather it has a clarity that pulls you in and along until before you know it another hundred pages have flown by. One device that starts out hilarious but becomes quite moving as the story progresses is Alex's habit of maintaining a dialogue in his head with a number of interviewers, but primarily the television journalist, Peter Gzowski. These dialogues are part of an interview in some fictitious future when Alex's genius has been recognised by the world. They enable Alex to understand what is happening to him, while at the same time recasting it to make himself appear in a more positive light to his imaginary public. Of course, they also keep him from actually experiencing his own life.

I very much liked the structure of the book. One of the challenges of writing a novel is figuring out how to incorporate the back story—what has happened in the past—without bogging down the main narrative. Ricci's allusions to certain events in the past, such as the breakup with Liz and the trip to Galapagos, had me so curious that I was thrilled when he finally just plunged into the past to give us the whole story. In the hands of a less subtle writer, these hints and references could have been annoying, but Ricci judges perfectly how much is enough without being too much.

The characters, too, are brilliant, from Alex's young student, Miguel, who often seems to know more than Alex to the mysterious and slightly sinister Desmond who offers him a ship and a job on Galapagos. The female characters are less well-drawn, but that seems appropriate for a book from Alex's point of view.

I've often heard the proposition that while both men and women read work by men, men tend not to read work by women. Generalizations usually put me off, making me rush to think of exceptions, but I did find myself wondering if a male reader might be more sympathetic to Alex as a character. Not that men have cornered the market on irresponsible narcissism by any means, but when I was in my mid-thirties, I was a single parent working two jobs and still struggling to pay the bills and raise my children properly—not a position many men find themselves in—so maybe that was why I couldn't be bothered with this kind of whinging at the time and now find it so shocking in a man of Alex's age.

When the story focuses on action, such as in the Galapagos section, rather than on Alex's self-pitying maunderings, the story becomes far more interesting. The book has won many kudos, including the usually reliable Governor General's Award, so perhaps others were not so bothered by Alex as I was.

The Winter Vault, by Anne Michaels

I have heard people complain about literary fiction, saying that a particularly felicitous image or turn of phrase throws the reader out of the book as she pauses to appreciate the author’s artistry. More commonly this complaint refers to an isolated literary bit in a book whose overall tone is directed to a more general, a.k.a. popular, readership.

While I agree that consistency of tone is important, I love those moments when something on the page spreads wings and carries me off, astonished and enchanted. I suppose this predilection is why I love poetry with its empty spaces and the surprising leaps that launch my own imagination.

Michaels is a poet with three poetry collections out, and she brings all of those skills to building this story. The tone is consistent throughout: a deeply sensuous language with layers of thought and imagery. Emotion runs deep as well, in sentences of almost unbearable beauty.

Young married couple, Avery and Jean, are living on a houseboat on the Nile while Avery works on a high-profile engineering project. It is 1964 and the flooding of the desert at Abu Simbel due to construction of the Aswan dam threatens the great tombs of Ramses and Nefertari, with their towering stone figures. Avery’s responsibility is to compute stresses and strains to ensure that the figures and the temple they guard are safely disassembled and reassembled on higher ground.

In short swells of prose that sing like poetry, each word carefully considered and placed, Michaels leads us backwards and forwards in time, building up resonances around what it means to flood this huge area. We learn about the blind man who climbs unassisted onto the knee of the Pharaoh every day and sings. We hear tales about the building of the tombs and about their discovery. We meet the sympathetic Hassan Dafalla, who is responsible for relocating the people of the villages that will be drowned. We learn of the date trees that the villagers have nurtured for hundreds of years that supply not just food, but also material for baskets, thatch for roofs, every necessity. We hear how shares in each tree have been split and split again until only the oldest woman in the village can determine how the harvest should be divided.

Avery considers his own responsibility in this endeavour, wondering if the reconstructed temple can ever be more than a simulacrum of its former self, like a recording of birdsong. He remembers a similar project back in Canada on the St. Lawrence where he met Jean. The stories of their separate lives and their coming together are nuanced and profoundly moving. Running through all the narratives are themes of loss and love, of change and the art of living, the hard work of sorting reality from illusion. “‘We become ourselves when things are given to us and when things are taken away,'” Avery’s mother tells Jean.

The story of these two people and their life together rides gently on these emotional and philosophic currents; it is engrossing by itself, but deepened by being rocked within these layers of meaning.

A stunning and beautiful book, one that made me breathless with wonder and left me thinking about the questions it raised: that is what I thought about Michaels’s first novel, Fugitive Pieces. This one is even better.

The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien

First published in 1990, this book consists of short stories that build up a picture of a ground soldier's experience in Vietnam and after returning home. O'Brien, a Vietnam veteran himself, speaks from experience.

The first story is almost unbearably good. O'Brien uses descriptions of the tangible things carried by a soldier to illuminate the intangible things that weigh them down. The specific weight of each item—the 26-pound radio, the 5-pound helmets, the 6.7-pound jacket, the 23-pound M-60—hits the reader like a hammer. I felt my own shoulders bowing. And then there are the good-luck charms—a letter, a photograph, a pebble—that sustain them.

As a stand-alone story, this piece has deservedly won many awards. The remaining stories expand upon this one, focusing on a single story and exploring how his destiny plays out. Some of the stories are the narrator's own present-day musings.

At first I feared that these stories were mere padding, designed to create an additional product (a full-length book) out of a successful story. But the tales that seemed complete in their first telling actually do bear further examination. O'Brien comes back again and again to certain incidents and each time they yield something further, just as rereading certain books, I've found, always provides new insights no matter how often I go back to them.

I also appreciated when, late in the book, O'Brien turns to the marshy area between truth and fiction. Just as I began to wonder if this book shouldn't be classified as a memoir, the author steps back and parses what's true from what's invented in the previous story. Sometimes, he explains, only fiction can get to the emotional truth of an experience.

I agree. I wish everyone would read this book and pause before plunging us into a war to weigh the true consequences.

People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks comes up with great ideas for her books. Year of Wonders is set in a small village cut off from the world by the plague. March follows the absent father in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women as he joins the army during the Civil War. One of my book clubs read the first and found it disappointing in spite of its intriguing premise; they declined to read the second when it was suggested. Our disappointment may have been in part a result of the tremendous hype around Year of Wonders. Most of us expected something pretty spectacular, so what seemed pedestrian might have struck us as rather good if we hadn't known anything about the book.

I had thought I would not read another of Brooks's books, but then I heard her speak last year about the genesis of this, her newest book. It sounded marvelous: based on the true story of the Sarajevo Haggadah, perhaps the greatest treasure in that beleaguered city. A holy book used in the celebration of Passover, this particular Haggadah dates from the 15th century. Most unusual are its illustrations which depict the figures of people from the holy stories, such as Adam and Eve, this during a time when it is thought that Jewish artists, like Muslims, believed that creating images of people was forbidden.

What drew Brooks to the story was that during the 1996 bombardment of Sarajevo, the book was rescued—under fire—by a Muslim librarian. Nor was he the only person of another faith to save the book at risk of his own life. An inscription in the book shows that a Catholic priest during the Inquisition had approved the book as containing no blasphemy, though it clearly did, and by doing so saved it from burning. Thus the book symbolises the multi-ethnic harmony and cooperation that Sarajevo had been known for and which made the city's fate during the Serbo-Croatian war all the more heartbreaking.

The title is the Muslim term Ahl al-Kitab, which describes non-Muslims whose faith includes a book of prayer. The Qur'an specifically mentions Judaism and Christianity, though other faiths have been added to the list as well. Those designated as people of the book are, according to Islamic law, inferior to Muslims but superior to other non-Muslims, and thus candidates for tolerant treatment.

As Brooks further investigated the art of book conservation, she learned that breaking apart the folios in order to restore the cover often brought to light small bits of things caught in the folds, and that these could be used to discover more about the book's history. She uses fictional items from the Haggadah's binding to anchor her imagined stories about the book's past, while using an overarching narrative about Hanna Heath, a young Australian who is brought to Sarajevo to restore the book's cover in 1996, when the city is still so unstable that she must be escorted by armed guards.

A great premise, excellent plotting, marvelous settings ranging from Venice to Seville: I thought this was going to be one terrific book. And it is good. Brooks's prose is very readable, and the pages flew by for me. Her obviously extensive research is fairly well integrated into the story. The historical narratives are credible and engaging, more so than Hanna's story.

What kept the book from being a “wow” read for me was that, although the characters seemed real enough to me as I read, they did not touch me. The one exception was a scene when the librarian in Sarajevo lambastes the U.S. and other western nations for ignoring the city's plight. Strong emotions honestly expressed: finally I was moved.

As readers, I believe we can tell when a writer has plunged wholeheartedly into the emotional life of his or her characters. As a writer, I find this difficult to do. So I celebrate Brooks's achievement as a good read and a thought-provoking one.