The Only Café

In Linden MacIntyre’s newest novel,  The Only Café, we are confronted with time old question: How much do we know about the people we love? It’s a deep-running concept  most of us avoid answering as it more often than not leaves us with more questions than when we began.  Stretching from MacIntyre’s homeland of Cape Breton to the urban streets of downtown Toronto, The Only Café, is also an international novel. Readers are transported to Lebanon in the 1970s and early 1980s when it served as a battleground between Muslim and Christian forces. Described by the author, it’s a window into the Middle East. As the aforementioned Lebanese conflict provides the backbone of MacIntyre’s work, chances are good that you’ll gain a lot of new knowledge about the region and its tumultuous, violent past. 33197773.jpg

For young Torontonian Cyril Cormier, fears that his emotionally-distant and workaholic father, Pierre, has died are finally confirmed. Having previously vanished, a bone belonging to him is discovered after his boat mysteriously exploded in Cape Breton. A Lebanese refugee who immigrated to Nova Scotia in 1982, Pierre spent his entire life as an enigma to his son. For Cyril, his father was a man of many secrets; many of which would later come to provoke countless questions but not be around to answer. Akin to his nature, the reading of his will is equally cryptic. As Cyril and his family learn, Pierre’s dying wish is to have a memorial in the form of a roast at a downtown café ( The Only Café- a real life location, who knew?). But wait there’s more! According to Pierre, the roast is to be emceed by a person unbeknownst to all as ‘Ari.’ The request is baffling as the recently deceased was not known to have haunted such a place, nor to have much of a social life, let alone a secret friend. Pierre’s demand essentially gets brushed off by both his ex, Aggie and his current widow, Lois, leaving the roast placed on Cyril’s shoulders, he sets about to Danforth Avenue to find Ari.

In terms of narrative, MacIntyre slips back and forth between the viewpoints of Pierre and Cyril. While his work often succeeds as compelling as Cyril peels away the layers of his father’s past, there are also moments where thrills are replaced by a plodding place. The reasons for this, I suspect, can largely be traced to the fact that the story’s main characters can’t hold up the story alone. Despite their unique circumstances, Cyril and his father are made more interesting by the characters they interact with.

As far as flavour goes, they’re pretty vanilla. Working as an intern for CBC, Cyril does not contribute much to his workplace and requires ample hand-holding by his more-experienced colleagues. He finds himself largely unable to contribute to his work assignment, yet somehow manages to secure contractual work. When involved in off-record conversations, he asks if he can take notes; his logic is head-scratching. Even when he realizes his father’s life can provide a turning point in his work, he’s at the mercy of those around him who can and speak Arabic and have a working knowledge of Lebanese history. His father’s refusal to open up about his past reduces poor Cyril to arm shrugs when probed by interested parties. Cyril’s blank slate personality, however, mirrors the readers progress through the book; as Cyril gains more knowledge about his father and the world’s tense climate, so do we the readers.

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Linden MacIntyre

Perhaps genetically, Pierre suffers a similar affliction.spite of being a lawyer representing an embattled mining company, having been recently diagnosed with cancer, and is wracked with horrifically traumatizing flashbacks of his youth in war-ravaged Lebanon, he is surprising composed and stoic. Although Pierre’s encounters with controversial figures of the past as well as MacIntyre’s near-poetic descriptions of Cape Breton are what keep us reading more, so much of Pierre’s past read like historical narrative. I kept finding myself craving more anger, greater sorrow, and an increased feeling of danger from a work founded on controversy. I know MacIntyre is more than capable of the challenge: his last work Punishment was one of 2014’s best reads. Yet, despite a clunkier than desired storyline, the Middle Eastern themes MacIntyre provides here are undeniably relevant to today’s modern times. Despite being fiction, its base on the author’s own personal experiences working with the CBC grounds The Only Café in realism. For most, it’ll educate readers on an overlooked part of the world and reinforce the grim reminder of how much war costs us all.

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Bellevue Square

33595663.jpgI searched for a way to describe why I burned through Bellevue Square, the newest work by Michael Redhill and winner of last year’s Giller Prize. Then I found a quote by José Teodoro, reviewer for Globe & Mail: “…I’d rather be lost in Redhill’s ghost story than grounded in your average slab of tasteful literary realism.” and the rest clicked into place. Surreal, taut, and cerebral, Redhill’s work is a look into the mirror and beyond.

For Jean Mason, a married mother of two and owner of a Bookshop, (tactfully entitled Bookshop), located in Toronto’s bustling Kensington Market, life is orderly and calm. Then a report comes in stating that recent sightings have been made by a woman purported to be Jean’s doppelgänger. Her name is Ingrid Fox. Jean is understandably skeptical. Then crazy encounters start happening. Witnesses present themselves to her. As the days pass, paranoia mounts and our protagonist’s static lifestyle is sabotaged. Heading to a nearby public park (yes- you guessed it, Bellevue Square), which is home to a garden variety of colourful city individuals, Jean sets up shop. Allying herself with a few of the park’s usuals, curiosity rapidly evolves into an obsessive need to know situation.

I think it is safe to define Bellevue Square as a solid example of a psychological thriller.

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Michael Redhill

In the novel’s absorbing and tense first hundred pages, adrenaline courses through the pages, leaving some serious hair-raising, “what the f@ck?” moments. Theories and explanations will undeniably be ventured and it is a mystery you have to see through to its end.  As Redhill’s work strides into its second half, the truth gets increasingly convoluted and head-scratchingly murky; you lift the veil of truth only to be hit by a blast of smoke. As Jean’s hunt for answers deepens, so too do questions regarding mental health and the troubled pasts of Bellevue Park’s residents. Even when the book’s overall feeling suspense has waned and your white-knuckled grip starts to slowly release, you find yourself still searching for answers in the dark abysmal rabbit hole. 

Redhill’s novel is an engrossing and utterly unique experience. A refreshing venture, it reminded me as to why Canadian Fiction possesses no specific boundaries. The first work in what is called the Modern Ghosts trilogy, I doubt I’ll be the only one impatiently waiting for the next instalment.

 

“Obsession Trilogy”: The Three Lives of Wayne Johnston

Having become more and more an avid fan of prolific Newfoundland author, Wayne Johnston, I admit I arrived disappointedly late to the scene when it came to his 1998 work, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. A fictional account based on the real-life figure Joseph Smallwood who rose to become Newfoundland’s first premier and perhaps more famously as the man many believe responsible for the referendum, which brought the province into Canada’s Confederation fold in 1949.

In less thoughtful and capable hands, Smallwood’s tale would have been a trudging , dense endeavour for readers to gnaw at. Thankfully, it is the opposite. Colony first serves the audience with a portrait of Smallwood as a boy, bespectacled and unassuming with a skeletally frail physique he is never able to outgrow in his life. He is the son to Charlie Smallwood, the impoverished town drunk and resident joke of St. John’s. Residing in the slumps of the city commonly referred to as “The Brow,” young Joe is vexed by his father’s failures; his daily inebriated rants railing against the unfair injustices imposed upon the people of a land so rich in possibilities speak as the anthem to Johnston’s work; it is a recurrent theme and one that gets increasingly powerful and impossible to dismiss. Poor Charlie just cannot get his act together, his unending foray into alcoholism forces his wife Minnie May to carry the weight of a growing and poor family. It is the first of many allegories we are given to the island of Newfoundland; a “country” under tightly tethered to condescending leash of the British Empire. While (relatively new) independent Canada exists just far enough away to be semi-fantastical world away, Newfoundland is commonly treated as a problem child by its imperial fathers — despite numerous historical examples that the inept British mishandling is culpable for its colony’s dire financial and economic state.

The British Influence sets upon young Joe Smallwood early in life is a force omnipresent throughout the novel’s entirety. Sent to the all boy’s school, Bishop Feild, which operated by British headmasters, is another facet in which to keep the common Newfoundlander in check. The school operates, largely, as a popularity contest in which the richest, promising, and dare I say, most British-esque students are plucked and groomed into success. As Smallwood quickly gleans, reputation is king: status trumps hard work and academic ability. The son of a drunk is left in the dust. It is not until an olive branch is extended by the wily, charismatic school darling, David Prowse do Smallwood’s fortune briefly reverse, fostering early in life an inherent, unaddressed, dependence on power.

The assertion has been made by others who did not wait twenty years to read this book that the fictional supporting character Sheilagh Fielding is a centrifugal glue binding together not only The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, but also the 2006 novel, The Custodian of Paradise, in which her character takes centre stage, and last year’s thriller addition, 2017’s First Snow, Last Light. Whereas her presence in First Snow and Colony are less Fielding-centric, her gravitational allure provide a major driving force for the future actions of both major protagonists, Joseph Smallwood and Ned Vatcher, respectively. (I will discuss more about the Vatcher’s obsession in the future.) Coupled with the fact that the mysterious Fielding meets both male figures early in their lives further infuses in them a driving obsession to make a name for themselves and show Fielding how much they are truly capable of.

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The relationship between Smallwood and Fielding, though once strong, becomes estranged to the point where the price of their own personal secrets cause their sporadic interactions to become wrought by jealousy, resentment, and the occasional, captivating moments of naked, emotional disarmament. Fielding, one of the best-crafted, unique figures in Canadian Literature is a whole universe in herself. The highlights of her struggle, further fleshed out in The Custodian of Paradise, are alluded to and revealed here in poignantly

heartbreaking fashion. She is a mountain betrayed too many times to allow it to happen again so easily. Johnston’s portrayal of her as steely, insular Newfoundland is masterful. This unwavering trait clashes mightily with Smallwood, who as the story progresses is thrust further and further upon the shoulders of men far more charismatic and connected than he. The timing for both is unfortunate. As Smallwood begins his ascent into the light of the public eye, Fielding shrinks away, embracing the cold obscurity and the lonely hermitage that comes with it. Ships in the night.

Despite attempts to rekindle and recapture an ember of long-lasting respect, neither Fielding and Smallwood can shake the fact that has existed since the novel’s onset: Smallwood is one who, ignored and underestimated for so long, measures success by the positive perspectives in those he looks up to. Following his fallout with Prowse, Smallwood drifts trying to become the self-made political force he believes himself to be. It is not until he abandons his hard-fought socialist ideology and aligns himself with the out of touch, entitled politician Richard Squires do his fortunes moderately reverse. Smallwood still works just as hard, as exemplified by his legendary solo walk across Newfoundland, but the carrot of power is constantly being dangled in front of him the whole way. As inspiring as his ambition is, the heartbreak upon the realization that so many see him merely as an expendable pawn is all-encompassing. The reclusive, penitent Fielding harbours no such feeling for validation. Both characters are irreconcilable Newfoundland archetypes that reciprocal, unquestioned love for the two will always be unrequited.

Despite the sometimes cumbersome length of his works, Johnston managed to create genuine feelings of warmth in places too cold and forgotten to foster life. Admirable in Johnston, and Smallwood by extension, is the fascination and respect of self-supporting outposts, which even as he exploits them for votes and signatures, are built upon endurance, existing in privately peaceful worlds known only to themselves. Visceral, compelling, and completely human, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is a book I wish I had read earlier in life. And rest assured, even if you unknowingly read the books out of order like I did (2, 3, 1), no aspects of Johnston’s work will be ruined. Not once did the overreaching arc ever feel disjointed, but rather as I read, I felt satisfied as every missing piece interlocked softly into place.

Lonely Hearts Hotel

In Heather O’Neill latest novel, The Lonely Hearts Hotel, two babies — a boy and a girl, are found abandoned outside in the cold winter Montreal night in 1910. Raised in a Catholic orphanage under the strict of its operating nuns, the children are given prophetically apt names: the boy is named Pierrot, the girl Rosie.

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As they age, the outlandish, goofy Pierrot pays perfect homage to his stock French clown inspired name. Possessed with an innate, untaught ability to play the piano with mesmerizing effect, he soon catches the eye of Rosie, who with red cheeks showcases her genuine inner warmth. Precocious, witty, and graced with a sterling sense of physical performance skills, Rosie quickly forms an inexorable bond with Pierrot. Their knack and passion for providing entertainment to those suffering around them are gifts that prove to be both blessings and curses amid the novel’s daunting, omnipresent Depression setting. Old-world Montreal and its pathetic inhabitants croak to life, eking survival any way befitting their means. Even as Pierrot and Rosie are adopted and their budding, unrealized relationship is prematurely severed, their unflappable resilience, personified in their abstractly humorous and positive perspectives, inspire and comfort those they encounter.

As anyone who has read Montreal-native O’Neill’s previous novels Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night knowsevery dash of fairy tale fortune that befalls a protagonist, hardship doubles twofold. Keeping in touch with the impoverished state of the times they were born into, Rosie and Pierrot find themselves floating through intoxicating prose while simultaneously combating the dark foes of penury, sexual abuse, drug addiction, and pornography. True to her inimitable style, O’Neill navigates this treacherous style with masterful skill, treating readers with an addictive and inexplicably pleasant and inspiring read. There is humour and there is whimsical commentary as our heroes use hope and optimism like guiding lights to find each other again.

Also powerful, yet doubly worth mentioning about O’Neill’s latest work is the attention she pays to the gender roles of the time and how they are not so outwardly different to today. Align this novel with today’s powder-keg #metoo movement that has set ouroutdated misogynistic society ablaze, and this is a book demanding to be read. Equally heartwarming as it is heartbreaking, The Lonely Hearts Hotel is just as engrossing, if not more so than O’Neill’s previous books. Less heavy-handed with the metaphors that afflicted her predecessor, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, O’Neill has perfectly honed her style, compelling you to make sure your reading list includes a stay among her pages.