BETWEEN

TELLING TALES IN CANADA

The season’s best ranges from punches to pachyderms

John Bemrose December 7 1998
BETWEEN

TELLING TALES IN CANADA

The season’s best ranges from punches to pachyderms

John Bemrose December 7 1998

TELLING TALES IN CANADA

The season’s best ranges from punches to pachyderms

JOHN BEMROSE

Ah, the pleasure of a good controversy. Perhaps the most invigorating event in the recent history of Canadian publishing has been the creation of the Giller Prize for fiction. Since it was established in 1994, the Giller (worth $25,000) has provided a counterbalance to the Governor General’s Awards—at least in the area of novels and short-story collections. When the GG (worth $10,000) was the only game in town, it had a kind of absolute authority on the subject of which books were best. But with the Giller on the scene, the utter subjectivity and even absurdity of trying to pick winners in a field such as fiction becomes clear. This year, famed short-story writer Alice Munro won the Giller, yet she wasn’t even nominated for the competing prize. The resulting howls of protest nearly drowned out the fact that several other writers suffered the same fate. Is it really possible to tell whose books are the best? Or can only the passage of time and the judgments of generations of readers discover the real winners?

Such questions are not likely to stop people from making their own lists of favorites. The following are one reviewer’s choices for the best fiction from the fall of 1998:

Never mind what those nearsighted blunderers over at the Governor General’s Awards say, Alice Munro’s ninth collection of short stories, The Love of a Good Woman (McClelland & Stewart, $32.99), is a much better book than the one they chose, the bland Forms of Devotion by Diane Schoemperlen. Like so many master writers, Munro works out of a paradox: while her tales can touch deep emotions in the reader, their narrator’s style is cool and clearsighted—almost indifferent, it seems, to the crises described. In the unforgettable title story, Munro evokes a small Ontario town through the eyes of several boys who discover a body in the local river. Daringly, she lets nearly 30 pages go by until she introduces Enid, her heroine, a nurse whose passion for guiding others through the straits of pain and sickness leads her into Dostoyevskian depths of mystery and mortal danger.

Overlooked by the judges for both prizes, M. T. Kelly’s Save Me, Joe Louis (Stoddart,

$27.95) is a flawed but compelling novel about a gifted young boxer, Robbie Blackstone, who must struggle to escape the suffocating influence of the trainers and well-wishers who want to feed off his success. Combining a sense of melancholy with an exhilarating descriptive precision, Kelly has written the best book about boxing and its milieu to have come out of this country. He can suggest the sport’s violence with a few telling details (he evokes the sound of “the wet plates of the skull shifting” from the force of a punch) and the even more dangerous violence of those who compete for a young athlete’s soul.

In The Bay of Love and Sorrows (McClelland & Stewart, $29.99), as in his earlier books, David Adams Richards uses short paragraphs and a blunt, almost awkward style that has the gnarled, surprising beauty of a good walking stick. Set in a New Brunswick coastal community, his novel focuses on the murder of a young woman to probe deep into his main characters—including Michael Skid, a rich boy who spends a summer slumming with petty criminals, and finds that leaving them behind is not as easy as he supposes.

Barbara Gowdy’s groundbreaking The White Bone (HarperFlamingo, $28) takes the traditional animal story to a new, adult level. It follows several herds of African elephants running a gauntlet of ivory hunters as they search for the safety of a game park. Clearly, real elephants do not talk and think in fine English sentences, as Gowdy’s do, but she has created a believably rich consciousness for the great beasts, which makes it impossible to look at them quite the same way again.

The most difficult Canadian novel of the season is Greg Hollingshead’s The Healer (HarperFlamingo, $28), the densely written tale of a weak young man, a journalist, who heads north to write a story about a young woman reputed to have healing powers. Not only has she given up healing, however, but she seems almost hypnotized by her domineering, gun-toting father. Like a toiling prince in a fairy tale, the young man must suffer to reach her, and she must suffer to grow into her freedom. Although the novel sometimes feels overworked, it fascinatingly explores issues of identity, will and the human relationship to nature, in a style as complex and subtle as the movement of water over rough ground.

Lovers of realistic fiction might not care for the exaggeration and broad comedy of The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (Knopf, $34.95), Wayne Johnston’s tale based on the life of the legendary Joey Smallwood, the first premier of Newfoundland. But its portrait of the diminutive politician with the big nose and even bigger ego (a cover, Johnston effectively shows, for insecurity as deep as an island bog) develops a momentum that carries through to the bittersweet end. Some reviewers have complained that Johnston fails to catch the real Joey Smallwood, but the book’s best passages lovingly reflect something even more important: the mythic vibrancy and humor of the people of The Rock. □