Saturday, September 6, 2014

(No.272) "Reading Off The Beaten Path: Alistair MacLeod, Daniel Woodrell & others "

"Reading Off The Beaten Path: novels by 
Alistair Macleod, Daniel Woodrell and others "

by Alastair Rickard

Many of the novels I have reviewed in RickardsRead columns have been commercially successful although not 'bestsellers'. However all have been books I enjoyed reading, some consumed as readily  and with as much lasting nourishment as cotton candy at a fall fair, others savoured over time like a bottle of good wine.

Recently I have been spending some time reading (or rereading) several novels that have never made it to bestseller lists. They are off the literary beaten path and all the more deserving of attention because of that.

While the tastes in fiction of followers of RickardsRead will not necessarily or in some instances even probably match mine, those who in the past have liked novels I have recommended may enjoy reading those listed below. All are still in print.

1. "Out" by Natsuo Kirino translated by Stephen Snyder (originally published 1997; English translation first published 2003; Vintage).

Natsuo Kirino has been published in North America as a writer of crime fiction -- and she is, in part. But "Out" is more than a crime novel involving several lower middle class Japanese women who work together  on a night shift packaging lunches. The novel is also an ode to a rather depressing way of life, to the economic and social plight of many women in today's Japan.

In this story these women get caught up in a grisly crime and its unexpected aftermath. The novel is not easy reading but it has real substance.

2. "Banished Children of Eve" by Peter Quinn. (Originally published in 1994, Penguin).

As one whose university education involved historiography I enjoy an historical novel the period of which interests me, that has a realistic and interesting plot and the 'history' the story calls upon is referenced accurately. I have no time to waste on historical novels that can't meet those criteria but too many of what are presented as such these days do not. "Banished Children of Eve" meets and exceeds these criteria.

Set mainly in New York City during the 1840s to 1860s it delivers a very effective portrait of the city and in particular the living conditions of its residents as the city received -- but did a lousy job of absorbing -- a flood of Irish immigrants after the various rounds of the potato famine drove Irish emigration to New York and Boston.

Peter Quinn, an Irish-American, tells the story through Irish and Irish-American characters' intersecting plot lines culminating in the American Civil War's effects on the economy and the lives of New Yorkers rich and poor. The climax of the novel involves the 1863 "draft riots" in the city which saw not only civil unrest and destruction of property but loss of life and serious confrontation between the Irish immigrants and blacks whom the former blamed for loss of jobs and declining wages.

This is an absorbing historical novel.

3. "No Great Mischief" by Alistair MacLeod (McClelland & Stewart, 1999).

Alistair MacLeod, the Canadian writer and teacher, was known best for his short stories. Rex Murphy called them "miniature masterpieces". His career as a superb wordsmith made him a bright light in the Canadian literary firmament.

Macleod, who died in April of this year, wrote only one novel: the award winning "No Great Mischief". Its focus was on the tightly knit families who came to Cape Breton from Scotland in the 18th century and then on a particular family in the later 20th century directly descended from them.

The story is told mainly through the voice of one modern character, Alexander MacDonald, who carries the narrative of the lives of various family members. MacLeod's own Cape Breton experience and heritage clearly informs the narrative.

The novel has an uncanny resonance particularly for Canadians of Anglo-Scots/Nova Scotian background and indeed for those who share aspects of this Canadian picture.

A personal example: I ended up working as a labourer in a mine/refinery in Thompson Manitoba in the 1960s before one could drive in and while it was still mainly a rough  and tumble mining camp with many strange characters among its denizens. When I read MacLeod's account of Alexander MacDonald surviving in a similar setting and time frame in northern Ontario I was impressed by its verisimilitude and by the memories his narrative called up for me.

There is not a false or contrived note or poorly constructed sentence in "No Great Mischief". It is writing at its most accomplished.

4. "The Maid's Version" by Daniel Woodrell (Little Brown, 2013).

Daniel Woodrell is a novelist whose talent far exceeds his public profile in the U.S. I have written in these columns about him and his skill at writing, especially about people who, like him, lived in Missouri and the Ozarks. For me his three novels set in Louisiana now republished as the "Bayou Trilogy" rank for reading pleasure alongside the first three of Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther novels later issued in a single volume under the title "Berlin Noir".

Woodrell's latest novel, "The Maid's Version", is set in a Missouri town called West Table during the early decades of the 20th century. Its central characters are Alma DeGeer Dunaheu, a dirt poor day worker in the homes of the local wealthy and various members of her family. Central to the novel are the economic class system and the links to an an earlier town 'disaster', supposedly an accident claiming dozens of lives.

The Irish novelist Roddy Doyle has called Daniel Woodrell "one of the world's great novelists". I share his opinion.

5. "Cold Winter In Bordeaux" by Alan Massie (Quartet 2014).  

Alan Massie is a Scottish journalist and novelist with more than 20 novels published. One of my favourite novelists Robert Harris called the first of the Bordeaux quartet ("Death in Bordeaux"} "both a thriller and a literary novel: a difficult trick but in my book the greatest to bring off".

The second in the series is "Dark Summer In Bordeaux" and with the publication of "Cold Winter In Bordeaux" Massie is three quarters of the way through the writing of a quartet of novels set in the French city of Bordeaux during the Second World War and the city's occupation by the German military.

This third novel is set during 1942-1943 and is, on one level, a murder mystery to be solved (with the Germans looking carefully over his shoulder) by the city's lead homicide detective Superintendent Lannes. He co-operates with the German occupiers no more than he is forced to do by circumstances but they are always looking out for any persons or acts they regard as relevant to their occupation or Nazi ideology.

But the novels are as much the chronicle of the Lannes family's challenges and tribulations during the war and Supt. Lannes' reaction to them. For example one son ends up working for the Vichy government while the other leaves the country and becomes a member of the French Resistance while the daughter falls in love with a young but politically naive Frenchman who has embraced the German war effort.

Lannes himself wrestles with trying to protect his family from the negative forces at play in the city and in France while doing what he can to assist Jewish or homosexual acquaintances who are trying to avoid the attentions of the Gestapo. All the while he must officially report to superiors appointed by the German occupiers.

To appreciate fully the quality of Massie's writing in these novels one should read them in the order they were written. They are as much one long narrative as three separate novels.





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