This novel was a very positive surprise. It operates on two quite different levels: the level at which most of us function most of the time and the level at which some of us operate some of the time in order to manage to survive.
On the level on which most of us function most of the time (or all of the time) there is a another life which exists which we don’t acknowledge to most of our friends. This is the level upon which the key characters in this novel function most of the time in order to be able to tolerate the rest of the world. The latter includes their parents.
The main characters are Gustav and Stanzi and the secondary characters are China Knowles and Lansdale Cruise. There are some minor characters and these include Patricia and Ken.
The first division is a prologue divided into three sections. Each section begins in a slightly different way:
1. Gavin is building a helicopter.
2. Gavin believes his helicopter is invisible, and because he believes it, it is so.
3. Gavin is building a red helicopter. It is not invisible. If I want I can see it on Tuesdays.
The above three divisions are all written by Stanzi who is Gustav’s best friend. Stanzi believes that Gustav is a genius but her mother, Mama, believes that Gustav is “mad crazy”. Mama “says lies about Gustav like “That boy isn’t right in the head” or “He’s going to end up in the looney tunes if he’s not careful.”
Stanzi’s parents, Mama and Pop, take vacations. Sometimes they take Stanzi who is a senior in high school. When they went to Newtown, Connecticut they wanted to go alone. They asked if she could heat up her own TV dinners and stay safe overnight. Newtown was where the 2013 Sandy Hook massacre was. Stanzi can’t go to anymore such sites. She has been to Columbine and Red Lake, Minnesota and even to Dunblane, Scotland. She can’t go to anymore.
“China says she can feel her cells. China is my best friend. China is inside out, so I bet she knows more about her cells than anyone.”
“Halfway to Gustav’s house, a man steps out from behind a bush and asks me if I want to buy an H. I say I do not. …How about a K? he asks. …I keep walking…but I can see the details that tell me he is an animal.”
“Sometimes when I look at Gustav, I can picture him twenty years from now with a wife and kids – all of them flying around in his helicopter. I write them letters. The whole family. I write them postcards from my parents’ creepy trips.”
The school has been getting bomb threats. The most recent one has been in a box and was sent with two things: a hex nut from a helicopter kit and a dehydrated frog liver. Suspicious? After the recorded message is finished, the students are escorted outside. The bomb threats come daily, sometimes twice daily. There is always a police car outside the school.
“I am China – the girl who swallowed herself. I just opened my mouth one day and wrapped it around my ears and the rest of me. Now I live inside myself. I can knock on my rib cage when it’s time to go to bed. I can squeeze my own heart. When I fart, no one else can smell it.
I write poems.
They look like those Salvador Dali paintings I saw in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.”
“Since the day I swallowed myself, I haven’t been in any trouble. I quit smoking. I don’t kiss any more boys. I got away from my skanky friends and I don’t log onto the Internet. It’s probably the best thing I ever did for myself apart from that time I ran from Irenic Brown last summer. But that’s another story, and girls who swallow themselves can’t tell stories. But I ran fast. I ran so, so fast.”
China continues: “Gustav told me in physics class yesterday that he’s not afraid to die. I thought about it all day. I think he’s bullshitting.
Gustav once wore snowshoes for a week because he learned about string theory and didn’t trust the molecular makeup of matter, and he says he’s not afraid to die? How can he think he’s fooling anyone? Everyone is afraid to die.”
And now from Stanzi: “Truth is, my name isn’t Stanzi. I only call myself Stanzi after watching the movie Amadeus too many times with Gustav. Truth is, my name doesn’t really matter. I’m a character in a movie. In your book. In your mind. I play tug-of-war. I am a coward and a soldier. I am a pacifist and a warmonger. I am behind the bush with the man who sells letters, and I tell him secrets about who sends bomb threats to the our school every day….Constanze was a braver woman that I am….I dare you to go back to 1779 and be seventeen years old. You would be searching for light switches and toilets. You’d kill for a thermostat. A refrigerator. A telephone. You would pray for a 50% survival rate for your babies, and when you were blessed with one who lived through infancy, I bet you would do more than standardize it with tests or plop it in front of the TV.”
Do you get it? Well, all of the above is only in the first 34 pages of the book so you have pages and pages to go before you sleep.
Deryn Collier’s first novel was Confined Space and it was shortlisted for an Arthur Ellis Award for best unpublished first crime novel by the Crime Writers of Canada. It was published in 2012. The novel takes place in Kootenay Landing, British Columbia and Collier’s bio states that she has worked in a brewery. The latter caught my attention because it adds to the author’s credentials for me somehow. The Bugaboo Brewery is one of the main employers in Kootenay Landing.
The investigator turns out to be the coroner which is another interesting choice. The police participate of course but the coroner is a more multifaceted individual and interacts with the community in a fuller way. The reader meets Bern Fortin in his garden where he is crouching down tapping yogurt container lids into the soil at the end of rows of late-harvest spinach he is growing for the food bank in time for Thanksgiving. In each of the plastic lids he is pouring a dose of Bugaboo Brew in an attempt to control the slugs who are attacking the spinach.
Bern was a former soldier (Lieutenant-Colonel) who had served tours in Rwanda, Bosnia and Afghanistan. His native language was French and he had been in Kootenay Landing six months. His house was a tiny bungalow which he had modified to suit his needs. He could see the brewery from his front door.
Gardening was like therapy for Bern: he needed the peace associated with growing things and in beauty, colour and life itself.
His neighbour, Mrs. Kalesnikoff, had turned out to be better than any therapist he might have found. Flowers ran riot over the fence between Bern’s and Mrs. K’s property and he had been made welcome at her kitchen table any time of day. She made cinnamon buns the size of a person’s head. She says Bern doesn’t let the dead go (“She always said the exact number of words needed to get her point across, and never more.”
We are introduced to Bern and Mrs. K and also Gavin and Belinda as well as Evie Chapelle, Safety Manager, Bugaboo Brewery and Conrad Scofield. Collier does this introducing particularly well in my opinion. She gives enough information to acquaint us with each individual sufficiently to provide a basis for investing in them as individuals: sort of fits us into the community so to speak as if we had been there for awhile.
She sets us up by having Evie receive a certificate indicating that the Bugaboo Brewery has been given a Safety Award in recognition of 500 accident-free days.
And then the accident is discovered. An accident in confined spaces. More than one accident in confined spaces. But are they accidents?
The second Collier novel, aka the second Bern Fortin novel, is Open Secrets and like Confined Spaces there will be more than one secret involved:
“He looked back at the cranium on the rock and knew that it was related to everything else that was going on. Gary’s disappearance, Seymour’s death, Gia on the deck with a shotgun. Lennon’s shout: “The asshole is dead!” Even Holly Forsberg and her unspoken pain. They were all related – but how? And how much of it was his responsibility to sort out?
Who died, how they died, when they died, and by what manner. There was no room for doubt in the coroner’s crib sheet. That Gia was intelligent and witty, that he liked talking to her and admired her garden, that he did not want to cause Holly Forsberg more pain, that Dr. Sinclair did not want to be inconvenienced – these things didn’t factor in. It was a simple question: he had to find out the truth. Everyone’s secrets would come to light.
And if he was to expose their secrets, he had no business hanging on to his own.”
I am not quite finished this second book so I can’t reveal all those secrets. And I wouldn’t anyway of course!
If you enjoy accompanying the investigator every step of the way and trying to fit the pieces together as they are discovered, you’ll enjoy Deryn Collier’s books. I think you will also find Bern Fortin refreshing as a character. His background is one of the secrets in this second book adding an extra dimension to the story.
This is the story of Lucien Minor or Lucy the Liar who left his parents’ home at age seventeen: neither he nor his parents had shed even a small tear at their parting. He was going to work for the Baron von Aux in a remote castle as undermajordomo. His mother does wish him good luck and asks him to let her know how things turn out for him.
He took stock of his life before he left sitting on his suitcase and practicing smoking the pipe he’d bought the day before he left. He regretted not having an audience. He recalled the time six months before that he nearly died. The priest had administered the last rites. Lucien’s father sent the priest away.
In the night an old man wearing a shapeless sack sat in the rocking chair and Lucien told him that he was bored. The old man knelt beside Lucien and put his mouth to Lucien’s ear and inhaled. “And as he did this Lucy felt all the heat and discomfort leaving his body. The man exited holding his breath and walked down the hall to Lucy’s parents’ room.A moment later Lucy’s father suffered a coughing fit.” Lucy’s father died the following evening. Lucy’s mother held him partly responsible; Lucy never told his mother about the old man who came in the night.
Lucy’s letters in search of employment were all unanswered except one: “penned by a man named Myron Olderglough, the major-domo of one Baron Von Aux’s estate in the remote wilderness of the eastern mountain range. Mr. Olderglough had been won over by Father Redmond’s romantic description of Lucy as an “unmoored soul in search of nestled safe harbour “. An offer of employment and terms of payment finished off the letter. The position was listed as under-majordomo and was lowly with a pay mirroring that status, however, Lucy accepted the offer.
When he arrives at the castle, he learns that the mistress has been gone a year and Mr. Olderglough is still missing her. Lucy is cautioned not to speak to the Baron if he should see him. “The Baron goes where the Baron wishes. And often as not he wishes to go nowhere at all.”
When Lucy explains that he would like to go and thank the Baron for his appointment, the major domo replies that “The Baron has no knowledge of your appointment. In fact he hasn’t the remotest interest in the mechanics of the castle. Six days out of seven he won’t even leave his room. Seven days out of seven.”
When Lucy says he will wait to thank him then Mr. Olderglough explains that “You don’t understand what I am telling you, boy. Don’t speak to the Baron if you see him. As a matter of fact, don’t see him at all, if you can avoid it. That is to say, don’t let him see you.”
After a brief discussion about the villagers (“The villagers are like children, and children can be dangerous entities in that they have no God…if there are no consequences for a person’s actions, what might his motivation be to do right by his fellow man?), Olderglough leaves this as the guiding principal regarding Lucy’s task in the house: “in the simplest terms, your foremost function is to anticipate my needs and to see to them.”
Then Mr. Olderglough takes Lucy to his room: “a cramped space with a slanted ceiling and a small window located in the centre of the lone exterior wall. The furnishings consisted of a two-drawer dresser, a rocking chair, a modest bed, and a potbellied stove pushed into the corner.” Mr. Olderglough suggests that the boy might be tired and need some rest: Lucy agrees. And so he leaves him be but returns almost immediately: “I forgot about the letters.”
He explains that every morning there will be a letter written by the Baron to the Baroness which he is to take to the train station and meet the nine o’clock train which does NOT stop. He must hold it up so that the engineer can grab it. Lucy discusses how this has been arranged and then they discuss what would happen if there were an answer(which has never happened but might).
It is also explained that Lucy is to lock himself in his room after 10 p.m.
Well, this is only the beginning. You will enjoy reading to the end. Oh, and yes. You will meet the Baron and the Baroness, Klara and Tomas, and Memel and Mewe and Agnes and one or two others. Enjoy!
The first story in this collection is from the perspective of a youngish man made old by the repetitive visits to hospital of his partner Emma who has learned to speak in a “tone of resignation or melancholy that he knew to sound brave” and who tells her friend Claudia: “I don’t know what brought it on, honestly…It’s usually nothing. She gets these ideas. It’s usually something she suspects I did, like I did something illicit.” He sighed when asked for details because “it was tiring to tell” and he “hoped not to have to go into such detail.” The reader feels tired and knows the narrator will face this again and again. When he leaves the hospital, he goes to a brothel. The story is titled Crazy. Who is the “crazy” person?
The second story is about a young woman who studied pharmacology but isn’t going to think about her thesis anymore and a young man who keeps thinking he will go to the library “if only to sit in the coolness for a while, to tell himself he was there.” This reader felt like she was in a some sort of drug-induced fog-like mental state throughout the reading. At the end the young man knew that he was never actually going to go into the library again but he would move those books from apartment to apartment for the rest of his life. It is aptly titled Research. There is a feeling of loss, waste and sadness.
Fun Girls is about Lionel who “didn’t know how he ended up with the fun girls…You never knew where they were going to be, you had to just be in their path. Sometimes they decided to take you with them and sometimes they didn’t. If they swept you up along, it was on their terms.” The most interesting was Jennifer who “lived in a condo that was all open except for a sleeping loft…there were books everywhere, and neat stacks of student essays…her computer screen spun three-dimensional silver words…he wondered what it would be like to have her as a professor or T.A.”.
Gentrification is about Tracy and Morgan who have bought a small house in a warehouse district and who have high hopes about the warehouses: “You watch…you wait…once these things are built there’s going to be a French immersion school right across the street.” In the meantime, have a read and check out Tracy and Morgan’s neighbours and their tenants and go to the local bar with Tracy. Carla Gillis in her review in Quill & Quire writes that the area in this story is “set in what will be recognizable to any Torontonian as Parkdale.
Leo is a guy who finds more meaning in a series of text messages than in the friends and women he meets in his real life. The text messages are from a number unknown to him. Go figure. The story is Txts.
Confidence includes a second appearance by Jennifer and Lionel. “Jennifer felt a little sad for herself. It would be nice if there were a point to having things with guys like Robert. She used to do it all the time. She decided she would let Robert entertain her for awhile but she would not let it get too far. She leaned towards him and said ,”Tell us all about the philosophy of poetry.” She takes on Robert’s feelings of superiority as a sensitive person compared to “very dumb guys” : “Sensitive boys are so romantic they think they can’t be pricks…because they’re exploring themselves and they’re really articulate about it.”
Raccoons opens this way: “Mother’s Day hung over the house like an appointment for surgery.” Ivor is going to an educational policy conference in Vancouver and is feeling guilty ahead of the event which will coincide with Mother’s Day. He is standing in the garage on a Saturday morning because pile of dung have appeared recently on the front and back doorsteps and “the day before , in broad daylight, an enormous one (raccoon)had lumbered across the upstairs deck right past him…utterly unafraid of Ivor’s barking and hissing.” He saw it “force itself behind the garage(possibly into it?) and realized he had a problem to deal with immediately. He also has another problem in the garage: a box he has to find and get rid of before his wife Kara comes upon it. I think this story might be my favourite probably because it is easier to relate to while the others are farther outside my experience although nonetheless interesting in providing a view of today’s culture.
The last story I love for its title alone: Sleeping with an Elf. What’s your best guess regarding what it’s about? Clues? It takes place in a bar, involves a dangerous game and one character, Christine, is a knitter.
Perhaps not the most uplifting stories as indicated particularly regarding the first two, however, I find myself at the end having been both entertained and informed as well as thinking I would like to try Russell Smith’s novel, Muriella Pent. So there you have it.
“There is no such thing as just a story.” -Robert Fulford
“Narration is as much a part of human nature as breath and the circulation
of the blood.” -A.S. Byatt
EUGOLORP I like word puzzles! Is this a remnant from my adolescence or just something that has always been a part of me and probably always will be? In any case, I thought it was an appealing opening strategy. It is prologue by the way in case you aren’t into word play (and that’s okay). The prologue is titled “The Real Story” and it starts like this:
“Once upon a time (oops! should we be suspicious already?), I saw the world the way I thought I was supposed to: as a place where the normal reigned and the weak perished under the strong. But I was wrong. And this is the story about that story. One of the many tales that I must tell.
Megan would have been proud of me. For it was she who first made me see differently. She turned the world into one of stories – candy-coated, candy-colored, sweet and raw and square and round – composing words I would consume and devour, take whole inside my mouth and suck down into nothing.
What I didn’t see was that there was something more behind them. More than what I had been told. More than what I had been made to understand. Because Megan made me believe that that was all they were. Stories. (check first epigraph)
In the end – whatever the truth is – this I know: whatever Megan told me, I believed it because I wanted to. Not because she made me. Megan was only doing what she had to. I was the one who didn’t want to see what other truth there was. What the real story could be.”
TRAP ENO THE GNINNIGEB The back story is that the narrator’s mother died in April after a long illness. Her daughter used to watch the glucose drip through the apparatus beside her mother’s bed and she imagined the solution “as a kind of liquid candy”. She thought of the liquid as an “invisible fire” burning inside her mother. Images of the glucose line dangling along the floor the day her mother dies…” sugar water dripping slow as tears” …left her believing that “glucose had been the disease, the sugar water the true cause of my mother’s death. She had died full of liquid candy.”
She promised herself never to eat candy again.
Father and daughter move to a smaller town and make the attempt to recover and find a new way of being. They had a house in a quiet subdivision. They both wanted to move. They were seeking normalcy after an irreparable loss for both of them. They were in need of a house “with no trace” of wife or mother.
Our narrator’s hope was that she “could transform into anyone” she wanted to be. “Her plan was simple. Be popular. Be cool. Fit in. No matter what happened: be normal.”
Things started out well enough. She met Tracey Reid and Blake Starfield whom she was warned to stay away from because “he’s weird”. Blake had a lazy eye and sat behind our narrator.
She met three girls who represented the epitome of normal and she knew she wanted to “be a part of them”. They were beautiful and their names were Meredith, Angela and Laura. She met them after school and went to Meredith’s house where the girls talked about boys and admired each other’s clothes and called Tracey a loser and thought about doing something “to her”. Our narrator had “actually thought Tracey had been okay but she wasn’t about to reveal that to the others.They decide to send a letter to Tracey from Blake and then they decided that our narrator would be the one to deliver it.
“After all, it was your idea,” Angela said. In reply to Meredith’s “That’s OK with you isn’t it? ” Our narrator, neatly trapped between the three of them, swallowed nervously and replied “Sure…I can do that.”
For a week she hung out with the three girls and although she “should have been proud of what [she’d] done…[she] wasn’t”. She felt awful. BUT….she was liked, she was part of a group, she was almost normal and almost happy.
And then she met Megan Chalmers.
When Megan was introduced to the class and Mr. King asked her to tell the students something about her background, “She flashed the class a fuck-you grin and took her seat.” Because she kept staring at Megan, Mr. King appointed out narrator to show Megan around the school. Megan is sucking on a lollipop and offers our narrator some. The latter refuses of course. They get into a conversation (mostly one-sided) about the school and, in particular, about Meredith, Angela and Laura whom Megan has christened MAL and whom she has identified as controllers of the social dynamic of the whole, a control that arises from their privileged standing at the school and in the community.
Megan tells our narrator that she has recognized her as different from these clones that dictate social policy to the whole school. She examines our narrator’s palm and identifies her recent loss and tells her she is lying about who she is. Megan says they are destined to be friends. Our narrator tells Megan she doesn’t believe in fate or destiny. Megan says “Sure you don’t. And monkeys fly out of my ass.” Megan thanks her for the tour and goes her own way.
It only gets better after this. The friendship itself is fascinating and the adventures the two girls have are packed full of life lessons that all girls the same age probably have but not everyone learns as much from their experiences as these two do. My favourite experience is the one the girls have when they volunteer at St. Teresa’s Hospital where their responsibility is to take the candy and magazine cart around to all the rooms and see who wants to buy some. It is there they meet Edie who has potted plants all over her room and all kinds of candy including scotch mints, butterscotch melt-aways, Russell Stover chocolates, Jelly Belly jelly beans and raisin Glossettes, M & M’s,Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups etc. etc. Edie takes many pills and she says the bottles say take with food and she has determined that candy is the best for that purpose.
A good balance between entertainment and thoughtful insight. I would recommend it for young women capable of extracting, or craving, life lessons from their reading.