Fascinating characters… A sweeping narrative… A far-off land… Historical significance… A love story… A war…
How does that sound in a novel?
How does that sound in not one, but two novels?
To me, a major bibliophile/word-nerd/all-around enthusiastic reader and book club member, it sounds like heaven.
Interesting then, that although I have used the same words to describe both of these books, the similarities in my experience with each of them ends there.
Our January book club selection, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a true gem. Although it took me a chapter or two to get my bearings in the author's intended time (post WWII) and space (bombed-out London/Channel Islands), once I did, I was hooked.
And I do mean hooked. This engaging, clever, fascinating story reads like a mosaic – each quirky character and exchange a tile; each location and event a seemingly separate piece that once side by side, reveals a grand and beautiful landscape as well as the author’s fine hand.
Through a series of letters, we meet a spinster authoress blazing her way through London in the late 1940s, and a group of people that are to become her friends and muses – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, survivors of the German occupation of the Channel Isalnds, and each with a unique voice and fascinating, heart-breaking story to tell.
The book sparked a lively discussion at our book club, each member relaying their favourite character and their own hypothesis on how the author-sharing circumstances played out through the book’s back-half. (Mary Ann Shaffer, the book’s primary author had to relinquish the completion of the book to her niece, Annie Barrows. It’s fun to try and pinpoint the exact place this happens in the story.)
Guernsey is a book that I am proud to display on my shelf – or at least, it will be, once I get it back from my best friend, who lent it to her mom. It’s that kind of book.
The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, M.G. Vassanji’s 2003 Giller Winner, should be that kind of book, but just isn’t.
While it too delivers on all of the promises of my opening paragraph, our February book club selection was an entirely different experience.
This was a book that I had been meaning to read for years, and I was disappointed to find myself labouring through it. The story is also a fascinating one, as we learn of the life of Vikram Lall, a disgraced opportunist whose history takes us through years of corruption, violence, war and redemption in the Asian neighbourhoods of Kenya as it fought for independence.
Often brutal, sometimes beautiful and, unfortunately, in desperate need of an editor, the book suffers mainly from the malady common to so many canonical works of Can Lit – verbal diarrhea. Page upon page of descriptive narrative can be tough on a bleary-eyed mother, but resist the temptation to skim the paragraphs – Vassanji likes to hide significant nuggets in his reams of prose, and skipping ahead only ensures that you will soon be leafing backwards, trying to find out when, exactly you glossed over the answer to a mystery you had been waiting 200 pages to solve.
In the end, I’m glad I read this book. It introduced me to a time and place that I will admit, barely knew existed, and I am better for the education of it. However, I do have another Vassanji piece sitting on my bookshelf, just waiting to be cracked, and I dare say, I’m just fine if it has to wait a while longer.
Up next, our March selection:
Jpod by Douglas Coupland. I’m excited.