Daily Archives: August 22, 2013

River Thieves – Book Review

RiverThievesHe said, “It’s sometimes the simplest explanation is closest to the truth.” – from River Thieves

The Beothuk “Red” Indians were the aboriginal people of the island of Newfoundland. With the introduction of both French and English settlements, the Beothuk found themselves isolated and being squeezed out of their land, especially their access to fishing and hunting grounds. They were eventually reduced to a small refugee population living along the Exploits River and ultimately the Beothuk became extinct, with the last known Indian dying in St. John’s, Newfoundland in 1829. It is this little known story of an aboriginal people which is the backbone of Michael Crummey’s novel, River Thieves. Inspired by the Beothuks and a well known English fisherman and hunter by the name of John Peyton (who was reputed to be brutal in his persecution of the Beothuk), Crummey has crafted a novel rich in the history of Newfoundland.

Set in the early part of the nineteenth century, River Thieves opens with naval officer David Buchan arriving in the Bay of Exploits on orders to establish friendly contact with the “Red Indians.” But he cannot do so without the assistance of the locals – a rough, independent group of trappers and fisherman who live in small cabins along the coast and the Exploits River. John Peyton Sr. is living with his son, John Jr., and a young woman named Cassie Jure who he has employed as a house servant and tutor for his son. He is a surly man who has a strong reputation for not tolerating the ongoing thefts perpetrated by the aboriginal peoples…and it is he who David Buchan approaches for help. But there are many secrets in this small community – allegiances and alliances, old recriminations, buried crimes, and relationships which are not always as they seem.

Crummey advances his novel through the eyes of the characters who include both Peytons, the shadowed Cassie, an Irishman with a questionable past and his native wife, and a captured Indian woman by the name of Mary. The harsh environs of Newfoundland feels like another character in this novel about love, loss, and regret.

The theme of regret is strong … all the characters make decisions at some point which cause them to regret their actions. Even John Peyton Sr., who is perhaps the character who is hardest to like, finds himself regretting his behavior toward the Indians. It is this theme of regret which makes this novel a bit melancholy. And perhaps that is appropriate since it is a book which explores the historical atrocity of an extermination of a people.

Crummey uses language and the naming of things as a way of defining the contrast between the native culture and that of the English colonists. And ultimately to symbolize the loss of an entire people. Perhaps the most poignant and poetic part of the book is in the prelude:

Whashwitt, bear; Kosweet, caribou; Dogajavick, fox. Shabothoobet, trap. The vocabularies a kind of taxidermy, words that were once muscle and sinew preserved in these single wooden postures. Three hundred nouns, a handful of unconjugated verbs, to kiss, to run, to fall, to kill. At the edge of a story that circles and circles their own death, they stand dumbly pointing. Only the land is still there. – from River Thieves.

I read Crummey’s amazing novel, Galore, in 2011 and it made my short list of best books read that year (read my review). Although I liked that novel a bit more than this one, River Thieves did not disappoint me. Crummey’s eye to detail, his terrific characters, and his ability to tell a story that captures place and history had me engrossed in this novel. Readers who love historical fiction will want to pick up a copy of this book.

Highly recommended.

4hStars

River Thieves (2001) became a Canadian bestseller, winning the Thomas Head Raddall Award, the Winterset Award for Excellence in Newfoundland Writing, and the Atlantic Independent Booksellers’ Choice Award. It was also shortlisted for the Giller Prize, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Books in Canada First Novel Award, and was long-listed for the IMPAC Award.

Life After Life – Book Review

lifeafterlifeMiss Woolf was very fond of children, her only regret in life was not having had any. “If Richard had lived, perhaps…but one cannot look backward, only forward. What has passed has passed forever. What is it Heraclitus says? One cannot step in the same river twice?”

“More or less. I suppose a more accurate way of putting it would be ‘You can step in the same river but the water will always be new.”

“You’re such a bright young woman,” Miss Woolf said. “Don’t waste your life, will you? If you’re spared.” – from Life After Life

Ursula Todd is born on a snowy night in 1910. And dies. And is born again. And begins her life. And dies. And is born again. And again. And again. It seems that Ursula has been gifted with the ability to relive her life, correct past mistakes, and potentially save the world from its ultimate fate.

Sounds odd? Well, yes. And no. Life After Life is the newest novel by Kate Atkinson and it is original, mind-numbing, and brilliantly conceived. The book begins in 1910 and spirals out through the twentieth century, encompassing the horror of WWI and the devastation of WWII. Set in England, the landscape is starkly defined by the impact of war. Ursula grows up in the country, surrounded by her siblings, and watched over by her parents who suspect that Ursula is a bit unusual. As Ursula meets her demise and gets to start over again, she at first seems only vaguely aware of her chance to live her life anew. But as the novel unspools, Ursula, as well as the reader, begins to recognize the advantages of this kind of life.

Life After Life is filled with wonderfully constructed characters such as Ursula’s Aunt Izzie whose personality clashes humorously with that of Ursula’s mother Sylvie; and Ursula’s sister Pamela who keeps birthing boys, but wishing for girls; and the incorrigible Maurice (one of Ursula’s brothers), as well as loveable Teddy (another brother). There are quirky townspeople, a number of “love interests” for Ursula, and even a serial killer. And as the Germans march across Europe and drop bombs on London, there is Hitler himself along with his girlfriend, Eva – two historical characters who Ursula meets in person.

Atkinson’s writing is flawless, darkly comic, and filled with a poignant insight into what makes us human.

Who among us has not wondered about the small choices we have made which steer us down a path we might otherwise not have found ourselves traveling? For Ursula, those choices can be modified and her destiny changed (maybe). Her journey is one of joy and despair, filled with laughter and tears, and confounding and profound.

Life After Life is one of those rare novels which becomes stronger after the reader has turned the final page: questions form, insights develop, character motivations become more clear. It is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Readers who want to be dazzled and surprised and who appreciate originality will want to read this novel.

Highly recommended.

5stars

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson was short listed for the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction.