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New books from Lesley Krueger, Josip Novakovich and Daniel Zomparelli, reviewed Add to ...

Mad Richard

By Lesley Krueger

ECW, 344 pages, $18.95

Richard Dadd, the most promising English painter of his generation, suffered a breakdown on the Nile resulting in the delusion that he communicated with the Egyptian god Osiris, who commanded Dadd kill the demons in unfortunately mortal men. In 1853, Charlotte Bronte met Dadd on a research trip to Bedlam – the premise to Lesley Krueger’s historical novel of Dadd and contemporaries Bronte, Dickens and Gaskell. Although Dickens and Bronte are no strangers to literary revivication, other authors’ efforts are not always successful. Perhaps it’s in looking at the time through Dadd, who sought to limn the liminal in his paintings of literary figures. Perhaps it’s in familiarity: Krueger is Dadd’s cousin-in-law five times removed (her husband is the descendant of Dadd’s Canadian cousins) and draws on family intel. Perhaps it’s that this is foremost a psychological novel of Dadd’s overheated mind. Any way, Krueger’s portrait of artists as young men and women is alive with wit and rebellion – an aesthetic vivisection of the young Victorian age.

Tumbleweed

By Josip Novakovich

Esplanade Books, 212 pages, $19.95

Cats, booze, migration, shadows from the past. A companion to 2015’s Ex-Yu, several themes tumble through Tumbleweed, a collection of autobiographical essays and more fanciful stories from Josip Novakovich, a finalist for the 2013 Man Booker International Prize. Novakovich is a tumbleweed himself. Born in Croatia in 1956, he went to the United States at 20 to avoid army service. In Tumbleweed, four stories are titled TumblingBelgrade, Daruvar, Maine and Croatia – although in-between we also roll through New York, Nebraska, St. Petersburg and Montreal (where the author now lives). Part of Novakovich’s appeal is in the freedom of his more flyaway lines, like after a friend visiting from the States takes a gulp of a local Croatian red wine: “His mustache spread its wings like a bird in Texas. I have no idea why I wrote Texas, but who cares.” This, and how he writes about the Bosnian War but never loses emotional warmth – there is always his love of animals.

Everything is Awful and You’re a Terrible Person

By Daniel Zomparelli

Arsenal Pulp Press, 204 pages, $15.95

It’s called Everything is Awful and You’re a Terrible Person and it delivers, tongue-in-cheek. Everything is not awful – a certain class of gay men has never had it better – but Daniel Zomparelli’s interconnected stories are disconsolate, his cast of Vancouverites (including a fictional version of himself) not terrible but ugh, terrible: flawed. Neurotic, vain, superficial, they are also more than this. A YouTube celebrity famous for dumping his boyfriend online comes face-to-face with heartbreak on reality TV. Meanwhile, a literal monster just wants to be loved. Andy Sinclair explored similar themes of gay loneliness in his 2015 novel-in-stories, Breathing Lessons. Zomparelli’s collection is similar in tone but is the more critical (and fantastical) book, pointedly reflecting online culture and social media’s grasp into our allegedly offline worlds. We seek others in an app and then we block them. Sinclair provided a neater ending, but Zomparelli asks more questions. What would it mean for us to be happy?

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