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book review

Grand Menteur

By Jean Marc Ah-Sen, BookThug, 200 pages, $20

Think of the novel as having a family tree. One branch, even when telling a story of the downtrodden, adopts a bourgeois ethos (incorruptible Oliver Twist receives his reward of a fairy-tale ending). This branch is prominent at the moment, but another line, as old as the novel itself, adopts a more raffish attitude. (Consider Moll Flanders: the world is dirty and so is she.) Jean Marc Ah-Sen's debut exhibits traits of this latter, picaresque line. Ostensibly the chronicle of a Mauritian street gang from the 1940s to the 80s, its real focus, as the story travels from Port Louis to Brixton to Toronto, is an immigrant underclass. Told by the daughter of the Grand Menteur, the gang's professional liar, the narration is appropriately evasive, at least on the surface. Adding to that ambiguity is a wildly inventive vocabulary mixing English, Mauritian Creole and French. Unsentimental but passionate, a singular book.

The Swallows Uncaged: A Narrative in Eight Panels

By Elizabeth McLean, Freehand, 303 pages, $21.95

Elizabeth McLean's debut takes the form of a Vietnamese eight-panel screen, each panel's story a slice of Vietnamese history from the 11th century to the 21st. Describing these as connected short stories would give a poor sense of the resonances running through the book as well as the sense of a larger narrative propelling the story forward. But if it's a novel, it's how David Mitchell's Ghostwritten is a novel: atypical. Presenting the screen in the prelude, McLean writes, "You begin to feel for the ordinary people who lived behind the curtain of history." These ordinary people are girls and women who live extraordinary stories. That the book has narrative drive doesn't imply history drives in a specific direction – that it catapults toward a more liberal present, for instance. Rather, The Swallows Uncaged presents history's women as agents within the constraints of their own time – birds who occasionally take flight.

Let Us Be True

By Erna Buffie, Coteau, 229 pages, $19.95

"Why do you lie to me?" is the central question of Erna Buffie's debut about members of a Winnipeg family shielding one another from painful truths only to have their secrets do unexpected damage later on. The grand reveal in this book is not of any particular lie uncovered – these Buffie discloses one by one, allowing each to steep before moving on to the next – but how Pearl Calder came to be the cantankerous, brusque, overly forthright septuagenarian we meet at novel's outset. A kaleidoscopic range of viewpoints from the novel's present (2000) to its far past (1939) slowly display Pearl's psychological scars from severe abandonment. That sounds heavy, but in execution the prose is restrained, not overwrought. Where many novels about inherited memory can become saggy with characters' over-reflection, Let Us Be True remains vital, present and taut throughout. A story as starkly beautiful as a prairie landscape.

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