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book review

We All Love the Beautiful Girls

By Joanne Proulx, Viking Canada, 324 pages, $24.95

The story of Mia and Michael, and their teenage son, Finn – who is damaged in a way that is both blessedly small and catastrophically huge by one of those unfortunate choices we caution our children not to make when they walk out our doors and away from our watch – is extracted and melted down in painful detail by Canadian author Joanna Proulx in her second novel. What is left at the end reminded me of a fairy tale I read as a child, the one about the tin soldier in love with the paper ballerina. Remember that red enamel heart discovered in the ashes and how hopeful and pure it was, but also, under the circumstances, how devastating? Love like that is at the nucleus of this novel – between husbands and wives, parents and children, friends. What compelled me the most was Mia's struggle to parent a damaged boy who was almost a man. When our children are hurt all we want to do is hold them. But children pass the point of wanting to be held by their mothers very quickly; there is a need to find ways to mother that don't involve the easiness of touch. This novel taught me that this will take work but isn't impossible. There is also a searing message here about the power imbalance that can happen in male/female relationships and the danger this can pose for everyone – but especially young people. Close to the finale of the book, Mia sees two mothers in a grocery store. She doesn't know them, but, "She wants to reach out and seize their arms as they pass, tell them to pay attention, be diligent, to never stop talking to their sons, to teach their girls to roar. No quitting, she wants to tell them. No quitting on the kids." When I finished this novel, I wanted to tell everyone I knew to read it. It is one of the best, most important books I've read in a very long time.

Hum if You Don't Know the Words

By Bianca Marais, Putnam, 420 pages, $24

This debut novel by Toronto resident Bianca Marais – who was born in South Africa – vividly presents a country torn asunder by apartheid at a moment when it's too easy to see how violence and hatred can take over if left unchecked. The backdrop of racial unrest contrasts with a touching relationship that develops between an unlikely pair: a nine-year-old English girl named Robin Conrad, who has just lost her parents in the bloodshed surrounding the 1976 Soweto uprisings, and her Xhosa caregiver, Beauty, whose daughter has gone missing from the frontlines of the same protest. By all rights, these two are on opposite sides of a clash that has careened their lives into turmoil, but they don't see it that way. The motherless child and the daughterless mother gravitate towards one another in a novel that is both a lulling portrait of comfort found in an improbable place and an exhilarating page-turner. The stakes get progressively higher when the outside world can no longer be kept from threatening the bond Robin and Beauty share. The only weakness here is well-meaning: Subplots involving a gay couple and a Jewish family with a child Robin's age veer the narrative a little too close to sermonizing territory – but it's all so heartfelt. And at the moment, we probably need more of this kind of writing when it comes from the right place. Comparisons to The Help and The Secret Life of Bees are apt, and fans of those two novels should immediately add this one to their "to read" lists.

Class Mom

By Laurie Gelman, Henry Holt, 304 pages, $24

I was laughing out loud at Laurie Gelman's rebellious humour before I'd finished the first page of her debut novel. Gelman lived in Toronto and worked on The Mom Show before moving to Manhattan (read this book and even the word "Manhattan" will make you giggle, by the way), and the inspiration for the book apparently came from her own experiences as a class mom. She had me at protagonist Jen Dixon's introductory letter as class mom to a Kansas City kindergarten. "Read the school's weekly @#$%& e-mail!", she flippantly instructs the fellow moms and dads, mistakenly assuming they think there is anything funny about parenting. "It may seem boring but it actually gives good information and keeps me from having to answer questions like 'When is curriculum night?' " (For the record, I never read the school e-mails and therefore never know when curriculum night is. Jen Dixon would hate me.) This unapologetic character is reminiscent of Maria Semple's Eleanor Flood in Today Will Be Different – meaning, she's not going to be for everyone, but I found myself admiring her capacity for telling the whole truth, even as I winced every time she went too far. Unfortunately, those moments of overshooting the comedic mark happened too often. I would laugh until I cried, but then find myself suddenly sobered by a comment I couldn't quite get past the inappropriateness of – and I'm not sure proper amends were always made, even in a fictional world. Still, there's likely no better time than fall to read a rollicking slapstick about the absurdity of schoolyard life. You're going to see yourself and, hopefully, you'll be able to laugh about it. I know I did. And I've now resolved to read the school's @#$%& weekly e-mail!

Jeff Lemire says he worked on his new graphic novel Roughneck at the same time as the Gord Downie project, Secret Path. The illustrator says “Roughneck” addresses themes of violence and addiction in indigenous communities.

The Canadian Press