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book review

I Was There The Night He Died by Ray Robertson

Gender Failure by Rae Spoon and Ivan E. Coyote, Arsenal Pulp Press, 256 pages, $17.95

To those who consciously follow LGBTQ artists, musician Rae Spoon and writer Ivan E. Coyote likely need no introduction – but those readers are also likely already sold on this book and may even have seen the live show on which it is based. For those less familiar with the politics and lived experiences of trans people, you could do a lot worse than starting with this funny, sad, touching, enraging collection of autobiographical essays by two seasoned performers, both of whom were identified as women at birth but now use the pronoun "they." The writing is pointed: To anyone who does not believe transphobia is real, please read the chapter on safety in public washrooms. But this book also speaks more broadly: Where gender is a strict definition based on a highly unrealistic ideal, very few – almost none? – of us are not gender failures in some way. This book demands we consider that it is the binary that has failed us instead.

I Was There The Night He Died by Ray Robertson, Biblioasis, 232 pages, $19.95

His wife recently killed in a car crash, his dog by cancer, his mother by a stroke, Sam Samson, the protagonist in Ray Robertson's latest novel, returns to his hometown of Chatham, Ont., to take care of his father in Samson père's dying months (this one to Alzheimer's). While drinking in the park beside his parents' empty house (he's kicking his dependence on speed with a combination of wine, marijuana and Mountain Dew), the 40-something Sam befriends Samantha, an 18-year-old cutter. In other hands this might make for a depressing set-up, but Robertson manages an uplifting read, as the two misfits are bound by their fish-out-of-waterness, the age difference notwithstanding. As befits a character who spends his days putting the world into words, the style is writerly, self-conscious and poignant – just the right level of narcissism – without being self-flagellating or flowery. It's a redemptive story about love despite the prevalence and certainty of death.

Just Beneath My Skin by Darren Greer, Cormorant Books, 218 pages, $21

What lies just beneath the skin? This novel presents many options: personal memories – a landscape might remind you that this was where you had your first job; family history – there's no escaping it; Jesus, who may underlie everything; your parents – the sense that knowing who your father is means you carry him nestled inside you. Jake MacNeil returns to the dying mill town of North River, N.S., to save his young son, Nathan, from the cycle of violence and despair. Standing in the way of their escape is an acid-crazed murderer with a grudge. Greer's North River is no sunny town: Jake arrives in the last week before the next welfare cheque; the child abuse is casual and the poverty engrained. The chapters are short – sometimes just a few paragraphs – alternating between Jake's and Nathan's first-person narratives, which makes for a quick though still poetic read roaring towards a climactic ending.