The Globe and Mail Arts staff recommend short and sweet summer reads.
By Sara Freeman (Penguin Random House Canada; 240 pages)
If you’ve ever wanted to run away from your life – get on a bus, turn off your phone permanently, hole up somewhere new and build a new existence – you’ll immediately connect with Sara Freeman’s stunning debut novel, Tides. If you’ve ever felt overwhelming grief and didn’t know what to do with it. If you love the experience of reading a novel, falling for a character, cheering them on and, continuing to do so, even once their flaws are revealed. If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if you did disappear: Would anyone come to find you? Rescue you from this new life you have built? Or would that other world just continue, altered by your absence less and less prominently, once you have removed yourself from it?
Tides begins with a woman on a long bus journey out, heading toward the sea. Who she is and why she’s leaving slowly unfold, revealed in bits and pieces in brief segments à la Jenny Offill. The segments can be as brief as a single sentence, but through each, the bitter onion of this woman’s life is peeled, and the reader begins to understand.
The woman is Mara and she is grieving. Her grief is palpable; I suffered with her as I read this book – not slowly, in pieces, as I had planned. But all in one go, on a rainy day, savouring the sentences but powering through them nonetheless.
She begins her new life with a bit of money, enough for a hostel. Then, when the hostel closes at the end of the tourist season, she must scrounge for shelter. Eventually, she finds a job. And a new life begins to take shape. Despite grief’s best efforts, new connections are made.
Who are we if we separate from everything that makes a life – our family of origin, the family we create, friends, home, job, our stuff? Mara strips her life of all of this – at least, physically. The book’s spare form echoes her mission. This white space never disappears from each page of sparse text, even as Mara disappears from her life. It’s a clever construct.
Freeman uses tightly controlled prose to depict a life that has gone off the rails. We can’t control what happens to us, we can’t always control our emotions. But the author uses great control to explain this to us.
Freeman, who was born in Montreal and currently lives in Boston, sets her book on the U.S. East Coast and gives Mara an upbringing in Quebec. But this kind of suffering and searching is a universal story, told here beautifully. – Marsha Lederman
By Anna Fitzpatrick (Flying Books; 292 pages)
Lucy Selberg, the protagonist of Toronto writer Anna Fitzpatrick’s debut novel, Good Girl, is a 25-year-old writer and bookseller also living in Toronto. After she meets Henry, a man with whom she’s able to explore her interest in kink (specifically, her interest in BDSM), Lucy finds herself also exploring, essentially, how to be the right kind of person – the right kind of colleague, the right kind of friend, the right kind of lover, the right kind of feminist, the right kind of writer. How to be good.
Only Lucy’s search for validation is more often external, rather than inward-facing. Fitzpatrick paints an unflinching, sympathetic portrait of a young adult who, because goodness and virtue are complex and nuanced concepts (and therefore difficult to navigate), wishes things were more didactic; she just wants to be told what to do. Lucy’s fondness for kink is explored overtly, but also underpins her gradual understanding of her own power and agency in her work and her relationships, with others as well as with herself.
Yes, Good Girl is a book about sex or, more specifically, about BDSM, and about the journey of self-exploration, self-discovery and, at times, self-immolation and effacement that accompanies navigating how power and sex intersect. But it’s also, more broadly, about the difficult work of self-validation, and about a young woman teaching herself how to be, rather than waiting to be told what to do.
Fitzpatrick’s prose is conversational and acerbic, and her gentle interrogation of how shame, power, feminism and sex-positivity intersect and butt heads is whip-smart and subtly provocative. And for all its razor-sharp edges, Good Girl is also a uniquely gentle portrait of a complex, complicated young woman just trying to get things right. Plus, it’s incredibly, intensely, laugh-out-loud funny. – Rebecca Tucker
How Beautiful People Are
By Ayaz Pirani (Gordon Hill Press; 100 pages)
For those who answer, “Where are you from?” with an asterisked half-truth, you will find comfort in the in-between space where Ayaz Pirani’s newest collection of poetry digs in its roots. Animated through the character of Kabir from Pirani’s past work, How Beautiful People Are embodies love and loss, and longing and belonging all at once, journeying the reader through the complexity of the human condition and the dynamism of identity.
Written with allusions to the diwan (collection) of ginan and granth literature from the Indian subcontinent, the collection is unapologetic in its origins while simultaneously exploring the question of its postcolonial existence. Pirani’s speaker restlessly rustles the definitions of home through the book’s pages to find familiarity “on the last leg of / someone else’s journey.” But the task isn’t quite so simple, because “Once you leave the village / there’s no road back.”
Drawing from his own hyphenated identity, the poet, born in Tanzania and raised in Canada, snapshots moments in time in short, and often snappy, poems that revel in nuance in a world where “Nuance is heading for the door.” At times crisp and poignant, eccentric and whimsical, the poetry collection is an intergenerational garden where definitions of home rendezvous in cleverly structured poems on the page.
How Beautiful People Are is a mosaic of experiences, memories and tradition where these facets of being interplay. It’s a quick read that’ll leave you asking questions about origin and humanity, and a sense of comfort in not having all the answers. – Rukhsar Ali
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