The two following books (one short story collection and one novel) were shortlisted for the 2015 Giller Prize.
I own a copy of Lullabies for Little Criminals, Heather O’Neill’s debut novel. I haven’t read it, but there have been times when I’ve opened it, planned on getting started to read it, and then closed it back up again. Then her second novel came out, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night and I again clicked on it to add to the TBR, but never got around to it. The Girl Who was also nominated for the Giller Prize. Then came this collection of short stories, Daydreams for Angels. Again, for some reason, while I clicked on it to add to the TBR, I continued to hesitate and push off picking them up and reading them. I knew they were supposed to be fairly quirky or weird stories perhaps, fantastical or like fairy tales. It was the supposed quirkiness and fantastical that kept me in the hesitation lane some more. Only after hearing one person in the CBC Goodreads Group claim they were fantastic and surely hoping for the Giller win did I finally break down and pick it up to see for myself.
Each story within the collection features a simplistic writing style. There is slang, easy language, no extra descriptors provided. The first few stories were fairly bizarre, and each had a child’s fairy tale style to their stories. Then, I started Swan Lake for Beginners. Around here, the collection took a turn for the delightful for me. Swan Lakes for Beginners is about a team of failed Russian scientists promising to give Nureyev clones to the government so they could send the greatest ballet dancer all around the world and reap the rewards. The scientists set up in an isolated town in Quebec and proceed to fail at the experiment miserably. They tried, oh how they tried, but none of the Nureyev clones would dance. Overall, this was quite a humorous tale with crazy shenanigans and all sorts of entertaining antics, all about trying to recreate the life of Rudolf Nureyev and to get these clones to dance exactly like him.
“Only individuals, all on their own, can decide to dedicate their lives to expression. Art comes from some mysterious place that cannot be located by science. Scientists could make a human, but they could not make an artist. ” (Swan Lake for Beginners)
The next in the collection I truly enjoyed was entitled, Holy Dove Parade. This is a story of a man named Edward, who created a cult with a membership made entirely of social misfits. When Edward was growing up, he had a very difficult childhood. As the leader of his social misfit cult membership, he commits a crime. Edward’s defence lawyers want to use this horrible childhood as a way to elicit sympathy for him. The entire story is told in the form of a letter by the girl that was with Edward from the very beginning, just as his unusual cult was forming. She is telling the story about Edward to this boy they kidnapped. She refers to the boy as Piglet, since this is the name she called him when he was taken. This girl is explaining the reasons why they took Piglet, how she felt and feels about Edward and how he saved her and what is happening to him now. She is singing his accolades in a way and reaching out to the boy. She is also explaining to Piglet why Edward won’t allow the lawyers to use his childhood as an excuse for his actions,
“Edward didn’t see the relevance. He didn’t see how anyone could bother saying that they had so little power over themselves that they would let nonsense that happened to them when they were children dominate the now. He of course, wanted to take full responsibility for his actions.”
I enjoyed this story for the message in it and how it was written in the form of this letter to the boy they kidnapped. I was now approaching these stories for the way they were being portrayed: whimsical and playful and very much like reading an old fashioned fairy tale.
The next story is entitled, Dolls. I absolutely loved this one. Dolls is the story of these discarded dolls sitting next to each other at a rummage sale. Each of the dolls has her own story and they were all very imaginative and left me smiling fondly, often. Isn’t that the greatest little imaginative story? A story of the life of each one of these dolls – what they experienced, where they lived, how they lived. This is a very short story but an oh-so-good one. I would love to go back again and re-read it. In Dolls, the whimsy and playful creativity captured my heart.
The one that stole my heart and almost made me cry was the title story, Daydreams of Angels. What a beautiful story. This is about the angels that come down to carry back with them to heaven soldiers fighting during the war. At the same time as an angel is romancing a girl, another angel is with her father. Her father is the Major and is, during the moments before his death, thinking of his daughter. At the same time that the one angel is taking the Major to heaven, so is the other angel bringing his daughter to him. It was beautiful.
The stories in Daydreams of Angels are simplistically written and done so in a straightforward, non-descriptive way. The writing seems to lend itself quite well to this fairy tale style of storytelling. For example, using the story Messages in a Bottle to demonstrate the writing style, most of the stories were written in this way:
“There once was a boy and a girl who were twins. They lived in Montreal. Their mother was a famous cellist. She composed a tune so complex that no one could play it except her.”
Many stories were strange yet beautiful and most contain stories of heaven, God, and belief. Many of them were also quite fantastical and contained elements found in many fairy tales like those with swans and riding beds out into the sea, etc. The off-beat, fairy tale quality to the stories are not my normal cup of tea but as for the ones pointed out above, there were a few that were an absolute delight to read. Towards the end however, my interest did start to wane again as most were more of the same, simplistically written fairy tale stories, with similar style stories/plots.
I’ll write less on Martin John by Anakana Schofield because I truly have not much to say for this one. I can only say this was one of the strangest books I’ve ever read. It’s unsettling, disturbing and is written entirely as though we are inside of Martin John’s head. We are left wondering and processing through what he is thinking and attempting to piece together what is going on. (Like seriously, what the heck is going on?!)
The Giller judges certainly went with the quirky and strange this year. Here is a sampling of the writing found in Martin John:
He has made mistakes.
The phone calls were a mistake.
He nodded, agreed, signed. Nodded, signed, agreed and
they let him go.
After the Eurovision incident, he was calmed.
They let him go, until the telephone calls.
Baldy Conscience drove him to the phone calls. If they’d done the right thing and popped Baldy Conscience into
the ward or into a river, the phone calls may never have happened. He might never have lifted the phone. I would
not have lifted the phone, he told the police who came for him.
It’s not right to blame another man for your own carry-on.
That’s what mam would say. He could hear her say it, even
thought he’s not sure she ever said quite that. He can hear
her. He can hear that said. (page 117)
And on and on it continues just like above. I really have nothing more to say about Martin John outside of it being an extremely odd read. I entirely missed out on the meaning I’m certain.
Of the shortlisted titles for the 2015 Giller Prize, I’ve read these two, started but did not finish Outline by Rachel Cusk and I’m not going to move forward with reading the other short story collection shortlisted, Arvida. The synopsis sounds like they are too far out there and/or disturbing to read. Fifteen Dogs….I go back and forth on it all the time, but I think to be honest, I will let this one go unread for the time being. I’m kind of done with reading the bizarre, quirky and strange books this Giller jury chose for this year’s award.
I will however have the most magnificent opportunity this November! I will be attending the Between the Pages event in Toronto!