Fairy Tales, Fiction, LGBTQIA+, Magic Realism, Young Adult

Dark and Deepest Red

Cover image for Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemoreby Anna-Marie McLemore

ISBN 978-1-250-16274-8

 “Well-crafted seams and delicate beading gave my family a trade and a living. But red shoes gave us a name. They made us infamous. Until they came for us.”

Strasbourg, 1518: A plague of uncontrollable dancing sweeps through the independent city of Strasbourg, rousing suspicions of witchcraft and demonic activity. Lala and her aunt Dorenia have been living in the city since Romani were driven out of neighbouring countries by order of law. The laws eventually came to Strasbourg as well, but the two women have lived quietly, hiding their true ethnicity behind rumours of illegitimate descent from an Italian lord. But when rumours of witchcraft begin to swirl in earnest, the unspoken suspicions of their neighbours loom large. In the present day, Emil and Rosella live in Briar Meadows, a town that is entirely normal fifty one weeks out of the year. But every autumn, the glimmer arrives and settles over the reservoir, precipitating unexpected events that fade as quickly as the autumn leaves. This year, it is the legendary red shoes made by Rosella’s family that seem to have become truly magical, but Rosella worries that the taint of witchcraft will haunt her family long after the glimmer fades. Meanwhile, Emil tries to understand the connection between the glimmer and a family legend about long ago ancestors who were tried for witchcraft after a dancing plague swept through the region.

In their fifth book, Anna-Marie McLemore turns their talent for magical realism to the realm of fairy tales, and history, combining Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes” with the documented la fièvre de la danse that ensnared the city of Strasbourg in 1518. In their Author’s Note, written from the city of Strasbourg in 2018, McLemore notes that there is no known connection between the two, but they “still wonder if perhaps Hans Christian Andersen had, at the back of his mind, a little piece of history that mentions red shoes, and an Alsatian city gripped by dancing as though it was a plague.” In Dark and Deepest Red, McLemore makes the suspected connection explicit, casting Emil as a descendant of the women who were accused of causing the plague.

Dark and Deepest Red is structured around three alternating narrators, beginning with Rosella, whose family, the Olivas, are known for their exquisite handmade shoes. Next is Lala, who goes by Lavinia outside her family, because it is essential that they hide their Romani heritage. Finally, we have Emil, a modern day Romani boy who has supressed his heritage in order to fit in. Briar Meadows has a touch of magic, true, but it is not otherwise so accepting of things that are out of the ordinary. Emil’s parents are scholars, and their family history is well-researched and documented, but Emil doesn’t really want to know the stories his parents have so painstakingly saved for him. The chapters alternate in quick succession, and indeed this might be the book’s greatest weakness; while it keeps all of the plots moving, it also means that the reader never has time to really settle in and connect with one character.

Dark and Deepest Red orbits around two central romances. Lala has long been in love with Alifair the orphaned trans boy who appeared mysteriously appeared out of the Black Woods one day when they were both still children. He has since become her aunt’s apprentice in their dyeing and ink-making business, his uncanny talent for slipping among wasps unstung further adding to his mystery. But Lala constantly worries that if she and her aunt are exposed as Romani, Alifair will be tainted by association. Emil and Rosella were friends when they were children, finding a unique bond in the fact that they didn’t quite fit in among the other children of Briar Meadows. But they slowly grew apart, until the dancing shoes bring them back together unexpectedly. Rosella tries to hide her affliction, desperate for the glimmer to pass, while Emil’s denial of his heritage means that unbeknownst to them both, he may hold the key to the answers Rosella seeks. Only together can they solve the problem. The two relationships mirror one another, showing how secrets complicate our every attempt to connect.

While this book has much of the magic of McLemore’s previous reads, and deals with many of the same issues, the structure makes it difficult to sink into and revel in that magic in quite the same way as The Weight of Feathers or Wild Beauty.

You might also like When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore

African-American, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Magic Realism

The Underground Railroad

Cover image for The Underground Railroad by Colson Whiteheadby Colson Whitehead

ISBN 978-0-385-54236-4

“Once Mabel ran, Cora thought of her as little as possible. After landing in South Carolina, she realized that she had banished her mother not from sadness but from rage. She hated her. Having tasted freedom’s bounty, it was incomprehensible to Cora that Mabel had abandoned her to that hell.”      

Cora is a third-generation slave born on the Randall cotton plantation in Georgia. She has been a stray since the age of ten, when her mother became the only slave to ever escape the plantation, evading an infamous bounty hunter in the process. Since then, Cora has lived in Hob, the cabin for outcast slaves rejected even by their own people. So when Caesar approaches her about running North, Cora assumes it is a joke, or worse, a trap. The punishment for even discussing escape could be death. But Caesar has a connection to the Underground Railroad, and when the balance of power on the Randall plantation shifts, running starts to seem like an option worthy of consideration. Via the lines of the Underground Railroad, Cora will live many lives after she escapes Randall, but the shadow of slavery will pursue her wherever she goes.

In Colson Whitehead’s imagining, the railroad that spirits Cora and Caesar to freedom is real and literal, rather than metaphorical. However, this is as far as Whitehead takes it; the railroad is a tool that enables him to transport Cora easily from place to place, through the different incarnations of the Black experience of America. He does not spend his time developing the premise of the railroad, or linger on the journey, though there is a nod to the fact that building and ventilating such a network would be a mighty feat of engineering. Rather, the railroad is a curious detail that adds atmosphere to the story, and facilitates Cora’s development as a character in the various chapters of her life. Whitehead delivers his fantastic additions in a matter-of-fact tone that causes them to blend seamlessly into the more factual aspects of the narrative, as he presents the horrors of slavery with equal directness.

The Underground Railroad is divided into episodes punctuated by the steps of Cora’s journey towards the promised freedom of the North. It is not a story delineated by strict notions of time; Whitehead freely borrows episodes and details from later periods to create amalgams. The trip from Georgia to South Carolina is not just a crossing of a state line, but in many ways takes Cora and Caesar into the concerns of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century free Blacks, confronted with the eugenics movement and  medical experimentation on non-consenting parties. Across the border again, into North Carolina, Whitehead conjures a white supremacist separatist state where Blacks can be executed on sight. Here we find echoes of the Holocaust, and Anne Frank’s sojourn in her Amsterdam attic, as well as Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

Although Whitehead plays fast and loose with the facts, he does so in a way that condensed the impact of the real events that inspired his fictions and elaborations. After South Carolina, there is a sense of dread that hangs over the book. Freedom feels elusive, perhaps even delusional, with each new fresh start less hopeful than the last. While starting over from each new location and perspective was occasionally tiresome, the technique was effective in building that sense of dread, and the niggling question about whether Cora can ever truly be free in a country built on the back of slave labour. When we leave Cora on the road, her next destination and chapter unwritten ahead of her, I wanted to believe she might still find true freedom, but could no longer quite bring myself to believe it could be true. In this way, The Underground Railroad has haunted me long past the final page.

You might also like Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Fiction, LGBTQIA+, Magic Realism, Young Adult

Wild Beauty

Cover image for Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore by Anna-Marie McLemore

ISBN 978-1-250-12455-5

For a hundred years, La Pradera has bloomed under the hands of the Nomeolvides women, five in every generation, whose magic brings to life what was once a barren landscape unfit for farming. But the Nomeolvides women are cursed; any man that they love too much, who stays too long, will disappear into La Pradera, never to be seen again. They have lived with this pain for generations, defined and shaped by it. So when Estrella and her four cousins make an offering to the land, and a boy appears, a boy who seems to be out of his time, a whisper of hope goes through the family. Fel has no memory of how he came to La Pradera, but what if he was the disappeared lover of a long ago Nomeolvide woman? But even as the women begin to hope that their lost loves may not be lost forever, the arrival of a new member of the family that owns the land they are bound to threatens everything they have built.

La Pradera is a vivid setting, a place of magic and tragedy. The Nomeolvides women have worked the land there for a hundred years, but beautiful as they have made it, they can never leave it, or La Pradera will take its revenge. But though they are bound to this land, they do not own it. It belongs to the Briar family, a wealthy clan that hides their rejects and failures on this distant estate. When Marjorie Briar dies, Reid Briar waltzes into town, fully expecting to seize control of the estate from Bay, the illegitimate daughter of a Briar, who was raised by Marjorie, and named her heir. The power imbalance between the Briars and the people who have worked their land forms an important part of the story.

Despite the curse, romance is woven through Wild Beauty. All five of the Nomeolvides girls are a little bit in love with dashing Bay Briar, nominal heir to La Pradera. They do not know if a woman can be disappeared by their love, but they are all afraid to find out, and so they keep their affection for her at a distance. When Fel appears, he and Estrella are repeatedly drawn to one another despite her mother’s warnings. Though the land gave him back, they all worry that he could disappear again. And what if he really was once the lover of a dead woman he can’t remember? In the course of the story, both Bay and Fel must emerge as their own people before questions about who can love them will be answered.

In addition to being a romance, Wild Beauty has a strong theme of family, especially the relationship between Estrella and her cousins. The older generations of women are more distant and less well known. Estrella and her cousins are pushing themselves away from their mothers and grandmothers, as much as they can when they are all bound to the same land, unable to leave it for very long. They hope to somehow avoid the fate of their ancestors, as every new generation hopes, and that drives a wedge between them and their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers. The older women try to keep the peace and protect their daughters, but Estrella seems determined to stand up to Reid, whatever the cost.

In this, her third novel, Anna-Marie McLemore returns with her lush, polished prose and fine touch for magic realism. Although slower paced, her novels always deliver for atmosphere, character, and emotional impact, and Wild Beauty is no different.

Also by Anna-Marie McLemore

The Weight of Feathers

When the Moon Was Ours 

Fiction, LGBTQIA+, Magic Realism, Young Adult

When the Moon Was Ours

Cover image for When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemoreby Anna-Marie McLemore

ISBN 978-1-250-05866-9

“She had seen him naked. Almost naked. And she understood that with his clothes off, he was the same as he was with them on. ”

When the people of the town tore down the old water tower, out came Miel, soaking wet but otherwise unharmed, aside from her deathly fear of pumpkins. This unusual appearance is the least of her oddities; roses grow unbidden from her wrist, and the hem of her skirt is constantly wet, even in the heat of summer. Always half-regarded as a witch, her only friend is Sam, a boy with secrets of his own. He paints and hangs beautiful moons from the trees, and he is maybe the only boy in town who has never fallen in love with one of the Bonner sisters, four more suspected witches because of their great beauty and even greater heartlessness. But when the Bonner sisters seem to be losing their power, they decide that Miel’s roses hold the key to restoring it. And if she doesn’t give them up, neither her secrets, nor Sam’s, will be safe.

As the story opens, Sam and Miel’s long friendship—dating from the time that Sam was the first person to approach her after she emerged from the water tower—has just begun to transform into something more. Young adult narratives commonly build up the romance slowly, making readers wait for so much as a kiss, but Anna-Marie McLemore boldly depicts Sam and Miel in bed together in chapter two. In interviews, McLemore has said that she had to rewrite the book “four times just from the ground up”, chasing her own fear of honestly portraying “safe consensual queer sex” in a young adult book. But the result is a very tender scene that becomes a necessary foundation for the further development of Sam and Miel’s relationship in the rest of the book.

Carved pumpkin adapted from the cover of When the Moon Was Ours
When the Moon Was Ours themed book-o-lantern. Happy Halloween!

Sam is a trans boy who has latched onto the concept of bacha posch, a practice in some parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, where families who have no sons dress their daughters as boys so that they can fulfill the role temporarily. As adults, they are expected to return to living as women, and marry. Sam, or Samir, learned about the practiced from his Pakistani grandmother, and seizes on it as a means to live the life he wants, while also hoping that when adulthood arrives, he will somehow be able to become the woman that society expects. Sam’s mother, and Miel’s guardian, Aracely, have hidden Sam’s secret from everyone else for years, but now the Bonner sisters are threatening to expose him in a town not known for its tolerance.

The villains of McLemore’s story are the four Bonner sisters, Chloe, Lian, Ivy, and Peyton. Their power was broken when Chloe left town to hide a secret, and even though she has returned, nothing is the same as it was before. Ivy takes up the mantle of power among the sisters, desperate to restore them to their former glory, claiming any boy they choose, and breaking his heart when they’re done. Their role as antagonists is founded on this villainized sexuality, then built upon by their sense of entitlement, and willingness to exploit other people’s secrets even as they guard their own.

When the Moon Was Ours also draws on the legend of La Llorona, a ghostly woman who haunts the river, crying for her drowned children. The ghost of a similar tragedy hangs over Miel’s past, and her unwillingness to speak about her life before she came out of the water tower, even with Sam, who has trusted her with his deepest secrets.  She is in the habit of consigning the roses that grow from her arm to the river where she hears her mother crying, until the Bonner sisters become determined to seize these “wasted” blooms for their own purposes. This myth adds one more layer to a love story suffused with magic realism, and haunted by tragedy.


Cover image for The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemoreYou might also like The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore

Find more of my book-o-lanterns from previous years

Fiction, Magic Realism, Romance, Speculative Fiction, Young Adult

The Weight of Feathers

Cover image for The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemoreby Anna-Marie McLemore

ISBN 978-1-250-05865-2

“On ne marie pas les poules avec les renards. One does not wed hens with foxes.”

The Corbeaus and the Palomas have been rivals for more than twenty years. As travelling performers, every year they cross paths at the Almendro blackberry festival, and their simmering hatred threatens to destroy both shows.  Sixteen-year-old Lace Paloma has just become a mermaid in her family’s river performance, and she knows only what they have told her about the Corbeaus. She has never seen them perform, and tries to steer clear their magia negra. So when she tells off her cousins for beating a young man she assumes to be an Almendro local, none of them realizes that this is the reclusive Cluck Corbeau, who builds the wings in which the Corbeaus perform as they dance through the treetops. And when Cluck carries her to the hospital after a disaster strikes Almendro, he doesn’t realize he has touched la magie noire of the Palomas. But when Lace’s family learns the truth, they cast her out, and Lace seeks out Cluck, determined to free herself of his curse.

The Weight of Feathers is a largely realistic YA romance with just a subtle touch of magic. The Corbeaus—who are descended from French Romani tightrope walkers—hide the feathers that grow beneath their hair, and the Palomas conceal the shimmering scales that fleck their backs inside their mermaid costumes. They each believe that the other possesses dark magic, but can never quite prove that their rivals are responsible for their ill luck. The accident that strikes Almendro, although not well explained at first, is industrial in nature. Superstition and bad blood have caused deaths before, and may yet take another life as the rivalry between the two families rekindles.

At the beginning of the book, the rivalry between the Palomas and the Corbeaus is so pronounced that their accounts of the feud sound like entirely different events, rather than two sides of the same story. Each believes the other possesses black magic, and that a Paloma must never touch a Corbeau without shedding blood. But when Lace and Cluck come together, the accounts begin to overlap and make a kind of sense, as the troubled history of the rival families is revealed. Almendro—a fictional town in California’s Central Valley—is a realistic backdrop that has its own history and problems, facing the difficulties of industrialization and poverty, and the harsh reality of the state’s long drought.

Lace and Cluck’s forbidden romance has definite shades of Romeo and Juliet, although the two warring families are ruled by iron-fisted women: Lace’s Abuela, and Cluck’s mother, Nicole Corbeau. Their rivalry is tinged with disparagement of one another’s heritage, and Cluck also seems to be an odd man out in his own family, bullied by his older brother, unchecked by their mother. Both families have some unhealthy beliefs, and Lace and Cluck are both of an age where they are beginning to ask questions and push back. However, they also have important relationships within their families. Cluck is close to his grandfather, Alain Corbeau, who once worked at the plant in Almendro. Lace’s father is a fierce ally who married into the family, and is willing to challenge the restrictions it places on her. Her Tía Lora is another outsider who married a Paloma. Family in all its complexity is on display here as the teens try to define their identities both within and apart from their circle of relations.

The tension in this story builds slowly, and so many answers are not immediately forthcoming. But McLemore’s atmospheric prose and my own curiosity kept me going. The subtle magical elements also serve as contrasting imagery, further setting the two families apart. Each chapter is headed by a French proverb or a Spanish dicho, which ground Lace and Cluck in their cultural backgrounds. Speaking French or Spanish among themselves is just one of the ways that the families deliberately differentiate themselves from one another, and also keep themselves apart from those who do not share their way of life. Inevitably, I was sucked into the forbidden romance and magic realism, and found myself enjoying the story despite the slow start.


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Canadian, Fiction, Magic Realism

Etta and Otto and Russell and James

Cover image for Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooperby Emma Hooper

ISBN 978-1-4767-5568-7

“Go, Russell, go do whatever, wherever. Go do it alone, and now, because you want to and you can. You always could have if you wanted to enough.”

Etta Vogel, nee Kinnick, has lived a long life in Davidsdottir, Saskatchewan, on a farm she works with her husband, Otto. Their courtship began decades earlier, when Otto shipped out across the sea, one of many Canadian soldiers who went to fight in France, and they started to exchange letters. But at 82, as Etta’s memory is beginning to slip, she still regrets one thing; she has never seen the sea. So one day, without warning, she packs a bag and sets out, on foot, towards the Atlantic, with a piece of paper in her pocket to remind her who she is and where she is going. When Otto finds Etta’s note, he chooses not to follow after her, instead tracking her imagined progress across the country on his globe. But their life-long neighbour Russell, Otto’s best friend, and one-time rival for Etta’s heart, can’t accept Otto’s inaction, and decides to give chase once he realizes she is gone. But the only companion Etta really needs on her journey is James, a coyote she can talk to. Everyone else, from Russell, to Briony, a reporter who covers the story of her walk, to the public that becomes enchanted with her journey, is superfluous to her mission.

I picked up this title, despite some skepticism about the premise, on the recommendation of a colleague, spurred on by the fact that I was looking to read more Canadian titles in 2016. But the opening lines grabbed me immediately, and I was hooked. It wasn’t so much the idea of Etta’s journey that caught me, though that was romantic enough, but the final line of her letter: “I will try to remember to come back.” Etta is a compelling character not just because she decides to seize what is missing so late in her life, but because she does it in the face of losing herself completely, when it would probably be easier to just give in, and slip away. Etta can only half-remember who she is, but she knows there is something she still wants to do before she dies. Over the decades, Etta and Otto have sort of melded together into one, but now Etta struggles to separate a strand of herself out, even as dementia is slowly stealing her sense of self. Where her own memory gapes, Otto’s memories rush in to fill the void, and no matter how far she walks, she still cannot escape his long buried memories of the war.

Whereas Russell goes haring off after Etta, Otto seems to acknowledge that where once it was Etta’ turn to wait, and hope, and try to do something productive in the meantime, it is now his turn to stay on the farm while his wife goes out into the world. There is a pleasing symmetry to this structure, which is echoed in the way Otto and Etta’s courtship begins with letters during the war, and comes full circle to the epistolary format with Etta’s journey. Alone at home, Otto learns how to cook for himself, and begins building life-size papier-mache animals which he displays in the yard. As the newspapers begin to pick up the story of Etta’s walk, Otto gathers fame more locally when neighbours begin driving by to see his creations. While he waits, he writes to Etta, knowing that there is no way for his letters to find their way to her.

Emma Hooper strikes a delicate balance as she weaves back and forth in time and place, between Etta’s walk, and Otto’s wait, and back to Otto’s journey over the sea, and Etta’s wait, and the choice it forced her to make between two men. Hooper is also a musician, and there is an undeniable rhythm and repetition to her prose style. In addition to the weaving time line, there is also the seamlessly integrated magic realism. Fish skulls speak French, and whisper of the sea, while Etta is accompanied by a talking animal companion who may or may not be real. The reader cannot always be sure what has really happened, or who has said what. Hooper fans out the possibilities. In one sequence, Otto misses a phone call, and he tries to imagine who has that phone number, and what they would have said if he had answered. He is sure the call must have been about Etta, and so he imagines the many possible missteps on her journey that might lead to an emergency phone call home. Etta and Otto and Russell and James requires a degree of comfort with ambiguity, but amply rewards the willing suspension of disbelief.


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Canada Reads, Canadian, Fiction, Magic Realism

Canada Reads Along 2016: Birdie

Cover image for Birdie by Tracey Lindbergby Tracey Lindberg

eISBN 9781443442091

“She has not resigned herself to anything but occupying the space she is in, taking one raspy breath whenever she can, and trying to come back to her skinself. When she does this, she has peace with whatever happens. A knowledge is born in her: that she has been to Then. And. She might not make it back. To Now.”

Bernice “Birdie” Meetoos is a Cree woman from northern Alberta. When we meet her, she is living in Gibsons, British Columbia, in an apartment above the bakery where she works. However, it quickly becomes evident that Birdie is bed-ridden, though the exact reasons for her condition are unclear. From her bed, her mind stumbles through past, present, and future, tracing the path from Loon Lake to Gibsons, through foster care and Catholic school, and years of living rough on the streets of Edmonton. Gathered around Birdie are her boss, Lola, her cousin, Freda, and her aunt Val. The women take turns caring for her, and one another, as Birdie travels through a dream journey where she must face the violence of her past, and the uncertainty of her future.

Birdie drops the reader into the middle of a fragmented stream of consciousness that is hard to settle into. The timelines shift almost unceasingly, as Birdie slips between past and present. She is lost in memory, and yet her awareness is constantly being pulled back to the bakery and the goings on around her, though she reacts to none of it. Author Tracey Lindberg is constantly reminding the reader of the other timeline, so that it is impossible to settle into either one; past and present exist simultaneously. At the same time, we have no idea why Birdie is the way she is. Lindberg continues in this fashion for the first 40% or hundred pages of the book.  As the fragments of Birdie’s past begin to form a tentative picture, the stylistic choice makes sense; Birdie’s mind has been fractured by trauma, and she is struggling to heal. At times she shies away from more difficult memories, and returns to them later. This section seems to function more like a conversation, connecting through loosely related ideas rather than following a linear progression.

Beyond this point, the narrative shifts between Lola, Freda, Val, and Birdie, continuing to incorporate aspects of magic realism. However, the fragmentary narration settles down a bit after this and the story begins to flow more freely. Birdie’s memories and dreams still leach in, but there are longer unbroken expanses of narrative, settled into either the past or the present without interruption from the other. Between chapters, Lindberg inserts the character of a storyteller, who mirrors the story using an owl to represent Birdie, and a wolf to represent those who have preyed on her. These small allegorical representations encapsulate Birdie’s journey in a poetic fashion.

One of the strongest aspects of this book is the way it showcases the relationships between the women, both those who are family by blood, and those have been welcomed into that circle. In a family where the men are not to be trusted, Freda and Birdie have done their best to look out for one another, even when their living conditions make their relationship fraught. Birdie sometimes refers to Freda as her “sistercousin” as words struggle to encapsulate the breadth of their bond. Val in particular has failed her girls more than once, but she continues to love them and protect them when she can. Even Birdie’s mother, Maggie, is a notable woman, if more by her absence from the story than her presence, and the hole that leaves in Birdie’s life, and her inner circle.

On day three of Canada Reads 2016, the questions for the panelists dug into what they loved about their books from storyline to writing style, and also returned to the question of which remaining book best embodied the theme of “starting over.” Panelists had a lot of love for the writing style in The Hero’s Walk, and the fast-moving plot of The Illegal. Defending Birdie, Bruce Poon Tip highlighted the storytelling skill necessary to pull off the nonlinear timeline. He also singled out Birdie as the book that taught him the most, particularly about sisterhood, a subject he said he didn’t realize he needed help understanding until he read the book and had to try to parse the relationship between the women. Birdie did not come up as much in the answers of the other panelists, though Vinay Virmani mentioned the Cree poetry, and Adam Copeland named Birdie as the character who most convinced him people can change because she made an active choice between returning to the world and passing on. Clara Hughes also felt that the character of Lola in Birdie embodied change. However, when it came time to vote, Virmani, Hughes, and Farah Mohamed all cast their ballots against Birdie, sending this title—which has been leading the viewer favourites poll all week—home on day three. The Illegal by Lawrence Hill and The Hero’s Walk by Anita Rau Badami will face off tomorrow in the final.


Canada Reads Along Logo Check out the many ways to tune in to Canada Reads on CBC!

Canadian, Challenges, Fiction, Magic Realism

A Tale for the Time Being

Cover image for A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozekiby Ruth Ozeki

ISBN 978-0-14-312487-0

“Maybe none of these things will happen except in my mind and yours, because, like I told you, together we’re making magic, at least for the time being.”

Do you know what a time being is? I’ll give you a hint; you’re one, and I am one, and Naoko Yasutani, the protagonist of A Tale for the Time Being is one. So is Ruth, the failed memoirist who finds Nao’s diary washed up on the shores of British Columbia sometime after the tsunami that overwhelmed the Fukushima nuclear reactor. And so is the real Ruth Ozeki, the author of this interwoven tale. After Nao’s father loses his job in Silicon Valley during the dot-com bust, their family moves back to Japan, where both Nao and her father find themselves depressed and suicidal. Nao has decided that she is going to “drop out of time” just as she has dropped out of school, but first she is determined to share the life story of her great-grandmother, a 104-year-old Zen Buddhist nun who was once a novelist and a political radical. As Ruth reads Nao’s diary, she becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to the Yasutani family, but they seem to have left no trace behind.

With A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki pushes the boundaries of the novel, and actively interrogates the relationship between the author and the reader. The reader slips into the shoes of Ruth, who fills the role of both author and reader herself. By annotating Nao’s diary, the author both interprets Japanese culture, and also subtly reminds the reader of her presence, both as character and as writer. Interjecting Ruth’s perspective also forces us to read Nao’s story more slowly, which admittedly does not jibe with Ruth’s burning curiosity to find out what happened to Nao, but does give the narrative a pleasing rhythm, and a healthy dose of suspense.

Just as the novel explores the overlapping roles of author and reader, A Tale for the Time Being occupies a space that is both Japanese and American, and yet neither, a situation that is familiar to both Nao, and Ozeki. Nao’s American upbringing leaves her feeling like an alien in Japan, while Ozeki has related being bullied for being Asian in America, causing her to identify with her Japanese heritage, only to later go to Japan and discover how American she truly was. A Tale for the Time Being emerges from this liminal space, and explores these complicated identities.

The novel also emphasizes the interconnected nature of all things, people to one another, and to the environment. Ozeki uses both quantum mechanics (simply explained) and Zen Buddhist concepts (deceptively simple) to draw these connections. Where science and Buddhism blend together, Ozeki infuses her own particular flavour of magic realism, which manifests in strange coincidences, vivid dreams, and recurring natural imagery. This is also the aspect of the novel that is most likely to be divisive. If you can try to accept the connections Ozeki draws between seemingly disparate things, A Tale for the Time Being comes together beautifully. But if you feel it is asking you to stretch too far, it can seem a muddle of intriguing but disconnected elements.


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