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Almost Makes Me Want To Heave

Thursday, July 20, 2006

HeaveMy apologies to Christy Ann Conlin — this isn’t going to be very fair review. I tried to read her debut novel, Heave, but after about 60 pages I had to stop; it probably goes against all the rules of decorum to write a review about a book without reading the whole thing, but, I’ve never been that decorous.

I’m just so sick of reading books like this — what I would call ‘New Canadian Fiction (NCF).’ Wheras ‘Old Canadian Fiction (OCF)’ mostly deals with people trekking out into the bush to start families or grow their small towns into prosperous hamlets of the Canadian Achievement, NCF involves young people between the ages of 16 – 25 whose inheritance is these small towns, who feel stultified by their homogeneous, monotonous surroundings, and so affect all sorts of ‘rebelious’ traits, like getting a mohawk, or a tongue-ring, listening to punk and going on binge-drinking road trips. I’m sick of these books, not because I’m against any of the above activities, but because it’s become so annoyingly typical — and therefore cliché.

Conlin, unfortunately, also seems to fit perfectly the cliché of who’s writing these books; she has a Masters of Fine Arts (Creative Writing) from UBC, she lives in Nova Scotia after whirlwind tours around the globe and bouts of eccentric seasonal work (I only mention this since she feels it’s so important to tell us on the book jacket that she once worked as a fruit picker — how earthy), and, of course, this is her first novel. It seems everyone who comes out of school with a Creative Writing degree is doomed to ‘write what they know,’ and so their first novels are usually about themselves; or, more accurately, about a character who resembles themselves — an avatar, or some sort of hopped up, fantastical variation.

So what we get here is a ‘twenty-one-year-old party girl’ named Seraphina Sullivan — note that having a strange, uncommon name is also very important in order to further highlight the difference and alienation of the protagonist — who, well, doesn’t like living in the Annapolis Valley. It’s too slow, boring. The novel’s ‘prologue’ involves her running out on her own wedding, the dress getting caught on railings and doors and peeling away from her as she escapes, her liberation at hand! — then we’re into the flashbacks. The main event of the first 60 pages is Seraphina’s first escape — a three-week, drug, alcohol and insecurity fuelled binge through London before she has to come back to her friends and family to face the music.

This is where I stopped reading because by this point all the tropes were so firmly in place that I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be surprised by anything at all to come later on; reading over the summary on the jacket seems to confirm my suspicions:

From the pastoral countryside of the rural Maritimes to the bars of London, England,and through mental hospital wards and rehab centres, Serrie (as she’s better known) embarks on an exhilarating and poignant journey of self-discovery . . . she is surrounded by off-beat characters — her Grammie Islay, the sardonic family monarch . . . her father, Cyril, the gentle eccentric who devotes his life to his collection of outhouses . . .

Feisty and gentle, Heave reveals truths with wry humour and compassion, and reminds us of the importance of forgiveness.

All the marketing crap in this passage that I can’t stand: use of the phrase ‘an exhilarating and poignant journey of self-discovery‘ (isn’t every book?); the ‘off-beat characters,’ be they sardonic or gently eccentric (very important in NCF for ironic purposes); and, of course, how the book is ‘feisty and gentle‘ while ‘reveal(ing) truths with wry humour and compassion‘ (again, how many books don’t say this on the jacket nowadays?).

As bad as OCF is — Margaret Laurence would typify this type of writing in my mind — NCF is becoming nearly as interminable in its sameness. To all the young Canadian writers out there — if you feel you have to write a book about ‘finding yourself’ to get it out of your system, just make sure you burn it afterwards, because nobody else should have to read it.

Aim for something higher. 03971semaj

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Thursday, July 20, 2006 12:28 pm


    I also didn’t like the style in which the book was written — a first-person sort of quasi-omnisicent narrator who came across as kind of whiny — which is another reason I didn’t really want to keep reading.

    There was a moment where the character started talking in this voice directly to her dead grandmother in her head — that’s always a warning to proceed with caution.

  2. pauL permalink
    Monday, October 16, 2006 8:55 pm

    Non-NCF texts via AsCanLit:

    “The Kappa Child” Hiromi Goto – though seemingly prairie-based, it really occupies the space between the urban and the rural, the fictional and the factional

    “Salt Fish Girl” Larissa Lai – cloning, outrageuous body odour and globalization!

    “Disappearing Moon Cafe” Sky Lee – historical disjunctions between here and there, forest and back alley, ‘alien’ and ‘native’

    The problem of reading the same narrative can be found in reading from within the same cultural frame. “Canadian” is a construct that is under heavy interrogation in ways that are expsoing different, pre-existent narratives of nation, region and even city/town. The ‘new’ narrative will not come from the white settler prairie subject, nor even from the urban hipster elite but from a site those characters may not (want to) understand of subjugated cultural expression through repeated frames of NFB, CC and CBC.

  3. James17930 permalink
    Tuesday, October 17, 2006 10:05 am

    I read Disappearing Moon Cafe; overall I didn’t think too highly of it — it was disjointed and convoluted for long sections.

    In terms of AsCanLit I much preferred The Electrical Field by Kerri Sakamoto; there’s so much going on in that book under the radar I think it needs to be read three or four times to fully absorb it. Haven’t read her second one yet though.

    The main thing I want from a young writer is to step outside him/herself and give us something more than just why they’re pissed off at their parents. A lot of NCF doesn’t do that — it’s very inward looking. So, to me it doesn’t matter if the person’s white, asian, black etc, it should be personal without being masturbatory or self-pitying.


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