Another Canada Reads 2009 contender (I recently blogged about another one called The Outlander) that I read for my book club. And unlike The Outlander, I did not like this one.
Taking place in rural New Brunswick during the 1980’s and 90’s, the story follows the Henderson family as they eke out a meager living from trapping and working for the local bigwig, Leo McVicer. Sidney Henderson and Connie Devlin were twelve when they were shoveling snow off the roof of the local church and began arguing and the ensuing fight resulted in Connie falling and Sydney thinking that he’s dead. He wasn’t but in the time it took for Sydney to realize Connie was okay, Sydney promised God that he would never do another thing to harm another human. Making that promise was much harder to live with than it seemed at the time. The rest of the book deals with the challenges Sydney, his wife and children face as they deal with the repercussions of this oath.
I read this novel for my book club – there’s no way I’d have finished it otherwise. It’s so bleak – it’s worse than depressing. I can take the poverty, but the child abuse and neglect, no. The characters were at various times cowardly, weak-kneed, fundamentally evil, selfish, spineless, pathetic, helpless, etc. The few that did do something kind for another person seemed to be motivated by guilt rather than any altruistic sensibility. And really, do bad things actually happen that often to people or are they offset even occasionally by good things?
This book won the Giller Prize in 2000. Those judges must love wallowing in misery. Don’t get me wrong – the writing is good and the story is told well. But it’s like constantly picking the scab from a wound – it never gets better and sometimes even becomes infected, but you can’t stop picking even if it’s painful. Well, this whole book was one gaping wound. But hey, some people just love this kind of book – I’m just not one of them.