The Henna Artist
by Alka Joshi
What a well organized novel. A strong protagonist—the henna artist of the title—confronts a series of rising complications, leading to unexpected twists and turns, all neatly resolved in a happily ever after ending. Rich, rewarding, satisfying. Unless you think it’s all a little too neat.
Parts of it are probably a little too neat, but I enjoyed and admired it well enough. Lakshmi, the henna artist, is married off in a rural area as a teenager to a man who abuses her. She runs away from that marriage to the city, breaking cultural conditions, bringing shame on her family, who shortly after she leaves produce a second daughter, unbeknownst to her.
It’s the second daughter that propels the plot of the novel. Many years later, both parents dead, the second daughter, 13, seeks out her older sister, who has created a profitable career for herself as a henna artist among the wealthy women of the 1950s. With the arrival of her sister, chaos ensues, family secrets are revealed, and the ability of a woman to create an independent life for herself in that place and time is tested.
Many of the barriers the characters face are the socio-cultural rules and expectations of the place and time. It’s quite a maze, but all’s well that ends well, right?
August into Winter
by Guy Vanderhaeghe
This book is not a novel, it’s a treatment for a mini-series. It has a series of interweaving plot lines that you will either admire, thinking it’s in the style of Tolstoy, or you will grind your teeth at, thinking what now? Also, why should I care?
The central through line story is about a psychotic jazz playing young man, who murders a number of people, is chased across Saskatchewan’s Qu’Appelle valley in 1939, where he is caught, arrested and jailed, then escapes. I won’t give away the ending, because does it really matter? While the psycho is in jail the novel focuses on sub-plots involving two brothers and a school teacher, who were roped in to chasing the psycho by police. Plus the psycho’s 13-year-old girlfriend, straight out of Rebel Without A Cause central casting.
Then there is a sub-sub-plot involving the school teacher’s married boyfriend (married, but not to her), who has left to pursue his historical destiny as a combatant of Franco in the Spanish Civil War. He dies, and the school teacher receives his journal, which appears in volume in the novel. Why? Well, cuz.
Lots of things happen in this novel because lots of things happen in this novel. If you like incident for the sake of incident, this is your book. As noted above, the model here may be Tolstoy. The little newspaper clippings at the beginning of chapters were interesting, though unrelated to the plot. They opened the window a peak to a Canada more mysterious than expected. That seems to be the meta-meaning here. The world is a weird, weird place—getting colder and darker.
The Woman Who is the Midnight Wind
by Terence M. Green
I started reading this book in 1987, when my high school English teacher circulated one of the stories to his class. The author, Terrence M. Green, was also a teacher at that school, East York Collegiate in Toronto. Fast forward 35 years, and I discovered the short story collection could be downloaded onto my Kindle.
These mid-80s sci-fi stories are curious, partly because they project a future that has already happened (now). They returned me to a mid-80s mid-set, where technology was ubiquitous, but also, not really. Not like it is now. Technology in the 80s seemed to be taking over, and it seemed to be promising all sorts of things, some useful, some terrifying. That anxiety and hopefulness fills these stories, but not always in ways one might now expect.
For example, we live now in the era of “big data” and we carry around a tracking device everywhere we go (our phones). In one story, “Barking Dogs,” Green imagines a technology that will tell the wearer if others (even the user himself) is telling the truth. The user, a cop, watches the Pope on TV dissemble a little about the existence of God. He also confronts a thief and turns vigilante after asking some pointed questions. Technology can gift dangerous powers, or it can just turn us all into perpetual consumers.
Many of these stories explore the potential for technology (or alien life) to provide vastly expanded insight or meaning. It’s curious to reflect on that optimism now, during an era when things seem more likely to fall apart.