Sunday, November 29, 2009

Fiction: The Last Woman by John Bemrose

Readers in the west will find the latest offering from a rising Canadian author nearly fatally flawed. John Bemrose’s The Last Woman (McClelland & Stewart) takes place in a rural area instantly recognizable to Torontonians and absolutely non-evocative of anything to just about anyone else. This is “cottage country,” this is the “north country,” and for those unfamiliar with it -- and based on Bemrose’s descriptions alone -- it may as well be the moon. The alienation begins at the very beginning:
The sun suffers through a cloudless sky. Week after week, it pulses from shoreline rock, floods the lake with glare. New reefs have surfaced -- sullen herds strewing the channels -- while in remote bays, floating carpets of lily and arrowhead have given way to flats of dried mud.
And if this is an area that is familiar to you, you might catch your heart at this description and say, “Oh! I remember.” It might take your breath away. It might take you back. But if this world is not familiar to you -- as it is not to most Canadians and, in fact, the rest of the world, it’s just a lot of blah, blah, blah, trying to be something evocative and beautiful but, in the end, it floats away lifelessly like a lily after the first frost.

Forgive me. It’s not that I mean to say that The Last Woman is not a beautiful, well-considered book. Like arts journalist Bemrose’s acclaimed debut novel, The Island Walkers, The Last Woman is, for the most part, stunning. We have a love triangle, some Native land issues and threats to the ecology. We have relationships that live and characters that sometimes almost breathe. But as much as I wanted to love The Last Woman, I felt alienated by it, even pushed away. Bemrose’s vision of the North Country is not inclusive and, in the end, I simply tired of trying to understand a club where I clearly have no place.



Blogger Gonzalo B said...

With all due respect, that's a pretty lazy review. Just because you're not familiar with the setting you dismiss the book? I believe you probably didn't intend to convey that idea but what do you want the author to do? Set the action in the U.S. so that it resonates with American readers? Plus, didn't you find anything else about the book that was worth commenting on? And for the record, I've not read The last Woman and had never heard of John Bemrose before.

Sunday, November 29, 2009 at 10:07:00 AM PST  
Blogger Linda L. Richards said...

("With all due respect"? Where?)

I didn't dismiss the book. Nor did I (for cryin' out loud!) suggest it should be set in the U.S. In the U.S. you see endless books set in NYC because editors respond to the setting, understand it and buy it. In Canada, for the same reason, we see rural Ontario -- cottage country -- and we see it in just this way: viewed through a lens of familiarity and nostalgia. And if that's the only thing to like about a book, it's worth recognizing that most readers -- most Canadian readers -- are not going to salivate to that particular bell because most of them have not shared in that experience.

It can be lovely, through fiction, to walk through doors previously closed; see scenes not otherwise experienced. This isn't that. This is, as I said, not an inclusive vision. That's not lazy. Here's what's lazy: noisily critiquing a review about a book you have not read.

Sunday, November 29, 2009 at 11:29:00 AM PST  
Blogger Gonzalo B said...

Talk about close-mindedness. Of course it was respectful feedback. Or is it disrespectful to find your review at fault? My point was that you simply focus on the book's location and how it supposedly doesn't convey familiarity. If that's all there is to the book, then you should have pointed it out. As it is, I found the review superficial. And no, there's nothing lazy about commenting on a review of a book I haven't read. That's why I usually read reviews in the first place: to discover new titles and authors.

Sunday, November 29, 2009 at 2:40:00 PM PST  
Blogger Linda L. Richards said...

Were my initial comments not trenchant? Your comments make me think so: they seem not to have been sufficiently lucid to get you to the place I was driving. But lazy? Ouch! Yes: I will react to that. You can say I'm less than observant. You can say you think I lack talent or skill in making an assessment or that I've not observed the clouds because I was looking at trees. But lazy? You're simply not in a place to -- respectfully or otherwise -- make that judgment.

Sunday, November 29, 2009 at 3:29:00 PM PST  
Anonymous Bella Martin, Vancouver said...

Thank you for saying out loud something I've been feeling for a long time, not about this book (which I haven't read either) but about so many "important" Canadian books. There's a certain rural Toronto view that I'm just so sick of. Anyone reading from outside of Canada must think we're a country of lakes and small town concerns. And snow, of course. At some point there's always snow as metaphor.

Monday, November 30, 2009 at 9:44:00 AM PST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Strangely, your crummy review & the quote you provided caused me to add this novel to my wishlist - maybe you should visit the north country.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010 at 11:39:00 AM PDT  
Blogger Linda L. Richards said...

Awesome, Anonymous! That's terrific feedback. Make sure you check in and tell us how you liked it!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010 at 12:22:00 PM PDT  

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