Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Canadian book challenge - 1st post

So I discovered this site fairly late, i.e. several months into the book challenge, which runs July 1 to July 1: 5th-annual-canadian-book-challenge.  However, it appears that any of the books I read to get myself back into a Canadian mind set will count, provided I read them after July 1 and I come back around and write up reviews of the books.  I honestly cannot remember if I read Hodgin's Innocent Cities before or after July 1 (and I didn't care for it that much and don't have that much to say about it), so the first one that I will count towards the 13 is Neil Bissoondath's Innocence of Age.

In general, most of my reviews will contain minor spoilers, as I find it hard to write about books without going into key aspects of the plot.  And indeed, most books aren't that "spoiled" by knowing the outcome, but some are, particularly murder mysteries and thrillers.  For major spoilers, I will use the convention of SPOILERS AHEAD to warn readers sensitive to this.

I really wanted to like this book, which apparently a bit of a departure for Bissoondath, who up until this point had mostly written about Caribbean immigrants living in Canada.  There is indeed a postal worker of Caribbean origins, and we are introduced to his family, though the focus is more on a father and son, while of Greek origin are not as defined by the immigrant experience.  The setting is Toronto, in the early 80s, if I remember correctly.  There is a generational clash, with the father, who owns a run-down diner, representing the older, more working class aspects of Toronto, and the son, who works for a property developer, representing the glitzier aspects of New Toronto.  Curiously, the developer seems to make much of his profit from being a slumlord, rather than the condos he builds for Yuppies, and the son actually takes on the duties of collecting rent and dealing with maintenance woes.  I didn't think about it much at the time, but this is one place where Bissoondath starts over-egging the pudding and setting up some very improbable plot twists.  In general, one would not expect the same developers to be directly involved in both kinds of property management, and indeed, condo developers are notorious for building quickly, then washing their hands of new construction, rather than sticking around and dealing with the much more tedious aspects of property management.  A minor flaw, but a telling one.  In general Bissoondath is playing with the idea of the Dual City (a city for the rich and a city for the poor), and Toronto certainly fit the mold in that inequality increased substantially throughout the 1980s and 90s.  So that was really well done.  I also liked the father struggling with his conflicted feelings about his son -- and about slowing going through the grieving process for his wife.  He seemed to be opening up to the possibility of romance with a neighbor.  That had the makings of a really good novel, but Bissoondath just didn't think that was sufficient -- he had to add some action to spice things up.


So on top of all this (and the son struggling to decide about the path he had chosen), the mail carrier's daughter ends up becoming a school drop out and runaway from home -- and in almost no time at all, a prostitute in the local park (where she propositions the son).  The mail carrier loses it, starting to drink heavily and is put on administrative leave.  He finally catches his daughter and beats her (since this is the way things are done back home) and ultimately is shot and killed by the police (in fact by a rookie assigned to a wiser, more seasoned policeman who is a friend of the diner owner).  But then even this isn't enough.  The son learns that his boss is keeping an undocumented immigrant worker as a sex slave in an old apartment (that was the boss's first home).  The son tries to get the immigrant her passport to free her, but can't find it, and in a few days later, she kills his boss (and the investigation is run by the seasoned cop, of course).

So far too many strands coming together in unbelievable ways a la Crash.  And was it really necessary to be so overbearing about New Toronto = bad?  For those reasons, I simply don't think the last quarter of the book works that well, which is a shame, since it started with a lot of promise, which it sustained most of the way through the book.

This is review #1.  I have 9 more books toward the challenge already read but not reviewed.

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