Sunday, January 25, 2009

Questioning a Contradictory Review

In today's Toronto Star, there is a review that strikes me as rather contradictory by James Grainger of Lee Gowan's new novel Confession. The setting of the novel apparently moves back and forth between Toronto and the fictional town of Broken Head, Saskatchewan. On the one hand, Grainger criticizes the Toronto segments for reproducing stereotypes of urban Canada:

The Toronto scenes read like writing exercises for an Urban Alienation 101 course. Canada's biggest city is unwelcoming, smelly, a monoculture of empty consumerism and disconnected crowds – in other words, yet another in a long line of dismissive portraits of urban life brought to you courtesy of the Seriously Literary Canadian Novel.

But on the other, Grainger questions Gowan's portrayal of Saskatchewan for, at least in part, not sufficiently meshing with the stereotypes that he and fellow eastern Canadians hold of it:

The problem here is the novel's reliance on transplanted Southern Gothic literary conventions, none of which really takes root in the dry, cold countryside of Saskatchewan, where most of the novel takes place. Perhaps the Prairies are too freighted, at least for us Easterners, with associations of stoic farmers, grim Presbyterianism and the perpetual grind of hard work to stand in for the crime- and Jesus-haunted literary traditions of the American Pentecostal South.

Surely those associations of "stoic farmers, grim Presbyterianism and the perpetual grind of hard work" add up to no less dismissive a portrait of rural life and are just as much a product of the "Seriously Literary Canadian Novel" with which Grainger takes issue in the other passage that I quoted above? An odd move then to criticize the book for departing from them.

Myself, I'm intrigued by the prospect of a prairie gothic turn. With a foot firmly planted in both Saskatchewan (my childhood home) and Toronto (my current home), and as an admirer of Lee Gowan's previous work, I'm looking forward to reading Confession and arriving at my own assessment of his portrayals of both realms and, of course, of the novel as a whole.

6 comments:

Suko said...

Your own background and perspective will give you an advantage if you decide to review Confessions.

litlove said...

Silly reviewer! No, I don't think he can have it both ways.

Kerry said...

Thanks for pointing this out-- something to ponder.

Anonymous said...

Confession is well worth the read, Kate. I think JG cut down the trees not recognising the forest, to re-invent an adage. He forgot to review the book.

Lee said...

Hi Kate,
I completely agree with you. Thanks for saying it so that I don't have to. Did you read Philip Marchand's review in The Post? He compared the book to Flannery O'Connor's Wiseblood and thought it worked!
Best,
Lee

Melanie said...

"The problem here is the novel's reliance on transplanted Southern Gothic literary conventions, none of which really takes root in the dry, cold countryside of Saskatchewan, where most of the novel takes place"
Says who? Growing up in Sask I saw plenty that could be considered Prairie Gothic! I respect your comments as a fellow Saskatchewanian and current Ontarian; now I have to read this book.