Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

After The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay, I needed to read something a little lighter in subject matter and stumbled across The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt.  It is the story of two brothers, Charlie and Eli Sisters, who are hired guns for a mysterious man called The Commodore. As such, they are given the task of hunting down a man named Herman Kermit Warm, who allegedly stole something from The Commodore.  In order to find this man, they are to rendezvous with an associate named Mr. Morris in San Francisco. 

Without giving away the action or revealing the plot, let's just say that things do not go as planned and the two brothers run into unforeseen obstacles. There also exists tension between Eli and Charlie, as Charlie is motivated to pursue more work for The Commodore and harbours ambitions of one day becoming a boss himself.  Eli, however, sees the work as a means to an end, and would like nothing more than to settle down and become a shopkeeper.  The brothers' story is told in the same framework as epic tales like The Odyssey and also has a bit of a Quentin Tarantino quality to it, with its unapologetic violence and dark sense of humour. There are many comic moments scattered throughout the story and they make light of what could be very dramatic showdowns.  DeWitt also refrains from adding a lot of unnecessary historical details which take the focus away from the story, and are ultimately forgotten by the reader.

I think that there are so many works of fiction which are focused on dark subject matter that it is refreshing to find a well-written book that features humour so prominently. Sometimes I believe that authors run out of creative ways to tell a story and instead wish to engage their audience by writing plots of unrelenting tragedy.  The Sisters Brothers shows how a well-crafted comedic novel can garner critical acclaim while providing a unique reading experience.      

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay

I had a break-in in my house late last year, and the thief (among other things) stole all of my customer membership cards and my library card.  I recently replaced my library card and got a little carried away with borrowing books, as I tend to do when I haven't graced the stacks in a long time.

One of the books that I borrowed was The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay, a much anticipated work following the success of her previous novel, The Birth House. For those not familiar with The Birth House, it is a work revolving around a midwife who is practising in a small Nova Scotia town around the time where more clinical obstetrics are being introduced. This clash between the modern and the more traditional, holistic approach is the main storyline of The Birth House. Normally I wouldn't have even mentioned the author's prior work, but in this case I made an exception, due to the fact that gynaecological medicine features prominently in The Virgin Cure as well. It is set in 1870's New York where the protagonist, Moth, is a twelve year old girl who considers prostitution to be an inevitable consequence of the poverty that she faces. 

When Moth is recruited by a madam, she comes in contact with a physician called Dr. Sadie who provides confirmation of virginity to pimps and madams and treats the women of the sex industry who have fallen prey to disease.  Dr. Sadie makes many attempts to dissuade Moth from going down the same path as many of her patients and offers a number of times to rescue her, but Moth is steadfast in her desire to become a prostitute. Moth views selling her body as the only way for her to gain true independence and material wealth and is naive about the physical and psychological effects this decision may have on her. I felt put off by Moth stubbornness and unwillingness to accept Dr. Sadie's perfectly decent offers to provide her with a home, education and safety from a cruel industry. As I was reading The Virgin Cure, it became increasingly difficult for me to relate to any of the characters, though the storyline was compelling. 

I would like to take a moment to discuss the ending of the book, while doing my best not to spoil it.  During Canada Reads 2013, Charlotte Gray made a very valid point about how when she is a judge for literary awards, she likes to analyse the ending of a book, because there is often a feeling that a writer is just trying to wrap things up and is at a loss as to how to go about it.  Ever since I heard her say it, Charlotte Gray's opinion on epilogues has stuck in my brain and changed the way that I view novels as they draw to an end. It's like those television shows that try to convey drama by having characters give each other meaningful looks to the soundtrack of a OneRepublic song. I believe that The Virgin Cure suffers from this problem in a way that really clouds my opinion of the quality of the novel overall.  Maybe it is just a preference that I have for novels that end suddenly without a tidy bow summarizing what happens to all of the key characters.  

Though Ami McKay is a talented writer, The Virgin Cure is not the work that best highlights her skills, but I look forward to seeing what she will produce in future.