Sunday, January 18, 2009

reading challenge #8

I took a chance on Marilyn Bowering's What It Takes to Be Human. Jay needed to increase his Indigo order to qualify for free shipping, and I never turn down an opportunity to pick a new book, so I did a quick Wikipedia search for female Canadian authors (which has been a very handy list for this challenge) and landed on Bowering.  I started reading the novel the day it arrived, and I spent two weeks happily turning pages before bed.

That being said, I'm at a loss when I consider reviewing it.  I enjoyed it, yes, but I haven't a clue what to say about it.  Definitely I appreciated the quick turn of events - just as I was being introduced to a young university student attempting to tell his family he wanted to enlist in WWII, suddenly the entire story switched to life inside a Vancouver Island asylum.  For much of the novel you wonder how the main character (the aforementioned university student), landed himself in such dire circumstances, but the sheer reality of asylum life is enough to fill in for this central mystery.  I found the hospital to be frightening, full of injustice and a blight on a civilized society.  I suppose it was this peek into a world so foreign and so irrational that kept me turning pages night after night.

As for the main character's backstory, when it finally emerges, it is quite heartbreaking and I was pleased that it wasn't sensational or predictable. Essentially a small series of events as a youth affects him as an adult and I found I could empathize with his actions, even though they were criminal. The leap was logical and connected all the pieces together. 

Hmm, I guess I could find a couple of things to say after all.  Bowering is a compelling storyteller, and I would certainly look into her other work.  Usually I dog-ear numerous pages that have phrases I like, but interestingly, this time there was just one.  In a sea of asylum life, perhaps this short thought was a romantic break from the story.  When I read it I simply stopped.  Looking now, maybe it's a bit obvious, but it was a lovely moment at the time.  

"Her eyes are steady headlamps.  I blink in their brightness."

And the knitting comparison: The setting of Canada during WWII, and the war efforts that the asylum participated in, brings to mind a particular pattern book, Knitting For Peace.  Knitting for a cause can be wonderfully rewarding, and I hope I can manage to do this someday (I'm especially inspired by Beryl Tsang's Tit-Bits and wish I had known about them when Margie, my dearly missed Mother-in-Law, was dealing with her breast cancer).  I did knit Jay a pair of socks for Christmas from the Knitting for Peace book, using the Peace Fleece Classic Wool Socks pattern.  I imagine socks for soldiers was part of the effort in the novel's time, and so it feels like a perfectly fitting comparison.