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Canadians on the Dublin 2020 Longlist

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Congratulations to the authors whose works have been recognized on the 2020 International DUBLIN Literary Award longest, nominated by librarians all around the world.
Warlight

Warlight

A novel
edition:Hardcover
also available: Audiobook (CD) Paperback

From the internationally acclaimed, bestselling author of The English Patient: a mesmerizing new novel that tells a dramatic story set in the decade after World War II through the lives of a small group of unexpected characters and two teenagers whose lives are indelibly shaped by their unwitting involvement.

In a narrative as beguiling and mysterious as memory itself--shadowed and luminous at once--we read the story of fourteen-year-old Nathaniel, and his older sister, Rachel. In 1945, just afte …

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Excerpt

In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals. We were living on a street in London called Ruvigny Gardens, and one morning either our mother or our father suggested that after breakfast the family have a talk, and they told us that they would be leaving us and going to Singapore for a year. Not too long, they said, but it would not be a brief trip either. We would of course be well cared for in their absence. I remember our father was sitting on one of those uncomfortable iron garden chairs as he broke the news, while our mother, in a summer dress just behind his shoulder, watched how we responded. After a while she took my sister Rachel’s hand and held it against her waist, as if she could give it warmth.

Neither Rachel nor I said a word. We stared at our father, who was expanding on the details of their flight on the new Avro Tudor I, a descendant of the Lancaster bomber, which could cruise at more than three hundred miles an hour. They would have to land and change planes at least twice before arriving at their destination. He explained he had been promoted to take over the Unilever office in Asia, a step up in his career. It would be good for us all. He spoke seriously and our mother turned away at some point to look at her August garden. After my father had finished talking, seeing that I was confused, she came over to me and ran her fingers like a comb through my hair.

I was fourteen at the time, and Rachel nearly sixteen, and they told us we would be looked after in the holidays by a guardian, as our mother called him. They referred to him as a colleague. We had already met him—we used to call him “The Moth,” a name we had invented. Ours was a family with a habit for nicknames, which meant it was also a family of dis- guises. Rachel had already told me she suspected he worked as a criminal.

The arrangement appeared strange, but life still was hap- hazard and confusing during that period after the war; so what had been suggested did not feel unusual. We accepted the decision, as children do, and The Moth, who had recently become our third-floor lodger, a humble man, large but moth-like in his shy movements, was to be the solution. Our parents must have assumed he was reliable. As to whether The Moth’s criminality was evident to them, we were not sure.
I suppose there had once been an attempt to make us a tightly knit family. Now and then my father let me accompany him to the Unilever offices, which were deserted during weekends and bank holidays, and while he was busy I’d wander through what seemed an abandoned world on the twelfth floor of the building. I discovered all the office drawers were locked. There was nothing in the wastepaper baskets, no pictures on the walls, although one wall in his office held a large relief map depicting the company’s foreign locations: Mombasa, the Cocos Islands, Indonesia. And nearer to home, Trieste, Heliopolis, Benghazi, Alexandria, cities that cordoned off the Mediterranean, locations I assumed were under my father’s authority. Here was where they booked holds on the hundreds of ships that travelled back and forth to the East. The lights on the map that identified those cities and ports were unlit during the weekends, in darkness much like those far outposts.

At the last moment it was decided our mother would remain behind for the final weeks of the summer to oversee the arrangements for the lodger’s care over us, and ready us for our new boarding schools. On the Saturday before he flew alone towards that distant world, I accompanied my father once more to the office near Curzon Street. He had suggested a long walk, since, he said, for the next few days his body would be humbled on a plane. So we caught a bus to the Natural His- tory Museum, then walked up through Hyde Park into May- fair. He was unusually eager and cheerful, singing the lines Homespun collars, homespun hearts, Wear to rags in foreign parts, repeating them again and again, almost jauntily, as if this was an essential rule. What did it mean? I wondered. I remember we needed several keys to get into the building where the office he worked in took up that whole top floor. I stood in front of the large map, still unlit, memorizing the cities that he would fly over during the next few nights. Even then I loved maps. He came up behind me and switched on the lights so the mountains on the relief map cast shadows, though now it was not the lights I noticed so much as the harbours lit up in pale blue, as well as the great stretches of unlit earth. It was no longer a fully revealed perspective, and I suspect that Rachel and I must have watched our parents’ marriage with a similar flawed awareness. They had rarely spoken to us about their lives. We were used to partial stories. Our father had been involved in the last stages of the earlier war, and I don’t think he felt he really belonged to us.

As for their departure, it was accepted that she had to go with him: there was no way, we thought, that she could exist apart from him—she was his wife. There would be less calamity, less collapse of the family if we were left behind as opposed to her remaining in Ruvigny Gardens to look after us. And as they explained, we could not suddenly leave the schools into which we had been admitted with so much difficulty. Before his departure we all embraced our father in a huddle, The Moth having tactfully disappeared for the weekend.
 
So we began a new life.

***

The Moth, our third-floor lodger, was absent from the house most of the time, though sometimes he arrived early enough to be there for dinner. He was encouraged now to join us, and only after much waving of his arms in unconvincing protest would he sit down and eat at our table. Most evenings, however, The Moth strolled over to Bigg’s Row to buy a meal. Much of the area had been destroyed during the Blitz, and a few street barrows were temporarily installed there. We were always conscious of his tentative presence, of his alighting here and there. We were never sure if this manner of his was shyness or listlessness. That would change, of course. Sometimes from my bedroom window I’d notice him talking quietly with our mother in the dark garden, or I would find him having tea with her. Before school started she spent quite a bit of time persuading him to tutor me in mathematics, a subject I had consistently failed at school, and would in fact continue to fail again long after The Moth stopped trying to teach me. During those early days the only complexity I saw in our guardian was in the almost three-dimensional drawings he created in order to allow me to go below the surface of a geometry theorem.

If the subject of the war arose, my sister and I attempted to coax a few stories from him about what he had done and where. It was a time of true and false recollections, and Rachel and I were curious. The Moth and my mother referred to people they both were familiar with from those days. It was clear she knew him before he had come to live with us, but his involvement with the war was a surprise, for The Moth was never “war-like” in demeanour. His presence in our house was usually signalled by quiet piano music coming from his radio, and his current profession appeared linked to an organization involving ledgers and salaries. Still, after a few promptings we learned that both of them had worked as “fire watchers” in what they called the Bird’s Nest, located on the roof of the Grosvenor House Hotel. We sat in our pyjamas drinking Horlicks as they reminisced. An anecdote would break the surface, then disappear. One evening, soon before we had to leave for our new schools, my mother was ironing our shirts in a corner of the living room, and The Moth was standing hesitant at the foot of the stairs, about to leave, as if only partially in our company. But then, instead of leaving, he spoke of our mother’s skill during a night drive, when she had delivered men down to the coast through the darkness of the curfew to something called “the Berkshire Unit,” when all that kept her awake “were a few squares of chocolate and cold air from the open windows.” As he continued speaking, my mother listened so carefully to what he described that she held the iron with her right hand in midair so it wouldn’t rest on and burn a collar, giving herself fully to his shadowed story.

I should have known then.

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The Boat People

The Boat People

edition:Paperback

By the winner of The Journey Prize, and inspired by a real incident, The Boat People is a gripping and morally complex novel about a group of refugees who survive a perilous ocean voyage to reach Canada – only to face the threat of deportation and accusations of terrorism in their new land.
 
When the rusty cargo ship carrying Mahindan and five hundred fellow refugees reaches the shores of British Columbia, the young father is overcome with relief: he and his six-year-old son can finally put …

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Excerpt

 
Beginning
July 2009
 
Mahindan was flat on his back when the screaming began, one arm right-angled over his eyes. He heard the whistle and thud of falling artillery, the cries of the dying. Mortar shells and rockets, the whole world on fire.
     Then another sound. It cut through the clamour so that for a drawn-out second there was nothing else, only him and his son and the bomb that arched through the sky with a shrill banshee scream, spinning nose aimed straight for them. Mahindan fought to open his eyes. His limbs were pinned down and heavy. He struggled to move, to call out in terror, to clamber and run. The ground rumbled. The shell exploded, shards of hot metal spitting in its wake. The tent was rent in half. Mahindan jolted awake.
     Heart like a sledgehammer, he sat up frantic, blinking into the darkness. He heard someone panting and long seconds later realized it was him. The echoing whine of flying shrapnel faded and he returned to the present, to the coir mat under him, back to the hold of the ship.
     There were snores and snuffles, the small nocturnal noises of five hundred slumbering bodies. Beneath him, the engine’s monotonous whir. He reached out, instinctive, felt his son Sellian curled up beside him, then lay down again. The back of his neck was damp.
     His pulse still raced. He smelled the sourness of his skin, the raw animal stink of the bodies all around. The man on the next mat slept with his mouth open. His snore was a revving motorcycle, so close Mahindan could almost feel the warm exhales.
     He put his hand against Sellian’s back, felt it move up and down. Gradually, his own breathing slowed to the same rhythm. He ran a hand through his son’s hair, fine and silky, the soft strands of a child, then stroked his arm, felt the roughness of his skin, the long, thin scratches, the scabbed-over insect bites. Sellian was slight. Six years old and barely three feet tall. How little space the child occupied, coiled into himself, his thumb in his mouth. How precarious his existence, how miraculous his survival.
     Mahindan’s vision adjusted and shapes emerged out of the gloom. The thin rails on either side of the ladder. Lamps strung up along an electrical cord. Outside the porthole window, it was still pitch-black.
     Careful not to wake Sellian, he stood and gingerly made his way across the width of the ship toward the ladder, stepping between bodies huddled on thin mats and ducking under sleepers swaying overhead, cocooned in rope hammocks. It was hot and close, the atmosphere suffocating.
     Hema’s thick plait trailed out on the dirty floor. Mahindan stooped to pick it up and laid it gently on her back as he passed by. Her two daughters shared the mat beside her; they lay on their sides facing each other, knees and foreheads touching. A few feet on, he passed the man with the amputated leg and averted his gaze.
     During the day the ship was rowdy with voices, but now he heard only the slap of the electrical cord against the wall, everyone breathing in and out, recycling the same stale, diesel-scented air.
     A boy cried out in his sleep, caught in a nightmare, and when Mahindan turned toward the sound, he saw Kumuran’s wife comfort her son. With both hands grasping the banisters, Mahindan hoisted himself up the ladder. Emerging onto the deck, inhaling the fresh scent of salt and sea, he felt immediately lighter. From overhead, the mast creaked and he gazed up to see the stars, the half-appam moon glowing alive in the sky. At the thought of appam – doughy, hot off the fire – his stomach gave a plaintive, hollow grumble.
     It was dark, but he knew his way around the ship. A dozen plastic buckets were lined up along the stern. He squatted in front of one and formed his hands into a bowl. The water was tepid, murky with twigs and bits of seaweed. He splashed water on his face and the back of his neck, feeling the grit scratch his skin.
     The boat – a sixty-metre freighter, past its prime and jerry-rigged for five hundred passengers – was cruising through calm waters, groaning under the weight of too much human cargo. Mahindan held on to the railing, rubbing a thumb against the blistered rust.
     A few others were out, shadowy figures keeping silent vigil on both levels of the deck. They had been at sea for weeks or months, sunrises blurring into sunsets. Days spent on deck, tarps draped overhead to block out the sun, and the floor burning beneath them. Stormy nights when the ship would lurch and reel, Sellian cradled in Mahindan’s lap, their stomachs tumbling with the pitch and yaw of the angry ocean.
     But the captain had said they were close and for days they had been expecting land, a man posted at all times in the crow’s nest.
     Mahindan turned his back to the railing and slid down to sit on the deck. Exhaustion whenever he thought of the future; terror when he remembered the past. He yawned and pressed a cheek to raised knees, then tucked his arms in for warmth. At least here on the boat they were safe from attack. Ruksala, Prem, Chithra’s mother and father. The roll call of the dead lulled him to sleep.
——
He awoke to commotion and gull shrieks. A boy ran down the length of the ship calling for his father. Appa! Appa! There were more people on the deck now, all of them speaking in loud, excited voices.
     The man they called Ranga stood at the railing beside him, staring out. Mahindan was dismayed to see him.
     Land is close, Ranga said.
     Mahindan scanned the straight line of the ocean, trying not to blink. Nearby, a young man stood on the rail and levered his body half out of the boat. An older woman called out: Take care!
     After all this time, finally we have arrived, Ranga said. He grinned at Mahindan and added: Because of you only, I am here.
     Nothing to do with me, Mahindan said. We all took our own chance.
     Mahindan kept his gaze fixed on the horizon. At first he saw the head of a pin, far in the distance, but as he kept watching, the vision emerged. Purple-brown land and blue mountains like ghosts rising in the background. The newspaperman came to join them as the slope of a forest appeared. Mahindan had spoken to him a few times but could not recall his name. Someone said he had been working for a paper in Colombo before he fled.
     We will be intercepted, the newspaperman said. Americans or Canadians, who will catch us first?
     Catch us? Ranga repeated, his voice rising to a squeak.
     But now there were people streaming onto the deck, squeezing in for a view at the railing, and the newspaperman was jostled away. Mahindan edged aside too, relieved to put distance between himself and Ranga.
     There were voices and bodies everywhere. Women plaited their hair over one shoulder. Men pulled their arms through their T-shirts. Most were barefoot. People pressed up around him. The boat creaked and Mahindan felt it list, as everyone crowded in. They stood shoulder to shoulder, people on both levels of the deck, hushing one another, children holding their breath. The trees, the mountains, the strip of beach they could now make out up ahead, it all seemed impossibly big, unreal after days and nights of nothing but sea and sky and the rumbling of the ship. Nightmares of rusted steel finally giving way, belching them all into the ocean.
     Sellian appeared, squeezing himself between legs, one fist against his eyes. Appa, you left me!
     How to leave? Mahindan said. Did you think I jumped in the ocean? He picked his son up in the crook of one arm and pointed. Look! We’re here.
     The clouds burned orange. Mahindan squinted. People shouted and pointed. Look!
     There was a tugboat in the water and a larger ship, its long nose turned up, speeding toward them, sleek and fast, with a tall white flagpole. The wind unfurled the flag, red and white, majestic in the flaming sky. They saw the leaf and a great resounding cheer shook the boat.
     The captain cut the engine and they floated placid. Overhead, there was a chopping sound. Mahindan saw a helicopter, its blades slicing the sky, a red leaf painted on its belly. There were three boats now, all of them circling the ship, a welcome party. On the deck, people waved with both hands. The red-and-white flag snapped definitive.
     Mahindan gripped his son. Sellian shivered in his arms, from fear, from exhilaration, he couldn’t tell. Soon Mahindan was shaking too, armpits dampening. His teeth clattered.
     Their new life. It was just beginning.

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The Saturday Night Ghost Club

The Saturday Night Ghost Club

A Novel
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback

SHORTLISTED FOR THE ROGERS WRITERS' TRUST FICTION PRIZE: An infectious and heartbreaking novel from "one of this country's great kinetic writers" (Globe and Mail)--Craig Davidson's first new literary fiction since his bestselling, Giller-shortlisted Cataract City

When neurosurgeon Jake Baker operates, he knows he's handling more than a patient's delicate brain tissue--he's altering their seat of consciousness, their golden vault of memory. And memory, Jake knows well, can be a tricky thing.

When g …

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As a boy, I believed in monsters.

I was convinced that if I said “Bloody Mary” in front of a mirror, a hideous witch-woman would reach through the glass with nails sharp as splinters. I considered it a fact that the Devil lingered at shad­owy crossroads and went to dance halls in disguise, where he’d ask the prettiest girl to dance and reel her across the floor while spectators stood terror-stricken at the sight of the Devil’s goatish shanks, until the girl fainted dead away and the Unclean One vanished in a puff of brimstone.

There was no falsehood I wouldn’t swallow, no quilt of lies you couldn’t drape over my all-too-gullible shoulders. But for a boy like me—chubby, freckled, awkward; growing up in a city where the erection of a new Kmart occasioned our mayor to announce, “This marks a wondrous new chapter in our town’s history”—imagination was my greatest asset. Not to mention my defence against a foe worse than the most fearsome monster: loneliness.

My ally against that foe was my uncle Calvin. If I told him there was a bottomless pit in my basement, he’d say, “Tell me, Jake, is the air denser around the mouth of the pit than in other areas of the basement?” Cocking an eyebrow: “Do ominous growling sounds emanate from this pit of yours?”

Uncle C was the ideal nursemaid for my paranoid fantasies. His knowledge of urban legends and folk­lore was encyclopedic—with the added bonus that he seemed to consider most of it true.
“Hey,” he’d say, “did you know there are crocodiles living in the sewers of our fair city? The poor suckers get smuggled up from Florida by dumb tourists. Sure, they’re cute as a bug’s ear when they’re six inches long.

But when they grow up and get nippy? Ba-whooosh, down the porcelain mistake eraser. They get fat ’n’ sassy down there in the pipes, where there’s plenty to eat if you’re not choosy. Every year a couple of sanita­tion department workers get gobbled up by sewer crocs. The press bottles it up, unscrupulous snakes that they are, but it’s a fact you can set your watch to.”

Uncle C would fiddle with the beads of his brace­let—each an ornate pewter Cthulhu head, mouths and eye sockets sprouting tentacles—and offer a wistful sigh. “And that, Jake, is why owning a pet is a big responsibility.”

Once, when I was six or seven, I became convinced a monster lived in my closet. I told my dad, who did what 99 percent of adults do when their child makes this claim: he flung my closet door open, rattled coat hangers and shoved shoeboxes aside, making a Broadway production of it. “See? No monsters, Jake.”

But monsters make themselves scarce when adults are around, only to slither back after dark. Every kid knew this to be an unshakable fact.

Uncle C arrived for dinner that night, as usual— Mom invited him every Sunday. He got an inkling of my worry as I sat picking at my Salisbury steak.

“What’s the matter, hombre?”

“We have an unwanted visitor in a closet, appar­ently,” Mom informed him.

“But we’ve established that there’s no monster,” my father said. “Right, buddy?”

“Ah,” said Uncle C. “I have some expertise in this area. Sam, with your permission?”

Mom turned to my father and said, “Sam,” in the tone of voice you’d use to calm a jittery horse.

“Of course, Cal, as you like,” my father said.

My uncle pedalled home to his house, returning ten minutes later with a tool box. Once we were in my bed­room he motioned to the closet. “I take it this is its lair?”

I nodded.

“Closets are a favourite haunt of monsters,” my uncle explained. “Most are harmless, even good-tempered, if they have enough dust bunnies and cob­webs to eat. Do you clean your closet?”

I assured him that it was hardly ever tidied unless my mother forced the chore on me.

“Good, let them feast. If they get too hungry they’ll crawl over to your clothes hamper and eat holes in your underwear. No need to check the seat of your drawers for confirmation, as I can see by your expres­sion that yours have indeed met this cruel fate.”

Calvin cracked the tool box and pulled out an instru­ment—one that today I’d recognize as a stud finder.

“It’s a monster tracer,” he said, running it over the closet walls, making exploratory taps with his knuckles. “There are token traces of ectoplasm,” he said in the voice of a veteran contractor.

“Monster slime, in layman’s terms. What does this monster look like?”

“Hairy in some parts, slimy in others.”

“What’s its shape? Like a snake, or a blob?”

“A blob. But it can stretch, too, so it can look like a snake if it wants.”

“We’re dealing with a hairy, slimy blob with uncanny stretching capacities.” He gripped his chin.

“Sounds like a Slurper Slug. They’re common around these parts.”

“A slug?”

“Correct, but we’re not talking your garden-variety slug.” He laughed—actually, he exclaimed ha-ha.

“A little paranormal humour for you, Jake my boy. These peculiar and particularly gross slugs infest closets and crawl spaces. You haven’t been keeping anything tasty in your closet, have you?”

“That’s where I put my Halloween candy.”

“Slurper Slug, then, guaranteed. They’re not dan­gerous, just revolting. They could make a mortician barf his biscuits. If you let one hang around he’ll call his buddies and before long you’ve got an infestation on your hands.”

He rooted through his tool box for a pouch of fine red powder. “This is cochineal, made from the crushed shells of beetles. It’s used in containment spells.”

He laid down a line of powder in the shape of a keyhole 

“This,” he said, pointing to the circle, “is the trap. The Slurper Slug will traipse up this path, see, which gets narrower and narrower until the Slug gets stuck in the Circle of No Return. There it will turn black as night and hard as rock. Now, you’ll have to pull one hair out of your head to bait the slug trap.”

I plucked a single strand, which my uncle laid softly in the trap.

“Go ask your mom if she has any chocolate chips.”

I went down to the kitchen to find my folks engaged in a hushed conversation. My father’s shoulders were vibrating like twin tuning forks.

“Chocolate chips, huh?” Mom said in a Susie- Cheerleader voice. “I’ve only got butterscotch.”
By the time I got back, the closet was shut. My uncle instructed me to lay a trail of butterscotch chips along the door.

“The sweetness will draw that Slug out of hiding. Now listen, Jake, and listen carefully. If you peek inside the closet, the spell will be broken. Under no circumstances can it be opened until tomorrow morn­ing. No matter the sounds you may hear dribbling through this door, you must leave it closed. Do you swear this to me?”

“Yes, I promise.”

“By the Oath of the White Mage, do you swear it?”

When I admitted I didn’t know that oath, he stuck out his little finger. “The pinkie variety will suffice.”

I linked my finger with his and squeezed.

“Cross your heart and hope to die?”

“Stick a needle in my eye,” I said solemnly.

I awoke to sunlight streaming through the window. I crept to the closet and opened it. Just as Uncle C had said, the keyhole was now only a circle and in the middle sat an object that was dark as night and hard as rock.

My uncle was taking off his boots in the front hall when I stormed downstairs.

“The trap worked!” I told him, dragging him up the stairs to show him the blackened slug.

“Pick it up,” he said. “It may still be a little warm but it won’t burn you.”

Queasy warmth pulsed off the slug, or so it felt to me.

“It’s not every day that you can hold a monster in your palm, is it, Jake?”

That lump of obsidian would rest on my nightstand for years. Then one day I noticed it sitting between my Junior Sleuths magnifying glass and a dog-eared reissue of Stephen King’s Carrie, the one with the art deco cover. Opening the drawer, I swept the volcanic rock inside, embarrassed that I’d once been fear-struck by anything so infantile as a snot-ball slug in my closet. . . .

An hour later I took it out and put it back where it belonged.

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Washington Black

Washington Black

A Novel
edition:Hardcover
tagged : literary

Winner of the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize

A dazzling, original novel of slavery and freedom, from the author of the international bestseller Half-Blood Blues

When two English brothers arrive at a Barbados sugar plantation, they bring with them a darkness beyond what the slaves have already known. Washington Black – an eleven year-old field slave – is horrified to find himself chosen to live in the quarters of one of these men. But the man is not as Washington expects him to be. His new master …

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Catching the Light

Catching the Light

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook

This was the line between here and there. No landwash, no vague intertidal zone, no undecided. She stood at the edge, a mass of instincts and yearnings and despair, while the dawn painted itself in around her, shade by delicate shade.

The kids call her Lighthouse: no lights on up there. In a small town, everyone knows when you can't read. But Cathy is just distracted by the light, lines, and artistry of everyday life. She is a talented artist growing up in tiny Mariners Cove and yearns for accep …

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The Red Word

The Red Word

A Novel
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
tagged : literary

Winner of the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction

The battle of the sexes goes to college in this nervy debut adult novel by a powerful new voice

A smart, dark, and take-no-prisoners look at rape culture and the extremes to which ideology can go The Red Word is a campus novel like no other. As her sophomore year begins, Karen enters into the back-to-school revelry — particularly at Gamma Beta Chi. When she wakes up one morning on the lawn of Raghurst, a house of radical feminists, …

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Excerpt

BOOK ONE: Strophe / (Circling)

 

1. invocatio / (calling on the muse)

 

Sing, O Goddess, of the fury of Dyann Brooks-Morriss, teller of unbearable truths. O sing of the rage that kindled one young woman’s heart and the next until it drove us together from our homes, battlethirsty, into the secret places of the enemy. Sing how the young men scattered and fled as before the thunderbolt that lashes the sky. The storm is not appeased until the green leaves are torn from the trees, until even the great pines are uprooted from the mountainsides and lie down for the shipwright’s axe. It does not stop until bodies are rent and scattered as easymeat for curs and crows.

I receive two bits of news less than thirty minutes apart:

It is eleven-thirty in the morning, September 20, 2010. Here on the eighteenth story the sun trampolines off Lake Ontario and strikes both the floor and ceiling. I’ve just made my breakfast, squinting against the glare on the kettle, and I am back at my desk in the bedroom with the blackout drapes pulled tight. I am pretending to work, but the image I’ve got open in Photoshop on my monitor screens is not for work. It’s an arrangement of hydrangea and coneflower in a tarnished silver vase. They are two images, in fact, shot at two slightly different exposures. I am toggling back and forth, fiddling with saturation levels, when the first news arrives. It’s an email message from Annabeth Lise with the subject line Karen I am so so sorry. Her nanny’s mother has died in the Philippines.

I scroll through three quarters of Annabeth’s frantic, rambling message before I grasp her point. Her point is the International Conference on Lifestyle Photography, three days away: She is so, so sorry but there is just no way she can swing it; I will have to give our “Domestic Dreams” presentation on my own; she could send me what she’s written so far but it’s so rough at this stage; I’m so good on my feet that she knows it’ll go great; the photos are the best part of these things anyway, right? Annabeth really is so sorry.

She owes me big-time, she says.

I delete the message and stumble out of the bedroom. Sun-blinded, heart racing, I pace a few lengths of the kitchen and living/dining room. I have never been to a conference before. I’m fairly sure I made that clear to Annabeth when she asked me to go with her. I am no writer, certainly not a public speaker. All I was supposed to do was cue the slideshow.

If all this blood is your blood you’ll be dead soon. If not not. This is what runs through my mind when Jen Swinburn calls me — twenty-four minutes later — to give me the second piece of news: that Stephanie McNamara has passed away. As I sit there on the phone at my desk in my office in my apartment in Toronto, with my feet in slippers and with the taste of cheddar-on-toast on my tongue, I do not think of poor Steph at all but of myself. If all this blood — it’s a memory.

I look up and, on the heels of the memory, I spot the detail I’ve been searching for in the twin images on my screens. An overripe melon lies next to the tarnished vase, its seeds sliding onto the tabletop. The tabletop itself is scarred like a butcher’s block, and there is a divot at the spot where the seeds are oozing against the wood. The light meets the slime and slows down, bends, pools. A tiny wrinkle in the visual plane.

On the phone Jen says she had access to my phone number because she’s on the Alumni Relations Board. We small-talk a bit: I say I enjoyed that piece she wrote a few years ago for the alumni magazine about journalism after 9/11. She says she saw my byline in Covet My Home while on a cruise with her in-laws and couldn’t help googling, and “who would have thought a militant anarcha-feminist like yourself would end up employed in the Martha Stewart sector, ha ha.”

And then she tells me about Steph. She received the notice at the alumni office. “I remembered you two were close, but I didn’t know if you’d still be in touch,” she says. “It’s just not the kind of thing you’d want to read in the back of an alumni bulletin.”

“Are you calling anyone else?” I ask. It isn’t quite the right question. It sounds like I think Jen has been nosy or presumptuous. I try to fix it: “I mean, in case you need updated contact info for anyone.” Not that I would have updated contact information for anyone. I was one of the first to leave — back home to Canada even before my student visa expired — and fifteen years later everyone else is more or less scattered across the United States.

“Just a small list,” she says. “It’s not normally our role.”

“Thank you for calling, Jen. I appreciate it.”

A quick search reveals there is to be a campus memorial service for Dr. Stephanie McNamara this coming Friday. It’s the day after the panel presentation, in the very same US city as the photography conference. I know that Steph teaches — that Steph taught — in the Women’s Studies Department in that city, but I haven’t thought of her through my travel preparations. I haven’t thought of Stephanie McNamara, period, in years. The coincidence seems important in a spooky, literary way, like tragic destiny. Her college isn’t far at all from the Ivy League school where, in 1995–96, my sophomore year, Steph and I and three other girls were housemates.

If all this blood is your blood you’ll be dead soon. If not not. Everyone knows the trouble with myth. The trouble with myth is the way it shirks blame. It makes violent death as unavoidable as weather. All that tragic destiny lets everyone off the hook. Some bored god comes kicking up gravel and, just like that, a noble house explodes into carnage.

But then, I photograph interiors for a living. Myth is what I do. I mythologize.

O soulwithered Stephanie, keeper of all our sorrows. You tried again to open your eyes to the dark and this time it must have worked.

 

2. exordium / (urging forward, introduction)

 

I squinted up at a shadow blocking out the sun. A man was standing over me. He wore faded jeans and a huge oval belt buckle etched with a triple X. I lifted my elbow to my brow and the man became a woman, a girl my age. If I’d learned anything last year at college, I’d learned that just because someone was wearing a military crew cut and a white T-shirt tight across her flat chest and had a pack of cigarettes folded into the sleeve of the T-shirt like James Dean, it didn’t mean you went and assumed she was male. Some of my education seemed to have worn off over the summer.

“Are you okay?” the girl asked.

I turned my cheek to the grass in an effort to mute the stereophonic whine of cicadas and grasshoppers. I was lying in somebody’s backyard. Gray fencing teetered overhead, but the only shade on me fell from the massive, hairy leaves of some kind of vine I was curled beside. Slug trails dazzled the undersides. “What is this plant?” I asked.

“Um, pumpkin,” the girl said. “Last year, after Samhain, we couldn’t fit all our jack-o’-lanterns into the composter, so we dug a big hole back here and buried them.”

“Samhain?” My voice cactused my throat.

“Halloween. Look, are you okay? What happened to you?” she asked.

“I had sex with somebody,” I said. The uprush of memory, and the shock that I’d spoken it aloud, made me retch a little. I rolled over and sat up in the grass.

“You had sex with somebody,” she echoed. “On purpose?”

I waggled my head side to side, testing my headache. The yard kept swinging when I stopped moving. “There was a frat party,” I explained.

It came back to me now with another lurch why I’d walked all the way from the fraternity house to this particular spot, early this morning before I’d passed out. “Oh,” I said. “Oh, damn. Is this 61 Fulton Ave?”

“Yes. Well, at the moment we’re standing in 63,” she said. “Our backyards are connected.”

I looked around. There was a line where the neat lawn became a jungle, and this was the jungle side. “I came about your ad for a roommate,” I said.

The girl crouched beside me, barefoot in the grass. She held a mug of coffee and a lit cigarette. She offered them both, reaching out one hand at a time and pulling it back to indicate she’d make either substance disappear if it proved offensive to my hangover.

“Thanks.” I took a sip of the coffee, heavily sugared, and then a drag from her cigarette. I brushed at the ants crawling over my bare legs.

The girl was a few years older than me, I guessed, maybe twenty-three or twenty-four. “You’re a little early for the room thing,” she said. “Some of us have class this morning. Didn’t whoever you spoke to tell you that on the phone?”

I held out my hands to show the girl my dirt-ringed fingernails. “Well, I wanted to make a good first impression, you know?” I laughed, but misery poked its black fingers all through the laughter. I was making it worse. I was making her feel sorry for me. “Look, let’s just pretend I was never here.” I heaved myself to my feet — if I didn’t notice then maybe she wouldn’t either, how my knees and shins were smeared with green, how I must have been crawling on all fours that morning by the time I reached the back fence.

This would have been a good place to live, too. The roommate-wanted ad had stood out from the others at the Student Housing Office, where I’d been browsing yesterday for an alternative to my on-campus housing placement. The ad was much wordier, for one thing. Committed feminists only, it read. Vegetarian/vegan/macrobiotic meal-sharing, and Queer-friendliness a must. That last phrase had stuck in my head because I wasn’t sure exactly what it was supposed to mean. “Queer” was a slur against gays, I’d always thought. An insult, not something friendly. It was something the rednecks in northern Ontario were fond of shouting at tree planters on our days off, when we dressed up in thrift-store tuxes and dresses to go dancing at the Valhalla Hotel bar. Buncha queers.

The contact name on the ad had stood out for me too: Dyann Brooks-Morriss. Dyann had been one of the only sophomores in my freshman Great Writers class last year. I was impressed by her vocabulary and the boldness with which she would interrupt the professor with questions about things like “patriarchal assumptions” and “ideological blind spots.” I came home once after hearing Dyann speak up in class and looked up “hegemony” in my dictionary. Dyann sat in the front, and I was in the back, so I’d never really had a look at her up close.

I wobbled across the lawn behind the girl. “Hey. Give my apologies to your next-door neighbors too, okay?” I said.

Her smoke huffed out in a laugh. “If they noticed, which I’m sure they did not, I don’t think they’d mind. Look, why don’t you come in for a coffee.”

“That’s okay.”

“Please, come on in for a minute. I’m Steph, by the way.” She steered me to the deck on the tidier side of the yard, where the patio doors stood open. “This is Marie-Jeanne” — she pointed at a blond girl peeling an egg at the table, and the girl gave me a quizzical wave — “and over there is Dyann.”

The living room was shadowy after the bright backyard. Dyann was a silhouette on the couch. “I’m Karen,” I said. “Would you mind if I just used your washroom a sec?”

Steph pulled the string on a bulb over the basement stairs. “It’s down to the left,” she said. “Charla’s room and mine are down there. The other three bedrooms are up on the second floor.”

I had been looking forward to meeting Dyann Brooks-Morriss face-to-face. And I’d been planning to dress a bit like this girl Steph — in jeans and maybe my army-surplus boots. I’d definitely have worn my plaid shirt, the men’s worsted-wool Pendleton I’d found at a logging camp during the spring planting contract, the shirt I’d fallen in love with because it reminded me of the one Sal goes back for, in Kerouac’s On the Road. I had a feeling Dyann would approve of that shirt. I’d planned to impress her with exaggerated tales of environmental destruction and workplace discrimination in the Canadian tree-planting industry.

Instead I was wearing a pair of men’s boxer shorts, one turquoise jelly sandal, a pink T-shirt with a sparkly palm tree on the front, and no bra. My hair in the bathroom mirror was dew-frizzed and studded with bits of dead grass. An inchworm made its way across my breast, down a frond of the sparkly palm tree. I stank of booze and, probably, sex.

When I came back upstairs Steph said, “Do you take milk and sugar?”

“I should go,” I said. “You’ve been really nice.”

“We figured we may as well not make you come back again this afternoon,” she said. “Why don’t we all just talk for a minute now instead.” She hovered the milk carton over the mug until I nodded, then she poured and stirred. Steph’s face was kind: a full-lipped smile, freckles, light brown eyes with dark lashes. It wasn’t a soldier’s haircut after all — more like a little boy’s, with soft brown bangs cut straight across but ruffled out of place.

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Women Talking

Women Talking

A Novel
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback

A FINALIST FOR THE GOVERNOR GENERAL'S LITERARY AWARD: A transformative and necessary work--as completely unexpected as it is inspired--by the award-winning author of the bestselling novels All My Puny Sorrows and A Complicated Kindness.

The sun rises on a quiet June morning in 2009. August Epp sits alone in the hayloft of a barn, anxiously bent over his notebook. He writes quickly, aware that his solitude will soon be broken. Eight women--ordinary grandmothers, mothers and teenagers; yet to Augus …

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Excerpt

 
The meetings have been organized hastily by Agata Friesen and Greta Loewen in response to the strange attacks that have haunted the women of Molotschna for the past sev­eral years. Since 2005, nearly every girl and woman has been raped by what many in the colony believed to be ghosts, or Satan, supposedly as punishment for their sins. The attacks occurred at night. As their families slept, the girls and women were made unconscious with a spray of the anesthetic used on our farm animals, made from the belladonna plant. The next morning, they would wake up in pain, groggy and often bleeding, and not understand why. Recently, the eight demons responsible for the attacks turned out to be real men from Molotschna, many of whom are the close relatives—brothers, cousins, uncles, nephews—of the women.

I recognized one of the men, barely. He and I had played together when we were children. He knew the names of all the planets, or he made them up anyway. His nickname for me was Froag, which in our language meant “question.” I remember that I had wanted to say goodbye to this boy before I left the colony with my parents, but my mother told me that he was having difficulty with his twelve-year-old molars, and had contracted an infection and was confined to his bedroom. I’m not sure, now, if that was true. In any case, neither this boy nor anybody from the colony said goodbye before we left.

The other perpetrators are much younger than me and hadn’t been born, or were babies or toddlers, when I left with my parents, and I have no recollection of them.

Molotschna, like all our colonies, is self-policed. Initially Peters planned to lock the men in a shed (similar to the one I live in) for several decades, but it soon became apparent that the men’s lives were in danger. Ona’s younger sister, Salome, attacked one of the men with a scythe; and another man was hanged by a group of drunk and angry colonists, male relatives of the victims, from a tree branch by his hands. He died there, forgotten apparently, when the drunk and angry men passed out in the sorghum field next to the tree. After this, Peters, together with the elders, decided to call in the police and have the men arrested— for their own safety, presumably—and taken to the city.

The remaining men of the colony (except for the senile or decrepit, and myself, for humiliating reasons) have gone to the city to post bail for the imprisoned attackers in the hope that they will be able to return to Molotschna while they await trial. And when the perpe­trators return, the women of Molotschna will be given the opportunity to forgive these men, thus guaranteeing everyone’s place in heaven. If the women don’t forgive the men, says Peters, the women will have to leave the colony for the outside world, of which they know noth­ing. The women have very little time, only two days, to organize their response.

Yesterday, as I have been told by Ona, the women of Molotschna voted. There were three options on the ballot.

1. Do Nothing.
2. Stay and Fight.
3. Leave.

Each option was accompanied by an illustration of its meaning, because the women do not read. (Note: It’s not my intention to constantly point out that the women do not read—only when it’s necessary to explain certain actions.)

Neitje Friesen, age sixteen, daughter of the late Mina Friesen and now permanent ward of her aunt Salome Friesen (Neitje’s father, Balthasar, was sent by Peters to the remote southwest corner of the country some years ago to purchase twelve yearlings and still has not returned), created the illustrations:

“Do Nothing” was accompanied by an empty hori­zon. (Although I think, but did not say, that this could be used to illustrate the option of leaving as well.)

“Stay and Fight” was accompanied by a drawing of two colony members engaged in a bloody knife duel. (Deemed too violent by the others, but the meaning is clear.)

And the option of “Leave” was accompanied by a draw­ing of the rear end of a horse. (Again I thought, but did not say, that this implies the women are watching others leave.)

The vote was a deadlock between numbers two and three, bloody knife duel and back of horse. The Friesen women, predominantly, want to stay and fight. The Loewens prefer to leave, although evidence of shifting convictions exists in both camps.

There are also some women in Molotschna who voted to do nothing, to leave things in the hands of the Lord, but they will not be in attendance today. The most vocal of the Do Nothing women is Scarface Janz, a stalwart member of the colony, the resident bonesetter, and also a woman known for having an excellent eye for measuring distances. She once explained to me that, as a Molotschnan, she had everything she wanted; all she had to do was con­vince herself that she wanted very little.

Ona has informed me that Salome Friesen, a formi­dable iconoclast, had indicated in yesterday’s meeting that “Do Nothing” was in reality not an option, but that allowing women to vote for “Do Nothing” would at least be empowering. Mejal (meaning “girl” in Plautdietsch) Loewen, a friendly chain-smoker with two yellow finger­tips and what I suspect must be a secret life, had agreed. But, Ona told me, Mejal also pointed out that Salome Friesen had not been anointed as the person who can declare what constitutes reality or what the options are. The other Loewen women had apparently nodded their heads at this while the Friesen women had expressed impatience with quick, dismissive gestures. This type of minor conflict well illustrates the timbre of the debate between the two groups, the Friesens and the Loewens. However, because time is short and the need for a decision urgent, the women of Molotschna have agreed collectively to allow these two families to debate the pros and cons of each option—excluding the Do Nothing option, which most of the women in the colony dismiss as “dummheit”— and to decide which is suitable, and finally to choose how best to implement that option.

A translation note: The women are speaking in Plautdietsch, or Low German, the only language they know, and the language spoken by all members of the Molotschna Colony—although the boys of Molotschna are now taught rudimentary English in school, and the men also speak some Spanish. Plautdietsch is an unwritten medieval language, moribund, a mishmash of German, Dutch, Pomeranian and Frisian. Very few people in the world speak Plautdietsch, and everyone who does is Mennonite. I mention this to explain that before I can transcribe the minutes of the meetings I must translate (quickly, in my mind) what the women are saying into English, so that it may be written down.

And one more note, again irrelevant to the women’s debate, but necessary to explain in this document why I am able to read, write and understand English: I learned English in England, where my parents went to live after being excommunicated by the bishop of Molotschna at the time, Peters Senior, father of Peters, the current bishop of Molotschna.

While in my fourth year of university there, I suffered a nervous breakdown (Narfa) and became involved in cer­tain political activities for which I was eventually expelled and imprisoned for a period of time. During my imprison­ment, my mother died. My father had disappeared years before. I have no siblings because my mother’s uterus was removed following my birth. In short, I had no one and nothing in England, although I had managed, while serving time in prison, to complete my teaching degree through correspondence. In dire straits, homeless and half-mad—or fully mad—I made a decision to commit suicide.

While researching my various options at the public library nearest the park in which I made my home, I fell asleep. I slept for an extraordinarily long time and was eventually gently nudged by the librarian, who told me it was time for me to leave, the library was closing. Then the librarian, an older woman, noticed that I had been crying and that I appeared dishevelled and distraught. She asked me what was wrong. I told her the truth: I didn’t want to live anymore. She offered to buy me supper, and while we were dining at the small restaurant across the street from the library, she asked me where I had come from, what part of the world?

I replied that I came from a part of the world that had been established to be its own world, apart from the world. In a sense, I told her, my people (I remember drawing out the words “my people” ironically, and then immediately feeling ashamed and silently asking to be forgiven) don’t exist, or at least are supposed to be seen not to.

And perhaps it doesn’t take too long before you believe that you really don’t exist, she said. Or that your actual corporeal existence is a perversity.

I wasn’t sure what she meant and scratched my head furiously, like a dog with ticks.
And after that? she asked.

University, briefly, and then prison, I told her.

Ah, she said, perhaps the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

I smiled stupidly. My foray into the world resulted in my removal from the world, I said.

Almost as though you were brought into existence not to exist, she said, laughing.

Singled out to conform. Yes, I said, trying to laugh with her. Born not to be.

I imagined my squalling infant self being removed from my mother’s womb and then the womb itself hastily yanked away from her and thrown out a window to pre­vent any other abominations from occurring—this birth, this boy, his nakedness, her shame, his shame, their shame.

I told the librarian that it was difficult to explain where I was from.

I met a traveller from an antique land, said the librar­ian, apparently quoting a poet she knew and loved.

Again I wasn’t sure what she meant, but I nodded. I explained that I was originally a Mennonite from the Molotschna Colony, and that when I was twelve years old my parents were excommunicated and we moved away, to England. Nobody said goodbye to us, I told the librarian (I live forever with the shame of having said such a piteous thing). For years I believed we were forced to leave Molotschna because I had been caught stealing pears from a farm in the neighbouring colony of Chortiza. In England, where I learned how to read and write, I spelled my name with rocks in a large green field so that God would find me quickly and my punishment would be complete. I also tried to spell the word “confession” with rocks from our garden fence but my mother, Monica, had noticed that the stone wall between our garden and the neighbours’ was disappearing. One day she followed me to my green field, along the narrow rut that the wheelbarrow had made in the dirt, and caught me in the act of surrendering myself to God, using the stones from the fence to signal my location, with huge letters. She sat me down on the ground and put her arms around me, and said nothing. After a while, she told me that the fence had to be put back. I asked if I could put the stones back after God had found me and punished me. I was so exhausted from anticipating punishment and I wanted to get it over with. She asked me what I thought God intended to punish me for, and I told her about the pears, and about my thoughts regarding girls, about my draw­ings, and my desire to win in sports and be strong. How I was vain and competitive and lustful. My mother laughed then, and hugged me again and apologized for laughing. She said that I was a normal boy, I was a child of God—a loving God, in spite of what anybody said—but that the neighbours were perturbed about the disappearing fence and I would have to return the stones.

All this I told to the librarian.

She responded that she could understand why my mother had said what she did, but that if she had been there, if she had been my mother, she would have said something else. She would have told me that I wasn’t normal—that I was innocent, yes, but that I had an unusually deep need to be forgiven, even though I had done nothing wrong. Most of us, she said, absolve our­selves of responsibility for change by sentimentalizing our pasts. And then we live freely, happily, or if not altogether happily, without tremendous anguish. The librarian laughed. She said that if she had been in that green field with me, she would have helped me to have that feeling of somehow being forgiven.

Forgiven for what, though, exactly? I asked her. Stealing pears, drawing pictures of naked girls?

No, no, said the librarian, forgiven for being alive, for being in the world. For the arrogance and the futility of remaining alive, the ridiculousness of it, the stench of it, the unreasonableness of it. That’s your feeling, she added, your internal logic. You’ve just explained that to me.

She went on to say that, in her opinion, doubt and uncertainty and questioning are inextricably bound together with faith. A rich existence, she said, a way of being in the world, wouldn’t you say?

I smiled. I scratched. The world, I said.

What do you remember of Molotschna?

Ona, I said. Ona Friesen.

And I began to tell her about Ona Friesen, a girl my age, the same woman who has now asked me to record the minutes of the meeting.

After a long conversation with the librarian, during which I talked mostly, though not entirely, about Ona— how we had played, how we had clocked the seasons by the tiny lengthening of light, how we had pretended to be rebellious disciples at first misunderstood by our leader, Jesus, and then posthumously hailed as heroes, how we had jousted on horses with fence posts (running full tilt, like knights, like Ona’s squirrel and rabbit), how we had kissed, how we’d fought—the librarian suggested that I return to Molotschna, to the place where life had made sense to me, even briefly, even in imaginary play in dying sunlight, and that I ask the bishop (Peters, the younger, who was the same age as my mother) to accept me into the colony as a member. (I did not tell the librarian that this would also mean asking Peters to forgive me the sins of my parents, sins pertaining to the storage of intellec­tual materials and to the dissemination and propagation of said materials, even though the materials were art books, photographs of paintings that my father had found in the garbage behind a school in the city, and even though he was guilty only of sharing the images with other colony members, as he was unable to read the text.) She also suggested that I offer to teach the Molotschnan boys English, a language they would need in order to conduct business outside the colony. And she said that I should become friends, once again, with Ona Friesen.

I had nothing to lose. I took this advice to heart.

The librarian asked her husband to give me a job driv­ing for his airport limousine service, and although I didn’t have a valid driver’s licence, I worked for him for three months to make enough money to purchase a ticket to Molotschna. During this time, I slept in the attic of a youth hostel. At night, when it felt as though my head was about to explode, I would will myself to lie as still as possible. Every night, in that hostel, as I lay motionless in my bed, I closed my eyes and heard very faint strains of piano music, heavy chords unaccompanied by voices. One morning I asked the man who cleaned the hostel, and who also slept there, if he had ever heard faint piano music with heavy chords at night. He said no, never. Eventually, I understood that the song I heard at night, when it felt as though my head was about to explode, was the hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” and that I was lis­tening to my own funeral.

Peters, who wears the same tall black boots his own father once wore, or at least similar ones, considered my request for re-admittance into the colony. He finally said he would allow me membership providing I renounced my parents (in spite of one being dead and the other miss­ing) before the elders and was baptized into the church and agreed to teach the boys basic English and simple math in return for shelter (the aforementioned shed) and three meals a day.

I told Peters I would be baptized and I would teach the boys, but that I wouldn’t renounce my parents. Peters, unhappy, but desperate to have the boys learn account­ing, or perhaps because my appearance unsettled him, as I looked so much like my father, agreed.

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The Luminous Sea

The Luminous Sea

edition:eBook
also available: Paperback

*LONGLISTED FOR THE 2020 INTERNATIONAL DUBLIN LITERARY AWARD *FINALIST - THE 2019 BMO WINTERSET AWARD *WINNER - 2019 IPPY AWARD FOR FICTION (CANADA EAST) *FINALIST - 2019 NEXT GENERATION INDIE BOOK AWARDS (BEST COVER DESIGN) *WINNER - GEORGIAN BAY READS 2019 *FINALIST - NL READS 2019 *LONGLISTED FOR THE MiRAMICHI READER'S VERY BEST BOOK AWARDS (BEST FIRST BOOK)

A team of researchers from a nearby university have set up a research station in a fictional outport in Newfoundland, studying the st …

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