Book Review: Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being

A Tale for the Time Being

By Ruth Ozeki

Cover of A Tale for the Time Being

I wasn’t very far into A Tale for the Time Being when I realized I had stumbled upon a treasure: an utterly captivating writer who had me immersed in a book like no other I’d read before.

The novel is undefinable in genre as it moves between different points of view. The backbone of the story is contained in a journal written by a Japanese teenager named Nao. A middle-aged writer, Ruth, finds the journal and other items inside a package washed up on the beach near her home on a remote island off the coast of British Columbia. She suspects that Nao threw the package into the sea at the time of the Japanese tsunami four years earlier.

Ruth becomes obsessed with Nao’s story, which unfolds as she slowly reads the journal, and she also becomes obsessed with finding out the fate of Nao and her family. Did they perish in the tsunami?

A Tale for the Time Being is a masterpiece. I can’t do justice to it in any book review. Only one of the blurbs on the back cover comes close to giving an idea of the book’s depth and the cutting emotional power of its themes. Karen Joy Fowler writes:

A Tale for the Time Being is equal parts mystery and meditation. The mystery is a compulsive, gritty page-turner. The meditation—on time and memory, on the oceanic movement of history, on impermanence and uncertainty, but also resilience and bravery—is deep and gorgeous and wise. A completely satisfying, continually surprising, wholly remarkable achievement.

As I continued to read, I was impressed by the multiplicity of moods, stylistic techniques, and unpredictable plot developments. There are multiple stories within stories. It is partly the story of Nao’s family. Her father was, for a while, a software genius in Silicon Valley, but when he was fired he moved his family back to Japan. Unable to get a job there, he tried to commit suicide, and much of Nao’s journal is about both her own and her father’s depression and alienation from their society.

Yet Nao also has access to hope and inspiration from her great-grandmother, whom she calls “my old Jiko.” Jiko is a 104-year-old Buddhist nun with “superpowers,” and part of Nao’s journal recounts her story of the time she spends in the monastery with her great-grandmother.

Within the Hello Kitty lunchbox containing Nao’s journal Ruth also finds an old watch that she learns belonged to Nao’s great-uncle, Haruki I. (Nao’s father was named Haruki II after his uncle.) There are also old Japanese letters, and later a journal written in French by Haruki II mysteriously appears. When Ruth gets these documents translated by friends on the island, Haruki II’s story emerges. Everyone believed that he died a heroic death on a suicide mission during World War II—but his secret French diary reveals the truth about a more complicated kind of heroism.

Throughout this 400-page book, surprises constantly unfold. A Tale for the Time Being is suspenseful, humorous, tragic, philosophical, and heartwarming. Ozeki explores many of the most significant themes available to a writer of literature: despair and suicide, man’s brutality to his fellow humans (whether in the arena of a world war or in schoolyard bullying), heroism, and love that can overcome the deepest wounds. The philosophical depth of the book constantly challenges the reader to think: Is suicide selfish or not? Can it be honourable or heroic? The stories of Haruki I, Haruki II, and “old Jiko” reveal that heroism is not always obvious.

Love, too, can exist in ways that defy romantic stereotypes. The horrifying, ugly parts of the book are balanced by the warm and loving relationships between the characters. Nao and her father love each other in spite of his suicide attempts and his near-comatose depression. Nao and her great-grandmother Jiko feel a great tenderness towards each other. Haruki I’s diary reveals his love and respect for Jiko, his mother. Ruth’s marriage with Oliver demonstrates that people with different personalities and interests can love each other enduringly—and that humour can play a big role in love. Even the wealthy man who pays large sums of money to have sex with Nao when she is a bullied and lonely teenager treats her with gentleness, patience, and generosity.

As I continued reading A Tale for the Time Being, I was continually stimulated by surprises in the plot and questions the book provoked, including dilemmas related to modern technology: Internet porn, online bullying and privacy, human-machine interfaces and putting human controls on automated killing. A major theme is human interconnectivity: real, online, and—veering into the deeply philosophical and Zen-like here—cosmos-wide.

Although I was impressed by the multi-faceted, multi-genre nature of A Tale for the Time Being, I started to question whether it was “working” when magic realism crept in. At one point Ruth is reading Nao’s diary and she notices that the pages ahead are blank. There is nothing more to read. A few days later this has changed—more pages are now filled with Nao’s writing.

Late in the book, a quasi-rational explanation of all this is given. It is a “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics that posits the existence of parallel universes. In one of the many intriguing appendices of the book, Ozeki tells us that this “many worlds” idea was published by physicist Hugh Everett in 1957 in the Review of Modern Physics.

Ozeki also mentions the famous thought experiment about “Schröedinger’s Cat” that all physics students learn. There is a cat in a box; it could be electrocuted or not; dead or alive; it exists in both these states until the observer opens the box and looks in. At that point the cat is seen to be either dead or alive. But in a parallel universe, the cat exists in the alternate state. The idea is that the observer influences the outcome. Similarly, the novel suggests that Ruth (the observer/reader) is influencing how events unfold in Nao’s life. This makes no sense in our rational world. The events we are reading about in Nao’s diary happened years before Ruth is reading.

Some readers might like the quasi-quantum mechanical explanation that binds all the mysteries within the narrative together. I couldn’t decide whether or not this narrative manipulation is too contrived. However, it does leave the reader with a “feel-good” conclusion after all the cruelty and depression that feature so prominently in Nao’s story.

One quirky feature of the book that I liked was Ozeki’s frequent use of Japanese words and sayings, with footnotes including word definitions, origins, and Kanji characters. This adds a Japanese flavour and authenticity to the book, and left me with a better understanding of Japanese culture and identity. Ozeki also captures the characteristic “cuteness” of the way Japanese people sometimes use English as a second language. For example, in an email that Nao’s father writes to describe the software he created that allows people to erase unwanted traces of themselves from the Internet, he admits that “some people are too famous to ever attain Super Squeaky Clean.”

A Tale for the Time Being was one of those books that left me shaking my head in awe at the inventiveness of the author. Reading it was a mixture of pure delight and constant mental provocation.


Ruth Ozeki grew up in New Haven, Connecticut and is now a dual citizen of the United States and Canada. I assumed, because of the ways her novel includes Japanese culture and language, that she must be fluent in Japanese. Upon visiting her website ( I discovered that she is the daughter of a Japanese mother and an American father. She did post-graduate studies at Nara Women’s University in Japan. After that, she spent some years in Japan, working as a bar hostess and as an instructor at Kyoto Sangyo University. She also founded a language school. She is an award-winning novelist and filmmaker as well as a Zen Buddhist priest.

How do fiction writers enchant readers?

Enchantment happens when you don’t sacrifice your own voice to the god of marketability.

All writers crave an audience, but it’s by writing from your own passion, and expressing yourself skillfully using your voice that you will produce valuable writing: writing that has the power to enchant in its unique way. Worthy readers will find your writing.

Beginning writers may struggle to find their own voice, or doubt that it is “good” enough. What do I mean by the “writer’s voice”?

cover of Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

Meg Wolitzer’s latest book

I understood this question much better (and got a great answer) when I read a post by author Meg Wolitzer on the website Everyday ebook (October 5, 2014). Wolitzer recently published a novel for young adults called Belzhar (so titled because Wolitzer was greatly influenced by Sylvia Plath’s iconic The Bell Jar). Much of her post was about how Plath’s writing affected her, but the part that helped me was her explanation of where a writer’s voice comes from.

Sometimes when people are writing, they look far, far outside themselves. They look for something that might sound like a writer’s voice on the page and they forget that they have so much inside them that is a voice that they’ve been developing. That’s not to say that books are from the perspective of the writer, but they are from the sensibility of the writer, which is different. You can find a wonderful idea outside of yourself to write a book about, but you need to know the connection between you and that idea. And that connection is often in your sensibility and will come out in your voice.

For me, the key words in the paragraph quoted above are sensibility and connection. The writer’s voice is not simply the writer’s perspective or the language used by the writer. A writer’s sensibility encompasses so many things: personal experiences, emotions, analytical thoughts, ideas from books and other sources—and how the writer processes, or makes connections, between all these disparate influences.

Cover of Their Lips Talk of Mischief by Alan Warner

Alan Warner’s latest book

Scottish writer Alan Warner, speaking with Eleanor Wachtel on CBC’s Writers & Company on November 23, 2014 (listen to podcast here), also talked about the writer’s voice. As a young writer, Warner was inspired by literature and longed to express himself creatively, but doubted his ability. Then he read a book that made a huge impression on him. It was The Busconductor Heinz, by James Kelman. The setting of the book is Glasgow, a gritty, working-class city that Warner knew well. From this place Kelman wrote a book that Warner describes as “philosophic, scabrous, ironic, funny, and at times erotic.”

What Warner learned from reading The Busconductor Heinz, he told Wachtel, is that “it’s possible to express profound things from the context of your own culture.” The book made him realize that you didn’t have to be a Waugh or a Hemingway, living in a huge metropolis or a glamorous place, to be able to have significant insights about life and people.

I haven’t read The Busconductor Hines myself, but after listening to Warner on Writers & Company I looked up some reviews of it. There was a wide range of opinion. Some people loved it, others didn’t. Many readers were offended by the many repetitions of the crudest swear words, but others loved the authenticity of the “voice.” Writers can’t please everyone.

Another thought I had about “voice” is that it comes partly from our inner lives—our imagination, our dreams, our subconscious—and those things are boundless. That is why one doesn’t have to have lived in an exotic or sophisticated place in order to write profound things. What Wolitzer calls the “sensibility” that we give to our writing is our inner synthesis of everything we’ve lived, observed, felt, and read—put into a context, a topic, and/or characters that we care about deeply.

The Vancouver Writers Fest

Better Living Through Books? 

One of the events I went to at the Writers Fest this year was a panel discussion called “Better Living Through Books?”  The three panelists (writers Rebecca Mead, Nadia Bozak and Damon Galgut), with moderator (and writer) Angie Abdou, were grappling with questions related to what I’ve written about the writer’s voice. How do writers choose what to write about? What makes their writing good? Do they think about their audiences while they’re writing?

All of these authors reinforced the idea that the best writing comes not when a writer is trying to please a certain audience, or accomplish a specific educational or political goal in a didactic way. The best writing happens when someone writes about what matters to them personally—and is not afraid to bring their own emotions and experiences into the writing. I’ve always called this “writing from the heart,” and recognize it in my own best writing.

The panelists of “Better Living Through Books?” all agreed that they were motivated to write the books they did because of their own passion for the subjects or books that moved them, their need to delve as deeply as possible into their material.

These three panellists had been brought together for this event because all of them had been heavily influenced and inspired by other writers. Rebecca’s Mead’s lifelong “relationship” (some would say obsession) with George Eliot’s masterpiece Middlemarch led her to write My Life in Middlemarch, published in 2014. This book is a gem that combines memoir, literary criticism, and biography. It inspired me not only to reread George Eliot’s classic 19th-century novel, but to write a rave review of Mead’s work on my blog.

I was completely unfamiliar with the work of British writer Nadia Bozak or South African Damon Galgut. Part of the fun and intellectual excitement of the Vancouver Writers Fest comes from being exposed to books and writers that one doesn’t know.

Cover of El Nino by Nadia BozakI wasn’t initially impressed by Bozak as a speaker, but when it came time for her to read from her own book, El Niño, I was captivated. Her voice was spellbinding, and after listening to her narrative for a few minutes, I felt compelled to learn more about her characters and their fates. Bozak has always been haunted by the works of Cormac McCarthy, Joseph Conrad, and J.M. Cootzee, and she has found her own stories and her own voice in extrapolating from their themes.

Cover of Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut

Arctic Summer is a fictional imagining of writer E.M. Forster’s intense personal struggles.

Damon Galgut read from his book Arctic Summer, a novel in which he imagines E.M. Forster’s intimate life and inner thoughts during the long period he was writing A Passage to India. Galgut has been driven by his admiration for Forster. He explained that there have been numerous books written about E.M. Forster; we know a lot about his books and the facts of his life, but Galgut was curious about the psychology of this man who was a repressed homosexual, tormented by an unrequited love, yet able to channel his passion into enduring works of art. Since there were no facts about Forster’s inner life, Galgut chose to create a plausible Forster in the form of a novel. Like Bozak, Galgut possesses the gift of making us care deeply about his characters.

Writers’ voices on Writers & Company

I continue to feel delight and inspiration by listening to writers’ voices, literally, on CBC’s Writers & Company with Eleanor Wachtel. On Sunday, November 30, Wachtel was remembering the great British mystery novelist P.D. James, who died recently at the age of 94. She replayed a stage interview and reading she had done on stage with James at the 1999 Humber School for Writers Distinguished Speaker Series.

James spoke during that interview about her intense psychological need to be a writer. She said, “I would not have lived a happy and fulfilled life if I had not written.” She expanded her explanation of what drives writers with a quote from a psychiatrist:

Creativity is the successful resolution of internal conflict.

Cover of Death Comes to Pemberley

Death Comes to Pemberley, a continuation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, is one of P.D. James’s best known books. It was published in 2011, when she was 91!

What came through in James’s real voice was her sharp intelligence, her wit, her stoicism in the face of hardship, and the discipline she imposed upon herself to write well within a genre that had traditionally been considered below the level of literary novels. Indeed, she succeeded in changing her chosen genre, and her pride and joy in being able to achieve this came through in her voice during the interview.

I remember another Writers & Company interview (from October) that made a big impression on me. Scottish writer Ali Smith’s voice was enchanting, not only because of her accent but because of the childlike, breathless joy that infused everything she said. She was talking about art, and how it is like a bridge between Earth and Heaven and between people. Much of what she said was mystical, obscure; it was a glimpse into an enchanted world.

It didn’t matter that I couldn’t understand everything she said. What I caught was her excitement and gratefulness for the life she has had. She was very poor when she started as a writer but she said it didn’t matter. She is happy. She is doing what her talent has led her to do.

Enchantment with books I: Tim Winton’s Eyrie

From late September until early November, I read several good books, attended Vancouver Writers Fest events, and listened to radio interviews of writers (mainly CBC’s wonderful Writers & Company with Eleanor Wachtel). Every one of these books or interviews overwhelmed me with ideas that I was itching to blog about, but I had no time.

What amazes me now, as I read over the notes that I wrote hastily during that intense period of reading stimulation, is the way many different writers’ ideas coalesced in my mind to form related themes. They all led me to a deeper understanding of why reading and writing are so important to me.

Why do books delight me, stimulate me, comfort me, and make me feel spiritually rich?

A couple of days ago I started trying to write a post that would answer this question properly; that would tie together all these writers and their books and and what they meant to me. My post turned into a multi-headed hydra that was leading me to despair. How do people ever write a novel? I can’t even finish a short story! I can’t even finish a blog post!

So I decide to chop off this hydra’s heads, one by one, and present each head (hopefully still wriggling with life) as a separate blog post that didn’t take two hours to read. At the bottom of this first instalment, I’ll add a list of the books, interviews, and writing-related events that influenced me.

Here is the hydra’s brain (i.e. the thesis).

Books enchant me.

Book Cover of Eyrie by Tim WInton

Story One: It was a dark and stormy night and Eleanor Wachtel was interviewing Tim Winton on Writers & Company

About a month ago I was driving home from my Running Room job; it was the first day of Pacific Standard Time, pouring rain, and already dark at 5:30. I could have been depressed, driving on this gloomy, dangerous night, but no—I was listening to Eleanor Wachtel talking to Australian novelist Tim Winton. Encapsulated in my warm car, I was transported to another world.

Winton’s voice was intriguing with its Australian accent, and Wachtel, as always, sounded both soothing and engaged. They were discussing Winton’s latest novel, Eyrie. (You can read The Guardian’s rave review here or listen to the full Writers & Company interview here.)

I can’t do full justice to the book or the interview, but some things branded themselves in my memory. I was gripped when Winton read aloud a part of the book that showed his two protagonists’ vulnerability. The middle-aged Tom Keely is divorced and unemployed. He forms an unusual friendship with a six-year-old boy, Kai, who is a neighbour in their seedy highrise. Kai lives with his depressed grandmother Gemma and has known little but abuse and neglect during his short life. Keely and Kai are drawn together by their mutual fascination with birds, especially birds of prey.

Winton read a section of his book that describes Keely taking Kai and Gemma out on a boat to a place where he’s promised they will see an osprey. There are agonizing moments when Keely fears the bird won’t appear. He knows how many times Kai has been lied to and disappointed. He wants so badly not to wound his friend.

Then comes the moment when they see the osprey rising; the bird was there all the time, camouflaged against its tree background. Instead of disappointment, Keely and Kai have the joy of sharing that experience.

As Winton read, I felt, I shared, his characters’ love of birds, their respect and awe for the beauty and abilities of natural creatures.

I was enchanted. I was lifted to a higher place, a place where one is given the gift of entering into the consciousness of another human being. It doesn’t matter whether that being is the writer, the fictional character, or a real person.

Later in the interview, Wachtel was asking Winton questions about the purpose of his writing; he has become an impassioned environmental activist who has made significant contributions to the preservation of Australia’s natural places. She was asking about whether he intends his novels to educate or persuade people. Winton responded that he doesn’t see the novel as a tool of persuasion, but rather as “a tool of enchantment.”
I remembered hearing very similar words a few months ago, when I listened to another CBC radio interview (it might have been Jian Ghomeshi on Q!) with swordfighter and fantasy writer Sebastien de Castell. I haven’t read hardly any fantasy since I was a teenager, but de Castell’s description of the genre made me curious to turn to it again. De Castell said that escapism is the not “loftiest” purpose of the fastasy novel; rather, at its best, fantasy creates a sense of wonder in readers, enabling them to experience a sense of re-enchantment in their real lives.

That idea sure struck a chord with me. I reflect on all the ways that novels enchant me; there are many aspects of enchantment. It’s being lost in another world, another place or time, another person’s mind. It’s being told a story: being led on, step by step, and wanting to know what happens next. What is the ending? It’s the way you somehow care about this imaginary character that you develop an attachment to, whether it is because that person is like you, or because that person attracts you in some way. It’s being enchanted by the beauty of language; the structure of a sentence or the musical sounds of words or the musical cadences of phrases. It’s the enchantment of intellectual stimulation, the click of “aha!” moments.

As I drove home on that rainy November evening, listening to Eleanor Wachtel and Tim Winton, I had friends on my solitary journey. I knew my truest inner nature was being satisfied and nurtured. Though I was physically sitting in a car, automatically doing all I needed to do to drive safely, my spirit was in another place, a place of intense fascination, emotional arousal, and thankfulness.


Literary influences from September to November 2014

Books and poetry

  • The Order of Things, by David Gilmour
  • Between, by Angie Abdou
  • The Juliet Stories by Bill Gaston
  • Love, Again by Doris Lessing
  • The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion
  • Tales of a Wayside Inn (1874) by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  • “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Radio interviews

  • Writers & Company: Eleanor Wachtel interviewing Ali Smith (Oct. 5) about Art, Tim Winton (Nov. 2) about Eyrie
  • CIUT Radio PowerDrive (Toronto): Johnny Fox (aka John Atkinson) interviewing Angie Abdou about Between and the writing life at Toronto’s Word on the Street (Sept. 25)

Vancouver Writers Fest Events
October 24, 2104

“Better Living Through Books?”

  • With panellists/writers Rebecca Mead, Nadia Bozak, and Damon Galgut, guided by   moderator/writer Angie Abdou

“A Tangled Web”

  • With panellists/writers Arjun Basu, Martha Baillie, and Kate Pullinger guided by   moderator/writer Lee Henderson

To be continued…

Why I write unconventional (and unpopular) book reviews

I am driven to write book reviews for my blog though these posts are seldom popular compared to my running posts. Why do I do it?

I realize that books are (and always have been) my greatest passion. Running was undoubtedly my greatest talent. It shaped my whole life. Through running I discovered another facet to my self-identity, one that the sixteen-year-old bookworm had never experienced: I was an athlete who could love the sense of physical power and effort. I gained a completely new appreciation of my body.

Yet books are what completely engage me and excite me. The admiration and awe I have for great writers surpasses my reactions to even the most outstanding athletic achievements.

I write my book reviews for two reasons: First, I write for myself. Book reviews are my vain attempt to capture the essence of great writing. What exactly am I trying to hold on to when the reading is done?

• the evocation of emotion and memories
• new ideas (or, paradoxically, ideas so familiar to me that I am bonded to the writer)
• spiritual epiphanies and psychological truths
• the escape from too-harsh or too-mundane reality through the beguiling delight of a good story (what’s going to happen next?)
• the zany creativity of unusual style or word coinage/combinations or meandering long sentences that sometimes extend to paragraphs or even pages that leave the reader dizzy, coming up for breath eventually after being suspended in another world.

The second reason I write book reviews is because I’m compelled to share what I love. Yet I always experience a sense of futility while writing book reviews. I know I can’t do justice to the book; the best parts of my reviews are the quotes, but what can I do when countless sentences and paragraphs of a book are worthy of quoting?

Some books are so rich in their layers or themes or details or technical structure that they have to be reread. That’s what I thought about The Brothers Karamozov (Fyodor Dostoevsky) and Traveling Sprinkler (Nicholson Baker) [See my book review here.] Some books are so loved and reread that their characters become like real people or friends. For journalist Rebecca Mead, Middlemarch (George Eliot) has been a lifetime companion—she wrote about this in her recent highly-acclaimed book My Life in Middlemarch. The book I simply call “my favourite book” is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith). I read it first when I was twelve, and have reread it so many times I can repeat many sentences and paragraphs of it by heart.

Avid readers know there is never enough time to read, especially now with all the distractions of the Internet. In fact, the online world just gives me more suggestions about worthy books; it gives me access to more book reviews, blogs, and other opportunities to interact with people about books.

All of this conflicts with the fact that reading (and writing) are solitary activities best done without distractions. I also feel torn between the desire to read (and reread) classics and my favourite books, and the urge to devour the latest books and keep up with the evolution of writing techniques, forms, and contemporary topics. The illustration below gives a quick view of the books I’m eager to read, and what led me to them.

A collage of book covers with text about the books

Some of the books I want to read RIGHT NOW!

My comments about how I was reminded about John Updike’s work illustrate one thing I love about the Internet: the randomness of discovering jewels or links to jewels. Hermione Lee’s article about Updike’s writing not only made me want to read more of him, but encouraged me as a writer. For one thing, Lee’s article is over 2,600 words long, so there is still a place for extended book reviews and analyses about writers.

I was also encouraged to discover that Updike drew heavily upon his own life as the source for his fiction. I have struggled with questions of how to use personal experiences without being totally narcissistic, and how to use real people and experiences as “seeds” for fiction without simply recounting real events.

For Updike, childhood memories remained vivid and appeared in his writing. His adult life was tumultuous—he had multiple wives and carried on multiple affairs, and none of his friends, family, or lovers were exempt from being incorporated into his fiction. According to Adam Begley (whose biography of Updike Lee critiques in her article), “What mattered most profoundly to him wasn’t sex or even love; what mattered was writing.”

I don’t know yet how far I will get on my journey to becoming a good writer. But my book reviews are my way of cementing the wonder and appreciation I feel for a good book. As Stephen King says, “If you don’t have time to be a good reader, you don’t have time to be a good writer.”

Nicholson Baker’s Traveling Sprinkler showers emotion and technical genius on every page

Traveling Sprinkler by Nicholson Baker coverNicholson Baker has blown me away with his latest novel, Traveling Sprinkler. I’ve been trying to write a book review about it for days—but everything I write seems inadequate to describe Baker’s virtuosity—his astounding range of emotional, humorous, and intellectual tones.

I could start by describing what the book is about (though even that is impossible). Traveling Sprinkler is Baker’s second book starring poet-turned songwriter Paul Chowder, whom Baker first introduced in his novel The Anthologist. Chowder is a captivating narrator, by turns hilarious, sad, self-deprecating, informative, and tender. At the beginning of the story, he is somewhat depressed as he faces his upcoming fifty-fifth birthday after a recent break-up with his long-term girlfriend, Roz. Though she has found a new man, Chowder longs for her and is not giving up without a fight.

Chowder is a loveable character despite his flaws, for he shows persistence and determination in following his passions. His obsession with songwriting is fuelled by his longing for Roz, and he experiments with instrumentation software for countless hours to create accompaniments for his lyrics and adjust his own singing voice.

The love story within Traveling Sprinkler, though it is the soul of the book, is also a scaffold to support the dazzling array of “subjects” that Baker’s agile mind weaves into his novel. Chowder’s past and current obsessions include not only traveling sprinklers (about whose history, structure, and function we learn a lot), but American politics (mainly anti-war rants), Quaker meetings, cigars, poetry, and, above all, music.

Music is a unifying theme in Traveling Sprinkler, which is fitting because it is Chowder’s route back to Roz. But the novel is about more than music: it is rich and dense in what it contains within its less-than-300 pages; though it includes many subjects, Baker connects them all; and each subject is like a Russian doll where you keep uncovering inner layers.

Nicholson Baker’s trademark as a writer is his ability to pay attention to minutae; he can use this for humorous effects or to probe into the absolute raw insides of something he’s passionate about. In Traveling Sprinkler, he goes “deep” in many subjects. Each reader will differ in which parts of the book they find the most emotionally affecting or fascinating.

I was particularly moved by the novel’s sections about French composer Claude Debussy and his tenth piano prelude, “The Sunken Cathedral” (“Le cathédrale engloutie”). Perhaps this is because I played some of Debussy’s simpler piano pieces when I was a child. I remember “Clair de Lune” and “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair”, and how I loved the strange chords of Debussy’s music, so different from the other “boring” classical pieces I had to practice.

Baker’s technical mastery as a writer overwhelms me. He weaves his sections about Debussy and “The Sunken Cathedral” throughout the book, gradually revealing more and more. I don’t know how he does it; I only know that I was incredibly moved, haunted, by these beautifully-written sections about the composer who died of rectal cancer in 1918. Baker mentions Debussy’s sunken cathedral first on page 40 of Traveling Sprinkler, again on page 70, and again several times before he gets to his climactic expression of his passion for this piece. On page 254, near the beginning of a four-page-long section about “The Sunken Cathedral” (most of it within a single paragraph), we read a simple sentence containing the thesis of the analysis to follow: “This piece was Debussy saying goodbye to everything.”

And what is “The Sunken Cathedral” about? From page 255: “It’s really about all sunken frightening beautiful artful ruined human things.”

How many writers can use adjectives that way? How many writers can go on to elaborate in two more pages of incredible prose-that-is-poetry, all together in a single paragraph? There is another beautiful descriptive passage about “The Sunken Cathedral” on page 97, within a two-page-long paragraph. It’s not too much. I wanted to quote something but every sentence is perfect and I can’t put a two-page quote into a book review. You have to read it.

My rave about the sunken cathedral sections is just one example of the intensity of Baker’s enthusiasm. But don’t be misled by my rave into thinking that Baker is too deep or philosophical a writer. He is like that, but he is also profane, biting, and hilarious. Chowder’s musings about how he could write a song about himself called “Why Are You Fat?” had me holding my gut laughing. In another part, Chowder is examining the way his mind jumps from one subject and one metaphor to another in his poems. This is what he concludes about metaphors:

…too many colours make the rinse water muddy…On the other hand, the world is full of metaphors that are happily coexisting in our brains and we don’t go crazy. You have them all swarming and nesting and reeled up in there, but they don’t trouble one another…I want to pour them all in and let them go wild together. Let all the metaphors fuck each other like desperate spouse-swappers, I don’t care. (pp.41–42)

I’m glad Traveling Sprinkler contained all those swarming, nesting, reeling, and fucking metaphors. I also appreciated the deceptively simple, chatty style of other parts of the book. I almost felt like I was making a wonderful friend in Paul Chowder, a friend who reignited my interest in writing, poetry, and music. I sure learned a lot about the construction, history and repertoire of the bassoon! More importantly, I was reminded about music that I’ve loved in the past, and introduced to a cornucopia of new music delights to sample.

Above all, though, Traveling Sprinkler is an unsentimental love story, one that includes ugliness, uncertainty, and vulnerability. Baker is a one-of-a-kind writer who leaps from profanity and humour to pathos and tenderness without skipping a beat.


Nicholson Baker is the author of Vox, The Fermata, The Anthropologist, and many other books about things erotic, profound, and mundane.

You can listen to a YouTube video of Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov playing “La cathedral egloutie” here.

Quotes in this review are from:

Baker, Nicholson. (2013). Traveling Sprinkler. New York: Blue Rider Press (Penguin Group USA)

Eleanor Wachtel talks to Jackie Kay about identity, relationships, and writing on “Writers & Company”

Yesterday evening I had a near-mystical experience of closeness—the kind of closeness you can have when you are alone, yet deeply connected in some way to others. I was listening to Eleanor Wachtel’s “Writers & Company” on CBC’s radio one. Wachtel was interviewing Scottish writer Jackie Kay.

Jackie Kay

Jackie Kay

It is rare for me to let myself stop everything to lie on my couch, close my eyes, and devote myself completely to listening. As I did so, a deep peace came over me. Kay’s voice was lovely with its accent and soft tones.

I learned about a few things—the author’s adoption as a sickly baby, her growing up with her adoptive parents in Glasgow, her experiences being bullied as a kid with dark skin (her biological father is Nigerian) in a country of pale-faced people, her disturbing meetings with her biological parents.

But an interview of this depth is about more than learning facts. It evokes the wonder of being let into someone else’s life, someone else’s imagination. Kay was not speaking to me personally, but she was sharing herself, fully and honestly. And even though I’m just one anonymous listener, I feel the kinship of being a fellow writer (on a humble level), of the comfort that writing brings, the compulsion to do it, to share, the way writing explains not only to others but to oneself.

Receiving this gift of the window into someone else’s mind and soul—even when it’s just one articulate person speaking—I feel my world expanding. I think of the multitude of voices that speak, that write, that teach me, broaden me, open me. Yes, I can’t help repeating, “This is a gift. I am so thankful. I am so thankful for this hour with Eleanor Wachtel and Jackie Kay.”

One level of being thankful is for the writer’s ideas and stories. They make me a richer person.

On another level is the sheer sensory pleasure of listening to Kay’s voice. At times, I could let myself drift and listen to that voice simply as a musical texture divorced from the meaning of the words, a caress that soothed and relaxed me. Wachtel’s rich, intelligent voice, interjecting with a brief question or comment every now and then, was a perfect counterpoint to the musicality of Kay’s accented words.

One part of Kay’s story in particular sticks in my mind. She and Wachtel talked about how Kay’s books are often about identity; this is understandable considering that Kay was adopted at birth. The amazing thing about her adoption is that she was born brain-damaged, and her adoptive mother was strongly advised to choose another baby. Yet the mother insisted on taking the baby she had planned to make her own from before the time she was born. What mysterious force can make an adoptive mother love a sick baby, unconditionally, before that baby can even be known as a person? How can this happen without the compelling strength of biological instinct?

I don’t know the answer to these questions; I can’t imagine myself being capable of such a love; but the woman who became Kay’s mother made this choice. She has been richly rewarded by the closeness she still shares with this wonderful, talented woman, who says that her adoptive mother and father made her what she is.

Kay’s adoption story is just one example of the inexplicable love and goodness that some people radiate. Hearing Kay talk about her life, and hearing her read some nuggets from her poetry and stories, made me think about the love that is everywhere and the way love grows as it is shared.

I was only one person out of perhaps thousands of listeners. Kay changed my life during that hour or so of listening. When she was finished, the setting sun was flooding my apartment, turning it golden, and I was enveloped in peacefulness and gratitude.


You can listen to Eleanor Wachtel’s interview with Jackie Kay here. “Writers & Company” airs on CBC radio one Vancouver 88.1 FM 690 AM at 5:00 p.m. Sundays.

Cover of Wish I Was Here by Jackie Kay

During her interview with Eleanor Wachtel, Kay reads her story “You Go When You Can No Longer Stay” from this collection.

Rich rewards for reading Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch

My Life in Middlemarch

by Rebecca Mead

Book review by Nancy Tinari

Reading Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch gave me a renewed optimism about the endurance of excellent writing and appreciative readers. It reminded me that great writing has universal themes that bond readers across time and space. In her book, Mead has described the heart, mind, and art of one writing genius, George Eliot. Her examples of Eliot’s writing are striking; and what is more, Mead’s own words as she analyzes Eliot’s personal life and the repeated themes of her books are worthy of the author and the book she has been devoted to since she was a teenager.

Critics have praised My Life in Middlemarch highly, but have called it an “unclassifiable” book. I found its many facets wonderful. Mead, a lover of literature and a staff writer for The New Yorker, writes about how the book spoke to her as she read it regularly at different times in her life, starting when she was a teenager and continuing now as a journalist in her forties.

In her research for My Life in Middlemarch Mead was thorough. She wasn’t just a worshipper of a great writer—she didn’t shy away from exploring the thorny, less admirable sides of Eliot’s character.

Eliot became happier and wiser as she grew older, despite the physical ailments of ageing. She met the love of her life, George Henry Lewes, when she was thirty-two—middle-aged by the standards of her time. Moreover, Lewes had a wife and many children to support (though he was separated from them) and Eliot had the courage to live with him as a wife, considered a scandal according to the conventions of Victorian England. Mead is entranced by their love story, and believes that without Lewes’s love, support, and business acumen Eliot wouldn’t have been able to achieve her great success as a writer, especially the completion of Middlemarch.

Probably Mead’s biggest goal in writing My Life in Middlemarch was to convey the powerful themes of Eliot’s work. Mead wanted to understand Eliot at the deepest level. How did her personality and her life experiences shape her beliefs? What drove her as a writer? (Eliot was driven—she wrote the twelve hundred manuscript pages of Middlemarch over a period of two to three years, despite suffering from migraine headaches and other illnesses.)

For Mead, the main theme of Middlemarch is the individual’s process of attaining empathy for others, of escaping from the egocentric viewpoint. Eliot believed that only by reaching true understanding and sympathy for others could people increase the amount of goodness in the world. Mead quotes from a 1956 essay of Eliot’s entitled “The Natural History of German Life”. Eliot wrote:

The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies…Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot. (p. 158)

In another essay, written in 1858 about poet Edward Young, Mead quotes what Eliot wrote about morality:

In proportion as morality is emotional, i.e., has affinity with Art, it will exhibit itself in direct sympathetic feeling and action, and not as the recognition of a rule. ( p. 238)

Mead uses the marriage of Dorothea Brooke and Edward Casaubon in Middlemarch as an example of how Eliot shows the disastrous effect of not understanding, and not having sympathy for, one’s marriage partner. The extraordinary thing Eliot manages to do, according to Mead, is to elicit the reader’s sympathy for both Dorothea and Casaubon.

I was struck by Mead’s analysis of this because I read Middlemarch decades ago, and the one thing I remember most clearly about the novel was my distaste for Edward Casaubon. To me, he was a completely repulsive character. But Mead has given me a more nuanced view of him. She writes, “Eliot gives a chilling representation of a deadly, unbridgeable distance in marriage: the absolute failure of sympathy.” She convinces me that incompatibility in marriage “consists of two people failing each other in their powers of comprehension,” and she points out ways in which Dorothea fails Casaubon (his injuries to her are more obvious).

All of Eliot’s writing reflected the author’s own quest to share her belief that only by deeply understanding others can people make the world better. She wanted to change peoples’ perceptions. Mead describes Eliot’s motives:

She wanted to know how people worked—not to expose them or embarrass them, but to move them toward a greater self-understanding, and to achieve with them a greater intimacy, however fleeting. (p. 243)

Sympathy for others leads not only to good acts, but can help an individual to gain transcendence; to get beyond a sense of futility about one’s mortality and insignificance. Eliot achieved this kind of self-transcendence as she grew older, as her writing reveals.  Mead quotes a long passage that Eliot wrote at a time when she was deeply depressed. She was in her late twenties, and her father’s death was approaching. She felt isolated, describing herself as a moon, a “cold dark orb.” (p. 264) She expressed her sense of futility by writing “…we see ourselves and all about us as nothing more than miserable agglomerations of atoms… ” (p. 265)

But Mead shows, by quoting from Eliot’s works, that the writer moved beyond this sense of hopelessness and isolation. Mead’s words about Eliot ring beautifully too:

She believed that growth depends upon complex connections and openness to others, and does not derive from a solitary swelling of the self. She became great because she recognized that she was small. (p. 265)

Eliot’s attainment of transcendence is reflected in a condolence letter she wrote to a friend in 1870. Mead quotes this part:

I try to delight in the sunshine that will be when I shall never see it any more…I think it is…possible for us to gain much more independence, than is usually believed, of the small bundle of facts that make our own personality. (p. 265)

Mead gives another exquisite example of Middlemarch’s theme of transcending one’s own limited existence. She describes a scene near the end of the book. Dorothea has just passed a miserable sleepless night during which she pondered her (mistaken) discovery that Rosamond and Ladislaw (the man Dorothea loves) were in love. She looks out the window and sees a man, a woman carrying a baby, and other figures moving in the first light of a field. Mead quotes a lengthy passage from this scene; part of it is as follows:

Far off in the bending sky was the pearly light; and she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold waking of men to labour and endurance. She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining. (pp. 272–273)

Ah, such writing! Mead has chosen well to give us this passage with its iconic images and words so beautifully expressing Dorothea’s epiphanic realization that she is part of something bigger than herself.

Mead analyzes another stunning example of Eliot’s superlative command of language. She starts by telling us that the final sentence of Middlemarch is “one of the most admired in literature.” The sentence is about Eliot’s character Dorothea Brooke, whom Mead describes as “a heroine of the ordinary.” Here is the final sentence of Middlemarch:

But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

What I found most interesting was a different draft of that sentence that Mead found in a manuscript at the British Library. It reads:

But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive; for the growing life of the world is after all chiefly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is owing to many of those who sleep in unvisited tombs, having lived a hidden life nobly. (p. 270)

Mead analyzes the differences between the two drafts at length, but I could immediately hear how much poorer Eliot’s first draft was. The lack of musicality in the first draft is obvious even to an untrained reader. It’s inspirational to find out that a writer of Eliot’s stature and experience could improve so much upon her own words. And in that final, masterful version we see a kind of English that is seldom written any longer: the sentence is long and contains many clauses, yet it is not difficult to read because of its perfect, balanced rhythm. Every word is carefully chosen to reflect the exact meaning and mood that Eliot intended.


Quotes in this blog post from:

Mead, Rebecca. (2014). My Life in Middlemarch. Toronto: Bond Street Books.

Social Media & ePublishing with Sean Cranbury at Canadian Authors Vancouver

Canadian Authors Vancouver Meeting, March 12, 2014

Social Media & ePublishing with Sean Cranbury

by Nancy Tinari

On March 12, 2014, Canadian Authors Vancouver had the privilege of hosting Sean Cranbury, creator of Books on the Radio, as the guest speaker at their monthly meeting.

Cranbury overwhelmed his listeners (in a good way) with his energy, his humour, his obvious love of books, and his expertise in the subject of ePublishing and the role social media plays in it.

About Sean Cranbury

Cranbury began his presentation by summarizing his experience in books and publishing. His career in books started out in the late ‘80s when he worked for an independent bookstore, Chapman Books. He subsequently also worked at Sophia Books and the Virgin Megastore in downtown Vancouver.

One of his key achievements was starting the Real Vancouver Writers’ Series in 2010. In February 2010, as most people will remember, Vancouver hosted the Winter Olympics. Cranbury realized that no literary events had been planned to celebrate the talent of Canadian writers during this world-class spectacle. So he started the Real Vancouver Writers’ Series, which showcased the work of 44 writers over four weeks during the time of the Olympic competitions.

Cranbury also created Books on the Radio, a radio show that airs on the Simon Fraser University (SFU) station CJSF 90.1 FM. You can find more information about Books on the Radio and the Real Vancouver Writers’ Series at On Twitter, use #BOTR.

Cranbury also works with the Surrey International Writers’ Conference (SIWC) and put in a few plugs for that event during his presentation. SIWC is an international literary festival where writers can meet other writers as well as agents, editors, and marketing experts. Writers can sign up for 15-minute blue-pencil sessions with an agent to pitch their book. You can find SIWC at . This year’s conference takes place October 24–26, 2014, with master classes on October 23. The conference hosts a writing contest that includes several categories and cash prizes; submissions are $15 each. You can read more about the contest at .

Cranbury’s rave about the Internet

Very early in his presentation, Cranbury raved about the Internet. He said something like, “It’s the biggest achievement of mankind since the invention of language.” According to him, the Internet is ending the traditional business model.


Most people and businesses talk about piracy of content—in whatever medium, whether it is the written word, music, photography, etc.—as being a huge problem. Cranbury energetically opposes this view. He believes the books that are shared the most online are also the ones that sell the most! Sharing is what sells books: online sharing generates enthusiasm and has the potential for exponentially-growing publicity.

Cranbury gave us a whirlwind oral tour through topics relating to self-publishing and social media that lasted just over an hour. He only had time to touch on each subject for five or ten minutes, but it was clear that he could easily provide an hour or even a day-long seminars’ worth of information on every topic. I will briefly mention some highlights of his talk.

Social media platforms: which to use?

Cranbury emphasized the power of social media throughout the evening. At the beginning of his talk, he asked if any audience members had heard about a recent forum on Canadian literature that took place in Montreal. Only one audience member was aware of this forum. When she volunteered that she had learned about it through a post by a Facebook friend, Cranbury leaped in, saying, “Aha! That’s how it happens!”

However, it  was reassuring to learn that he doesn’t think it’s necessary to use every platform out there. His advice was to use the minimum number of tools necessary to do the job. He recommended Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress. For book lovers, Goodreads is also helpful. Someone in the audience asked Cranbury about using Google+. He said it is used only by select groups; you can ignore it unless you’re  interacting with these groups.

The key idea is to use social media to build relationships that will help you in your work. And even though he is keen about the Internet, Cranbury acknowledges the irreplaceable value of meeting others in person.


This is a huge topic, but Cranbury specifically mentioned the website for Do It Yourself (DIY) publishing. This company was started by Hugh McGuire. Cranbury quoted a recent tweet by @hughmcguire; it was something like this: “The distinction between ‘the internet’ & ‘books’ is totally arbitrary, and will disappear in 5 years.” is a one-stop publishing platform. It is free unless you get the premium version that will give you custom templates, cover design, editing help, or access to a distribution network. The free service will allow you to produce online file forms (ePubs) for various devices. However, Cranbury stressed the need to have a properly-designed book; you can’t just plug your Word file into the site without formatting it carefully.

I did some research by looking at the Pressbooks website. It is a nicely organized, simple website that is easy to navigate. The site includes some guidance and links to extra help for writers who are proficient with software and want to do everything themselves. The free version includes a choice of three templates plus the option to individualize templates, but it does not include editing or cover design. Paid versions of the service are available, varying in price between $300 and $700, depending on the length of the manuscript and the number of images included. A custom design option allows you to create a unique in-house style, but this is expensive! It costs $2,500 or more to have a theme built from scratch.

You can also pay for a distribution network. Cranbury stressed that this is extremely valuable for writers. Starting at $99, authors can have their book listed on the databases of the books giants for distribution into Kindle, iBooks, Nook, and Kobo.

Print On Demand

Cranbury mentioned the growing availability of POD. There are machines all over the world that can print your book.

Cranbury is a big fan of this site. It’s an audio-sharing site, and you can get a free account that allows you to share a few hours of audio a month. Soundcloud is mainly a music site. When I explored it briefly, I was overwhelmed by the choice of music available. The site offers new musicians great exposure, but Cranbury pointed out that it can be a great tool for writers as well. You can do readings from your book to generate publicity. Also, you will attract new followers by catering to an audience that prefers to listen to content rather than read it. Podcasts are very popular, and people can listen while driving or doing other activities that can’t be mixed with reading.

Again on the subject of piracy, Cranbury offered a fascinating tidbit: “More vinyl records are being sold now than ever before in history!” They come with free, sharable MP3s. This demonstrates, again, the value of sharing.

Internet listening posts

Cranbury talked about metrics briefly, and stressed the importance of finding out how people are looking at your content, who they are, how long they spend on various pages, etc. One example of an Internet listening post is Google Alerts. This is a great way of following the topics and people you want to keep updated about. You can use your own name as an alert to see what people are interested in about you and your content.

Responsive design

Ensuring that your content looks good on all types and sizes of reading devices) is critical.

Thank you

Thank you, Sean Cranbury, for a most entertaining and informative evening!

Sean Cranbury can be contacted at the following: 778-987-8774


Book review: T.Coraghessan Boyle’s Stories II

TCBoyleStoriesIII started reading T.C. Boyle’s second huge anthology of short stories a couple of weeks ago, and I can’t stop. It’s ridiculous: I’m carrying around this 915-page, 5-pound volume with me everywhere in case I have a spare minute to read between errands.

I started to appreciate short stories when I was tutoring high school English and read many great classics with my students. And, like countless readers, I’ve loved the stories of outstanding Canadian short story writer Alice Munro for decades.

However, I always found that short stories are best read in small doses. A good short story is a jewel of condensation that can pack a life, or many lives, into ten or twenty pages.

This T.C. Boyle guy is different. I was hooked after the first story—absolutely driven to keep reading more. I’m steadily plowing through the book, staying up late at night to read, over 500 pages finished.

My clearest thought after reading a couple of stories was, “This guy is a writer. I might as well give up right now. I can never write like this.”

Undoubtedly true, but I’ve tempered my negative thoughts a little since that first reaction.

Boyle’s stories are completely unlike the more domestic, recognizably Canadian stories of some of my favourite writers (Carol Shields and Margaret Laurence among them, in addition to Munro). Every story contains at least one disaster: horrendous falls, mudslides, car crashes, apocalyptic epidemics, baby-killings, severed relationships, scalpings, and more. Yet I promise—this is not just vacuous violence! Somehow, Boyle makes disasters and improbable runs of bad luck seem believable, part of the natural order of human experience.

I briefly thought about returning the book to the library after reading 400 pages or so. I was getting a bit depressed because a high percentage of Boyle’s protagonists are alcoholics and drug-users. His stories are not inspirational ones where the addict recovers and starts a new life. Instead, many of the stories end on a sad or hopeless note because of the destruction wreaked by the protagonist’s uncontrolled behaviour. Some readers will not be able to stomach this negativity; others, like me, will remain hooked because of the virtuosity of Boyle’s writing, the constant surprises, the hope that something good will happen.

And in some of the stories, there is a shockingly unexpected good turn. Sometimes the loser turns into a hero. Two of my favourite stories thus far, “Chicxulub” and “La Conchita,” spring “feel-good” endings on the reader.

Above all, Boyle is a superb entertainer. He’s endlessly inventive. He can make the most awful situations and characters funny. He beguiles you to keep reading, because you can’t predict where a story will go, and you know the next story will be completely different (except that it might star another alcoholic). You might wonder, as I have, “Where does all this darkness come from? Why is T.C. Boyle so obsessed by these loser characters?” But the man is a writing genius. I dare you to read just one story.


Boyle’s Preface to this book is inspirational, a must-read for any aspiring writer, and “worth the price of admission” in itself. Here are some quotes from it:

Boyle explains what he couldn’t have dreamed of when he first started writing: “…to understand that there are no limits and everything that exists or existed or might exist in some other time or reality is fair game for exploration.”

And the way I find his stories irresistible–well, Boyle plans that. “After all, a story is a seduction of the reader, and such a seduction can so immerse him or her that everything becomes plausible.”

More about T.C. Boyle

He’s not only a writing genius, he’s incredibly prolific! He has written fourteen novels, many of them award winners and/or bestsellers. He has also written nine short story collections.

You can find out more about his work at

Margaret Drabble fans will welcome the feast of themes in The Pure Gold Baby

Cover of Margaret Drabble's The Pure Gold BabyBritish writer Margaret Drabble’s latest novel, The Pure Gold Baby, is an intellectual feast of themes that provokes readers to think about mental disabilities, ageing, and difficult choices that people make between nurturing others and achieving their own potential. This may sound grim, and in fact not everyone will like the pitiless honesty of this book and the powerful, disturbing language with which its messages are delivered.

The novel spans most of its protagonist’s adult life. Jessica Speight is an anthropologist whose career begins promisingly with a trip to Africa that she never forgets. In particular, she is struck by observing a group of happy children with fused fingers and toes. The children seem unaffected in any way by their abnormality.

Soon after this trip, Jess becomes a single mother, the result of an affair with one of her married professors. Though her daughter Anna, “the pure gold baby”, has a sunny temperament and is easy to care for, it soon becomes apparent that she is developmentally disabled. Although Anna is socially adept and well-liked by other children, she will never be able to read or acquire the skills to take on any kind of job.

Jess becomes a “city anthropologist”: she makes a decent living writing scientific articles, but does her research only in libraries. Anna is the focus of her life.

The Pure Gold Baby is told from the point of view of Jessica’s neighbour Eleanor, one of the mothers of the children in Anna’s playgroup. This narrator reminds me of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. Like Nick, Eleanor is not a main character in the story: she is an observer and, in a sense, a worshipper of someone quite unlike her. Jess is beautiful and has unusual affairs with men, whereas Eleanor is married and never strays from her husband. Jess is also more educated, well-travelled, and sophisticated than Eleanor. Yet Jess has the unusual burden of Anna, and the reader senses that Eleanor is thankful her life is more “ordinary” than Jess’s.

Hearing Jess’s story from a narrator who is an observer rather than an intimate friend gives the novel a curious atmosphere of detachment. Eleanor is somewhat like an omniscient narrator because much of the story is given from her point of view as an older woman, decades after many of the events she describes have occurred. By then, Jess has confided in her a good deal.

Yet Jess always remains something of a mystery woman. She is described as being “sexually obsessed” with Anna’s father, but we never learn in Jessica’s own words how she feels about him. We are told only that she meets “The Professor” once a week for sex in a nondescript hotel. After a few years of this affair, The Professor and his wife leave England to continue their studies abroad and Jess never sees him again.

The Pure Gold Baby is unusual because it is not traditionally plotted, with rising action, a definite climax, and a resolution. It doesn’t present events selectively to create a neat, logical story. Instead, we see Jessica’s life as the messy, meandering path that real life usually is, with its mixture of intentional choices and decisions made by default (“going with the flow”), and relationships that change over time, often in surprising ways.

This unconventional structure contributes to one of Drabble’s themes: the way life has its unpredictable, uncontrollable, random elements. Eleanor comments that few of the neighbourhood children have grown up to fulfill what their childhood selves seemed to predict: the angelic boy turns bad and ends up in prison, and the mentally disturbed boy is given medication that allows him to live a “normal” life with a job, a wife, and children. Anna, however, has an almost completely predictable life: for her there can be no normal arc of becoming an adult with a family and career of her own.

Much of The Pure Gold Baby is permeated with a sense of sadness about the approach of old age, with its humiliations, disabilities, and regrets. It is Eleanor’s frank musings as an old woman that give the book its tremendous emotional impact despite the reader’s detachment from Jess.

In one section, Eleanor comments on her parents’ decision to sell the family home and buy a bungalow:

We call it downsizing now, but we didn’t then. We hadn’t yet coined that familiarising, patronising, dismissive, yet helpful term for decline and retrenchment, for the beginning of the flat, slow and then descending and accelerating march to death and the little, little room of the grave. (p. 137)

Eleanor reflects that young people never know that getting old is going to happen to them. She remembers going on a school trip to the Rodin Museum in Paris when she was seventeen. She saw Rodin’s bronze of an old woman (later she learned it was called La Belle Heaulmière, or The Helmet-Maker’s Once Beautiful Wife, amongst other names) and was “appalled and offended” by it.

Eleanor gives a horrifying description of Rodin’s sculpture:

She is drooped, sagged, imploded. She is passive. She is a passive recipient of the battery, the assault of time, and of the contempt of men. Her breasts are dry and dangle, her ribs stand out, her skin hangs in folds from her withering frame, her back is bowed in submission. (p. 141)

This section of the book haunted me.

Drabble makes this novel coherent not with a plot-driven structure, but through the interconnectedness of its characters and themes. Ageing is one process that disables us, but some people are physically or mentally disabled from the start, or become mentally ill. Characters with all these disabilities are part of A Pure Gold Baby, and through their stories Drabble shows the changing language, politics, laws, and treatments related to disabled people.

She also gives us fascinating tidbits about great writers who’ve had disabled children or siblings, and either obsessed about them or ignored them: she mentions Jane Austen, Pearl Buck, Saul Bellow, and Japanese novelist Kenzaburō Ōe, who won his Nobel Prize in large part (according to Drabble) “by writing painfully, brutally, repetitively, obsessively about his grossly abnormal son, his son whose brained oozed horribly out of a hole in his head.” (p. 161)

It is only at the end of the book that Drabble creates a neat structure by having Jessica’s story end with a trip to Africa just as it began with one. This time Jess travels with Anna. Jess has achieved progress in a sense by realizing that she doesn’t have to use Anna as an excuse for never returning to Africa. Yet the trip is anti-climactic too; Jess doesn’t see the children with fused fingers that have lingered in her mind for decades; nor does anything else of significance happen. There is no traditional ending.

We are left with a lingering sense of detachment and sadness—and much to ponder.


Quotes in this blog post taken from:

Drabble, Margaret. (2013). The Pure Gold Baby. Toronto: HarperCollins.