2000 - 2007 Historical Fiction Other Prizes Recommended books

Sweetness in the Belly – Camilla Gibb

 Finalist for the 2005 Giller Prize

I hadn’t heard of this book, but during a discussion on Canadian literature Claire recommended it and kindly lent me her copy.  I’m so pleased that she brought it to my attention as it was a fantastic read.

Sweetness in the Belly is set in Ethiopia, Morocco and England. The main theme of the book is identity and what it means to be accepted in a community, but this book looks at things from a slightly different angle to other books on immigration.

The central character is Lilly, born to white British parents keen to explore the world. From birth Lilly travels the globe with them, but at the age of eight her parents are killed in Morocco, leaving Lilly to be brought up at a Sufi Shrine. This leads Lily to become a devout Muslim. Political unrest in Morocco forces her to leave the country as a teenager and so she heads for the Ethiopian holy city of Harar. She eventually finds a place for herself in this ancient walled city, but the start of Mengistu’s reign of terror leads her to return to London, a country that feels very alien to her.

It sounds as though I’ve just told you the whole plot, but we learn these facts quite quickly. The book flips forwards and backwards in time, showing us Lilly’s life in each country. It was fascinating to compare the traditions of each country and to learn a bit more about the terrible situation in 1970s Ethiopia. (I first learnt about of Mengistu’s reign of terror by reading Cutting for Stone earlier this year.)

“There is never anything about Ethiopia,” he laments as we watch the world morphing before our eyes. “It is as if it does not exist.”
“Ethiopia doesn’t matter to the West,” I say, stating the obvious. “We offer them nothing they can exploit.”
This has proved both a blessing and a curse. We can feel proud that Ethiopia resisted Europe’s colonial overtures, but then we have to accept that the country does not exist in the European imagination as anything but a starving, impoverished nation with just about the highest rates of infant mortality, the lowest average life expectancy and the lowest rates of literacy in the world. As a story of famine and refugees.

I loved Lilly’s character and was touched by the difficulties she faced. Sweetness in the Belly was easy to read, thought provoking and became gripping as it progressed.

I highly recommend this to anyone who loves epic tales of love and loss and those interested in cultural identity.

Have you read anything written by Camilla Gibb?

I loved this book and so plan to seek out as many of her books as I can.

Which ones do you recommend?



2009 Other Prizes

Red Dog, Red Dog – Patrick Lane

 Long listed for the 2008 Giller Prize

Red Dog, Red Dog has intrigued me for a while. A few people were convinced it would make the 2009 Booker long list and so I almost picked it up last year. For some reason it never quite made it to the top of the TBR pile then, but almost a year on I finally got round to reading it.

Red Dog, Red Dog is set in a small town in British Columbia, Canada. The book centres on one troubled family: a violent husband, a depressed mother and her two troubled sons.  Much of the book is narrated by their dead baby sister, which sounds a bit weird but it actually worked very well. The book follows their lives over the course of one week in 1958. The short time scale meant that there wasn’t room for a complex plot, but their relationships and emotions were well explored.

My enjoyment of this book fluctuated massively as I read it. Some scenes captivated me, drawing me into the troubled world and creating a strong emotional bond between me and the boys; but then I’d read several chapters in a row without becoming involved at all. The writing became very passive and I began to lose interest. I think this was a deliberate plot devise as the writing kept switching between total engagement and boredom, but I found it very frustrating.

The tone of the book was quite dark:

The dead came crowding in, each with a story, what happened and when, who was there and why. Most faded into fragments, faint murmurs, the stories rising as if from narrow caves, the sounds distorted, vowels drawn out into echoes, consonants clipped and rattling like a snake’s tail whirring in the sagebrush, the same kind of warning, the dead telling me things that they thought I needed to know, tales from so far back they no longer had any meaning except to the ones who told them.

The whole book was quite emotionally draining so I recommend that you are in the right frame of mind before attempting it.

Overall, I’m going to sit on the fence on this one. It had moments of brilliance alongside some very dull sections. I think you’ll have to make up your own mind!


Have you read Red Dog, Red Dog?

2000 - 2007 Other Prizes

De Niro’s Game – Rawi Hage

Winner of the 2008 International IMPAC Literary Award, Shortlisted for the Giller Prize 2008

I picked up De Niro\’s Game‘); ?> after a recommendation from Claire at Kiss a Cloud, but I’m afraid that I didn’t love it as much as she did.

The book follows Bassam and George, childhood friends growing up in war-torn Beirut. As you can imagine it isn’t a pleasant read – graphic scenes of death and destruction fill every chapter.  The whole atmosphere of the book is one of helplessness and depression. I appreciate that this is probably a very realistic picture of what life is like for people living with war, but it meant that I found it a very difficult book to read. There didn’t seem to be any spark of hope, only choices between two equally terrible outcomes. I found it difficult to bond with the characters and their violent, vulgar attitude further distanced me from them.

I can see why Claire loved this book – the scenes were described vividly, and the story was both shocking and compelling.

That night, through the flames of a million candles that brawled inside the neighbourhood houses, I walked. Under those lights, hazy behind nylon sheets that covered our broken windows, I walked the streets with no dogs. I walked, and the candles danced inside a city with injured walls, a city void of light, a broken city wrapped in plastic, and plastered with bullet holes.

At times I became annoyed by the repetition. I realise that it was a powerful means to describe the situation the people were faced with, but if I read the words “Ten thousand bombs had fallen” one more time I think I’ll scream!

Overall, this is a beautifully written book, but the futility was too much for me.



Have you read De Niro’s Game?

Can you enjoy a book which deals only with devastation?

Book Prizes Other Other Prizes

Giller Prize Longlist 2009

The longlist for the Giller Prize 2009 was announced yesterday. The Giller prize is awarded annually to the best Canadian fiction. The titles to make it through were:

  • The Year of the Flood – Margaret Atwood
  • The Incident Report – Martha Bailie
  • The Disappeared – Kim Echlin
  • The Heart Specialist  – Claire Holden Rothman
  • The Color of Lighting – Paulette Jiles
  • The Factory Voice – Jeanette Lynes
  • The Golden Mean – Annabel Lyon
  • The Bishop’s Man – Linden MacIntyre
  • Fall – Colin McAdam
  • The Winter Vault – Anne Michaels
  • Valmiki’s Daughter – Shani Mootoo
  • The Mistress of Nothing – Kate Pullinger

The only authors I had heard of were Anne Michaels and Margaret Atwood, but a quick browse through the list of previous books to make the shortlist revealed a lot of ones that I not only recognised, but also loved. Although I am not planning to read the entire longlist, or even the shortlist when it is announced on 6th October, I am going to pay much more attention to this prize in the future.

I am planning to read a few books shortlisted for the Giller prize soon.

Next week I am going to read De Niro’s Game by Rawi Hage. This was originally recommended to me by Claire from Kiss a Cloud. It won the 2008 International IMPAC Literary Award, but I didn’t realise it had been shortlisted for the Giller as well.

I am also planning to read Alligator by Lisa Moore soon. I discovered it at a car boot sale and loved the cover and blurb. I have never heard anyone mention it before though – have you read Alligator?

On twitter yesterday we were discussing the Giller prize; Nymeth recommended Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson and Claire recommended The Garneau Block by Todd Babiak. I ordered both, so I’ll get round to reading them at some point too.

I’d like to remind you that my favourite book won the Giller Prize in 2001. If you haven’t read A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry yet – you are missing out!

Do you follow the Giller Prize?

Which is your favourite book from the Giller Prize shortlists?