As a general rule, I try to avoid reading books that win big literary prizes.
The award-winning sets expectations too high or something, because the experience of reading the book is always tainted by the question: “what did the judges see that I’m missing?”
It’s not that these award winning books aren’t good or well written, it’s that they seem to be letting us know how very clever they are while being good and well written. On occasion, I’ve lost the plot entirely on one of these prize winning books. Once a book wins a literary prize, it’s hard to say anything bad about it for fear you’ll demonstrate lack of intelligence or your own fallibility and opening oneself up for such a perspective is never pleasant. Basically, reading these prize-winning books and not understanding what all the fuss is about makes me feel stupid.
I read Bellevue Square, by Michael Redhill, with the same trepidation I read any book that wins the Scotiabank Giller Prize (his did) or similar literary accolade. It was an intriguing and unravelling mystery about a woman named Jean who is confronted with a doppleganger who so resembles her that her customers mistake this other woman for her and vice-versa. Jean, herself a mother, wife and bookshop owner, becomes obsessed with this other woman and begins spending all of her time in Bellevue Square, a park in Toronto filled with drug addicts, homeless folks, the mentally ill and vagrants, trying to unravel the mystery of her doppleganger. Fresh setting, experimental storytelling—all good. Redhill is kind and empathetic towards in his representation of mentally ill characters. Jean admits later in the book that she has learned how to be more open minded and compassionate to those she may have previously marginalized before she got to know them.
On the other hand, the internet has a lot to say about how male authors write women characters. There are some interesting and telling differences between how men write women and how women write women characters.
Early on, about some inconsequential character Redhill writes: “She wore two pieces of clothing: a tight white halter top with white spaghetti straps cutting into her burnt shoulders and a pair of white Lycra shorts. White sunglasses, a layer of lipstick as red as a car crash. Also, I had to presume, no underwear: the front of her shorts looked like someone had painted over a tarantula.” I physically winced. The woman goes on to drink two beers in the park and the narrator assumes she lives in a rooming house nearby. We never meet this woman again. She’s a two paragraph blip written into the main character’s musings about her alcoholic father. Visceral writing for sure, but the men denizens are written more gently and given larger roles to play. The women characters in the background get killed or remain nameless, for the most part.
Jean herself could be any gender, despite her role as a mother, sister and wife. There’s is nothing in her narration or voice that mandated her character be a woman. Mother, sister, wife—these seem more like trappings to create the sense she is a woman, rather than relying on her character, perspective and personality to drive this point home.
Is this all there is to the book? Of course not. There’s a lot happening in every word, in every line, in every paragraph. But I was distracted by these moments of peculiarity, especially when at one point early on I forgot that Jean was a female character all together. I’m all for diversity in how writers portray gender (yes, women can be more than one thing at a time, and can even be unfeminine). But it was a strange sensation in a book about what makes a person who they are, identity, perspective, and mental health.
Michael Redhill was at Event 1 (Between the Pages: An Evening with the Scotiabank Giller Prize Finalists) at the 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival.