Review | The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, Padma Viswanathan

18142312How does one deal with the loss of loved ones to a bomb on a plane? How does one cope when, twenty years after the attack, suspects are finally brought to trial for the crime? Psychologist Ashwin Rao, who lost his sister, niece and nephew in a fatal bombing of an Air India flight from Vancouver, deals with his grief by writing a book on the families of other victims on that flight. He becomes particularly drawn into the story of one Canadian family, whose members have dealt with their grief in very different ways.

In The Ever After of Ashwin RaoPadma Viswanathan explores various ways that people respond to loss. Through Rao’s eyes, we see the unique difficulties of facing such a violent, unexpected death for a loved one — in one particularly powerful scene, two men from the same family search through images of bodies salvaged from the crash, looking for anyone from their family. One of them looks through the photographs methodically, column by column and row by row lest he miss faces he recognizes. The other lets his eyes dart around, barely registering on one photo before moving to another spot, haphazardly chosen. The reason, the first man realizes and relates to Rao, is that the second man wants to register only his own family members; he doesn’t want the burden of anyone else’s grief.

Along with grief is an undercurrent of anger throughout the story. Rao refers to a book on the bombing written by Bharati Mukherjee and Clark Blaise, and the inadequacies of the text to properly represent the tragedy. For example, a passage in the book refers to the children on the flight, how well they and their families have assimilated into Canadian life, and how tragic their deaths were. Rao points out, and quite rightly, that the children’s “Canadian” traits were  and should be completely irrelevant — the tragedy of their deaths is simply because they died. Tied in to this is Rao’s anger at the Canadian government’s handling of the bomb. Other than their apparent incompetence in solving the crime, Rao compares the bombing to 9/11, and wonders why America took 9/11 personally whereas Canada seemed to consider the bombing an Indian tragedy, rather than a Canadian one, despite the number of Canadians on board.

The root of this anger is political, and it turns out that Rao was in India when Indira Gandhi is assassinated in 1984 and anti-Sikh sentiment turns violent. The horror of the riots is heightened by its contrast with the silly, manufactured horror of a haunted house Rao has set up for the neighbourhood children to introduce them to Halloween. Viswanathan is at her best when contrasting innocence with horror, and continues in this vein when dealing with victims’ stories, particularly families’ memories of the children on the flight. Later, some of the families blame Sikhs for the Air India bombing, echoing the violence back in India.

The thrust of the book is more personal than political however, and soon Rao sublimates his own grief and anger and focuses on the subjects of his book. While these stories are interesting in their own right — the family patriarch for example turns to religion, his daughter is stuck in a sexless marriage, and so on — the story to me loses some of the momentum that propelled the beginning so well. The writing is still solid throughout, as the author switches between perspectives, but the fire has been dampened somewhat, and the story never quite reaches its peak.

+

Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Listen to the Squawking Chicken, Elaine Lui

18339631Not just anybody can call their mother a squawking chicken and get away with it; then again, from her memoir, Elaine Lui (Lainey Gossip) has a pretty distinctive mother. “As soon as you hear her, you’ll never forget her,” Lui promises, revealing that “Squawking Chicken” is actually a nickname her mother earned when growing up in Hong Kong because of her “wailing siren” of a voice. We don’t literally hear the Squawking Chicken’s voice and Listen to the Squawking Chicken is ostensibly more about the author’s relationship with her mother rather than the mother herself, but indeed it is the character of the mother that dominates this book and leaves a lasting impression on the reader’s mind.

A quote often used in the book’s publicity, and it captures the feel of the book perfectly:

Most people think I’m exaggerating at first when I talk about the Chinese Squawking Chicken. But once they actually spend some time with her, they understand. They get it. Right away. She’s Chinese, she squawks like a chicken, she is totally nuts, and I am totally dependent on her.

With such a title, Lui faces the risk of turning her own mother into a caricature, yet her obvious affection for the woman shines through, and even at her most “wailing siren” moments, Lui’s mother still retains the complexity and tenderness that makes her such a memorable figure.

The Squawking Chicken is at times a harsh mother, her love for her daughter expressed by making sure her daughter is well equipped for life’s disappointments. On the subject of Miss Hong Kong, she immediately dismisses her daughter’s chances, saying that her daughter didn’t inherit her good looks enough to be a contender for the title. When asked why she tells her daughter ghost stories rather than fairy tales in bed, she quite reasonably points out that it is the hard times that we should prepare for, not the good things that will happen. And when her daughter gets a bit too proud of a high mark in class, the Squawking Chicken loudly and publicly bemoans her arrogance given such an inconsequential achievement. In a world and at a time when children are routinely praised just for trying, it may be difficult to appreciate this somewhat harsher form of parenting, yet underlying it all is such an obvious desire for her daughter to be prepared for life.

Lui also gives us insight into her mother’s story, which reveals much about why she may have adopted such a parenting style. The image of the demure Chinese woman is a completely outdated stereotype, yet Lui’s mother does challenge the traditional Chinese adage about not airing dirty laundry in public. She is fearless in taking any family member’s dirty laundry to public eye, and in one of my favourite scenes, loudly and publicly confronts the mistress of one of her friends’ husband. The reason for this becomes clear as we learn more about her childhood, and the incident that tips her over and forces her to unleash her voice is horrific and somewhat inspiring, a superhero-level epic origin story that transforms an ordinary, nice woman into a remarkable figure.

Lui’s mother is fearless, because she has to be, and she teaches her daughter this same fearlessness. She is a dominant figure in her daughter’s life, and certainly after this book, she will also be a dominant figure in our imaginations. Peppered throughout the book as well are some useful life lessons — don’t cut bangs after thirty, eat a papaya a day (but for Lui’s husband, it must be a banana instead, because reasons) and don’t be “low classy”. Likely, nothing will happen if you don’t obey, and anything that does happen is likely just self-fulfilling prophecy. But, just in case, it can’t hurt to eat that papaya, can it?

+

Thank you to Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (Flavia de Luce #6), Alan Bradley

17834904The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches takes the Flavia de Luce series in a completely different direction, and while the writing is still great and the mystery enjoyable, I’m not quite sure how I feel about this shift in the series.

The book begins with the return of Flavia’s long-lost mother Harriet, and what that means for the de Luce family. Waiting on the platform for her mother’s train, Flavia receives a hurried, whispered message from a mysterious man, who shortly after gets killed on the train tracks. Winston Churchill makes a cameo, there is a mysterious reference to pheasants, and Flavia returns to Buckshaw with her family. All of this happens in the first chapter of the grandest Flavia de Luce adventure yet.

Previous Flavia mysteries have had a cozy feel, Nancy Drew meets Miss Marple in a small village setting. There have always been hints in the background at a larger mystery involving the de Luce family (much of which I admit I chalked up to Flavia’s rich imagination) and Vaulted Arches finally tackles this mystery head on. Bradley takes Flavia de Luce into Maisie Dobbs territory. There is espionage, matters of national importance, secret codes, and Flavia is caught up right in the thick of it. We still get the classic Flavia elements — bickering older sisters, Dogger, Buckshaw — but the stakes are higher than ever before.

Vaulted Arches also introduces a more mature Flavia. Much more thoughtful than in previous instalments, Flavia appears very conscious of being twelve and on the verge of growing up. She still has her delightfully childish moments, most often when dealing with unlikeable cousin and new character Undine, but overall, this is Flavia growing up, and kudos to Bradley for keeping it real and allowing us to see the character develop. We also get to see a classic Flavia de Luce science experiment, Flavia’s darkest and most disturbing attempt in the whole series, yet also the most fraught with emotional heft. Also a nice counterpoint to Flavia’s growing up, the experiment reveals an almost desperate need to cling to childlike belief, because the potential payoff is so very high.

It’s difficult to keep such a long running series fresh, particularly when there is such a significant thread of a backstory tying everything together and preventing the series from being purely episodic. So in a way, I’m glad Bradley took the series in this direction — it’s a natural progression for Flavia as a sleuth and a way to take the mysteries to another level. Future Flavia mysteries will likely continue on in this vein, and the very next one (minor spoiler alert) will be set away from Buckshaw, a clear signal that this is a whole new type of Flavia de Luce mystery. Personally though, I’ll miss the cozy, small scale feel of the first few mysteries. I’ll certainly keep following the Flavia mysteries, and am excited to see how Bradley takes this series forward, yet I’ll always have a special place on my shelf for the beginning of the series, and the irrepressible turn of the century Nancy Drew racing around the dark passages of her family estate.

+

Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.