Novel Ideas

Reviewed by Kit Dobson

These novels have little in common, besides the fact that both authors were born in London, England, and are Canadian-raised (in Toronto in Gibb’s case; Vancouver in Rachman’s). Beyond that, the two can best be compared as recent publications that are garnering interest. They are contemporary novels whose narratives move between the present tense (well, 2007 in Rachman’s case) and a relatively brief historical period (within the memories of still-living characters, for the most part).
I would like to begin with the conversations that have been taking place about Rachman’s debut novel, The Imperfectionists. Much of the conversation has centred around the front cover review by Christopher Buckley in The New York Times Review of Books from 10 April, 2010 (complete with illustration by Seth). Buckley’s review is a rave, and has prompted a great deal of interest in the book (as I write, Brad Pitt’s production company is rumoured to be completing a screenplay adaptation, and reviews have been published in major publications across the English-speaking world). While ambivalent reviews are out there (especially ones that respond to the Times review), there is a lot of praise to be found: “almost note perfect,” declares Kevin Chong in The Globe and Mail; “a precise, playful fiction,” states Ed Cumming in the Times Literary Supplement. This sort of reception is about the best-case scenario that a first-time writer could hope for. Rachman, a journalist who has worked in many countries and who currently lives in Rome, is likely happy with the results.

The next step, of course, is to consider the book itself. Why all the hype? The book is about an unnamed English-language daily newspaper published out of Rome. Founded in the post-war period, it persists into the present era as a faltering twelve-page daily paper with a slim subscription base of 10,000 readers and no internet presence. The paper is the device that brings the characters in the book together; effectively, The Imperfectionists is a series of vignettes about people who work at the paper or are otherwise connected to it, like the aging, hapless Lloyd Burko, the Paris correspondent who is so desperate for a story that he exploits his son for leads; Winston Cheung, who knows nothing about newspapers but travels to Cairo to attempt to become the paper’s correspondent; and Ornella de Monterecchi, a loyal reader of the paper who obsessively reads each issue cover-to-cover, leaving her stuck in the mid-1990s. Each vignette tends to revolve around a short sequence of events in the focal character’s life that leads to a change in her or his fortunes or otherwise. Between these vignettes, Rachman inserts a more historically driven narrative about the rise and fall of the newspaper from its founding by Cyrus Ott in the 1950s to its demise at the hands of Oliver Ott, his heir, who is given a vignette of his own. The younger—and clearly lesser—Ott is a weak man, more interested in his dog Schopenhauer than in human interaction. His inaction drives the paper into the ground, and the final action of the novel, in which his dog is killed by an employee of the paper, typifies the generally mean-spirited nature of the characters.

So, is it a good book? I can understand why newspapers have tended to review it well: a number of reviews comment on the book’s “authenticity” in reporting the newspaper business. A book about the industry is likely to be good reading for those within it. I remain somewhat unconvinced, however. While the structure of the book, interlacing the vignettes with the historical narrative of the paper’s rise and fall, is intelligent, it also becomes somewhat rigid, forcing Rachman to portion out his text in even-sized chunks despite the material, which may warrant more variety. In other words, the form feels somewhat forced. That said, the deeply flawed characters are generally readable, even if a couple—like Rich Snyder, Winston Cheung’s antagonist and competitor for the Cairo job—are caricatures of themselves. The Imperfectionists is, in short, a deeply competent first book, but it leaves Rachman room to grow.

Camilla Gibb’s novel, The Beauty of Humanity Movement, on the other hand, shows an author whose experience allows range and flexibility. The novel is particularly anticipated given the success of her 2005 novel, Sweetness in the Belly, winner of the 2006 Trilium Book Award. The Beauty of Humanity Movement is set in Vietnam, and follows the lives of characters in Hanoi who have their pasts, presents, and futures altered by Maggie, who is born in Vietnam but raised in the United States. Maggie returns to Hanoi to work for the Hotel Metropole as a curator for the hotel’s art collection. Her return to Vietnam is the result of a desire to discover what happened to her father through the years of colonization, political upheaval, and war that Vietnamese citizens have endured. The Beauty of Humanity movement itself is a fictionalized artistic movement that is violently repressed by the communist government for its failure to conform to its doctrines, and Maggie’s father’s participation in the group led to his internment and, it appears, his death. Maggie’s access to this information is limited: she searches Hanoi for people who know this history, and discovers Hu’ng, an old Phở seller who used to serve artists as the communist regime in the north of Vietnam came into power. Little by little, Maggie, Hu’ng, and his friend Bình and Bình’s son Tu’ are able to help Maggie uncover the layers of the past—and have their lives altered in the process.

Gibb’s novel is keen-eyed, historically oriented, but not geared towards straightforward documentation. She observes in the endnotes that there is relatively little translated into English from northern Vietnam and, while a simplistic ethnographic fiction could be a temptation in this context, Gibb’s character focus prevents the narrative from claiming any sort of authoritative perspective on Vietnam. Instead, Gibb writes an intelligent novel that is likely to be appreciated by its readers.

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