Two Views from the Giller

Reviewed by Christina Turner

As its title indicates, Mona Awad’s 2016 Giller Prize-nominated debut novel 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is a study in perspective. Over thirteen linked yet autonomous vignettes, we learn the story of Lizzie, then Elizabeth, then Beth, as she navigates her relationships with friends, lovers, parents, and the “shadowy twin” who personifies all of her complicated feelings about her body. The novel’s different perspectives on fatness are provided by Lizzie’s evolving views as she moves from her Catholic high school to college and to a series of unfulfilling temp jobs, and from illicit (and questionably consensual) sexual encounters in suburban parking lots to marriage in a drab southwestern American city.

Perhaps intentionally, Awad never provides us with numbers; we never learn Lizzie’s dress size or body mass index or specific pounds gained and lost, lest readers judge Lizzie against their own arbitrary cultural standard for what constitutes fatness. Instead, we have to take Lizzie’s word for it when she insists on winning “the fat argument” with her best friend, and even when she loses weight and can fit into the tight clothing that previously eluded her. In this sense, 13 Ways is primarily about Lizzie’s seeming inability to love herself in her own body.

Lizzie’s constant struggle to feel comfortable in her own skin could risk sliding into cliché if Awad were not such a master of tone and ambiance. She expertly captures the social milieux Lizzie moves through across the novel—first the deadening ennui of life in suburbia, followed by the enforced cheerfulness of plus-sized clothing stores (where the curtain to the change room is a “Lynchian portal to hell”), and finally the vampiric joylessness of the gym in her condo complex.

Two chapters are written from the perspective of men in Lizzie’s life, serving to establish that, while Lizzie focuses obsessively on her size, others barely notice it. By contrast, we never hear from the other women Lizzie knows, perhaps because 13 Ways is interested in demonstrating how women can be cruel to one another by holding up punishing cultural standards of beauty and size. But the novel also contains fleeting moments of kindness from Lizzie’s perspective, where she expresses empathy, admiration, or even something “almost electric, like love,” for the women she professes to hate. 13 Ways concludes in this way, with Lizzie on the edge of a revelation that just might release her from her prison of limp salad and privation, but one which is ultimately deferred.

Like Awad’s novel, Zoe Whittall’s 2016 novel The Best Kind of People is an experiment in perspective on an important, yet contentious, contemporary issue. (Like 13 Ways, it was also shortlisted for the Giller Prize.) People tells the story of the Woodburys, an elite American family whose patriarch, George, is accused of sexually assaulting students at the prep school where he teaches. The novel’s central conceit is that readers never hear from George directly; he remains a cipher throughout the novel, his guilt or innocence never entirely confirmed. (George’s alleged victims likewise remain silent.) Instead, George becomes a Rorschach blot for the novel’s different characters, alternately depicted as a wealthy man who used his influence to cover up his crimes, as a “man very detached from his body,” for whom such crimes are unthinkable, and as the victim of “institutionalized misandry,” as declared by the men’s rights activists who leap to his defence. More than establishing a hard kernel of truth about George, People is interested in demonstrating how the broad spectrum of sexual violence bleeds into and shapes its characters’ everyday lives.

Because George Woodbury functions as the novel’s absent centre, much of the narrative and characterological emphasis is placed on his immediate family. Joan Woodbury, the matriarch, is the novel’s most complex and compelling character, and her alternating states of rage, disbelief, and despair at her husband’s actions and at the ensuing scandal are convincingly rendered. The Woodbury children sometimes appear flat by comparison. Whittall sometimes chooses to list the emotions her characters are feeling rather than attempting to describe their inner states, and her detailed explanations of hyper-contemporary references (such as one line referring to Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project) sometimes feel unnecessary.

People isn’t necessarily meant to lead its readers to the conclusion that rape culture and sexual violence are complex issues. They are, to be sure, but complexity is often invoked to excuse the persistence of misogyny and victim-blaming in the courts, the press, and the culture at large. Instead, by removing the alleged perpetrator from the action yet retaining his influence on the central characters, Whittall has crafted a novel that registers the echoes and reverberations of sexual violence through time and space.

This review “Two Views from the Giller” originally appeared in Literary History. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 233 (Summer 2017): 127-128.

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