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Review: George Fetherling’s The Carpenter from Montreal, Ven Begamudré’s Extended Families and Norma Dunning’s Annie Muktuk and Other Stories

The Carpenter from Montreal

By George Fetherling

Linda Leith Publishing, 242 pages, $19.95

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Somewhere between New York and Chicago is a steel town that during Prohibition runs liquor from Montreal. It is the heyday of bootleggers Jim Joseph and Pete Sells, Lebanese boys with adopted all-American names who work under the mentorship of a French Canadian known only as "the Carpenter." Decades later, an ex-lawyer, a long-in-the-tooth newspaperman and a ghost narrate an obituary for their city in George Fetherling's latest novel. The people are Fetherling's invention, but the towns … at one point the Carpenter asks Jim Joseph why Americans call their cities "towns," and Joseph replies, "it's a way of showing our affection for it." Joseph's city is now, according to the ghost, "a ghost town." Montreal – the Carpenter's Montreal – is also gone: "Whatever Montreal may have been in the 1930s and 1940s, the city is something else now." Noir is an anti-romantic mode – this is an unvarnished world of violence, corruption and ethnic strife – and yet, it allows Fetherling the kind of affection that makes "towns" of illicit cities of the night.

Extended Families: A Memoir of India

By Ven Begamudré

Coteau Books, 281 pages, $21.95

"There are many ironies in writing fiction that is based on family stories. … Spinning tales makes it difficult to separate what we hear from what we later invent because we can't bear gaps." In 1977, Ven Begamudré, then 21, returned to India, home of his extended family and the country he left at the age of 6. His return coincided with that of his mother and father, although his parents (divorced) arrived separate from each other and Ven remained in fluctuating estrangement from both for the trip. He returned in pursuit of identity (to answer: Was he Indian? or Canadian?), but what he found in India was the opposite of belonging or self. Instead, his journal entries from this trip reveal alienation, dispersal, self-annihilation – what a young man with ambitions to become a writer might deem unbearable "gaps." But it is exactly these gaps – and the young writer's attempt to bridge them in fiction (reproduced here) – that makes this material, returned to in 1991, so interesting (although sometimes repetitive). Not a memoir of identity but of reinvention.

Annie Muktuk and Other Stories

By Norma Dunning

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University of Alberta Press, 216 pages, $19.95

Let's begin with the end. "Husky" – the penultimate story in Norma Dunning's debut collection – opens with a paragraph from Peter C. Newman: Cecil "Husky" Harris, the Hudson's Bay Co. Factor at Poorfish Lake, had three Inuit wives and one year took the entire family for a trip to Winnipeg. Dunning holds Newman's description at ironic distance, for Husky – a white man who assimilated into Inuit life – was her grandfather. Dunning's "Husky," particularly the sections from the perspective of the wives Tetuk, Alaq and Keenaq, tells a very different version of that trip: of family fun, but also the HBC's shame. As the author's bio explains, Dunning was raised in Southern Canada, but "When she began to write about her own ancestors, her Inukness became evident." It is indeed evident in these stories where there is a constant push-pull between young and old, between ancestors (as the dedication says) past, present and future. It is a thoroughly contemporary collection, however – the literary equivalent of the Annie Pootoogook portrait that graces its cover.

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