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Letters in Canada 1998 Fiction 1 / SUSAN KNUTSON Although fewer books by first-time authors of fiction were received for review in 1998 than was the case in 1997 or 1996, the year's production will be remembered for its accomplishments. The collection is also notable for its startling diversity of idiom and world view. This year's stories and novels are set everywhere - from Newfoundland to Thailand, northern Manitoba, Hungary, and Louisiana, to name a few of the places made vivid in Canadian fiction this year. These works, with their seven-league boots, exhibit moreover a wide generic range - there are romance and adventure novels, family histories, transgender performance pieces, mysteries, postmodern and realistic, picaresques in two varieties, traditional patriarchal and au feminin, and short story collections in the vein of Alice Munro, Alistair MacLeod, and Mavis Gallant. There is a pervasive concern with issues of spirituality, sexuality, transformation, and abuse. There is a lot of very good writing, and there are at least two important novels dema.nding further study: Tomson Highway's The Kiss of the Fur Queen and Kerti Sakamoto's The Electrical Field. The Electrical Field (Knopf Canada, 305, $29.95), shortlisted for the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award, is not a light read; I could hardly bear it at first, and now, several months later, I can't get it out ofmy mind. The story takes place during the 19705 in an Ontario subdivision built around a field of electrical transformer towers - not a healthful environment but one that is accepted without complaint by the novel's Japanese-Canadian community, traumatized as itisby the nuclear devastation in Japan, and the internment, deportation, and racist discrimination which took place inCanada during and after the Second World War. Asako Saito, the repressed, dishonest, and highly unreliable narrator, is a middleaged , never-married woman who cares for her invalid father and seemingly simple-minded adult brother, Sturn. It is perhaps a good thing that she represses her emotions, since in so far as she expresses them, they are fairly scary: her obsessive and emotionally incestuous relationship withher older UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 69, NUMBER I, WINTER 1999/2000 2 LETTERS IN CANADA 1998 brother, Eiji; her sexual attraction to Yano, her friend Chisako's husband; her attraction to and jealousy of Chisako herself; her possessive and voyeuristic obsession with the girl, Sachl; and her destructive, self-satisfied desire to be superior in every way to her younger brother Sturn. When she daydreams about Eiji's funeral she recalls, for example, how she had frustrated Sturn's need to understand something of his family's past, hiding photographs, denying the truth and lying - for the sake of what? 'I could smile now, remembering all this as I tucked away that leaflet. The thought of my poor baby brother fretting about nothing, about a past that had little to do with him.' The depth of her cruelty and denial in scenes such as this one eventually leaves the reader wondering just how unpleasant Asako Saito really is, and what other crimes she may have committed that she will never admit, even to herself. The Electrical Field is also a murder mystery, and the reader's curiosity is articulated and paralleled by the probing intelligence of Detective Rossi - a hero of the Philip Marlowe variety who provides a broad shoulder to cryan and the drive and the skill to tease out as much of the truth as one can reasonably hope for. Sakamoto mixes injust enough of the detective genre to lighten up the pain of the rest of the novel and keep us reading to the end. It is masterfully done. Ashok Mathur's Once upon an Elephant (Arsenal Pulp, 21.4, $16.95) also uses the murder mystery genre as a vehicle, in this case for material at once comic and critical. The novel opens as one Judge McEchern surveys the spectators in his courtroom: Tawdry looking bunch. A few foreigners. He doesn't say things like this aloud any more because of those pesky young lawyers who keep sniffing around, looking for any excuse to prove he's gone off the deep end, senile...


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