The first thing I have to ask is what’s the deal with the paragraphs? Not having chapters is one thing, I don’t think anybody cares whether the breaks in text are numbered or not, but the lack of standard text formatting did bug me from time to time.
Anyway, if you can get past that, there’s still the problem of sorting through the numerous characters. I just finished the book a couple days ago and, though I can remember a fair bit of what happened, and I can remember a fair number of names, I still don’t have straight in my head who did what. I did enjoy it when occasionally the narration of one character’s point of view would mention people in the background which I recognized to be some of the other characters I had read about in a previous scene (even though I still didn’t know their names). As the stories progressed we began to get more and more of a sense that all these people were connected somehow, if only peripherally.
So though there are many characters, some of them only show up for one or two scenes, and they’re almost more like the extras that add more depth the world everybody else is living in. I liked the group of women, like guardian angles or the Fates of Mont Royale. Yesterday on the first day of the Canada Reads debates someone said that this unifying image was a big weak. I would say more that it tried to be more than it needed to be, and so it came off as lacking. There was that drama with—what was her name? the sister that was afraid she ruined her knitting project—which begged for more explanation that never came. It was used as a way to tell the reader who these women were, but I think that the other mechanisms available—making it clear that they could not be seen, for example—where enough.
In the end I think the only thing I really disliked about this book was how difficult it was to keep all the relationships straight. I think the contribution each character made to an otherwise enjoyable narrative was washed out by the fact that I was rarely aware of who anything was actually happening to. The characters I was most interested in turned out to be the ones that made the fewest appearances. The only pregnant woman I was interested in is the one who didn’t know what pregnancy was, and I only recognized her in two scenes.
This book definitely ranks above Mercy Among the Children but I still don’t have a stand-out favourite between this, The Outlander, and Fruit. I’m only halfway through The Book of Negroes, and though it definitely has the advantage of a heavy kind of story, I can’t say it’s dramatically better. I’ll write more about it when I finish it. In the meantime, I think I’ll probably let myself be convinced by the panel on Canada Reads itself.