Wednesday, October 12, 2016

There was a kind of greatness in choosing to be ordinary

I didn't think that The Best Kind of People, by Zoe Whittall, would be my kind of book. I'm still not sure.

I received a review copy some time ago and flipped it over in my hands often. "Domestic drama" — not really my thing. "Sexual assault" — a bit serious. But then one day I just started reading it, and I literally couldn't stop — it's that kind of book.

So, small-town America, perennial teacher of the year is charged with sexual assault of some girls at the school. His daughter's a student there too. So that pretty much tears the family apart, and the whole community.

Weirdly, pretty much everyone in the community at large sees the situation in fairly black-and-white terms, whether from the viewpoint of his accusers to the men's rights advocates; it's the family that suffers all the grey areas in between, all the not knowing. And this novel, refreshingly, is their story, not that of the accused. It is a clash between the public and the private.

The novel ends somewhat ambiguously; guilt or innocence is never firmly established. This may be frustrating for some readers, but I can appreciate that this ending makes writer's sense — the best way to be least offensive and still satisfyingly resolve most of the issues.

I found The Best Kind of People to be compelling, entertaining, and thought provoking, which is maybe all a novel ought to be. I talked about it much more than I usually talk about my reading. That must be significant.

However, I'm not convinced it deserves unqualified praise, so I was surprised to learn it was shortlisted for this year's Giller Prize. While it navigates this thematically difficult territory assuredly, it does verge on didactic in a few scenes. But what niggles at me is the sense that this feels like a young adult novel — though, I can't figure out why, apart from it featuring a 17-year-old girl, which I know in itself does not a YA novel make. Something too simple in the tone? Too ordinary?
Jonathan was understood to be a kind of genius, socially isolated but seemingly uninterested in high school in that way anyway. If he'd had any proficiency in art, drama, or English, he would've matched Sadie's grade point average. George considered him exceptional, which was saying a lot considering he never spoke that way about his students. In public he would claim, "You can do anything you want to do!" and the students would smile bright, beaming tooth-filled symbols of their inner confidence. He considered it part of his job description to instill the anchors of self-esteem. At home he was more disparaging, admitting most kids weren't bound for greatness but conceding there was a kind of greatness in choosing to be ordinary as well.
Here's what's being said around the web...

Bound by Words:
The Best Kind of People is a massively important book. It's aim was not to focus on a grand revelation, or drive home the rights you have as a human being, but instead it offered a rare look inside the mental and emotional states of the people who usually suffer silently.
Buried in Print:
The most unsettling bit of all – how ordinary it is. How often is there a gap between what we expected and what transpired: it happens all the time. [...]So many questions are raised in the narrative, about sexuality, agency, independence, identity, responsibility, compassion, respect, authenticity, and, of course, justice. Very ordinary questions. Very hard questions.
Consumed by Ink:
This book is timely, insightful, and a page-turner. This is a book that will appeal to a wide audience, and will get people talking. And thinking: How would you react if someone you loved and trusted was charged with the worst of crimes?
The Globe and Mail:
While Whittall has been working on this novel for six years, discussion of rape culture and the rise of men's-rights activists in the media, the handling of rape culture on college campuses, the lead-up to the U.S. presidential election and the passing, for instance, of a new rape bill in California following Brock Turner’s lenient sentence, while not central to Whittall's novel, feel opportune, though never cunning.
National Post:
It is impossible to know the full-spectrum of truth – motivations, feelings, regrets — behind another person’s actions without access to their interior life. Even then, the things we do (both good and bad) often remain as much a mystery to ourselves as they do to the people we are closest with.
Quill & Quire:
This is a book about those caught in the ripples after the stone is thrown. What Whittall gives is a deftly realized exploration of the human heart: the ways in which it breaks and opens and seals shut after our central truths are shattered.

Zoe Whittall in Maclean's, on writing:
You need to be able to stare out a window; to scribble notes about the girl on the subway who is peeling a raw beet and talking about meeting Tracy Chapman in a Safeway. For a novelist, it's good to have the kind of qualities that make you a weird person to hang around with: a daydreamer, an observer, a spy, a sponge for the interesting, devastating, ironic moments in life.

CBC: The Next Chapter

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