The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

“Every night I cut out my heart. But in the morning it was full again”

3/5 stars.
Hardcover, 307 pages.
Read from July 22, 2018 to July 29, 2018.

Is there a book list out there that doesn’t have this book on it somewhere? Probably not. This book has been awarded numerous accolades, most recently the Golden Man Booker prize for this year. As a Canadian, this book has been on my to-read list since my university days, especially since I have already read In the Skin of a Lion, which I sadly have no recollection of. Admittedly, I didn’t even know what this novel was about prior to picking it up so I was happy to see that the plot is set during WWII as I do enjoy historical-fiction from that era.

WWII may have just ended but not in the minds of those who were deeply involved in it Hana is a nurse who has refused to leave her post at a war-time hospital in Italy despite it being abandoned and still within the vicinity of landmines. She will not leave a burn patient who is barely alive and has no memory of who is he or how he got here. A family friend, who also served, comes to find Hana and ends up staying with her at the hospital. They are then joined later by an aloof stranger who is also can’t stop being a soldier and is having trouble letting go of the war that has traumatized them all.

As a reader, you are kept at length from all the characters in the book, despite their dire emotional states thus following how the characters themselves keep each other and their feelings also at a distance. At first, I was intrigued by the approach and eagerly read my way through the first half of the novel, however, the last half felt like a slog as the intrigue wore off and I realized how the story and the characters were going nowhere. The burned patient, this unknown person who has lost their memory, was initially very compelling especially with the relationship he had with Hana, but I felt the details of his story got too messy and drawn out that by the end that I didn’t end up really caring who he was despite his eventual connections to everyone. The story of this book is like a slow-moving dream including the muddiness that often comes when you dream.

With all that said, I did enjoy Hana’s character and story and there were aspects of this novel that I loved. The story transported me to the historical setting and I did find myself wrapped in that world long after I finished the novel. Many readers feel that this book is somewhat of a love story and I find that is a bit of stretch. I feel the story is more about on the characters trying to heal through each other from their individual traumas and the unique bond of the war that connects them in the strange abandoned hospital.

Ultimately, I did enjoy this novel I just wanted more out of the story than what was provided but it was still a worthwhile read. This story would suit any historical fiction fan and while I cannot remember much of the plot from In The Skin of a Lion, I read that the two are more meaningful if paired together.  Perhaps a re-read is in order?

 

My Real Name is Hanna by Tara Lynn Masih

Finding hope in the darkness, both literally and figuratively…

3/5 stars.
ARC, ebook, 208 pages.
Read from July 6, 2018 to July 12, 2018.

Expected publication: September 11, 2018

WWII and holocaust survivor stories are some of my favourite reading genres so when I saw this book on Netgalley with the absolutely raving reviews I knew I just had to read it.

Set in Kwasova, Ukraine during WWII, My Real Name is Hanna is a unique coming of age story.  With the rise of Nazi Germany, Hanna and her family don’t initially suspect that that anything will happen to them in their small town.  Hanna spends her time helping her neighbour dye decorative pysanky eggs and hanging out with her friend Leon.  However, the tides quickly change with the Nazis on their doorsteps and the carefree life and childhood that Hanna has known comes to an abrupt end.  Her family is desperate to stay together and do whatever it takes to keep it that way. A few kind friends and neighbours help Hanna and her family plot their escape into the forest when the Nazis come for them.  After their first safe place comes under threat, Hanna and her family are forced underground where they have to learn to live in a cramped cave in order to avoid the horrible Nazi forces.  Finding hope in the darkness, both literally and figuratively, is all that Hanna and her family have left.

Everyone seemed to love this book and while I didn’t dislike the novel I also don’t feel the need to rave about it either. I am struggling to find the words for my indifference to this story as the plot was exciting and definitely nerve-wracking at times.  The plot and layout of this story is its best feature but I felt a disconnect between some parts of the story and with the characters. For example, the book Hanna was given as a gift, which is the focal point of the first chapter, felt absolutely unnecessary in the rest of the book and really could have been edited out.  Based on the reviews I have read, it seems that the majority readers had a strong emotional connection to the characters but I, however, found it a bit lacking. The characters struggles, as awful as they were, did not seem like they were communicated as well as they could have been.  While one of the most touching scenes of the story entails Hanna and her friend Leon but at the same time, Leon also felt like an unnecessary character. If the story had focused on just Hanna and her immediate family members, the characters might have felt a bit more robust to me.

I can see why readers have compared this story to The Book Thief as this book has successfully discussed a difficult and tragic story but has also kept it attainable for youth readers.  However, in terms of potency and character development, The Book Thief is still the clear winner for me.

While I wasn’t as enthralled with this book as other readers the content of the story is good and many others swear by its moving story so I would still recommend this book for those interested in the WWII narrative and YA readers.

 

Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto

“Forgiveness is moving on. It is a daily act that looks forward. Forgiveness smiles.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 210 pages.
Read from February 20, 2018 to February 27, 2018.

This was the one book in the 2018 Canada Reads that I was most excited for. While the book started slow I was absolutely captivated by the brutal history of this family and was soon not able to put it down.

Sakamoto’s family has a rich, tragic and courageous history. His grandfather on his mother’s side, a white-Canadian from the east coast, joined the war efforts in WWII where he was captured in Hong Kong by the Japanese. He lived and suffered intensely for four years in POW camp. His grandmother, on his father’s side, is a Japanese-born Canadian. Sakamoto details the horrifying things that the Canadian government did to his grandmother’s family and the Japanese living in Canada during WWII, especially after the Pearl Harbour bombing. This is a part of history that most Canadians know little about or the brutality of what we did to our own people. I know I sure didn’t and it really opened my eyes. Canada is often viewed as an untainted and tolerant place to live but our own history is just as stained as others. Additionally, I imagine very few Canadians know of the regiments that served out in Hong Kong and the losing battle that they had to endure.

The book continues through Sakamoto’s family saga and the remarkable ability for his grandparents to forgive was a constant foundation in his life. Can you imagine when Sakamoto’s parents wanted to marry how that might have felt to their own parents? Each had suffered so much from each other’s different ethnicities and tet their powerful understanding, shared suffering, and ability to move forward is nothing short of courageous. Sakamoto also details the difficult upbringing he had with his alcoholic mother and how that shaped his future ambitions and responsibilities.

Mitsue Sakamoto, the author’s grandmother, Phyllis MacLean the author’s mother, Ralph MacLean, the author’s grandfather and Stan Sakamoto the author’s father in Medicine Hat Alberta in 1968. Source: The Daily Mail

Sakamoto’s story is highly emotional and I would be lying if I did not say I welled up in few parts.  The suffering and tenacity of his grandparents and even the death of his mother were hard to bear as a reader. Sakamoto really drew into some great emotional depth with his story-telling. The added pictures in the book were also a great touch as it really felt like you knew his family.

While I ended up loving this book, I did not start off feeling that way. The book had a slow start for me as I was initially unsure as to where this story or memoir was going. I found some of the initial story transitions to be a bit clunky, though once his grandfather set off for the war things smoothed out and the main theme of the story was starting to finally come together.  While I enjoyed the story of his upbringing and the suffering endured by him and his mother with her alcoholism it was a massive shift in the direction of the book. The book was now reading more like an autobiography. This disjointing and lack of connection from his grandparent’s story to his own story was not as successful as the rest of the emotionally enticing parts about his grandparents. While his own story is moving in its own right, the novel just did not feel like a complete whole on the theme of forgiveness.  Even with that,  I decided on a 4-star review instead of 3 for this book because of how the book made me feel and for how intently I could not stop reading certain portions.

As I currently live in Hong Kong, I found the parts of his grandfather’s time there especially interesting.  However, Sakamoto mentioned that Kowloon is part of the New Territories and part of mainland China, which isn’t correct. Kowloon is a part of Hong Kong and is its own district.  Since 1997, China has since reclaimed Hong Kong but it is technically still its own country and many locals would not be happy being referred to as mainland China! It was wonderful envisioning these areas that I know well and what they would have been like during the war.  As a Canadian, it was also intriguing to read about a battle that took place during WWII that I imagine many Canadians don’t know about. There are some historical museums and treks in Hong Kong that I am now anxious to partake in.

So far, I have read 3 out of the 5 books in the 2018 Canada Reads. Compared to The Marrow Thieves and Precious Cargo, this novel is definitely one to “open your eyes” as the horrors of the Canadian government during WWII and the part that those Canadian regiments played out in Hong Kong are remarkable and need to be known. The content of this novel is truly jaw-dropping and extremely relevant in the context of today’s racial issues and learning from our own past. As it stands, this novel best meets the criteria for the debate in my opinion but what will the final two books hold? We will soon find out…