Scotiabank Giller Prize 2009, Book 1

October 18, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

The Disappeared. Kim Echlin; Hamish Hamilton Canada, $29.00 cloth, 242 pp., 978-0-670-06908-8.

kimech-721843Previous Giller wins/noms: None

Other awards: Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award (1997, nominee)

From the publisher: “From its first page, The Disappeared takes us into the land of kings and temples, fought over for generations. It reveals the forces that act on love everywhere: family, politics, forgetting. Universal in its questions about how to claim the past, how to honor our dead, and how to go on after those we love disappear, it is a story written in spare and rhythmic prose. The Disappeared is a remarkable consideration of language, truth, justice, and memory that speaks to the conscience of the world, and to love, even when those we love most are gone.”

From reviews: “The impossibility of closure after great crimes, no matter how many tribunals and truth-and-reconciliation commissions we may launch, is the subject of Toronto author Kim Echlin’s absorbing new novel, The Disappeared. Echlin, one of Canada’s finest prose stylists, approaches her subject with the delicacy and solemnity it deserves. In the end, though, it begs the question: Is a beautiful work of art, which The Disappeared certainly is, the appropriate response to a holocaust?” – Frank Moher, National Post

“The book, which can be read in a single sitting, builds toward a complex expression of annihilating loss and eternal love that is best experienced, in a sense, like the final act of a tragic play: as something inevitable and beyond the calculations of reason.” – Charles Foran, The Globe and Mail

“But at times the prose becomes overwrought and detracts from a deeper understanding of the Khmers’ experience. It’s almost a relief when Will, a gruff Canadian forensics expert, appears to help Anne in her search, muttering his hope ‘that our humanity might kick into a higher gear.’ This is an ambitious novel that almost, but not quite, reaches its goal.” – Julie Wheelwright, The Independent (U.K.)

The Disappeared is ultimately a love story, which means that things don’t turn out well. Anne returns to Montreal where she is implored ‘for love’s sake’ to tell her story ‘before there’s nothing left.’ This sequence, shot through with heartache and loss, should serve as the cathartic apotheosis of the book. Sadly, it is betrayed by the sentimentality of what has gone before.” – Steven W. Beattie, Quill & Quire

My reaction: The final excerpt above is meant somewhat tongue-in-cheek, although not altogether. I’ve now read The Disappeared three times, trying this last time to understand what I’m missing in it that everyone else apparently sees. It is often the case that a person’s attitude toward a book will change with subsequent readings, because a second or third exposure to a book allows for a deeper understanding of the underlying structure. Whereas the initial reading is a journey of discovery, following the trajectory of the story to learn “what happens,” subsequent readings provide an opportunity to more closely scrutinize a novel’s texture, its patterns of metaphor, and language. Strange, then, that I should come away from a third reading of the text feeling pretty much exactly the same way I did when I read the book the first time.

There are distancing effects in Echlin’s novel – the predominant mode of narration, which favours the second person “you,” as though the book were a letter addressed to the protagonist’s absent lover; the fact that the entire story is told in flashback from a distance of 30 years – which perhaps prevent a complete engagement with the story. Very little is dramatized directly; Echlin’s preferred mode is one of bald recapitulation:

You got up then and took your chapei from the corner of the room and unwrapped it. You sat on the bed cross legged and you lay the instrument across your lap and plucked the two strings. You sang an old folk song about yearning for the time of the monsoon winds, oan samlanh, yearning to go to the festival with your love, wearing a new phamuong, oh dear one, going together to the festival with your love.

The spareness and incantatory rhythms have been noted approvingly by numerous critics; my own feeling is that this mode of narration frequently becomes tedious:

I did not believe and yet I knelt with the others and watched the smoke of the incense twist toward the roof. I did not want to leave. I had nowhere to go. I wanted comfort. The end of the rains. I did not believe and yet I was there.

But all of these technical concerns are subordinate to the evident sentimentality of the writing, from the obvious reference to “the call of a vulture” during one of the protagonist’s final interviews with a Cambodian government official to the overheated language used to describe the lovers’ attraction to one another: “That night, I knelt face down on the bed, knees spread, and I gave myself to your love”; “We pledged ourselves to each other with our bodies”; “I received your touch, you received my relief as if we were giving agonized birth to each other.” Such overwought passages denude the story of a great deal of its power; language more appropriate to a Harlequin romance sits uneasily alongside descriptions of one of the worst genocides in modern history.

The Disappeared is unquestionably an ambitious book, but it nevertheless failed to connect with me. But, who knows? Maybe I’ll have a different experience the fourth time around.


One Response to “Scotiabank Giller Prize 2009, Book 1”
  1. Finn Harvor says:

    “Maybe I’ll have a different experience the fourth time around”

    Careful, Stevie. Ye might hurt yourself.