Blog Tour | Review: Gottika, Helaine Becker

9781770863910Helaine Becker’s Gottika is a powerful retelling of an old Jewish legend about the golem, a magical humanoid being made from clay who is brought to life to protect Jewish towns from anti-semitic attacks. The world that Becker creates in Gottika bears many similarities to Panem and other contemporary YA dystopias, but the reference to Jewish legend turns the into an unsettling allegory for the horrors of the Holocaust.

Fifteen year old Dany is a Stoon, in Western Gottika where Stoons are treated as second class citizens and killed for no reason under the tyrannical rule of Count Pol. Unrest is brewing, and Dany’s father must decide if he must stop trying to keep a low profile and use the secret knowledge he possesses to bring clay to life and transform it into a weapon against Count Pol.

There’s a lot going on in Gottika, multiple plot threads that, though resolved, rarely ever take off. What’s the “staring sickness”, why do all the families in town only have one child each, why is Count Pol kidnapping teenage girls? The final question in particular does have a pretty big significance in the story, but the question feels so tangential, and buried beneath so many other plot points, throughout the story that the payoff feels disjointed.

More powerful are the encounters between Stoons and Count Pol’s soldiers. In one particularly memorable scene, Dany and his father are swimming when soldiers order them out of the water and castigate them for not wearing their hats. The casual injustice, coupled with Dany and his father’s powerlessness to resist, is difficult to read. In another scene, soldiers storm Dany’s house to confiscate his family’s books. The novel breaks from text narration then, switching over to graphics and demonstrating how some horrors are beyond just words.

While more of the main characters are male, I love that the female characters seem to have more complex motivations for their actions. While most teenage girls fear being kidnapped by Count Pol, Dany’s cousin Dalil welcomes it. She is attracted by Pol’s lifestyle, and manages to turn a blind eye to his faults. Later in the story, she is forced to face the truth of Pol’s tyranny, and becomes instrumental in the resistance against it. I love her character arc, how her desire for comfort initially outweighs her loyalty to her people, until she is forced to realize just how much she is condoning by her actions. Dany’s mother as well, quiet and unassuming at first, later reveals a dark secret she’s had to live with for many years. In contrast to Dany and his father’s more traditional heroic roles, I love the nuances and  questions raised by Dalil and Dany’s mother’s more problematic arcs.

The horrors of the Holocaust are difficult to discuss, particularly in fiction for children. Gottika isn’t exactly a simple allegory for that, but it does speak to the oppression experienced by certain groups of people. The story is futuristic, but the tone is that of a classic fairy tale. There’s a timelessness to Dany’s story, and despite the supernatural elements, the sense that there have been, and continue to be, far too many Count Pols throughout history.


Thank you to Dancing Cat Books for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, and for inviting me to take part in this blog tour.

Review | My Life Among the Apes, Cary Fagan

My-Life-Among-the-Apes_largeCary Fagan’s My Life Among the Apes was longlisted for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize and it’s easy to see why. Fagan’s stories are striking, the subtlety of his language enhancing the emotion within the human relationships he explores. Two of my favourite stories in the collection feature the public space of a diner, and the connection between people who interact seemingly on the most casual of levels. In “I Find I Am Not Alone on The Island,” a waitress forms a lifelong bond with a favourite customer whose name she doesn’t even discover until he dies. In “The Little Underworld of Edison Wiese,” a waiter who takes pride in his job despite the crappy working conditions spends an unusual New Year’s Eve at work. The unexpectedness of lasting connection is what makes these stories so lovely. The moment when the waitress, years after having left the diner, feels the need to share a literary allusion the customer had mentioned to her in passing, hints at a far deeper significance. And the scene where the waiter realizes the importance of his job is heartwarming.

My favourite story, “Wolf,” is about a Jewish man who returns to Germany to visit his granddaughter. Seeing a Holocaust memorial, all he can think of to say to his granddaughter is that he doesn’t feel qualified to judge it. How can he, how can anyone really, express such an experience? The tension between history and the present simmers throughout the story, inflecting his visit with much that is left unsaid. It’s a powerful story, and the ending makes you wish to read more, even as you feel the story had ended on a perfect note.

Oddly, it was the title story I found least affecting, about a bank manager who finds comfort in his obsession with Jane Goodall when he has to do a difficult task. The writing was good, but the story felt disjointed, and at the end I was, like one of the characters, utterly unmoved.

Overall however, the collection is a strong one. The simplest of details — a violin in “Wolf,” a lost magic trick in “The Floating Wife” — take on much significance, and Fagan’s writing teases your mind with so much that is deeply felt, but left unsaid.


Thank you to Thomas Allen for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.