"Leo Brent Robillard's The Road to Atlantis is a poignant, resonant tale of a family's dissolution following the death of their daughter. In gorgeous, gripping prose, he explores how individuals cope with tragedy and how grief sifts through the generations until it can finally settle and heal. This is a novel that echoes with human emotion and meaning and that deserves to be read."

-- Lauren Carter, author of Swarm

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Art Show & Sale

Join us for Art, Literature, Food, and Drink!

The Loyalist Golf & Country Club is hosting an art show and sale on Sunday, December 11th from 3:00pm -- 7:00pm.  There will be wine tasting and tapas (courtesy of Huff Estates) between 3 and 5, after which I will read from DriftThe event is open to the public; however, reservations are necessary should you wish to stay on for dinner at 6:00pm.  Details concerning dinner reservations, etc. can be found here.  Come out and do some original Christmas shopping, and pick up a signed copy of Drift.

Loyalist Golf & Country Club, 1 Loyalist Boulevard, Bath, Ontario

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Drift Review -- Winnipeg Free Press

Novel's pacing gives sense of living in war zone

Review by Joanne Epp, Winnipeg Free Press

CANADA'S role in the Boer War of 1899-1902 was a source of pride, giving a boost to Canadian nationalism.

Ontario writer Leo Brent Robillard's third novel, a quietly gripping story set during the early months of the war, acknowledges that pride and idealism and firmly subordinates it to a portrayal of life in the field as being at once uglier and more mundane.

Will Regan is just out of high school in Portage la Prairie when he enlists, along with his childhood friend Mason Black. A young man of uncertain convictions, he's not even certain why he enlisted. Mason, by contrast, is restless and eager to fight for the British Empire.

In South Africa they meet Claire, an Australian nurse escaping her parents' marriage plans for her; Robert, Will's silent tent-mate, escaping impending bankruptcy and a misguided marriage; and Campbell Scott, a disillusioned veteran whose hot-air balloon has been requisitioned for reconnaissance missions.

Will grows to care for each of them in different ways, while growing slowly more distant from Mason.
The title evokes the sand and dust that are ever-present in the dry South African landscape. At the same time it evokes Will himself: diffident, unambitious and -- in his own mind-- cowardly.

And the word drift brings to mind the whole contingent of soldiers sent into battle at Paardeberg. In the words of Campbell: "We are the expendables, my boy. Flotsam on the tides of history. Driftwood."

A drift is also the South African term for a ford, but Robillard doesn't explain that. Nor does he tell the reader what a kopje or a donga is.

That doesn't matter, though, because he gives the reader such a strong sensory impression of the landscape as the soldiers perceive it: the dizzying heat, and the resulting sunburn and parching thirst; the pervasive dust and sand; the sucking mud of the Modder River.

The narrative's pacing gives a sense of what it's like to live in a war zone. It's a slow momentum punctuated by sudden incidents of violence: the army's sorties against the Boer, and eventually the battle at Paardeberg, but also the beating and rape of a black boy and the consequences for Will when he witnesses the act.

Robillard's two previous novels, Leaving Wyoming and Houdini's Shadow, were also published by the Winnipeg-based literary house Turnstone Press.

Here his prose is economical without being sparse, tending toward short sentences, even sentence fragments. It's a style somewhat reminiscent of Hemingway, and it suits his subject well.

Unfortunately, he sometimes pushes it to the point of being irritating: "But that's selfish. And not entirely true. So she keeps it to herself. Because it feels better to hurt."

One might expect a novel like this to be about disillusionment, but it isn't exactly. While somewhat reluctant from the start, Will never had grand ambitions or illusions about the war, while Mason, who did, doesn't lose them.

Nevertheless, he does find that South Africa is not at all what he expected. He learns that he is capable of killing and, what's more, of deciding to kill. He also learns that, in the heat of battle, self-preservation can trump solidarity.

Will is nonplussed by his first encounter with the enemy. On the troop train he listens to Mason speak wistfully of killing Boers; then, when the men disembark, there are Dutch farm girls offering them water and cakes.

His final encounter with the surrendering Boer is just as anticlimactic. Again, he sits down to eat with them. They are not ashamed of their defeat, and neither is Will elated at the British victory. As he writes to his uncle, he had merely done his job.

In the news

Robillard hosts reading for new book. Coverage of the Athens launch two weeks ago.

Ottawa Launch only three days away!

A reminder to come out to celebrate the Ottawa launch of Drift, this Wednesday, November 9th at 7:00pm -- Collected Works Bookstore (1242 Wellington Street).  Do some early Christmas shopping, too.  Support your local bookstores.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Night Table Recommendations

My bedside is littered with books – a slow slide of magazines, hard covers, and paperbacks loosely grouped into three piles. Read, partially read, and wishful thinking.  Novels, travel guides, histories, current affairs.  I’m a jack of all trades, plagued by too many interests and too little time.  But I find the paper mountain comforting.  After all, books do furnish a room.

However, my favourites, if I’m honest, are the novels.  I like fiction that goes to places others fear to tread.  I want a book to grab me by the throat and squeeze.  Hard.

No one does this like Cormac McCarthy.  I hardly know where to start, but if I can pick only one, then make it Blood Meridian.  A teenage boy joins a band of marauding Indian hunters along the Mexican border in the middle of the 19th century, drawn by the perverse charisma of a man they call the Judge.  The ensuing, mythic anti-quest is served up in stark, unstoppable prose.  It is dark, harrowing, and so casually violent that the reader is almost ashamed at his compulsion to read on.

McCormac’s Canadian counterpart for terse, muscular prose, has to be Kenneth J. Harvey. But unlike McCormac’s novels, Harvey’s violence seethes just beneath the surface.  Inside is the story of wrongfully convicted criminal, Myrden.  Released through newly minted DNA technology, Myrden tries desperately to re-adapt to life on the outside.  But justice, it seems, has not only failed him.   Cruelty and meanness exist everywhere he turns – among his friends, among his family.  The reader is lead by the nose through the claustrophobic annals of Myrden’s mind toward an inevitable conclusion, a twisted chance at catharsis and redemption. 

Coureurs de Bois, by first-time novelist Bruce MacDonald, is equally confident and self-assured. Randall "Cobb" Seymour, also recently released from prison, has no problem adjusting to civilian life.  He simply chooses to supersede it, building an empire out of illegal cigarette sales, weed, prescription drugs and other scams, with the help of a
visionary economics student from the University of Ottawa.  The testosterone is thick here.  Set in a seedy stretch of Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood, Coureurs de Bois is a novel where the insane speak oracular truths and a female Christ figure – complete with virgin birth – attempts to kill herself, shocked by the "absolute horror of the human condition." The characters here are full-blown and fascinating. The pacing is immaculate. The humour black, intelligent, and just as likely to reinforce a stereotype as deflect one.

On par with the insanity of Coureurs de Bois, and set in a more relevant time period, is Elle, by Douglas Glover.  Satirical and Rabelaisian in its excesses, Elle tells the story of a young French woman shipwrecked and alone in the New World.  A true hedonist, Elle abandons all her courtly, aristocratic upbringing, and by novel’s end, reinvents herself as shamanesque chimera. Pyretic violence brings the novel to its close, leaving the reader to sort through well-springs of spiritual imagery and symbolism, both real and imagined.

Last, but not least, Robert Hough’s The Culprits is one of the best novels I’ve read in the last few years.  It has the indiscernible quality of readability.  You simply cannot put it down.  Hank Wallins, a former merchant sailor cum lonely computer operator, lives through a near-death experience, which propels him into the arms of a mail-order bride.  Anna Verkoskova née Mikhailovna, a near-pretty student from St. Petersburg with a wandering eye, draws the unwitting Hank into a baffling and complicated tale of love, loss, and ... international terrorism.  Woven by one of the most ingenious and fascinating narrators in recent history, this novel juggles the madcap with the sober, the tragic with the comic. It flirts with the melodramatic as often as it plays with the improbable, without ever actually crossing either line. Its humour and wit give weight to its eventual calamity, and its voice – full of the sing-song qualities of Slavic constructions – is as endearing as a Dr. Seuss fable. In short, it is a fine balance.

Help Kick Off The Small Press Book Fair

This Friday night ( November 4th) I will be reading from Drift at the Carleton Tavern (223 Armstrong Street @ Parkdale) to help kick off this year's Small Press Book Fair.  Also appearing on Friday will be Nicholas Lea and Lillian Necakov.  Doors open at 7:00pm.

If you can't make this, be sure to check out the Jack Purcell Community Centre (on Elgin, at 320 JackPurcell Lane) on Saturday (November 5th) for the best of the independent press.