September 15, 2012

Book: The Island Walkers by John Bemrose

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 10:17 pm

This was a book that was shortlisted for Booker Prize in 2004. When you read the book, you understand why.

Always, the MAN Booker Prize has given importance to family dramas and moving stories while the Pulitzer and the Nobel Prize committees have not always tipped their hat to the portrayal of everyday life in different parts of the world. This book is about the quotidian life of the Walker Family. The Island in the title referes to their home in Attawan (a fictional town based on the author’s real home, which is Paris, Ontario) in Southwestern Ontario.

Alf Walker is a foreman in a factory called Bannerman’s , a respected man, and the story starts when Invertex, a large corporation takes over the factory. Since that is the main employer in the small town, there are ramifications to the decision. When Chuck Prince, the new manager, asks Alf to show the bosses around, everyone in the factory expects Alf to get the post of managing the factory under the new bosses.

In the meanwhile the Union representatives who were never able to get into Bannerman’s try through Alf to influence the workers now. Alf rejects the idea but is tricked into telling a name of a co-conspirator. When that man is pressed by the new management, he identifies all other employees, and they all are fired. And Alf’s
best friend commits suicide. The guilt drives Alf to silence. When he also discovers that a young man with no experience, Kit Ford, is brought in for the Manager’s position that he sought, his world slowly falls apart. He has an affair with a colleague and his wife discovers the fact, if not the person. Slowly, even his wife Margaret drifts apart from him. He confronts Kit Ford when Kit misbehaves with a colleague and is fired from his job for his pains.

The story also features his son Joe, who falls hard for the eccentric but beautiful Anna McKimmon, only to discover that she is not available. He breaks up with his loyal and adoring girlfriend, enters into a relationship with the rich and beautiful Liz.

Jamie, the younger brother, has a friendship with a boy called Billy who seems to lead him into trouble whenever he is with him. He cannot seem to shake him off. The association turns distinctly unpleasant when he visits the house of a dirty old man with Billy.

Penny, the youngest sister, has her own growing up pains, what with being asked to do uncomfortable things like stripping naked by her group of girl friends, all of whom are ten or eleven.

The story just flows beautifully, the narration taut, involved, and unhurried. The mood is captured well, the sense of drift when events overcome the ability of the mills people to cope or when the interplay of mutual attraction between Joe and Anna is held back by their mutual relationships to others.

The ambience is perfect and you get a sense of watching from the sidelines as life unfolds naturally, and events unfold with their own sense of purpose and finality.

The scene where Jamie gets lost and the sense of desparation Alf feels is well told. The weight of guilt that Alf feels, the growing alienation of his own family, the accident that lays low Jamie in a coma, the separation of Anna and Jamie all are told with understanding and a passion.

A very good read, in the mould of Roddy Doyle, but describing a small Ontario town and the intertwined lives of the townspeople.

I would definitely say, a 7/10

— Krishna


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