Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Reader's Diary #781- Richard B. Wright: Clara Callan

My faithful readers might recognize Richard B. Wright's Clara Callan as the book that has somehow eluded my clutches the longest. I've had this paperback since it was first released in 2002, though I didn't buy it. Back in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut the laundry room at our our apartment building was an anonymous book trading depot. We'd read a book, stick it on a shelf in the laundry room, take someone else's donation, and no one ever discussed it. There couldn't have been more than 25 couples in the whole building, we were all reading each others' books, we were all even social with one another-- yet no one ever said, "what did you think of the Life of Pi?" Odd. It was there I picked up Richard B. Wright's Clara Callan. Unlike the others, however, it never made it back to the laundry room. It traveled with me as we moved back to Newfoundland, then back to Nunavut (this time trying out Iqaluit), and 3 years ago found itself in a suitcase full of books trekking its way over to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories.

Why has it taken me this long? If I'm being totally honest, the size definitely didn't help. I'm never keen to begin any book more than 300 pages or so. If I don't like it, that's a long commitment. But then, since 2002 I've read many books longer than 300 pages, many even longer than the 531 pages of Clara Callan. The cover also made me reluctant:It doesn't look all that exciting, doesn't look like they were marketing the book toward my gender (on my edition they chose a blurb from Chatelaine to grace the front rather than the Globe and Mail quote they stuck on the back). It's also described as "powerful" and "moving," which is most often code for pretentious and boring.

But enough of all that. I've finally read it and it was definitely worth the 9 year wait. It's an absolutely wonderful book. Clara Callan takes place in the mid 30s, and features the written correspondence between Clara Callan, a 3o+ year old school teacher from a small town in Ontario, with her sister and a friend living in New York.

It's not a fast-paced thriller, there's not a lot of suspense, and it's a very character driven book. In that regard many might consider Clara Callan to be quite typical of 20th century CanLit. Yet I found myself thinking of Jeff Lemire's Essex County graphic novels. Story-wise, it too was very typical of CanLit. Yet, it's the story-telling that sets both books apart. Of course, epistolary fiction isn't exactly a modern idea (going back to Dracula and earlier), but it's still not the norm, and it was definitely the form to tell Clara Callan's story. Not only does it capture the historical period, it also makes the story more manageable to take in. I'd read several letters and diary entries each night and it felt more like nibbling than trying to wolf down a lengthy chapter.

It helped that Clara was so likeable. Certainly that's not a prerequisite for a protagonist, but it helped in this case. Especially when readers must sense what a private individual she was. It could almost make a reader feel special to be privy to her thoughts, knowing more about her life and thoughts than even her neighbours. At the end I felt so connected with Clara that I even took exception to a blurb on the back from Kirkus reviews which called the book, "a wrenching chronicle of time passing and opportunity lost." Not only do I feel like whoever wrote that review missed the mark entirely, I found myself protective over Clara. Opportunity lost? Anyone who feels that Clara didn't take advantage of loads of opportunities has clearly got some major hangups against rural life. Clara's life may not have been for everyone, but at least for the four years in which this story takes place, she made the most of it.

And that I find myself talking about her as if she's real, as if I'm proud of her, would have been happy to know her? That's no small accomplishment. Great character, great book.


Kate said...

I'm glad that you enjoyed it! Your review echoes many of my memories from when I first read this book.

I remember that one of my strongest reactions at the time was that I couldn't believe that the author was male. As a female reader, I was convinced at times that the author must also be female to be able to get so well into Clara's brain.

This one is going on my To-Be-Re-read stack.

John Mutford said...

Kate: Well, it certainly sounded like an authentic female voice to me, but I didn't think I was in a position to judge! Glad to hear you'd agree.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Wow, that's quite a recommendation! It's always so wonderful when you feel as though you have made a new friend in a literary character. I will definitely look for this next time I am at the library, since I don't have a laundry room.

raidergirl3 said...

Yay! I loved this book, and thought Clara was wonderful. I'm so glad you enjoyed it as well. It works as a view of early 20th century rural Canada, and also as a woman of her day. Good comment Kate, about the male writer nailing the woman's voice - I didn't even recognize what a feat he accomplished in that.
I nearly always like the epistolary style.

gypsysmom said...

Like Kate I was astonished by how well Wright captured a woman's thoughts. I read this book when it first came out and I spent the next year telling anyone who would listen how good it was.

Glad you finally grabbed it off the pile.

JoAnn said...

Clara Callan was an amazing audiobook, too! I listened to it back in 2002 or 2003 and still count it among my favorites. So glad you enjoyed it, too.

John Mutford said...

Barbara: Highly recommended.

Raidergirl: I don't read enough epistolary fiction-- this book could sell me on it though.

Gypsysmom: Especially as he doesn't exactly shy away from controversial issues.

JoAnn: How long is the audio book?

JoAnn said...

Just had to check, because I don't remember it being especially long. Turns out it was abridged to 8 1/2 hours. Didn't realize it at the time... now I'm thinking a reread is in order.

If you're interested in listening to a sample, here's a link to

Shonna said...

I've had this one since 2001 and haven't read it either!

Teddy Rose said...

This has been on my TBR since it first came out. It sounds so good! Chunky books don't stop me, I tend to read a lot of them. However, I don't read a book all the way through if I don't like it. There are too many books I want to read to force myself to finish one I don't care for.

Anyway, if I could quit accepting so many ARCs, I could get more books from my TBR read. LOL!

I'm so glad you enjoyed it!

Kerrie said...

I've now read 7/13 - running on schedule.