I had to look up the word quincunx, a word I’d never come across before, when it described a series of novels by Andre Alexis. Google says that a quincunx is “an arrangement of five objects with four at the corners of a square or rectangle and the fifth at its center, used for the five on dice or playing cards, and in planting trees.” In the context of Alexis’ books, it’s a series of five interrelated novels, all with various amounts of magic and philosophy, as well as delightful characters. What’s interesting is that it wasn’t until I’d recently finished reading the fourth book in the series that I’d realized that these books were related at all, and I’d read them entirely out of order! I just enjoyed Alexis’ storytelling. Looking back, the tropes and common characters are clearer, though I don’t think my non-linear readings detracted much from the overall effect.
The first book I read was Fifteen Dogs, which is the most unusual of the group, being written from the point of view of dogs, and is about the theme of place. This approach initially turned me off, to be honest, but I soon found it to be an exceptional novel. First, and most simply, is the skill it takes to write an engaging story from a hound’s perspective! Not an easy task while still engaging the human reader. But more deeply was the way Alexis used this metaphor to explore deep philosophical and psychological questions. I often find that the distance afforded by de-normalizing a story, like one would do through science fiction or fantasy, or here, through the perspective of dogs, creates the space for deeply human questions to be asked. To be clear, I’ve recommended this story often, but it was not to everyone’s taste. As an aside, it also won the Giller prize.
Following this, I read Hidden Keys, which was my least favorite in the series. The characters were interesting, but the story less engaging. It was equally well written as the others, a detective novel of sorts, and the characters do turn up again in Ring, though it is not necessary to read one to understand the other.
Pastoral, a book about faith, was also fabulous. It was the funniest of the bunch, with a touch of magic, and simply wonderful characters.
Ring, my most recent read, is a book about love and relationships, and like Pastoral, had characters that were easy to like, and a story that flowed nicely. Like Fifteen Dogs, there were many thoughtful meditations on the book’s theme which I found insightful and provocative. One line I particularly liked, that you (p.170) “needed other people so you could be clear about yourself.” So true.
Don’t be turned off by the description of the books as philosophical! They are simply good novels, well written and with likable characters. And they all have some thoughtful reflection, if that floats your boat (as it does mine).
Just Because I Liked It:
- This video is just for a Pesach laugh.
- A few weeks ago I recommended an inspiring interview with Rikva Shotkin. The Meaningful People podcast did this follow up interview with her father, which was equally inspiring, and full of great parenting advice.
- I’m generally a fan of Coleman Hughes’ podcast, Conversations with Coleman. I find him sensible and thoughtful, and a person who rarely gets caught up in what is culturally popular. He recently aired this conversation with the well known and often iconoclastic historian, Benny Morris. Morris himself is no stranger to controversy. Whatever you may think of him or his politics, I found this interview well grounded, a good primer for people less familiar with Israeli history, and a good review for those who are.