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Brian Francis gets into The Bone Cage

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I think Angie Abdou deserves a gold medal for The Bone Cage because she managed to achieve something I never thought possible.

She made me feel like a jock.

I've never been much of an athlete. The closest I ever came to playing sports was bowling. (Somehow, I don't think sports with snack bars really count.) I was horrible at ice skating, swimming and a host of other physical activities that involved a ball, a puck or a helmet. So, given my natural aversion, I wasn't expecting to get too caught up in Abdou's book.

But imagine my surprise when I began to feel the sweat trickle down my back, smelled the permeating stench of chlorine in my hair and, more important, began to grasp — from the inside out — the blinding, competitive determination that consumes Sadie and Digger.

The goal of most writers is to give their readers an experience. And while that experience sometimes parallels a reader's everyday life, good writers will try to move beyond that. Their quest is to give readers an experience outside their comfort zones. To catch them off guard, and show them a world they haven't been privy to before.

To do that effectively, a writer needs to establish trust with the reader. One way a writer can achieve this is through credibility. For that reason, many books mirror a writer's own life. Abdou's background as a competitive swimmer enriched her story for me in a number of ways, from the smallest details (the wads of gum at the bottom of the pool, the wrestlers' deformed ears) to the major details (the haunting, almost claustrophobic ambition of both athletes).

Abdou made me feel every ache, every sore muscle, every obstacle in the path of these two characters. Most important, she made me feel something I'd never experienced before: the threat of athletic defeat.

In other words, I trusted her. Completely.

There's a price you pay for your passions. Sometimes, that price is negligible. And other times, it seems as though the price is higher than the gain. And while The Bone Cage got me thinking about Olympic medal winners in a way I hadn't before, it also made me reflect on all the countless athletes who didn't win medals. How crushing would it be to spend your life training for something (and to represent your country), only to walk away defeated?

Defeated by a fraction of a second. A slip. A moment of doubt.

This is what's at stake for these athletes. This is the price of their passions. And while I can't personally relate to that kind of endurance, or the almost masochistic discipline that forces Sadie to get up early every morning and dive into that chilly pool, I could at least understand her. I empathized with these characters; characters I'd never met before, or really considered, or automatically assumed I'd never be able to relate to.

What I appreciated about The Bone Cage was that it didn't give me conclusions. I don't know if Digger won a medal. I don't know if Sadie found a life outside the swimming pool. But out of the two of them, I thought she, ironically, was the one better off. Sadie will never know if she would've won a medal. And in that wondering, that open space, she can find her freedom. She could've won. Set a world record. Went on to become a hero to millions of aspiring girls and boys.

In her omission of a conclusion, Abdou seems to reveal the most compelling aspect of our lives: how we thrive in the absence of fact. In many ways, Sadie is the lucky one. She, at least, will have her dreams until her dying day.

Will this book be the champ? Each week, I'll do a round-up of what I think are the strengths for each title competing for the Canada Reads crown. Feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts.

Reasons why The Bone Cage might take it:

  • Timely (the Vancouver Olympics are still fresh in everyone's mind)
  • Canada loves its sports
  • A book that hasn't already enjoyed nationwide success
  • Unique story
  • Defended by Georges Laraque (The other panelists seemed more than little intimidated by him at the launch)

The Bone Cage could be the Canada Reads champ, on the other hand, there's a chance some panelists could feel it's too specific in its scope.

Next week, I'll move on over to Essex County by Jeff Lemire.

Brian Francis

Brian Francis is Canada Reads' resident blogger. His debut novel, Fruit, was the runner-up in the Canada Reads 2009 debates. His second novel, The Natural Order, will be published in fall 2011.



Image by Jonny Keelty. Lisenced via Creative Commons.

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