8 x 10 has been recently shortlisted for the BC Book Prizes’ Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. I think it is best to start with the publisher’s description, because if I had been handed this book without recommendation or any idea what to expect, I would have been quite confused.
Shockingly original and intensely intelligent, 8 × 10 is a series of snapshots of a world torn apart by war and migration.
8 x 10 is a work of fiction, written in spare prose. Its title is derived from a commercial portrait format (the 8″ by 10″ glossy) and is related to the structural layout of the book: the lives of eight people — and the lives they come in contact with — told over ten events, each.
With respect to who these people are, no one is known by their names or their ethnicity but by their relationships to each other — son, mother, sister, father, aunt, etc. — and by their occupations — tailors, sales representatives, art gallerists, bartenders, soldiers. doctors, gangsters, musicians, etc. Some are known by their circumstances — émigrés, immigrants, refugees; others by their actions — thief, bully, murderer.
We never know what year we are in, nor are places referred to by name. Events are fashioned so that we are unsure whether we are in North America, Africa, South America, Europe or Asia. All events are interrelated. A portraiture based on behaviour.
[From the publisher, Random House Canada]
Even though I had an idea what to expect, I was a bit shocked by the structure of the novel (can I even call it that?) 8 x 10 is not a novel in a traditional sense, but like Nikolski by Nicholas Dickner, the unnamed characters are all intertwined somehow, but none of them really know it.
One thing that is odd now that I think about it, is that there were no physical descriptions of appearances. I didn’t even find myself wanting them. What I did find myself wanting was a name or a specific trait to classify them (purely to remember them by). There was Spinal Cord guy, Tailor man, Speed Skating boy, Cancer woman, and a handful of other characters that kept cropping up at different stages in their lives. It was actually kinda nice not having physical descriptions now that I think about it.
The tales are certainly not linear and to be honest, the themes of war and migration didn’t jump out at me. Although I think this is to the book’s credit; the themes and ideas portrayed aren’t shoved down your throat by repetition. The book left me with a sense of wanting to know more. I felt, unfulfilled because there were a number of characters I would love to know the whole story for. However, despite wanting more, I think that the book was a good length and snapshot just as it was. Anything lengthier in the same format and with the same narrative structure would have started to grate on my nerves. I would have become frustrated that none of my questions or wants were fulfilled. So yes, the story left me wanting more details and information about the events, but it was satisfying in itself. Hard to describe!
I would not recommend this book for everyone. If you like plot-based stories and linear structures and characters with names… this book is not for you. However if you’re open to unique structures and narratives and interested in meeting these unique, honest, and real (yet unnamed) characters, I think this book pushes the boundaries and can change perspectives.
Full disclosure: I read a copy of the book that we received in the office from the publisher. This situation did not affect my review in any way, shape or form.