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#CanadaReads Finalist: Minister Without Portfolio by Michael Winter

A traumatic event inevitably has repercussions. 

The aftershocks ripple through the lives of those close to the Minister Without Portfolio. 

Who is this Minister Without Portfolio? 

Henry Hayward is no saint. A drunk who doesn't seem to be able to hold his liquor or his relationships well. Without any military training Henry is able to secure a job in Afghanistan as a non-military contractor. But he's not doing it out of the compassion of his heart. He's doing it out of cowardice: running from his responsibilities, running away form his girlfriend. 

The outcome isn't cozy. As Henry tries to escape the memories of his past, he is thrown into the thralls of another significant event, one that he'll be even more hard pressed to escape. 

His fellow companion in Afghanistan is a Newfoundlander by the name of Tender Morris, who is killed in a suicide bombing. Henry feels responsible for his friend's death, and returns with a heavy burden thinking about the man who gave him the title Minister Without Portfolio.


"Let's not be Americans, Tender said. Let's be outlaws. Except for Henry -- he's our minister without portfolio.  
What the hell is that.  
You're not committed to anything but you got a hand in everywhere.  
Henry accepted this. He didn't know what it meant but he accepted the position, the honour, the judgement."

Henry attempts to start afresh in Tender's home town, with a life that is unarguably one that Tender once inhabited. He buys the land that Tender wanted to buy, wants to rebuild the house on it (that Tender wanted to build), and even manages to find his way into Tender's girlfriend's bed. 

Almost immediately after the first sleepover he regrets his actions. 


"On the plane he decided it was perverse. It sickened him, what had happened with Martha. It was a degradation of something sacred. What a fuck-up he was. He looked down at his own knees and was disgusted with where the knees had been."

Set in St. Johns, Afghanistan and Newfoundland, Minister Without Portfolio, follows Henry Hayward spending his days trying desperately to make sense of his life. Along the way he also finds out that Martha is pregnant with Tender's baby. Guilt-ridden he continues to wallow in self-pity and reflection, while trying to find out who is the rightful owner of the abandoned house that he wants to restore and move into. 

Minister Without Portfolio has on the surface all the ingredients of a #CanadaReads finalist. A Can Lit storyline that seems to have depth, with its foray into a war in Afghanistan, a story about "starting over", the theme of this year's #CanadaReads; and if we were to stretch the inclusion, perhaps even the guilt and devastation burdening the protagonist. But, there is something missing. It's hard to put a finger on it. From my vantage point, I feel as distant from Henry Hayward's intention as I feel about his fears, his actions and his purpose in life. 

There seems to be a certain lack of focus, arguably a lack of the relateable. And if this is the one novel that is slated to win the coveted CBC Books #CanadaReads title, the one novel that ALL Canadians should read, I wonder if it may just unintentionally steer Canadians away from Can Lit? I may be merely speculating and I welcome other readers thoughts on this matter.

Of course, every novel cannot relate to everyone, but then this is not just every novel; it is one of the finalists in the #CanadaReads debates. So unfortunately, what Minister Without Portfolio has to do is appeal to a wider audience, and connect on an intimate level. 

Perhaps, I'm a bit too critical, but this is not a time to sugarcoat a story; it's time to be honest and forthright with a (hopefully) informed opinion. But, it is an opinion, after all. How Adam "Edge" Copeland will defend Minister Without Portfolio will ultimately determine how far it will go in the #CanadaReads debates next week. Interestingly, former Canadian armed forces veteran and current Ottawa city councillor, Jody Mitic, who spoke on behalf of the book at a recent Canada Reads event in Toronto hosted by CBC Radio's Mary Ito
 clearly didn't like Henry Hayward, likening him to Catcher in the Rye's anti-hero Holden Caulfield. If a decorated war veteran who has served his country didn't find the book compelling enough to warrant a recommendation it remains to be seen how many will gravitate towards this particular entry.


Watch the #CanadaReads Debates at cbcbooks.com from March 21-24th to find out which book will win. 


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Minister Without Portfolio is published by Penguin Random House Canada. 



Blog post by @ShilpaRaikar (Creative and Social Media strategist, decor enthusiast and book lover, who also writes for a branding blog: thinkblink.ca/blog, as well as a lifestyle blog: sukasastyle.com T: @SukasaStyle) 

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