Michael Winter’s Minister Without Portfolio is a funny beast.

The person who took it out from the library before me had brought it back because it was “too weird.” I get where that comment comes from, but it is well-worth sticking with. Winter manages to somehow say very profound things with mundane situations, interspersed with moments of extreme danger rendered in simple, honest prose.

The style is indeed weird. There are no quotation marks and sometimes the editor in me despaired at sentence fragments strewn liberally across the page, but at the end of the day, humans don’t think or speak in proper grammatical form. The main character, Henry Hayward, is not particularly sympathetic but as a reader you end up rooting for him anyway.

If The Illegal (another Canada Reads title) was about an experience unfamiliar to many Canadians, a man dealing with a bad break-up and trying to figure out his life definitely isn’t. Sure, the causal event around which the book revolves happens in Afghanistan and isn’t something many people will have first-hand knowledge of, but the rest of it, the meat of the story, is something intensely familiar. Finding a place to live, finding a way through the small-town politics and relationship snafus that are so much a part of every community everywhere, and finding a way forward after a change are pretty universal.

That being said, this reads like a guy’s book. The women who do feature fall into easy categories (the one that got away, the girlfriend on a pedestal, the best-friend’s wife) and behave in predictable ways that often seem to baffle the main character. If I had been annoyed with a guy in my life when I read this, I may not have found Hayward as forgivable as I did.

Minster Without Portfolio sneaks up on you. The first time I picked it up, I read 28 pages and thought it wasn’t for me, despite the brilliant first paragraph (seriously, probably one of the best beginnings I have ever read). The next time, I read 100 pages, and the third night I polished off the book at 4 a.m. on a Monday. I can’t quite put my finger on what I liked about it, I just know that I did.


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