Through Black Spruce, this year’s Giller Prize winner, is a powerful and moving novel, though I didn’t find it as earth-shattering as Boyden’s debut, Three Day Road. Through Black Spruce is in some sense a sequel to Three Day Road; one of its two narrators is Will Bird, son of Xavier Bird from Three Day Road.
Will is an aging bush pilot who has lost most of the people he cares deeply for, and whose second chance at happiness is thwarted by a feud with a local drug dealer. The other narrator is Will’s niece Annie, a young woman who left her northern Canadian native community to search for her sister Suzanne, a model who disappeared in one of the big cities of the south.
In Toronto, Montreal and New York, Annie explores her own modelling career, finds a mute but attractive young man who becomes first her protector and then her lover, and discovers that the world of overnight celebrity is shallow and unfulfilling (now that’s a shock).
For most of the novel, Will is in a coma, while Annie visits him in hospital. Her story unfolds as she talks to her unconscious uncle, while Will’s is told through his memories. Both stories, both the worlds Annie and Will inhabit, are well told and vividly drawn. As with Three Day Road, the stories of indiviudals are used to illuniate the larger story of Canada’s native people, the long-term results of uprooted and dislocated communities and the resilience that allows people to carry on in the face of hardship.
The only flaw I found here was that the personal stories simply weren’t as gripping and compelling as those of the characters in Three Day Road. The reasons for Will’s unhappiness never seem clear, and Annie often feels more like a stereotype than a real person. Though the “big story” of Joseph Boyden’s second novel is just as broad and deep as in his first, the smaller, personal story didn’t draw me in as powerfully, and I was sorry about that. Through Black Spruce is definitely a very good novel, but for my personal taste it didn’t touch me deeply enough to make the cut as a “great” one.