Category Archives: Canada Reads

The Break, by Katherena Vermette

I had picked up and looked at The Break a few times when it was up for Canada Reads a couple of years ago, but it was a friend’s recommendation that finally got me to read it. The Break tells the story of a single act of violence on a winter night in Winnipeg’s North End, and how the lives of numerous people, most of them connected by ties of extended family, are impacted by this crime. Victim, perpetrator, police officer, witness, and many people affected simply because they’re part of the community — perspectives and voices overlap as the many characters, most of them First Nations women, tell their parts of the story.

In the multi-voiced structure and the story’s situation within the larger story of First Nations communities in a contemporary North American city, this book reminded me to some extent of Tommy Orange’s There, There. In that book, all the multiple characters’ stories converged towards a single act of violence; here, they refract outwards from it, showing a little of what led to the crime but far more of what happens as a result. Along the way there is anger, grief, resilience, humour and hope. It’s a beautiful novel, largely about strong indigenous women and how they try to hold themselves and their families and communities together amid the impacts of generational trauma and institutionalized racism.

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The Boat People, by Sharon Bala

boatpeopleIf there’s one book by a Newfoundland-based author — in fact, if there’s one book by a Canadian author — that you’re going to hear buzz about this year, it’s going to be Sharon Bala’s novel The Boat People. It’s already been chosen as a selection for this year’s Canada Reads competition, and I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about it when awards season rolls around.

I had the privilege of reading an earlier version of The Boat People in 2014, when I judged the Percy Janes First Novel Award and picked it as the winner out of a strong field of contenders. I loved it even more on reading the final, published novel. This is an important and timely novel about immigration, racism, violence and fear, but most importantly it’s a novel full of real people who I came to care deeply about.

The background for this story is a real event: the 2010 arrival of a boat full of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka to Canada’s west coast. Earlier waves of immigrants, including irregular arrivals like boat people, had been welcomed warmly to Canada, but by 2010 the combination of fears of terrorism and the Conservative government then in power, combined with the shock effect of 500 refugees arriving at once, guaranteed these Tamil refugees a far less friendly reception. Many remained in detention for months as their claims were processed through the system. The novel’s main character, Mahindan, is a widowed father who only hopes for a better life for his son Sellian. But Sellian and Mahindan are separated, with adult men going to one detention centre and women and children to another, despite the fact that there is no mother to care for Sellian. Mahindan’s fierce love for his son and the ache of separation is a thread that runs through the novel.

But there are other characters, all equally well developed: Priya, the young law student who is unwillingly pulled into the refugee claimants’ case during her articling year; Priya’s Sri Lankan family, whose own journey to Canada decades ago hides many secrets; career civil servant Grace, daughter of Japanese-Canadians interned during the Second World War, who now finds herself adjudicating the refugees’ hearings, trying to decide which ones should be allowed to stay in Canada and which, if any, pose a danger to the public safety.

The danger, though it is used by the federal government to score political points, is not entirely illusory. Through the flashbacks of Mahindan’s story, we recognize that the Tamil Tigers are indeed a group capable of horrific acts of violence, and that while the refugees are fleeing the chaos of civil war in the country, many of them, Manhindan included, had been drawn into taking sides in that conflict in one way or another. The flashback scenes are what give the novel its power and poignancy: through these scenes we see Mahindan’s “normal” life when he was married to Chitra, their love and hope during her pregnancy, his grief when she dies in childbirth, and then how the world they shared is shattered by war and Mahindan reduced to a homeless, desperate man on the run. When the ship arrives in Canada he believes his suffering is over and a new life is beginning, but the reality is more complicated.

There is so much happening in this novel that is complex and real and relevant: the plight of refugees, the fear of terrorism, the tendency of one generation of migrants to fear the influx of newer arrivals and safeguard their position by saying things like “We came to this country legally; why can’t they go through the process like we did?” (I cannot tell  you how many American friends I have heard say this in the current refugee/immigration debates). But the characters are never just caricatures representing different groups of people or different positions; they are all drawn with humanity, depth and insight.

One of the strengths of this novel, I think, is that it’s topical without being too topical. Right now, our fears about immigration and terrorism (at least here in Canada, but I think for the most part in the US and Europe as well) are so focused on groups like the Syrian refugees and the fear of ISIS-style Muslim extremism, that we’ve almost forgotten Middle Eastern Muslims are far from the only group of people on the planet to have produced both terrorists and refugees. The author’s own family roots in Sri Lanka no doubt made the story of the Tamil refugees an interesting one for her to explore, but it also allows the reader the opportunity to explore the problems posed in this novel at one remove from the heat of current debates. In addition, it gives a much needed correction to the smugness we liberal Canadians often feel about what a welcoming and inclusive country ours is. Sure, we may look good compared the US right now, but we’re not perfect. Canadians are as susceptible to fear, suspicion, paranoia and racism as any other country — and that includes Canadians of all backgrounds.

Hauntingly real and unforgettably personal, The Boat People is a novel that will linger with most readers for a long time. It certainly will with me. Yes, it’s topical, it’s relevant, it has its finger on the pulse of current debates, but at it’s heart this is a story about human beings just longing for what we all want: a safe place to call home.



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The Illegal, by Lawrence Hill

theillegalSo, you may or may not remember that I was in the process of reading, a bit belatedly, all the book selections for this year’s Canada Reads competition. I didn’t plan to leave the winner for last; it just worked out that way because of my library hold requests, but it was kind of nice to build up to the book that won.

The Illegal is Lawrence Hill’s exploration of racism, immigration, and our attitudes towards the Other, examined through the lens of two imaginary countries, Zantoroland and Freedom State. The main character, Keita Ali, is a runner from Zantoroland, an impoverished country whose unstable political system is a little remenescient of Rwanda right before the genocide. Life is hard and unsafe in Zantoroland. Education offers Keita’s sister an escape, as running does for Keita, but for both of them getting away is not as easy, or as permanent, as it seems.

Keita becomes an illegal immigrant in the wealthy, white-ruled Freedom State, where his running continues to earn him prizes but he is in constant danger. Here, his life intersects with the lives of several other characters, black and white, who show us different faces of the racial divide in Freedom State.

Hill’s decision to create two fictional countries as the backdrop for his story, instead of using a real-world setting, is risky, and has its advantages and disadvantages. It allows him to set up conflicts with more freedom than he could do within the restrictions of real countries, but might also allow some readers to feel detached from the story, although it’s clear that Zantoroland is every impoverished, volatile country people want to escape, and Freedom State is every wealthy country that wants to control the flood of asylum-seekers.

This is a timely story for 2016, and I found it interesting and read quickly. I did find, though, that it lacked the haunting power of Hill’s best-known book, The Book of Negroes, in which a single narrator emerges as an unforgettable character. The multitude of characters and voices in The Illegal may dilute the power of the narrative a little, but it does give the author many paths into exploring a complex issue.

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Bone and Bread, by Saleema Nawaz

boneandbreadThird in the three “Canada Reads” selections I covered this month was Saleema Nawaz’s Bone and Bread, the story of two sisters united and divided by family and personal tragedy. The narrator of the story is Beena, a woman in her early 30s who has just learned of the death of her sister Sadhana. The story alternates between the present tense, in which Beena, her 18-year-old son Quinn, and her boyfriend Evan try to deal with the aftermath of Sadhana’s death, and the past in which the story of the girls’ childhood and troubled adolescence unfolds.

Beena has a strong, readable first-person narrative voice that carried me quickly through this story. Her relationship with her sister has all the complexity of a real sibling relationship — it’s definitely love/hate — with the added twist of hardship added by the girls being orphaned quite young. In addition to (or most likely in response to) their losses, the girls both have a difficult time as teenagers — Beena becomes pregnant at 16 while Sadhana develop anorexia. The story is set in 1980s, 90s and 2000s Montreal, with the characters’ love for the city an ever-present background to their story (even though Beena has chosen to live in Ottawa as an adult). Bone and Bread was a story that carried me forward quickly through its pages, not so much because of any shocking plot twists or breathtaking suspense (almost everything I’ve told you in this plot summary is clear from the first couple of pages of the book, so I’m not spoiling it) — rather, it’s a strong narrative voice and a realistic portrayal of tangled family relationships and complicated grief that keeps the pages turning. I found the resolution of the story just a little anticlimactic, but not enough to mar my enjoyment of the whole. 

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Birdie, by Tracey Lindberg

birdieIt’s really, really hard to know what to say about Birdie. It’s the second of this year’s Canada Reads selections that I read this month, and it is beautifully written. It deals with the very important and current issue of the abuse and murder of Aboriginal women in Canada. Almost every woman in the story, including the main character Birdie (Bernice) has been the victim of some kind of violence. Birdie herself spends much of the novel in bed in a near-catatonic state as a result of trauma, and a good bit of the novel is relayed through her memories and dreams while she is bedridden. However, the story unfolds in such a non-linear, allusive fashion that I wasn’t always fully certain what was actually going on. There are vivid, beautifully drawn vignettes, but even a few days after reading this book I would have a hard time giving you a plot summary of what actually happened. I found this a shortcoming, although it was obviously done deliberately, because the characters were engaging enough that I wanted to get more involved in their story. Yet the narrator seemed to always keep me, the reader, at arms’ length, never quite sure what was actually going on. Beautiful writing on an important issue, but I needed the story to be a bit more plot-driven before I could fully immerse myself in it.

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The Hero’s Walk, by Anita Rau Badami

heroswalkLike two other books I read this month, The Hero’s Walk was a selection in this year’s annual “Canada Reads” competition. Sometimes I get around to reading all the Canada Reads books before or during the contest week (and sometimes I never do); this time, except for one I’d already read, I got around to them long after the radio discussion had ended, but it introduced me to some excellent books, as it always does.

The Hero’s Walk is set in India (with a very brief section taking place in Canada). It is essentially the story of how one man, Sripathi Rao, copes with middle age and the sense that he has not accomplished much in life, as well as how his extended family copes with a horrific tragedy. Sripathi’s family — his long-suffering wife, his disappointing son, his disappointed sister, and his frankly nasty old mother — are all drawn with beautiful detail. So is his community, set against the wider backdrop of contemporary India. I love everything with an Indian setting, and this novel gives a flavour of India that feels authentic without being “exotic” or romanticized. Sripathi Rao is living, essentially, a very ordinary life, and that’s really his problem — he was led, mostly by his mother, to expect that he needed to live an extraordinary life, and as he nears old age he realizes this hasn’t happened. Can he cope with it, especially in the face of shattering loss?

This novel reminded me very much of Joan Clark’s The Birthday Lunch, in that it examines in minute detail a family’s response to a sudden tragedy, and how that loss reveals the fault lines in all the family relationships. It is an intimate novel about people struggling to make meaning out of their ordinary lives, and I enjoyed it very much.

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Sixty, by Ian Brown

sixtyI guess I should be interested in the topic of this memoir, since I just turned fifty and, if I’m lucky, sixty will be the next big milestone. I borrowed this book from an actual over-sixty person, and haven’t yet had a chance to ask if the original owner thinks it’s accurate, but what it mainly underlined for me is how young I still feel at fifty, and how much inevitable deterioration is likely to happen in the next ten years. Ian Brown seems like a pretty active guy, with all the skiing and biking he’s doing throughout the book, but he’s still definitely falling apart, physically, and spends a lot of time reflecting on this throughout the book. The rest of his time is spent reflection on 1) how old he looks (apparently it’s not just women who worry about this as they get older); 2) whether women still find him sexually attractive; 3) whether he’ll have enough money to live on in retirement (he thinks not, after a career in journalism, but seems to be living an extremely comfortable lifestyle during his sixty-first year, so maybe his standards for “enough” are higher than mine); and 4) whether he’s done the best work he could do, and whether it’s too late to do more (like write a great novel).

Does all this sound a little self-absorbed, maybe even boring at times? To me, the sign of a great memorist is someone who can make the book interesting to read even when the subject matter could be mundane. The other Ian Brown book I read, The Boy in Moon, had an inherently fascinating subject — caring for a profoundly disabled child. This one is about the more routine business of getting older, something we’ll all face if we’re lucky, but Ian is an interesting, thoughful, and funny enough writer to make the ride interesting, at least most of the time.

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