Love, Life, by Bernardine Ann Teraz Stapleton

Love, Life is a hard book to categorize, in the best possible way. It’s a memoir, and it’s fiction. It’s a little bit fantasy. It’s a little bit poetry. It’s written by a novelist who made her mark on the world first as a playwright, and there are scenes you can easily imagine on stage. It’s eerie, haunting, beautiful, and hard to pin down.

If you know Bernardine Stapleton at all in real life (which I am privileged to do, a little bit) you might know that in the those rosy pre-pandemic days of world travel, she and a friend went on a yoga retreat to Italy. .I know this happened; I saw her Facebook pictures as she posted them. So I might have expected a memoir — since this is book is told by a first-person narrator who has gone on a yoga retreat to Italy in midlife. It’s that, but it isn’t, and it’s also much more. It’s rich, and strange, and fantastic in both senses of the word. That’s as close as I can come to explaining this book. I read it in two sittings (it’s short), sitting outside in the sunshine on a perfect day in an idyllic place (not, alas, Italy, but still pretty idyllic) and that’s the way to read it, out in the sunlight, because even though it has moments of darkness, this little book is drenched with light.

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Approaching Fire, by Michelle Porter

Approaching Fire is a wonderful book to read; a difficult book to categorize. It contains elements of memoir, as Michelle Porter’s story of attempting to uncover the stories of her great-grandfather, Metis fiddler and performer Leon Robert Goulet. But there is also poetry, and prose that is closer to essay than to memoir, and found texts like newspaper clippings and advertisements. The multi-genre, somewhat fragmented approach is appropriate for a story that has come down to the author in fragments, some of them confusing and contradictory.

While there’s a part of me as a reader that yearns for a straightforward, chronological, all-prose memoir of a writer’s search for her family roots, I love how deliberately Approaching Fire plays with and frustrates that expectation, reminding me that stories of the past rarely unfold so neatly — and stories of a Metis past in a country that has tried to erase Indigenous stories are even harder to tell in a simple, straightforward way. The metaphor of fire — controlled fires that make the land healthy; out-of-control fires that destroy — is woven throughout the book and adds to its power and poignancy.

Melt, by Heidi Wicks

Local writer Heidi Wicks’s debut novel, Melt, tells the story of two St. John’s women, Jess and Cait, and the friendship that has bound them together since their teens. The story begins with both women in their mid-thirties, married with children, on the night Cait’s marriage ends. Shifting between past and present, the storyline traces Jess and Cait as teenagers finding their place in the world, slipping into their roles — Jess as the practical, good girl, Cait as the adventurous free spirit. Those scenes are set against the two adult women questioning the new roles as wives, mothers, professional women, testing their assigned roles – and their high school friendship – to see if these still fit comfortably as they look ahead to midlife.

Jess and Cait are both engaging and believable characters, as are the other characters who populate the book, particularly the men in their lives. Wicks’s writing style reminds me of another Newfoundland writer of her generation, Bridget Canning, and for me, as with Canning’s novels, a lot of the pleasure of reading her writing is in seeing the contemporary culture of the place I call home so lovingly and accurately depicted, but with the slight shift of seeing it from the perspective of characters whose age and life experience differs from mine (Jess and Cait are in high school during the same years I was getting married and having my first child, so their experience of St. John’s in the late 90s is different and yet recognizable for me). This is a thoroughly enjoyable debut novel and I look forward to reading more from Heidi Wicks.

Some People’s Children, by Bridget Canning

I devoured this book in a couple of days: while it’s a coming of age story that’s more episodic than plot-driven, the writing was just so great and the characters so believable that I found it hard to put down, especially late at night when I fell into the “just one more chapter” trap.

Imogene Tubbs is growing up in a small Newfoundland outport in the late 1980s/early 1990s. She’s being raised by her Nan; her mom, Maggie, who was just fifteen when Imogene was born, lives on the mainland with her new boyfriend and promises to visit more often than she actually does. The community Imogene lives in, the fictional St. Felix’s, is close-knit in all the best and worst ways of a small town: there’s a support network of family and friends, but they’re also part of that tightly woven net of nosy neighbours who all know and have opinions about each others’ business. And in Imogene’s case, that includes the business of who her father was, a question to which her mother’s official answer has never been fully satisfying.

The mystery of her paternity deepens through Imogene’s teenage years as she grows up and her relationships with those around her become more complicated. The novel spans the years from the beginning of high school to the midpoint of Imogene’s university years, so it’s a perfect coming-of-age arc. Though unravelling the mystery of who her father is is only part of what propels the reader forward, that storyline — and related storyline of Imogene’s relationship with Maggie — comes to a satisfactory resolution by the end of the novel. Not all the loose ends are tied up by any means, but we have enough information to believe that Imogene is capable of tying her own loose ends if she needs to.

This is, first and foremost, a perfectly-crafted coming-of-age story with the best qualities of that genre: it’s absolutely specific in its detail as to the time, place and experiences of its main character, yet somehow relatable to anyone who is or has been a teenager (so, like, all of us) no matter how different our experiences may have been from Imogene’s.

That specificity of detail is what makes Some People’s Children such a delight to read. There are a lot of differences between my life experiences and Imogene’s: she is ten years younger than I am, so the cultural things she experiences as a teenager are things I remember from my 20s; she grows up in rural Newfoundland while I’m a townie. And yet there were moments in this book where the vivid details of Newfoundland life in that era were so relatable I either laughed out loud or choked back a sob. Moments like this:

Nan volunteers Imogene to help pass out the cold-plate suppers for the cadets and Legion members. The Styrofoam plates contain scoops of potato salad, beet salad, a piece of iceberg lettuce, mustard pickles, and a slide of processed ham rolled up like a diploma. From a distance, the scoops of potato and beet salad look like vanilla and strawberry ice cream, then you get close and disappointed.

When a writer can capture that exact cold-plate dinner we’ve all eaten or served so many times in a few vivid words – and also recreate the horror of being picked on by high-school bullies so viscerally it almost gave me flashbacks to my own school years — that’s some brilliant writing right there. Go along with Imogene on her journey — you will not be disappointed.

We All Will Be Received, by Leslie Vryenhoek

This new book from my fellow Breakwater Books author Leslie Vryenhoek traces the story of Dawn, a young woman who, on a turbulent in 1977, witnesses a crime and commits another, running away from a terrible boyfriend to start a new life under a new identity. This was easier to do back in the late 70s, of course, before the internet. Dawn hitchhikes all the way to a small hotel in Newfoundland and reinvents herself complete with a new name and a very minimal backstory.

Interspersed between the chapters of Dawn’s story are chapters about other, apparently unrelated characters in the early 21st century, and we’re a nice ways into the book before we begin to see how these storylines will converge and Dawn’s past will finally catch up with her.

I found this a quick, engaging read with some interesting reflections on how our level of connection and connectivity has changed over the last 40 years.

Nitinikiau Innusi: I Keep the Land Alive, by Tshaukuesh Elizabeth Penashue

I Keep the Land Alive is not a typical memoir, but it is an important and engrossing book.  Elizabeth Penashue (whose Innu name is Tshaukuesh) is a Labrador Innu activist who has spent her life fighting for her people’s right to live, hunt and fish on their traditional territory, and fighting against the incursions into that lifestyle made by everything from low-level military flying over Labrador, to the building of the Muskrat Falls dam flooding miles of traditional territory. She advocates not only for the Innu people’s right to their land, but for the importance of the land to the Innu people, the need for young people to be able to spend time living on the land as their ancestors did, rather than trying to assimilate to a dominant culture that treats them as second-class citizens and traps them in cycles of addiction, poverty and abuse.

As I said, this is not a traditional memory — it’s a collection of diaries and other fragments of Tshaukuesh’s writing over several decades, translated into English and edited. It’s a wonderful record of and testimonial to the work of an outstanding indigenous activist whose work every Newfoundland & Labradorian, indeed every Canadian, should know about.

The Luminous Sea, by Melissa Barbeau

This is a lovely novel that I had the privilege of defending in this year’s NL Reads competition (it didn’t win, but it should have!). Melissa Barbeau’s novel of contemporary outport Newfoundland begins with Vivienne, a student working on a marine biology research project, nets something that is not quite a fish — a mysterious sea-creature no-one has ever seen the like of before. Her supervisor, Colleen, is anxious to keep the discovery a secret until it can be revealed in the way and at the time that will do the most good to Colleen’s own career. But Vivienne finds herself drawn to the creature less as a research subject and more as a fellow-creature, coming to empathize with the trapped specimen, anthropomorphizing it as “she,” and pushing back against Colleen’s avid desire to use “her” as a stepping-stone to career advancement.

This is a nice, tight little story with well-drawn characters and a very believable setting as a backdrop for an unbelievable discovery. It reflects on deeper themes about how we as humans relate to the natural world and its creatures — highly relevant themes in the age of climate change. It has received a lot of acclaim, being shortlisted for the Winterset Award and longlisted for the Dublin Literary Awards — and the acclaim is richly deserved. The writing is as luminous as the sea of the title, as rich and beautiful as the cover design, and it’s a pleasure to read.

What The Oceans Remember, by Sonja Boon

This was storm book #2, and what an engrossing, lovely read it was. Author, academic, and musician Sonja Boon explores her complicated family roots (she often describes herself as “Dutch-Canadian” for simplicity’s sake, but the reality is much more complex) in a book that at the same time a personal memoir, a family history, and an exploration of archival material relating to slavery and colonialism in Suriname, where many of Boon’s ancestors came from.

The resulting book is thoughtful and absorbing. It’s also a visually beautiful hardcover (this is one I’m glad I didn’t read as an e-book; it was given to me as a Christmas gift and the physical book is a true pleasure). There are photographs interspersed throughout the narrative, though never as many as I wanted (sometimes photographs are described in the text, as the author looks through archival or family materials, but not all of these are reproduced in the book). I also wished, very much, for a family tree to be included, as I wanted to map the relationships of the various grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great grandparents she writes about. Regardless of the things I’d like to have seen more of, I loved reading this book, and thought it was such an insightful take on the idea of “family history.”

One For the Rock, by Kevin Major

I’ve been reading through all the books nominated for this year’s NL Reads awards because, as last year’s winner, I get to be one of the defenders this year (more on the wonderful book I’ll be defending in a later blog post). Kevin Major’s mystery novel One for the Rock is one of the nominees, a short and relatively light mystery novel set in contemporary St. John’s.

The premise is good: our hero is a cantankerous middle-aged man named Sebastian Synard who runs high-end hiking/dining tours of St. John’s for wealthy mainland tourists. Sebastian has a very sweet gig going (and the details of both hiking and dining in St. John’s are well-researched and absolutely spot-on, as they should be), but he is Bitter and Cynical because he’s a middle-aged man whose wife has left him for another, and also the world doesn’t seem to be giving him everything he thinks he deserves (I realize I may be a teeny bit Bitter and Cynical myself about the trope of middle-aged dudes in fiction and in mysteries specifically. Lighten up, man!).

Tragedy (but not much tragedy because it happens to an unlikeable character we barely know) strikes on one of Sebastian’s hikes when a tour group member perishes in a way that’s suspicious enough that almost everyone in the group might be a suspect. And, wouldn’t you know it, the police officer investigating the death is the very same guy that Sebastian’s wife ran off with, so Sebastian is Bitter, Cynical and Unwilling to Co-operate With the Investigation (at first, anyway).

From this premise, the mystery unfolds pretty quickly, with some wry humour along the way and lots of plot twists (some of which are more neatly tied-together than others: there were a couple of loose ends I wasn’t sure about). If you like mysteries and contemporary Newfoundland fiction (and don’t mind the odd grumpy middle-aged man), you should definitely check out this book.

The Innocents, by Michael Crummey

This book, nominated for the Giller Prize, features the brilliant clarity of language, deft characterization and description you’d expect from a Michael Crummey novel. The subject matter is as harsh and bleak as the landscape where it’s set, and how you feel about that subject matter may determine how much you enjoy reading this book.

Sometime early in the 19th century (this is not specified, but you can work out the general time period from context clues), a pre-teen brother and sister are left orphaned in a Newfoundland cove so isolated that they are the only family there. Their parents and a baby sister have died, and at first their only choice seems to be to get aboard the next ship that puts into their cove and go to the nearest community to throw themselves on the mercy of whoever might take them in. But having inherited the fierce and stubborn independence of their parents, the siblings decide not to leave their parents’ land, choosing instead to try to survive alone. Through the cycle of the year they fish, make fish, keep house, cut wood, feed themselves and generally try to survive — assisted on occasion by a few visitors from the outside world, but for the most part relying only on themselves and each other.

Crummey does a wonderful job of capturing the innocence of these innocents — all the things they experience without having words or context for them. The language is beautiful here, as you would expect, the rhythms of speech perfectly captured.

If you’re thinking that this is the story of a brother and sister who age from about 12 to 15 during the time of this story with no other people around most of the time, and you’re wondering whether sex is one of those things they don’t have words or context for and whether the story is going to go in an incest-y direction … well, you’ll have to read it and see, but remember I told you it’s bleak, and there’ll definitely be some disturbing passages. This is probably not going to sit alongside Galore and Sweetland as one of my favourite Michael Crummey books, but I have to stand in awe of the brilliance of his writing.