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Thursday, February 23, 2017

Review of THE BREAK by Katherena Vermette

4 Stars
This is one of the finalists for Canada Reads 2017. 

In a series of shifting narratives, the novel explores the aftermath of a violent crime on a community in Winnipeg's North End.  The book could be called a whodunit (Who attacked the young Indigenous woman?), but it is much more.  The reader does see how the police investigate the case, but the identity of the perpetrator and the motive soon become obvious.  The focus is on the effects of the crime on the victim, her relatives (e.g. great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, aunts, cousin) and her friends.  In total, ten different viewpoints are given; except for the Métis police officer leading the investigation, the voices are those of women.

This is a compelling read though not an easy one.  It is the first book I have encountered which has had a trigger warning:  “This book is about recovering and healing from violence.  Contains scenes of sexual and physical violence, and depictions of vicarious trauma.”

This is a very timely novel.  Statistics show that Indigenous women are three times more likely to be victims of violence than non-Aboriginal women, and the Canadian government has launched a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.  Virtually all the women in the novel have experienced sexual abuse and/or domestic violence and/or addiction and/or cultural loss and/or family fracturing.  These are such common experiences as to be almost inevitable.  The title refers to a piece of undeveloped land in the middle of the community which becomes the scene of a crime, but it also refers to broken people, broken relationships, and broken links with the past. 

Besides a novel about the difficult lives of urban Native women, this is a book about resilience and survival.  The message is that women need to support each other to give each other the strength to survive.  It is the connection to family and the love for one’s family which allow for healing and provide the assurance that “Everything will be okay.”  Stella has distanced herself from her family but when she re-connects, she feels so comforted that she doesn’t’ want to leave.   The eldest speaker says, “I know I have my people.  I can feel them, even when they go away.  It means so much to have people.  It is everything.” 

Of course, not everyone has a supportive, caring network.  Phoenix, for example, has no one except an uncle, an ex-con, drug-dealing gang leader.  Her mother Elsie was gang-raped when she was a teenager and became a drug addict, losing her three children to the child welfare system.  Phoenix’s behaviour therefore becomes understandable and the reader cannot but feel some sympathy for her.  The added tragedy is that the dysfunction will continue into the next generation.

The number of characters is a weakness.  Some (Phoenix and Stella) are well-developed, but others (Cheryl, Louisa, and Paulina) are not sufficiently differentiated.  A family tree is provided but the number of nicknames adds to the confusion:  Cheryl is sometimes Cher; Louisa is sometimes Lou; Lorraine is sometimes Rain; Zegwan is Zig and Ziggy; Alex is Bishop and Ship, etc.  Why does everyone’s name have to be reduced to one syllable?  Phoen?!  The use of Paul for Paulina is particularly annoying because of its gender confusion.  The connections between non-familial characters are sometimes difficult to keep straight (StellaElsiePhoenixCedar-SageLouisaRitaZegwanEmily). 

Men in the novel are not portrayed very positively.  Young Native men are gang members and older Native men retreat into the bush:  three of the major characters have been abandoned by husbands.  Absentee fathers for Native children seem to be the norm.  Only three white men make an appearance.  One is Officer Christie, a stereotypical doughnut-loving cop who is lazy and bigoted.  Jeff and Pete, partners of Indigenous women, remain flat characters.    

The book does not offer excuses or assign blame; it just shows the situation and lets readers draw conclusions as to responsibility.  We know that the plight of Aboriginals is a consequence of colonization by whites, but this is not explored.  Neither is the role of residential schools.  However, the racism encountered by Aboriginals in the health care system and among police is shown.  The novel’s achievement is putting a human face to issues that are often misunderstood. 

This book is unflinching in its gaze at life for contemporary Indigenous women in urban Canada.  It is certainly a book Canadians should read.