“My Stella, girls get attacked everywhere.” Stella’s Kookom — her grandmother — states her truth blnntly. She has lived it, is living it, has survived it and is surviving it. Although, as Lou says: “We have all been broken in one way or another.”
The Break is more than one woman’s story. But at the heart of it is one incident of violence, which reverberates across the generations. “[T]hey just all look alike. Cheryl, Rain, Stella, Paul, Lou, and Emily too. The girl looks just like them all.”
The Break also refers to a border in the landscape, which also retains a psychological and social edge. Stella believes that she has moved beyond the perimeter, that she is now living in an area which is safer for indigenous women, though only a few blocks away. (The same landscape is explored in the author’s 2013 collection, North End Love Songs, which won the 2013 Governor General’s Award for Poetry.)
“Kookom laughs but not unkindly. ‘It’s just different there, my Stella. Just different, or they hide it. It just looks different, but bad stuff happens everywhere.’’
When Stella witnesses an act of violence from her window, it echoes throughout the experiences of the women in her family. It serves as the impetus for reconnecting with her family in the present, but simultaneously brings remembrances of past fractures to the fore.
Even in company, many of the women feel alone. Sometimes the silence, that which is not discussed and not known, is as much of a burden as what is felt and observed directly.
“Stella never did find out who he was. Or why any of it had happened at all. There were big, blank spaces where all the answers should be. Stella never knew.”
There are breaks in communication, breaks in tradition, breaks in matriarchal support systems: it is not only the landscape which has dividing lines, but thought patterns and behaviours.
“In the dream, the Break is land like any other land, just a place covered with snow. The sky is clear, the stars are bright and blinking, and the moon is full and bright. She can see all its dents and curves, and the light that reflects back somehow feels as warm as fire. The wind is the winter kind, huge and overpowering in her ears. It’s all she hears but it doesn’t make her cold. Stella walks on and knows she can take this path all the way north. She can go until she reaches the end of the city where she will see the sky and snow stretch out full and empty.”
Time and place are significant in this novel, but the story urges readers to reach beyond. This is not simply one girl’s story, but one story which must be viewed within a framework of misappropriation and abuse, a systemic devaluing and disempowering. And, yet, paradoxically, the pain is experienced at the personal level, so it is also a story about individual sorrows and losses.
“It wasn’t a night out anymore. It was a timeline. Her mom wasn’t a person anymore. She was a story. And it all didn’t matter anyway. When Stella knew everything she knew the details weren’t even all that important – it was what it meant that mattered. It meant that it was all her mom’s fault. All her mom’s fault. Her mom was dead and it was all her own fault.
For a long time, that was all that really mattered.”
The Break‘s narrative moves in a circular fashion, as though the author is passing a treasure amongst the characters. As the pages turn, the voices become a chorus, as in Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Penelopiad, a resonant call for justice. (A pattern to the voices emerges as more details are understood about the act of violence.)
Even before readers can easily distinguish between the representatives of the generations – draw the matrilineal lines – the pattern begins to emerge. The Break is about a family, but the boundaries of that family spread beyond the walls of a handful of houses.
“She thinks of each time, every instance. One by one. It’s really the past. Not even hers. Just stories that really belong to other people but were somehow passed to her for safekeeping, for her to know, forever. Incidents. Situations. They roll by in her head, factual and unemotional. Things she’s seen, things her cousins told her, things her mom and Anuty Cher told her and her, Lou and Paul, when they were little kids, all those big and small half-stories that make up life. A pattern, she thinks of the word – like something that makes something else. Pattern. All those little things, those warnings to be careful, those teachings of what not to do.”
There are deeply ingrained patterns of alliance and betrayal too. The police, for instance, have more often sheltered (even housed) the perpetrators of violence against women like Stella than they have held them accountable and penalized them for their transgressions. “It is a random thought but it lingers a little too long. This isn’t the first time she has wondered if she really knows him and what he could be capable of, if she can even imagine.”
The perpetration of abusive and devastating cycles also leads to relentless anger and addiction. Nonetheless, despite the horrors, the overwhelming tenor of The Break is resilience and endurance. There is a note of pleading, but also a clear insistence.
“That’s what her look would have been called. Stern. Tommy knows that look well. His aunts all have it, his mom too, when she wants to, but this woman is also so beautiful. The kind of woman who doesn’t know she’s beautiful or dooesn’t care, who is always serious and doesn’t give a fuck what anyone thinks of her. The kind that intimidates the hell out of him.”
There is something preserved at the core of these women. “They are all like this, not their real selves anymore, more like shadows, turned inside out.”
They have survived. They will survive.