There’s a shadow over Cherie Dimaline’s latest novel, Empire of Wild (2019).
Part of it could appear in a history text: “In the church and at his Catholic day school, the priests called seven the age of reason. Moshom called it the age of learning how the hell to survive. Same thing, really.”
Part of it is more poetic: “The moon was a perfect hole in the sky, bleeding the edges of the night to silver.”
Some of it is more supernatural than natural: “No matter which community claimed them, rogarous were known for some specific things. They smelled odd, like wet fur and human sweat. They were men turned into beasts for any number of reasons – each one unique to the storyteller.”
Readers of Dimaline’s earlier works, like her stories in A Gentle Habit (2015), will expect attention to detail, ordinary observations that often reveal small truths about characters. Characters who multitask because they are constantly active and alert, who attend to the weather before dressing to leave the house.
“Ajean pulled a long skirt over her jogging pants and talked while she laced up her moccasins. ‘I don’t know much about that magic from over there.’ She pointed with her lips randomly to the east, which Joan took to mean Europe. ‘But I don’t trust it. I believe it, but I don’t trust it.’ The old woman was bundled against the chill with a peculiar layering of sweaters.”
Readers of the popular and acclaimed YA novel, The Marrow Thieves (2017), will expect suspense and solid pacing. In this instance, the cast of characters is smaller, the action more focussed. “Up ahead, the smudge…lowered itself gracefully somewhere behind the trees. He chased it, pushing low branches out of his path with blood-strained hands as they caught at his jacket and his braid.”
And readers of both works will warm to the familiar occasional wry note of humour, even when (especially when) confronting fearful situations and creatures: “They were as notoriously bad at math as they were obsessive. A rogarou, try as he might, could only count to twelve. Put thirteen things by your door and he would be inclined to stop and count them. But since he could only get to twelve, he could never count the entire pile, so he was doomed to start again and again, stopping at twelve and returning to one. Eventually, he’d give up and go away, forgetting he’d ever intended to enter. At least that was the theory.”
In short, if you’ve read and enjoyed Cherie Dimaline before, you’ll find what you’re looking for here. And, if you’ve not, but you’re anxious for the final volume in Eden Robinson’s Trickster Trilogy, disappointed that Drew Hayden Taylor hasn’t continued the story of The Night Wanderer, or itching for longer horror stories like Richard van Camp’s “On the Wings of This Prayer” (the opening story in Godless but Loyal to Heaven): crawl into this dark place while you wait.
Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island (2019)
The new Amitav Ghosh novel, Gun Island (2019), is satisfying on many levels. Readers of the Ibis Trilogy will recognize his attention to language, coastlines and other borders, and the way that political decisions from afar which reverberate in the lives of ordinary people, the subtle changes that leads to transformative change. Stakes are high and relationships intense: whether scrolls signed in ink or text messages from distant lands, urgency simmers. Oh, can he tell a story!
“In the seventeenth century no one would ever have said of something that it was ‘just a story’ as we moderns do. At that time people recognized that stories could tap into dimensions that were beyond the ordinary, beyond the human even. They knew that only through stories was it possible to enter the most inward mysteries of our existence where nothing that is really important can be proven to exist – like love, or loyalty, or even the faculty that makes us turn around when we feel the gaze of a stranger or an animal. Only through stories can invisible or inarticulate or silent beings speak to us; it is they who allow the past to reach out to us.”
Frederick Philip Grove’s Over Prairie Trails (1922)
Seasonally speaking, Grove’s non-fiction account of travels across the Prairies feels a world apart, literally, from Ghosh’s novel. And where Ghosh has a full cast of characters, Grove’s chapters are accounts of his personal experience, with his wife and daughter, and other settlers, present on the margins. And while Gun Island has a sweaty and steamy feeling, it’s usually snowing in Grove’s prose. It’s a love letter to snow – and I’m all in.
“Now, when a housewife takes a thin sheet that is lying on the bed and shakes it up without changing its horizontal position, the running waves of air caught under the cloth will throw it into a motion very similar to that which the wind imparts to the snow-sheets, only that the snow-sheets will run down instead of up.”
Every year I try to read a couple of the New Canadian Library classics and this year I was planning to read one of Grove’s novels, but I happened on a copy of this when browsing a second-hand shop on College Street — the first volume in the series. It’s clearly been read a few times, whereas my (also used) copies of his novels might have been read once, by an extraordinarily careful reader, which was another mark in its favour.
Not a lot happens in these essays: he travels back and forth, forth and back, and does it all again (many more times than are discussed here – he has selected the more eventful trips) – but I can see where it would make a delightful reread in the snowy season. And for all that nothing much happens – there is one very suspenseful trip where I was turning the pages as though it were a pirate-filled adventure story.