In which pages are turned, at a faster rate than usual. Character-soaked, but still fast-paced storytelling.
Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves (2017) is set in a future in which the dominant culture has determined that the blood of indigenous peoples holds an inherent value for healing. Exploitation and genocide ensue.
This pattern of behaviour could have laid the foundation for many a historical novel, but moving her story into the future not only creates fascinating parallels but it also places young indigenous characters in the role of revolutionaries and care-takers with a sense of startling immediacy.
Reminding us all, along the way, that young indigenous blood and voices are essential for these cultures’ continued existence as well as the preservation of community, language, and specific traditions which have been under attack for centuries.
With The Marrow Thieves narrated primarily from an adolescent boy’s perspective, much of the book has a definite ‘us’ and ‘them’ simplicity.
“Poisoning your own drinking water, changing the air so much the earth shook and melted and crumbled, harvesting a race for medicine. How? How could this happen? Were they that much different from us? Would we be like them if we’d had a choice? Were they like us enough to let us live?”
But complications do arise and Frenchie’s trust and distrust are misaligned and assumptions challenged. Occasionally emotions are discussed in such frank terms that a passage can seem almost instructive, which fits with the marketing of this book to include YA readers, but the story itself is wholly satisfying for adult readers too.
The aspect of this story which I most enjoyed and most dreaded were the creation stories, which are called “coming-to” stories. These are devastating and brutal accounts of suffering which led this small group of survivalists to walk this path together. They pepper the narrative and gradually secure readers’ investment in the characters, defying readers to remain indifferent.
Twice I had to set aside the book to allow these scenes to settle in my mind. They resonate strongly and are all-too-recognizable. Otherwise, I could hardly leave the book alone, and the resolution combines satisfaction with yearning in all the right ways. The page-turning quality is rooted partly in an antagonistic premise and partly in readers’ attachment to Frenchie. (The novel was longlisted for the Kirkus Awards in the U.S. and won the Governor General’s Award in Canada.)
In contrast, Daniel Griffin’s Two Roads Home (2017) reaches back in time, to 1993, positing that the environmental protests in that decade in British Columbia took a violent turn. This is how it begins, with the bulk of the action falling over several weeks, with characters moving deliberately and directly across the pages.
“The five of them, four men and one woman, left their van in a dirt pullout below Bedwell Pass on a Sunday morning in early April. They walked a torn twist of logging road into a clear-cut, little piles of dead wood stacked here and there among the stumps. The slope rose and the logging road started into a belt of cedar and fir only to end abruptly at a churned-up mound of earth — bulldozer, backhoe and dump truck idle at the road head.”
The language is uncluttered, functional and spare, which I expected from a peek into his short story collection, which was nominated for a ReLit Award in 2012.
The dialogue, in particular, boots the pacing of the novel. This is not a page-turner because it is based on a group of activists; it’s a page-turner because the language is finely tuned.
Not all of the characters are equally prominent; indeed, some of the story’s suspense revolves around the fact that five people are directly involved in the protests – and even within this core group some play a more pivotal role than others in the protest actions – whereas others are only indirectly involved (whether due to a relationship with a protestor or a fractured relationship which takes on a new importance as circumstances change).
In the aftermath of the event, the setting widens to include untouched areas of the province which stand in contrast to the clear-cut forests but, even there, the threat of development and greed loom.
Alliances shift and reform, influence shapes and fades: characters and readers struggle with complex matters of commitment and integrity, forced to redefine their concept of home and belonging as the scrap of earth beneath their feet erodes.
The Earth and landscape are at the root of Girl’s life in Claire Cameron’s The Last Neanderthal (2017), nominated for the Writers’ Trust Fiction Award this year. Here, readers travel back much further than 1993, to prehistory. The novel is a way of imagining how two skeletons – one neanderthal and one human – might have come to share the same patch of soil as a resting place thousands of years ago.
The story begins with Girl, who inhabits a time when sensory detail is of tremendous importance, scent in particular. Physiologically and psychologically, Girl is different from readers. What she notices about her world are details which we can recognize but which we do not prioritize. Her way of evaluating situations is just a little different. She values ritual over language (but it exists, stories too) and instinct triumphs over contemplation. But there are more similarities than differences.
A few chapters in, the perspective in the story shifts to Rose, a modern-day archaeologist whose dig is about to unearth this pair of skeletons. The present-day “slow-moving, non-action” of archaeological dig sites – forever sifting and hoping – contrasts with the fast-moving pace of Girl’s story in the past, but there is a sudden need to achieve in Rose’s life, too, partly because her discovery cannot be concealed for long. Also, the worlds of both heroines are changing. Girl’s in ways that she can quantify (she is reaching womanhood and the family unit is shifting) and ways she cannot (her contact with a young boy who is just a little different, will have a dramatic effect on how she views difference). Rose’s roles are changing, too, personally and professionally.
Girl’s narrative is naturally tension-filled. Violence and competition are everywhere in her world, disease and famine ever-present threats, and survival is tentative. Lives are short and existence dangerous. Rose’s segments move quickly, too, partly to reflect her own changing circumstances, partly through a use of dialogue and scenic construction. Readers familiar with the author’s two previous novels will recognise the techniques at work.
Here, for instance, are the trademark short chapters, tightly paced, in language characterized by simplicity and momentum. The style is not markedly different from The Line Painter and Bear. There is a nod, however, towards the theme, in naming Rose’s chapters while numbering Girl’s (presumably to emphasize one character’s dependence upon language and the other character’s preference for simpler systems).
This kind of layering made me long for a few more structural changes to reflect each character’s different understanding of time (i.e. greater emphases on present or a preoccupation with past and future which outweighs the present), but perhaps that would have compromised the speed. “Life was a moving set of decisions. Even reaching to pinch a flea had to be worth the saved blood.”
Michael Kaan’s The Water Beetles (2017) opens when Chung-man is on a forced march with his older brother (ten years old) and younger sister (eight years old). The story, too, marches relentlessly onwards, eventually offering brief glimpses of the present-day, which encourage readers to continue with the story, understanding that this damaged boy did survive.
Japanese soldiers invaded Hong Kong in December 1941 and and they (with Chinese collaborators) have fundamentally altered the world into which Chung-man was born. For some time, he and his family continued to inhabit their home (inviting dozens of displaced people to join them), but the children were increasingly at risk and their mother arranged for them to leave. The story is told from his perspective.
“In some ways I was lucky to have been a child during the war. Time moves so differently at that age that a year seems like forever.” Even as an old man, living in Kuala Lumpur, his memories of the war remain fresh. They are preserved, often, in the context of landscape, where a cluster of bombs can seem, in shimmering orange light, like goldfish.
Observations of seemingly innocuous details in the natural world take on a new prominence as readers come to understand some of Chung-man’s wartime experiences.
Debris coursing in the cracks of the gutter, the leg of a water beetle hooked into the stem of a plant, a maid with the long and graceful face of a peeled amond, the rattle of a porcelain vase in a wooden stand: small things against a broad background and the contrast of simple beauty against a chaotic scene.
The simple language, unadorned prose, create the opportunity for the fragments of memory to glimmer against a dark panel of remembrance.
“For there are times we absorb the world as we grow and learn about it, but others when we make a dark exchange with it, casting out memories, pocketfuls of time, and future selves as its brutality marches into our lives.”
The Water Beetles was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award in Canada in 2017.
Thomas King’s The Back of the Turtle (2014) is every bit as good as I hoped. With its short chapters, varied voices and internal momentum, it reminded me of reading Green Grass, Running Water. I remember having difficulty putting down that book, because the next chapter was always a voice I wanted to hear from once more. And, so, I read it far too quickly; I forced myself to slow down with this one.
King’s language is as straightforward and bold as ever. Figurative language often roots itself in the natural world and metaphors feel organic, as though the story simply presented itself to him in such terms.
“The trailer was an aluminum lump parked hard against a stand of Douglas fir and hemlock. It had been silver at one time, but the salt spray had skinned it grey. Gabriel wondered whether, if you rubbed the sides, a genie might pop out.”
The tension in the novel comes from big questions of balance and imbalance. Sometimes the goals are simple (get out of the water, onto a rock) and achieved in a scene or two. But broader injustices and inequities simmer throughout the story as a whole.
“Gabriel tried to imagine the kind of person who would steal from the dead. Ordinary. They were probably perfectly ordinary.”
The characters are at the heart of the story but, simultaneously, there is a sense of the archetypal here. “Amazing how the past could find its way back to the present. Amazing how simple things could go so very wrong.” (One of the characters has books on his shelf which suggest the importance of such stories: Tsitsi Dangarembga’s The Book of Not, Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire, Melville’s Moby-Dick and Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis.)
From a diner in downtown Toronto to abandoned reservation lands, moving through pipelines and paragraphs: it all takes place on the back of the turtle.
These constitute another reading bundle for this year’s Canadian Book Challenge, hosted by Melwyk at The Indextrious Reader.
Have you read any of these, or is one of them on your TBR? Have you read a gripping story you’d like to recommend?