Friday, 4 January 2019

Book review: The Break, Katherena Vermette (2016)

I had to write this review twice to get the tone I needed and even then it was a toss-up whether to publish. The first version was too negative and I thought about who I wanted to read the review and about what I needed to say to express my opinion. I had to qualify my views in order to get them to fit a model that would be suitable for publication.

This novel chronicles the lives of people in Canada who use the words “first nations” to describe their ethnic heritage. In the first chapter you find a mother who has witnessed a crime near her house and who has called the police, who are rendered as two-dimensional actors who miss important emotional cues the mother produces, and who only end up looking obtuse. The second chapter is focalised through a teenager, a girl aged about 13, and I felt in her characterisation a similar lack of awareness of the commonalities that keep society together.

Fiction that is engaged in the political process often has this problem, in that it can fail to show what is shared by all people who live in the community. Authors who identify with minorities have deeply felt beliefs and want the mainstream to understand and possibly even subscribe to them, and people love fiction, they gravitate to it like moths to a flame, so fiction is the ideal vehicle to communicate complex ideas. But in some cases, cases like the book in question, the ideas that are being used by the author are not shared by the broader community, and this is where problems of interpretation occur.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The book I reviewed on the blog yesterday, Emily O’Grady’s ‘The Yellow House’ (from Australian publisher Allen and Unwin) is a good example of a politically-motivated book that succeeds in getting its message across. Part of the reason that this is true is that secondary characters in it are completely realised, and are not bent to conform to a narrow worldview.

In my youth we talked about fiction that was “engage” (which has the acute accent on the final vowel), a French term that means that the novel in question is animated by praxis, which is a word that describes the performance of theory in real life. We were all for engaged fiction when I was young but as I have grown older I realise that there are more important things to pursue than anything that can be circumscribed within the constraints of a narrow political view of the world. Things like love and beauty, youth and greed, envy and friendship are more necessary to articulate than concerns about racial discrimination or any other brand of identity politics. Art is eternal, politics vanishes in the flow of transitory things.

So this review is mainly negative but I feel that it is important for all people to have their views heard. So I wanted to be reasonable and to provide some tips on what I think is needed to write a novel that can both express the realities of life for people who belong to minorities, as well as to show what I feel is necessary for a novel to succeed in the trade market.

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