Apr/May 2018 Reviews & Interviews

The Break

The Break.
Katherena Vermette.
Allen & Unwin. 2018. 352 pp.
ISBN 978 1 6063 227 4.

Review by Ann Skea

Buy now from Amazon! The Break beautifully captures the close-knit support which an extended family gives when a teenage girl is horrifically attacked. It begins, rather confusingly, with a description of The Break (an isolated strip of land on the edge of a small Canadian town) told by a dead woman's spirit. It is not immediately apparent that we are hearing a ghost or that her references to "my Stella" are about her daughter. Later in the book we hear her again, "I used to think spirits envied their lost skin. That ghosts sway in the shadows... But I have never missed my body. Not really." It is contact with other people's bodies she misses. "I miss you my girl, I miss you in my arms," and "I miss, too, your Kookoo's old-lady hands." So this ghost stays close, although other than as a connection to the past—to memories of her own and in the memories of others—she plays no real part in the family's present lives.

Stella, however, is central to the events which unfold, and we first meet her as she is interviewed by two police officers about the violent assault she has witnessed from her kitchen window. There is clearly more to Stella's distress about this attack than she is willing to disclose. But the police, one of whom is a Métis (a person who has one parent of Canadian Indian ethnicity), are initially ready to dismiss the incident as relatively trivial, despite the amount of blood in the snow. Stella, too, is a Métis, and part of the power of this story is the way it immerses the reader in an extended family where indigenous custom and culture have nurtured deep connections, and whose members have moved over several generations from reservation life to a marginalized urban setting where drugs, alcohol, and violence are ever-present. Tommy, the Métis police officer, feels some sympathy for Stella, but he is new to the job, self-aware of his position as a Métis amongst fellow officers whose casual insults about his mixed race are unintentionally upsetting, so he is unwilling to press for deeper enquiries. His hunches, however, do lead him to discoveries about the case that eventually resolve it.

When Emily, who is just an ordinary teenager wanting to learn about life and testing the limits of family control, is subjected to an horrific attack, mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and close women-friends are constantly there for her. Gradually, as the shocking nature of the assault and the reasons for Stella's distress become clear, we get to know these women and to learn of their own particular problems and the ways in which they have each learned to deal with them. The men, some good, some bad, come and go. But the strong sense of family connection between these women survives as they support, criticise, argue with, and love each other.

The blurb on the front cover of the book quotes Margaret Atwood as saying "I loved this—very tough and real... An accomplished writer who will go far." I agree with this assessment.

Atwood's blog about this book, however, is not as uncritical. She ends it by saying that the book is "a mature debut" but complains that the plot "never really moves," that there are "way too many narrators," and that such close family involvement in the teenager's trauma struck her as overbearing. My own response to the book was much more positive. The plot, by which presumably Atwood means the revelation of the puzzles surrounding the assault and Stella's distress about it, is, it seems to me, simply a means of immersing the reader in the lives of those affected by it. The narrators speak for themselves in their own voices and from their different and personal perspectives, and I found that interesting and well done. My own difficulty was with the names and the family relationships. Paul is not a man but is Pauline, mother of Emily. I had to keep reminding myself that she was sister to Louise and that both of them were the daughters of Cheryl, whose own sister, "Rain" (Lorriane), died in unfortunate circumstances and now haunts the book. Kookom (sometimes "Kookoo") is the grandmother—the ancient matriarch of the family who is still an important influence on them all. There is a helpful family tree at the front of the book, and I often had to refer to it.

As to the over-protective aspect of Margaret Atwood's criticism, I was envious of the close bond between these strong women and very aware that this ability to rely on family support, whatever the circumstances, is something which super-mobile, modern, Western societies have largely lost. Indigenous peoples of Australia, New Zealand, and, clearly, Canada, seem to have been able to preserve it to some extent. The ghostly Rain tells Stella she has heard their native language never had a sense of time, "that past and present and future happened all at once." "I think this is why you don't let me go, because I am still happening," she says. And this sense of family continuity pervades the book.

Katherena Vermette is herself a Métis writer from Treaty One Territory in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. She is a poet, and her prose reflects a poet's concern for rhythm, pace, and imagery. The Break is her first novel, and it has, deservedly I think, won several fiction awards.


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