Friday, October 26, 2012

Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden

Now this one is cheating a bit, because it's not actually set in Toronto. There are a couple chapters that happen in the city, to be sure, but if you're looking for novels that capture the essence of Toronto, keep walking. This is not that book. So why review it here? Well, I read it thinking it was going to be set in Toronto (I found it on a list of books that are), so why waste the opportunity to recommend a good book?

And it was good. Truly lovely. There are two stories being told, each with a first person narration. The first is the story of Will, a Cree bush pilot from Moose Factory who spends the story in a coma in a hospital bed. His story is about how he got to that point. The second is Annie, Will's niece, who visits him every day, sitting by his bedside and telling him her story, how she got to where she is. The stories intertwine repeatedly - if not always in the events they describe, then certainly in theme - and revolve around Suzanne, Annie's younger sister who has disappeared "down south" with a troubled boy. The chapters alternate between the two narratives.

Will's story deals mainly with loss. Through his alcoholism and indiscretions Will has lost a lot of things, and a lot of people. He develops a strange friendship with an aging bear. He struggles with the aftermath of Suzanne's disappearance, the implication of biker involvement, and Marius Netmaker - Suzanne's boyfriend's brother - and his accusations that Will is a police informant.

Annie's story follows her to Toronto, where she searches for Suzanne and meets Gordon, a mute man and her protector. I liked that she meets him at Queen and Bathurst - anyone familiar with that corner will find this scene plays out clearly. Annie's search takes her to Montreal, and then New York, and a brief career as a catalogue model, before she returns home with Gordon to Moose Factory.

I can't even explain how evocative the writing is. The sounds of the geese, the snowmobiles, the crackling fire - you will hear them as you read. The vast, empty expanses of land and water fill this book. I've never been up north but I can imagine clearly the James Bay, hunting on Akimiski Island, shopping at the Northern Store. It is beautiful writing that pulls you utterly into that world.

There are a lot of strong themes in the novel: isolation, loyalty, what it means to make your way through the world as a good person. What I took from the book was the message that people are the same all over. Annie tells a story of her grandfather showing her the stars, and saying "They are the same stars you see anywhere you go in the world[...]My own auntie told me that, but I didn't lean it until I travelled far away." I believe some people - like Annie - know that people are the same all over, but they just have to go see it for themselves.

All in all this was a beautiful story. I highly recommend it - even though it's not set in Toronto.

Four CN Towers out of five

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