Vermette’s The Break is a Killer

The Break by Katherena Vermette. House of Anasi Press, 2016. 288pp, fiction.

Canadian Native writer Katherena Vermette’s The Break is a novel to be jealous of for a number of reasons, but especially if you’re reading it south of the border. Set in the North End of Winnipeg, the novel moves through ten — count them — ten narrators, but Vermette is so good at it, not only do you not even notice, you’re spellbound by the multitude of stories playing out in front of you, all revolving around the mystery of a rape perpetuated against a young First Nations girl.

Why those of us writing south of the border should be jealous is because this is the kind of novel that would never be published in the good ol’ U-S-of-A. It’s about urban Natives — mainly Metis, but there is no fetishization of THE REZ, no weird and slightly silly homages to nature, no martyrdom over the character’s mixed-ness or urban-ness — they’re just Native folks, struggling to make it in difficult circumstances, who are wounding, and loving, and being with one another. Grandma, in this novel — or Kookom — is a real human being. And there is a wonderfully subtle weaving of wolves as metaphor — not spirit animal — throughout.

In fact, every character is complicated, rich — but the ones I can’t help but return to again and again are the cop and his unknown nemesis, Phoenix. The cop — Tommy — has to work to find a rapist amidst the casual racism and apathy of his partner — and lover, and if there was any character who would be easy money when it comes to identity porn in mixed Native characters, he would be it. But he handles the complexity of his background like a champ, interacting with the large family that takes up the majority of this gem of a novel with grace, compassion and most of all understanding. Phoenix, a victim of the system, a junkie, a runaway — may be unlikable (supposedly a cardinal sin in this has-to-be relatable literary culture) but so much more importantly, she is lovable in that way that only the most brilliant novelists can execute.

I know I’ve come late to the party with this one, but I hope you’ll join, because this novel is a killer.

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