by Jen Moyers (@jen.loves.books)
Katherena Vermette's The Break (Bookshop.org), which was the focus of the most recent @readwithtoni buddy read, is a brilliant novel set in Winnipeg and centered on a tragedy at the heart of a Métis family.
The novel begins with a family tree, and that was definitely a sign of things to come. The narration alternates between ten characters—mostly women—whose connections aren't immediately clear. As the book unfolds, Vermette reveals gradually the subtle threads that tie each character to the next. We see characters whose vulnerability shifts to strength when they're needed, characters who conceal important truths, and others who share their truths as a matter of course. By focusing on these individuals, Vermette also reveals systemic problems, including the community's complicated treatment of those with Métis heritage, which means they have both Indigenous and European ancestry. The Break reveals a horrible trend of violence against women, the ways that some women fall victim to and perpetuate sexual violence and that other women stand strong against it. This is a novel of great nuance, with no easy heroes or villains: Vermette's ability to realize fully so many characters in such a short book is a marvel, and I had a difficult time putting this one down for our mid-book discussion.
The constant shifts between narrators means that Vermette demonstrates the complexities of each character: we see women who seem to have no agency in their own relationships but become pillars of strength in times of crisis; there are men who earnestly seek to empathize and understand who become part of the system that discounts women's stories; we mourn as children who are victims of neglect take their place as people who victimize others. There's something in the accumulation of stories that reminds me of Tommy Orange's There There, the way that no single story exists on its own but instead contributes to the impact of the whole community. (Check out our Book Club episode, number 146, focusing on There There here.)
I loved so many of these voices, and some of my favorites were those who could not speak out for themselves but turned fiery in speaking out for others. Vermette beautifully depicts the bond that exists among the members of the central family, beginning with Kookom (Grandmother) Flora and traveling through generations to her great-granddaughter Emily. The ways that Kookoom acts as an anchor for so many of these women and the reverence with which they view her wisdom and stories and presence in their lives is, for me, the heart of The Break.
This is a book to cherish, one that balances character and plot and setting perfectly, and I am looking forward to reading more of Vermette's work, including The Strangers, a follow-up to The Break, coming in 2021!
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