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  • Writer's pictureWilma Aalbers

January Reads

Jael Richardson, Gutter Child

Michael Crummey, Galore

Zalika Reid-Benta, Frying Plantain

Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me

Jael Richardson, Gutter Child

This is a smart, topical, well written book.

The story is set in a future society whose population is geographically segregated into the “Mainland” and the “Gutter.” Unsurprisingly, the densely populated, polluted and inland Gutter is where the poor folks live, far from the coastal beauty of the Mainland.

Like Cherie Dimaline before her, Jael Richardson has created a fictional society that contains within it many of the world’s past and current systems of oppression. Protagonist Elimina is a fourteen year old ”Gutter Child” raised not in the Gutter, like her people, but on the Mainland by an adoptive mother. As the story opens, Elimina’s mother has died, and having no other family to care for her, she is dropped off at Livingstone Academy, a boarding-type school specifically designed to train Gutter children for the workforce.

It’s here at the academy that Elimina learns that her status as a Gutter Child defines her life in terms of its debt to society. People born and raised in the Gutter must “repay” this debt through their life’s work; typically this repayment takes forty to fifty years. To add to the misery, debt can be inherited, forcing children to take on their deceased parents’ burdens.

Now, we all understand how money works, right? So let’s connect the dots Richardson has laid out: You have more money if you live on The Mainland. Having more money gives you more freedom to own property, support your family, engage in politics and access education. Gutter folks spend most of their working lives trying to keep their families alive while struggling to repay the debt they are born with. As a result, their entire lives are spent on subsistence, with no ability to influence the larger world or improve their place within it.

This is the genius of Gutter Child. Richardson does not make explicit the fact that Gutter Folks are of a particular race, only that their skin colour is darker than that of Mainlanders. But they are clearly existing within their society in the way that Black people, Indigenous folks and people of colour have historically experienced ours: born into a system designed to ensure their failure.

Until her adopted mother died, Elimina was raised in Capedown on The Mainland. The similarity between Capedown and Cape Town is not accidental, drawing to mind South Africa’s apartheid-era, stratified society. Though she lived in Capedown, Elimina was never accepted into Mainlander society. She recalls angry parents who “stood in front of Capedown Elementary to protest my enrollment in a school that had always been exclusively for Mainlanders - in a town that prided itself on the same. “Keep the Mainland for Mainlanders,” they said.” It’s not hard to hear echoes of “Deutschland über alles” or “Make America Great Again” in this incident. Despite living on The Mainland, Elimina receives none of the benefits of this society and remains set apart, both by her skin colour and the “X” branded onto her hand. Her mother’s protective nature keeps Elimina isolated from the society she lives in. Unfortunately, being one of the only Gutter children on The Mainland means she is also isolated from her own history, and from ever engaging with anyone who might look like her.

Only when she arrives at Livingstone Academy does Elimina learn of her own debt and the purpose of such academies, which is to groom Gutter children for hire into the jobs intended to pay off their debt. Of course, the education provided by Livingstone is not free, and Elimina finds herself in a classic double bind: she relies on the academy to be able to one day pay off her societal debt; at the same time, the academy contributes to the debt. Her status as a former Mainlander sets her apart from the other students at Livingstone, and here, too, she suffers as a result of her difference.

I feel like I’ve been summarizing for ages and I’ve only just described the first, oh, fifty pages. So much happens in this book! And it’s so densely, metaphorically meaningful. Ultimately, Elimina finds allies at the academy, and also meets adults who teach her the history of her people. Her single “X” scar (all other Gutter children have two, one on each hand) identifies her as a member of a group of children who were raised from birth on the Mainland as part of an experimental program, presumably to test whether one is born a Gutter person or made into one by the Gutter. Clearly the experiment has failed, because Elimina was never accepted into Mainland society. As Elimina comes to terms with her history we get a clearer sense of the struggle Gutter people face as they seek control over their own lives.

This is an extremely readable book. Elimina’s friends and mentors teach her how to survive through a combination of tough love, education and compassion. Elimina’s eventual return to the Gutter exposes her to the reality that poverty’s burden is most often carried by women who are consistently required to make impossible decisions on behalf of their families. Poverty and its ensuing lack of agency define her every moment in the Gutter.

The strength in this story is its unflinching exposure of the fact that racism allows Mainlanders to be successful and free. In today’s contemporary society, Ijeoma Oluo writes that when she hears anyone suggest that the system is “broken” she can’t help but point out that “The system is not broken. It is working as designed.” Gutter Child recreates that design, removing the markers we are accustomed to by never calling Mainlanders “white” or Gutter folks “Black," but still maintaining a focus on the devastating impact of building a society based on constructed and false categorizations of human beings. Just like the one we’re all living in. Right now.

As I read I kept thinking about The Chrysalids, which also presents a society that has built-in discrimination based on people’s physical attributes. Like The Chrysalids, Gutter Child does not offer a tidy ending or a solution to the problem of how to redistribute political and economic power in an equitable way. Typical dystopian fiction sometimes relies on larger than life heroes to overcome the injustices of their worlds. Gutter Child does not give us that. Instead we meet a set of feisty, resilient, smart, articulate and yes, flawed, female characters of colour. And that is rare AF.

Read it. Read this book. I’m telling you. It’s worth every minute you have to give it.

MIchael Crummey, Galore

Let’s talk about the word “galore” for a minute. It’s the title of an album by The Cure, describes a bounty, sounds a bit like “glorious.” And while you might not expect a word that connotes glamour to be used in reference to a story set in rural Newfoundland, it’s the perfect title for this book, which contains plot, characters, magic, and beauty in abundance.

Set in the fictional village of Paradise Deep beginning in the 1700s and continuing through several generations, Galore tells a mythical and gorgeous story, deeply tied to its landscape and history.

The book opens with a description of a beached whale, not quite dead, on the shore of the cove in Paradise Deep. There is nothing to be done for the whale except let it die, and once it has, the townspeople begin to remove what resources they can from its corpse. On slicing open the whale’s stomach, they are surprised by a ghostly white man who spills out onto the beach with the stomach’s contents. The Widow Devine, local midwife and suspected witch, insists that the stranger be given a proper burial, and as he is carried away from the shore it is discovered that he is a) not dead and b) imbued with a marine smell that will never leave him. He is christened “Judah” because characters Jabez Trim and James Woundy cannot agree on the name of the Biblical character also swallowed by a whale. Was it Jonah or Judas? They compromise with a name that straddles both. Judah lives a long life in Paradise Cove, never speaking a word nor losing his characteristic fishy odour. I imagined him like PigPen from Charlie Brown comics - always surrounded by a cloud of stank.

You’d think, reading this tale at the very beginning of the book, that the rest of the book will answer the question of how Judah came to be swallowed by a whale and still survive. But you would be wrong. Instead, Judah becomes a member of the Paradise Deep community, his implausible and vivid origin story accepted and passed to each new generation in the community, even his son inherits a trace of the tell tale odour, carrying the truth of Judah’s existence beyond his death.

As it turns out, Crummey was influenced by a reading of Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude as he approached the writing of this story, and the relationship between the two books is clear. Characters who are introduced as children go on to grow up, marry, and have children of their own. Both books have a family tree printed in the introductory pages, and in both the family tree is frustratingly insufficient. Sure, relationships are illustrated by the chart, but so much of the story is impossible to depict using only genealogical lines of connection. Remember the “17 Aurelianos” in One Hundred Years of Solitude? I found myself constantly studying the graphic, trying to comprehend and apply it to whatever part of the novel I was reading. The transfer was never quite as straightforward as I hoped it would be, and I believe that’s a metaphor for this book overall. The magic of building a family, community and story cannot be contained by what is reproducible on a page; it can only exist in the limitlessness of your imagination. Crummy’s epic tale is both a page turner and a gentle reminder to believe in the magic a story can create.

Zalika Reid-Benta, Frying Plantain

Frying Plantain is a collection of connected short stories, kind of like Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women, where the protagonist’s arc plays out through the stories, but also each one could be read on its own. I’ve written before about the challenge of reading short stories, and I think this book is a great option for anyone who hesitates to start a short story collection because they prefer the sustained narrative of a novel.

Kara Davis lives in Toronto’s Little Jamaica neighbourhood. Her friends and family are Jamaican immigrants, but most of her classmates are not. The tension between her two identities - the home Kara versus the school Kara - serves as the book’s catalyzing force.

These are the book’s opening lines: “On my first visit to Jamaica I saw a pig’s severed head. My grandmother’s sister Auntie had asked me to grab two bottles of Ting from the icebox and when I walked into the kitchen and pulled up the icebox lid there it was, its blood splattered and frozen thick on the bottles beneath, its brown tongue lolling out from between its clenched teeth, the tip making a small dip in the ice water.” The vividness of this description immediately captivates. Kara’s inclination is to scream in horror, but her cousins are nearby and she knows enough to not make a scene over something they themselves find ordinary. As her grandmother observes, “Kara’s a soft one. She canna handle these things.”

Once she’s back in Canada, though, Kara’s story of the pig’s head becomes very different. She brags to her white friends that she participated in the slaughter of the pig, maintaining a visceral fiction to shock and awe them. She knows enough not to tell the exaggerated version to her Jamaican friends, not necessarily because they wouldn’t believe it, but because they wouldn’t think it was all that big a deal. Through the falsehood, Kara creates an identity for herself that is memorable and, she hopes, interesting to others.

Unfortunately, the story’s violence catches the attention of Kara’s teacher, who alerts Kara’s mother and the principal. The meeting that ensues is our first introduction to Kara’s mother, a proud and committed advocate, who listens carefully to the principal’s concerns and then shares her own grad school gained knowledge of educational protocol, suggesting she will handle the problem herself and make her own decision about whether Kara should see a psychologist. This level of parental wisdom and badassery makes Kara’s mom one of her most feared but also most important influences.

The stories span tales of Kara’s growth from the ten year old who sees the pig’s head to an eighteen year old high school graduate. “Snow Day” is particularly haunting. It begins with the most Canadian of traditions: school being cancelled midday due to weather. Kara fights her instinct to remain at school, as her mother’s instructions to the school indicate she should, and instead joins her friends and classmates at a local restaurant, chatting and flirting with boys at the next table. Already uncomfortable with the situation, she becomes the victim of a devastating prank designed by one of her friends. Kara’s feelings of bravado, vulnerability, and fear are so thoughtfully expressed, so familiar, that it is easy to remember how when you are young, an innocuous decision can lead to an awful and unexpected outcome. This story is a powerful reminder (especially to those of us old enough to have winnowed down our friend groups to only include people who respect us) of what peer pressure sounds and feels like when you’re thirteen and uncertain of everything.

What Kara seeks is understanding of herself and her relationships, primarily those she shares with her mother and grandmother. The journey she takes does not exactly lead to understanding, but it absolutely presents the emotional growth achieved through the search. It’s a thoughtful and inviting collection.

Yaa Gyasi, Transcendent Kingdom

I don’t tend to be insomniac. I have my problems, but falling and staying asleep is usually not one of them. However, while I was reading this book I found myself setting it down, turning off my bedside light, and snuggling under the blankets, just like I’ve done every night of my life, and then not being able to sleep.

After several nights in a row of this experience, I realized two things. First, that I was not reading until I was tired, I was only reading until I wanted to stop. Second, I was stopping soon after starting because, well, the book wasn’t that good.

Hilariously, this gave me pause. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing in one of my favourite books of all time. It’s a gorgeous and epic tale that somehow weaves a history of slavery, modern conceptions of American Blackness, and intergenerational trauma into a beautifully woven tapestry of unforgettable characters. It’s extraordinary. So I was excited to read Transcendent Kingdom, her most recent book. So excited that it took me till halfway through to recognize that I was not enjoying it at all.

Gifty, the novel’s protagonist, is a PhD candidate studying medicine at Stanford University. Her research consists of observing reward-seeking behaviours in lab mice, looking for neurological indicators of a tendency towards addiction. Her interest in this research stems from her family’s experiences, notably her younger brother’s overdose and her mother’s long struggle with depression. Gifty is just ten years old the first time she witnesses her mother sink into a depression so incapacitating that she remains in bed for months on end. Gifty never forgets the impact of the illness on herself and her brother.

These are the ingredients for a good story for sure. Gifty’s parents immigrated to the United States from Ghana, and her father returned there when she was a child, leaving a mystery behind: How could he love his home country more than he loved his children?

Like her mother, Gifty is distant and unemotional, which means she has no close friends and few romantic relationships. The losses she’s experienced make it difficult for her to build attachments to people or trust that they have her best interest at heart. She recalls being in love with both women and men, and I love the absolute no big deal-ness of her bisexuality. But her memories of these relationships are painful because we palpably feel the distance she creates between herself and her lovers; it’s the same distance that exists between her story and me as a reader, and as a result I feel like I never really get to know who she is.

Ultimately, while many hallmarks of a good story are present in this book, what I found lacking overall are the elements of good storytelling. Gyasi often relies on exposition to provide information, and the narrative frequently shifts between the present, the past, and the distant past, not in a way that is confusing, but in a way that makes you wonder why the story needs to be told that way. Gifty doesn’t exactly come to any new realizations about herself or her family, and her lack of insight was frustrating. Late in the novel, when a colleague reaches out to befriend her, Gifty’s awkwardness and confusion over this person’s intentions are painful to observe and difficult to relate to.

I appreciate the importance of telling stories like Gifty’s, but I’m disappointed by how different (and by different I mean “less good) this book is from Gyasi’s brilliant and intensely readable previous work, Homegoing. Read that one instead, friends.

Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me

This is a sweet and charming graphic novel about what it’s like to be in love with a terrible person. Freddy is a senior high school student with a sweet group of friends and an interesting life. Unfortunately, she is dating the world’s worst girlfriend.

We’ve all known and probably dated someone like Laura Dean. She is extremely charismatic and sexy, really good at gazing into your eyes and making you feel like you’re the only person in the whole world. She’s not great at monogamy or communication, and she seems to have a different set of expectations for herself than she has for Freddy. She’s not interested in meeting Freddy’s family. She can’t be relied on to show up for most things. And she’s great at turning on the charm for the whole world, making her tender and generous moments with Freddy seem a little less special than they otherwise might be.

Freddy’s friends, Doodle, Buddy, and Eric, are supportive of her, but also offer the kind of advice you have to give when someone you love is dating an asshole. They watch with concern as Freddy falls further and further under Laura’s spell. We ache for Doodle when Freddy becomes so wrapped up in Laura that she fails to recognize Doodle creating distance between them, hunkering down at home rather than responding to Freddy’s invitations and inquiries. And when Freddy discovers what has been bothering Doodle, we feel her surprise because we’ve only been hearing Freddy’s side of the story.

As in all of the world’s best graphic novels, the storytelling and artwork are equally strong here. Check out the amazing look exchanged by Eric and Buddy after Freddy’s most recent betrayal by Laura Dean, and then Buddy’s beautiful offer of support:

Fans of Tamaki will know her work with her cousin Jillian on the book This One Summer. If ever you’ve talked to me about books, I’ve probably recommended it to you. It is as tender and moving a story as this one, capturing with a rare authenticity the struggle of being a shy and sensitive teenaged girl finding a way to be in the world.

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