Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson

A young Native American woman remembers her volatile childhood as she searches for her lost brother in the Canadian wilds in an extraordinary, critically acclaimed debut novel

As she races along Canada’s Douglas Channel in her speedboat—heading toward the place where her younger brother Jimmy, presumed drowned, was last seen—twenty-year-old Lisamarie Hill recalls her younger days. A volatile and precocious Native girl growing up in Kitamaat, the Haisla Indian reservation located five hundred miles north of Vancouver, Lisa came of age standing with her feet firmly planted in two different worlds: the spiritual realm of the Haisla and the sobering “real” world with its dangerous temptations of violence, drugs, and despair. From her beloved grandmother, Ma-ma-oo, she learned of tradition and magic; from her adored, Elvis-loving uncle Mick, a Native rights activist on a perilous course, she learned to see clearly, to speak her mind, and never to bow down. But the tragedies that have scarred her life and ultimately led her to these frigid waters cannot destroy her indomitable spirit, even though the ghosts that speak to her in the night warn her that the worst may be yet to come.

Publisher's description

This is another excellent example of magic realist writing by a member of the North American native peoples. In this case the writer is from the Canadian Haisla people who live in British Columbia. Monkey Beach is full of the detail of the Haisla life, which is a significant part of its appeal. The book, like its heroine, at once embraces elements of Haisla tradition and mysticism and at the same time faces the hard realities of life. Not least of those realities is the legacy of abuse experienced by Lisa's uncle and aunt in the residential schools that a generation of Haisla children were forced into. One of the aspects of the book which I admired was the way Eden Robinson did not overplay this, relying instead on the reader's intelligence to work out what happened to Mick and how that was still impacting on him and his behaviour.

It is generally accepted that an important element in magic realism is the portrayal of a world in which the spiritual life of an indigenous people comes up against the dominant rationalist beliefs of the colonizer. But, as I have noted elsewhere in this blog, there is also a role for magic realism in the portrayal of psychology. It seemed to me when I read this book that the magic realism here was as much about Lisa's psychology as a cultural clash. Lisa is a feisty teenager with a tendency to confront rather than flee. But when it comes to the "gift" of foresight, she tries to ignore it. When something terrible is going to happen she is visited by a little red-headed man. I was reminded of Graham Joyce's Toothfairy when I read about Lisa's visitor. Lisa's resistance results in a crisis when she blames herself for her grandmother's death and she runs away from the ancestral homeland to the big city, where she sinks into a cycle of hedonism and self abuse. Eventually saved by the ghost (?) of her cousin, she returns home and in so doing starts to rediscover herself, seeing a Sasquatch on the road:I felt deeply comforted knowing that magical things were still living in the world.

The monkeys in the title are the legendary Sasquatch or bigfoot, who appear throughout the book, but always in our peripheral vision. Robinson's writing in some ways is more "realist" than in other novels I have read tackling similar subjects. At times the magic is so vague as to make it unclear whether it is not just a dream or Lisa's imagination. Lisa herself is unclear. I liked this ambiguity and felt it to be an accurate portrayal of real-life magic. 

The book is told in a series of flashbacks. These are at times confusing, but so they should be - we are inside Lisa's head as she travels not only to a real location but also to a legendary one. Her journey is a mystical one, she is travelling to the land of the Sasquatch, to the land of ghosts and the dead. As she nears her destination the tone and style of the writing changes. Some people might find the shift somewhat abrupt and thus might find the ending unsatisfactory. I didn't, though I could also have done with more knowledge about the beliefs and customs which lie under the text, as I felt I was missing out on some things which are significant.

The novel was first published in 2000 and now has been digitized and published by Open Road Media as an ebook along with two other books by the same author.  I received my copy from the publisher in return for a fair review.

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