Title: The Break
Author: Katherena Vermette
Published by: House of Anansi Press
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Where I got the book: Public Library
“When Stella, a young Métis mother, looks out her window one evening and spots someone in trouble on the Break — a barren field on an isolated strip of land outside her house — she calls the police to alert them to a possible crime.
In a series of shifting narratives, people who are connected, both directly and indirectly, with the victim — police, family, and friends — tell their personal stories leading up to that fateful night. Lou, a social worker, grapples with the departure of her live-in boyfriend. Cheryl, an artist, mourns the premature death of her sister Rain. Paulina, a single mother, struggles to trust her new partner. Phoenix, a homeless teenager, is released from a youth detention centre. Officer Scott, a Métis policeman, feels caught between two worlds as he patrols the city. Through their various perspectives a larger, more comprehensive story about lives of the residents in Winnipeg’s North End is exposed.” (Source)
I thought this would be the book to win Canada Reads 2017, or at the very least give Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis a run for its money. I hadn’t gotten around to reading it by the time Canada Reads rolled around but everyone I knew who had read The Break loved it and thought it was one of the most important Can Lit books published in recent years. I still don’t know which book should have won Canada Read because The Break should not have gone out in the first round. And if it had stayed in it would have been a very different competition and perhaps we’d all be better for it.
The Break is a brutal novel. This is the only book I’ve ever read that opens with a trigger warning. Each chapter is told from a different perspective as characters (and the reader) try to piece together the events that happened on the Break that one cold winter night and struggle to maintain control of their lives as tragedy unfolds around them.
One of the main things that stuck me was the impact of the crime on a community and family. Without realizing it at first, this event acts as a cataclysm for one family and their community. All through-out the novel, Vermette builds upon relationships and small events, weaving them together to create a bigger picture of the characters’ lives and situations. There’s a family tree listed at the beginning of the book and for good reason because I really needed it. I had actually previously started The Break in e-book format but had to put it down because it was too difficult to make sense of the characters’ relationships.
One of the main criticisms directed towards The Break during Canada Reads was that there was a lack of positive male voices in the book. I strongly disagree with this as one of the narrative point-of-view is a young Métis cop who winds up assigned to the case and is struggling with his identity at home and at work. But I want to know why is it that we can have so many books entirely about complicated men, but the few books like that about women get attacked for their lack of male representation.
This is not a feel good book and it portrays complicated women and girls, as mothers, lovers, daughters, employees, teenagers, as they make mistakes and struggle through the situations they end up in. The Break deals with a number of hard issues that are an unfortunate reality in many Indigenous community in Canada and other countries, such as rape, domestic violence, missing and murdered Indigenous women, poverty, incarceration, gang violence and substance abuse. But the book also has a healing component to it, as characters band together to overcome trauma.
Although I’m not sure if it should have won Canada Reads, The Break definitely didn’t deserve to go out on the first round and really is a book that Canada, and everyone else, needs to read.