"...where a bone cage could last a thousand years under the moon [...] The hills rose parched from the still lakes, the mountains beyond them faded to a mauve so pale they seemed stones under ice." There can be vibrant beauty in harsh, sparse, desert-like landscapes, so much better suited to animals than to human beings. Evoking its atmosphere through achingly beautiful flowing lyrical language, depicting its intricate details, award winning Canadian poet and author Patrick Lane captures the essence of the atypical landscape of the northern edge of the Great Plains in Canada. Contrasting environment with the bleak reality of life for the people who inhabit this wild and unforgiving land, Lane has created a powerful, thought-provoking and at times challenging and unsettling novel.
Set in 1958 in a small remote community in the southern Okanagan region, the story centres on the two Stark brothers, their family and a group of friends, enemies and neighbours. While the actual events take place in the space of a week, the narrative moves in flashbacks to previous generations and the early settler years. After roaming through the Prairies since his early teenage years in search of work, whether as a farm hand, in mills or as day labourer, Father Elmer Stark has settled his family here in a place of "even more desolate towns that turned into villages, villages into clusters of trailers and isolated shacks in the trees, nothing beyond that bush that ran clear to the tundra." The people, carrying the inherited burden of poverty and misery are still suffering from the late fallout of the Depression in that region. In their struggle to make ends meet they easily turn to violence, alcohol and drugs, petty and major crimes.
With a few strokes, Lane creates vivid characters within complex relationships. The Stark brothers, Tom and Eddy, are an excellent study in contrast. "For Eddy, the world was without borders. He learned that from both Father and Mother. [...] Eddy's crimes and misdemeanours, the things he did and didn't do, were just part of his life". Tom was very different. "He could get lost in stories of other places and other lives [...]For Eddy, stories about the past, anyone's past, were deadly and he wanted none of it." From a very young age, Tom quietly, often undetected, listened to the stories Father told Alice, the baby sister who died just short of six months old. It was his way of mourning at his daughter's grave. While Lane depicts the many action scenarios with cinematographic precision, he evokes the changing moods and behaviours of the various individuals with a combination of disgust, understanding and compassion. Compassion? Yes, empathy comes to the fore when Alice's spirit takes over part of the novel's narrative, creating a gentle, caring countervailing force in her depiction of the family's history and current struggle against misery. The brothers' deep bond and caring love for each other transcends all differences and is one of the moving features of the story. And not only here, a glimmer of positive change emerges over time, offering hope to those who can make it their own.
This is not an easy novel to read. The poetic beauty of Lane's language does not always fit or alleviate the sense of irritation and displeasure the reader feels with, especially, the precise description of arbitrary violence and careless disregard of others. However, drawing on his own wide-ranging experiences and a deep familiarity with the land and the region's stories, Lane captures a place and its inhabitants that is authentic as it was real in the specific region and period of time. It is a powerful and an significant book that allows important lessons to be drawn, especially when addressing issues of disenchanted and malleable youth. An amazing achievement for a debut novel by a poet of long standing. [Friederike Knabe]
I read this novel in a Canadian paperback edition, not on a Kindle.