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Review: Katherena Vermette’s The Break is an incredible feat of storytelling

Katherena Vermette, winner of the 2013 Governor-General’s Literary Award for Poetry, deftly crosses genres into the world of prose with her new novel, The Break.

Title
The Break
Author
Katherena Vermette
Genre
Fiction
Publisher
House of Anansi
Pages
352
Price
$22.95

The Break starts as so many stories do: A girl is raped. In a deserted, snow-covered field called "The Break" in the North End of Winnipeg, a 13-year-old Métis girl is raped in the night, while a mother, holding her crying baby, watches from her window.

Thus Katherena Vermette's triumphant debut novel kicks off much like a police procedural: Who did this and why?

These simple narrative questions offer much pleasure, especially in terms of suspense and pacing, as anyone who likes a good plot can attest (and, indeed, the book is impossible to put down). But they also act as support beams for the incredible feat of storytelling Vermette pulls off: The novel is told from 10 characters' points of view, some told in first person, some in third, some alive, some dead, some girls, some women and one lone male voice: the Métis officer investigating the case. Seven of the voices are related to one another, and much of the joy of this novel comes from piecing this family together. (There is, thankfully, a family tree at the beginning of the book). By stitching the story together in this way, Vermette introduces a third narrative mystery: Which one of these voices is the raped girl? Will she tell her own story, the story of that fateful night? And will her attacker?

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Katherena Vermette, a Métis writer from Treaty One territory, won the 2013 Governor-General's Literary Award for Poetry for her first book, North End Love Songs, and it is thrilling to see a writer cross genres so deftly. It's unsurprising that a novel by a poet would be beautifully written; more surprising is Vermette's talent for plotting – The Break is essentially a literary thriller.

But the book ultimately isn't about the crime, though the crime itself is both horrific and fascinating in its rendering. Instead, Vermette offers us a dazzling portrayal of the patchwork quilt of pain and trauma that women inherit, of the "big and small half-stories that make up a life." These are the stories our mothers, sisters and friends have told us – the stories we absorb into our bloodstream until they might as well be our own.

In many ways, this is a novel about the fear every woman carries with her, whether she has experienced violence first-hand or not. Because the majority of the characters in The Break are indigenous women, that fear is amplified (a Statistics Canada report issued this year says aboriginal people are twice as likely to be physically assaulted, and more than three times likely to be sexual assaulted).

Ten points of view, including a dead woman, is a lot to ask of a writer, and though Vermette is plenty up to the task, at times I longed to settle a little longer in someone's mind. Stella – the woman who witnesses the rape, babe in arms – is a particularly well-drawn character, her own past as intriguing to watch unfold as the solving of the crime. (Vermette must be applauded, too, for the book's use of switchback time: While the narrative moves perpetually forward – we are always asking who did this and why – we are also forever tunnelling into the past, too, creating a complicated palimpsest of time frames and tragedies.)

One of the most haunting, vivid characters is Phoenix, a troubled teenager, who idolizes her gang-leader uncle and hides in his basement after running away from a juvenile detection centre. "He buys his daughter the best of everything, name brands on all her clothes," Phoenix thinks in a particularly heartbreaking passage. "That's love."

Less well drawn are Stella's sisters, Lou and Paulina, and their mother, Cheryl. It's a problem even for the Métis police officer investigating the case: "In his head," he thinks, "all those women blend into one."

More, too, could have been done with the point of view of the dead woman, whose chapters are too brief to have an impact. I longed for more passages such as this one, in which she acts as a tour guide for the neighbourhood: "In the sixties, Indians started moving in, once Status Indians could leave reserves. … That was when the Europeans slowly started creeping out of the neighbourhood like a man sneaking away from a sleeping woman in the dark."

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But these are minor quibbles in what is a stunning debut – a novel whose 10 voices, Greek chorus-like, span the full range of human possibility, from its lowest depths to its most brilliant triumphs, as they attempt to make sense of this tragic crime and of their own lives. The Break is an astonishing act of empathy, and its conclusion is heartbreaking. A thriller gives us easy answers – a victim and a perpetrator, good guys and bad guys. The Break gives us the actual mess of life.

Marjorie Celona is the author of the novel Y.

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