The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline

My first of five books from the Canada Reads 2018.

3/5 stars.
ebook,  184 pages.
Read from February 5, 2018 to February 11, 2018.

I’ll admit, I picked this book to read first because it was the shortest and it is the one I was the least excited about reading. YA books, while they can be enjoyable, often don’t satisfy any sort of intellectual need that I expect out books sometimes, especially ones that are in competition.

It is the future and we have out-worked ourselves and over-stretched our planet to the point of desolation. Instead of coming up with real solutions to combat the problem we have ended up working harder with the same old resources. We have worked so hard that we no longer dream. Like a plague, dreamlessness spreads itself across the globe and like having lost part of their soul, people are starting to go mad and are willing to do anything to regain back the ability to escape and to dream. There is one group of people who have somehow managed to not lose their ability to dream, the Native Americans, and with the spread of the epidemic, they are now being hunted for the dreams that live within the marrow of their bones.

“From where we were now, running, looking at reality from this one point in time, it seemed as though the world had suddenly gone mad. Poisoning your own drinking water, changing the air so much the earth shook and melted and crumbled, harvesting a race for medicine. How? How could this happen? Were they that much different from us? Would we be like them if we’d had a choice? Were they like us enough to let us live?”

Struggling to keep their culture and language alive while they are slowing be picked off by Recruiters for their marrow, small groups of natives are living out in the bush and having to move as much as possible to stay alive. You follow the story of fifteen-year-old Frenchie who has been separated from his family and has since joined up with another smaller group of Natives just trying to stay alive.

If the premise sounds a bit far off, like dreams in bone marrow, it is because it is and it was my major fault with this book. Sometimes dystopian premises can go a bit too far. However, this novel pays so much tribute to the Native American tradition of oral story-telling creating some amazing chapters and sequences in the writing style. The story is also a set reminder and reflection of what we have done to the Native Americans in our past and current history. There are many natives alive today that know all too well the horrors of the residential school systems in which they were forced into, robbing them of their culture and sometimes of their dignity which is exactly what is occurring this book.

The characters are easily relatable and you’re quick to like them, especially after hearing them recount their own stories. The author also does a good job in creating some very effective emotional and tragic scenes. It also wouldn’t be a YA novel without some romance which, wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. There were a few angsty-awkward romance moments but overall fairly believable, especially for teens.

The story ends with a satisfying but partial resolution making it look like this book is going to be the first in a series, another thing I hate about YA novels, but at least it wasn’t a cliffhanger ending.

So does this book meet the Canada Reads 2018 criteria? Does it open your eyes? Yes, in a metaphorical sense. It takes the issues facing Native Americans today in Canada and puts it a more somewhat palatable form. The connections that the author draws between the fictional world that Frenchie lives in and the world that real Natives live in are comparable and important, as are the environmental reflections, but will this book stand up to another with a more poignant story that is not dystopian? Personally, I can’t see it happening but I guess we will see what the other books bring to the table and how the debates are presented.

 

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize. An impressive feat, even more so for debut novel.

“We don’t succeed or fail because of fortune or luck. We succeed because we understand the way the world works and what we have to do. We fail because others understand this better than we do.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 384 pages
Read from November 27, 2017 to December 4, 2017.

It is hard to define a novel of this calibre though it can be simply described as a spy-novel laden with humour, tragedy, and poignant cultural reflections of literary quality. The story is an identity crisis within an identity crisis as the protagonist feels torn between two worlds just has his home country of Vietnam is also being torn apart by its own people in an effort to define the country for their own.

In the spring of 1975 Vietnam is in chaos. Our unnamed protagonist has been given an overwhelming task from the General of the South Vietnamese army to decide who from their ranks will be allowed to have passage on the few remaining planes to America. Retreat seems the only way escape from the turbulence that has overtaken Vietnam from the communist Viet Cong. Unknown to the General or any in his ranks, our protagonist is a communist double spy. A bastard by birth by an absent French father and peasant Vietnamese mother, our protagonist, never feels like he belongs. His ability to see the side of every situation leaves him in a constant state of sympathetic limbo. He loves his country yet he was educated in America and he can finds conflict within both counties. He is communist but has also made friends with those against the movement. He can also see the brutality befalling his own country with the spread of communism despite country finally becoming unified and under no control but their own.

This perfect dichotomy is an act that the protagonist has perfected and has played all his life, an act that many other foreign-born people who come to live in America struggle with.

“…the basis of the most powerful theme in Nguyen’s fiction: a person with two faces who has to choose which to show, depending on the surroundings. “It’s universal. Most of us have that sense of duality,” says Nguyen, adding that the feeling of having “two faces” is aggravated for immigrants and refugees. “That sense of pretending to be somebody, or to be an imposter.””- Viet Thanh Nguyen, Independent, Nov 2016.

Despite the brooding tones, the story also depicts deep friendships and love and has playful undertones. One of my favourite sections of the book is when the protagonist is describing a scene from his boyhood, in which he grew up in poverty with his mother and the guilt that he felt over masturbating with the husk of a dead squid that was meant to be dinner. Despite the humour of the scene the author still manages to make the section almost poetic as he wraps up his thoughts with the following:

“Torture is obscene. Three million dead is obscene. Masturbation, even with an admittedly nonconsensual squid? Not so much. I, for one, am a person who believes that the world would be a better place if the word “murder” made us mumble as much as the word “masturbation.””

Another further example of the author’s humour, one that I personally really appreciated due to my hatred of country music, is the subtle way he commented on the genre:

“Country music was the most segregated kind of music in America, where even whites played jazz and even blacks sang in the opera. Something like country music was what lynch mobs must have enjoyed while stringing up their black victims. Country music was not necessarily lynching music, but no other music could be imagined as lynching’s accompaniment.”

The book reads like a confession and that’s because it is but the resulting torture and resolution are not what the reader expects. It is tragic but also relieving to have the protagonist finally unburden himself with his story.

The author is a rare and gifted storyteller. You don’t often see this type of depth and literary quality in a debut novel. The execution of the themes and content of this book alone are award winning but the real kicker is the author’s pervasive style that is unique to his own dichotomous persona.

While the book is not long, I do not recommend ploughing through this novel as there is much to be savoured. The story is a must-read for any historical-fiction lovers and a worthy and unique read to add to just about anyone’s TBR list.

Just Announced! Canada Reads 2018 Shortlist

One book to open your eyes…

Huzzuh it’s time for Canada Reads 2018!

With Ali Hassan as the host and overseer, the five defenders will debate this year’s theme: One Book to Open Your Eyes.

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Excited cat is excited. 

The contenders and their chosen books are:

I am personally looking forward to reading Mark Sakamoto’s novel! As always, I will read all five books and have my reviews and thoughts posted for your peep holes before the debates take place.

The debate takes place from March 26-29, 2018. The debates will air on CBC Radio One at 11 a.m., will be live-streamed on CBC Books at 11 a.m. ET and can be seen on CBC Television at 4 p.m.