‘The Year of Broken Glass’ by Joe Denham

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Lee Kvern

When my first novel came out, the Globe and Mail remarked that the writer’s evident talent deserved a more considered story. A kind of hit and miss, kiss and slap review. At the time I didn’t understand the weird disconnect between writing and story (how could the writing be good, if the story wasn’t?) I was too wounded from the slap/hit/miss part, but now, years later and with my second novel behind me, I understand perfectly what the reviewer meant. Not that I won’t swing and miss again, I will, I have, I do regularly, but with luck I won’t make the mistake of taking the story part of my writing too lightly, and for this I have to thank the Globe reviewer whose niggling voice stuck in my head while writing novel number two.

And so too it is with Joe Denham’s The Year of Broken Glass. So much good, stellar, insightful, introspective writing, so absolutely gorgeous a poetic voice/style in the beginning pages of the book, that I was hard-pressed to put it down. That seductive promise of both voice and story all in one: I was excited at the prospect.

The story line follows Francis, nicknamed Ferris. He’s a crab fisherman, recovering alcoholic, on Vancouver Island, a laissez-faire polygamist (laissez because he’s not married to either woman). His first family consists of Anna, an extreme environmentalist, though not without her own hypocrisy (modern day technology versus homegrown tobacco) and their ten-year-old son Willow, on the Island. Then there’s Jin Su, relatively new and younger, who has recently given birth to baby Emily, both of whom live in Vancouver.  And while Jin Su is aware of Anna and Willow, Anna is not aware of Jin Su. Let the underlying tension/tremor ride the oceanic floor, something that Denham is good at conveying: that precarious juxtaposition between Ferris—who is both introspective and sorely amiss when it comes to women, the moral compass of family— and our human obligation to one another. Nonetheless, here is where Denham shines:

The love I share with Jin Su is like this. An open, uncharted, unsounded ocean. We’ve come together as two adults, with clarity and desire. Anna fell in love with a handsome, networking, ambitious young activist who promised her the world because he was too naive and self-assured to understand that the world wasn’t his for the offering.

Ferris stumbles upon an ancient, highly prized Japanese float of which only a dozen have been found thus far. This told to him by Miriam, an aging, wealthy woman, collector of glass floats, and like Ferris, someone who has had numerous partners, been married three times.  And now she has her eye on conflicted Ferris.

The float is purported to hold mystical powers in that it cannot be broken, which Ferris rejects, but then while in Vancouver with family number two, Jin Su and baby Emily, an earthquake rocks the coast and island, and the glass orb falls a considerable distance from a high-rise to the upheaval below, nary a scratch on its iridescent surface. That event sends Ferris and Miriam, who has lost her house on the island, out on an open water voyage to find the elusive collector in Hawaii who will pay a good sum for the float. This good sum would relieve Ferris of his financial burden, allowing him to leave his first family to be with his second, all the while bedding the aging beauty Miriam. Such the tangled net he weaves.

And indeed, here’s where the story starts to get messy, ill considered, a widely-thrown net that doesn’t seem to know what it wants to catch. The story encompasses CanLit, environmental rants, the triad of confused, boozy love, mixed in (unexpectedly) with espionage and guns and conspiracy theories, sinking ships, death and mayhem abounding for the sake of a glass float that cannot be broken.  These, along with the numerous shifts in point of view that further serve to fuel the sense of fragmentation. For example, we are introduced to Miriam on page one in third person: “Miriam wakes early, before sunrise, knowing this will be the day the floats wash in.” Then we shift to Ferris in first person, and we think, ahh, here’s the character we want to attach ourselves to, nice voice, contemplative, albeit conflicted in regards to the female species but nonetheless interesting, captivating.

…. I wish there were a gathering of people like me, a twelve-step group for those living with no hope. I’d walk into that room, take a Stevia-sweetened muffin from the tray of goodies, and pour myself some organic black tea, unpasteurized milk and honey. I’d sit down, listen, and when asked if there is anyone new who would like to share I’d rise up and say, Hi. My name is Francis, Francis Wichbaun, and I’m tired of the end of the world.

Beauty, he’s got us fully now, we are ready to follow him on his chaotic oceanic voyage to Hawaii, although somewhat suspect considering the magnitude of the earthquake, the still, unsettled ocean floor? Risky at best, ill considered for sure. Narrative-wise, come the next chapter and we are in first person again, only it’s not Francis or Ferris, but some unknown voice that we don’t cotton onto until three pages in: Miriam’s.  At which point, it’s wholly unsettling, not wanted on this voyage; go back to Ferris, please, his is the voice we want. And later, still, the narrative branches off into other, equally-as-confounding first person narratives with no indication as to who is speaking, and for no palpable reason, in that it doesn’t seem to add anything to the story and/or character. Dangerous waters for a writer when the reader has to flip back and forth trying to figure out who’s speaking, what the heck is going on. Additionally, these third, fourth narrators surface too far into an already overflowing story to be welcome.

And it’s unfortunate. I mean this sincerely; the writing is so good, so utterly engaging and full of promise, that had Denham realized that he already had us, the reader in the sweet, compelling, introspective voice of confused Ferris—that his hands were, in fact, already full in dealing with the three women on the line (and how he was going to resolve that). That and the glass float sans the espionage, the environmentalist’s soapbox— that alone could have easily, beautifully been the thrust of an amazing story as evidenced by a talented writer.

Nightwood | 400 pages |  $24.95 | cloth | ISBN #978-0889712522

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Lee Kvern

Lee Kvern’s new book of short stories 7 Ways to Sunday, will appear with Enfield & Wizenty in spring 2014. Lee's work has been produced for CBC Radio, and published in Event, Descant, and on Joyland.ca, New York.