The Break is Katherena Vermette’s first novel, but this award-winning Winnipeg writer has already made a deep footprint in the literary landscape. She has penned a series of children’s books entitled The Seven Teaching Stories, all based on the Seven Sacred Teachings of the Anishinaabe, set in urban landscapes and told by the children who live in them. Her book of poetry, North End Love Songs, won the Governor General’s Literary Award in 2013 and she has been shortlisted for the inaugural Beatrice Mosionier Award for Aboriginal Writer of the Year. She also co-directed this river, a short documentary for the National Film Board. I’m basically giving you her resume because The Break doesn’t read like an impressive first novel; it reads like a masterstroke from someone who knows what they’re doing.
“The Break is a piece of land just west of McPhillips Street.” But it also refers in a more general sense to the break in many things—broken things, selves, broken relationships and pasts. The novel follows a family as they deal with a traumatic situation, with separate chapters telling the story from the perspective of each character. In a broad sense, the family includes mothers, daughters, cousins, aunts, grandmas (Kookom), stepparents, best friends, childhood friends, and their daughters, sons, cousins and friends—even the Métis cop who is investigating the case.
That so many characters are connected to each other, either through the central event of the book or by familial ties or friendship, indicates a larger theme of the book: not one person is alone and separate. Everyone is connected and what happens to one has an effect on all. For example, at what turns out to be a gang party, Zegwan is informally introduced to someone who responds to her name by saying,
“What the hell kind of name is that?”
“Anishinaabe,” Ziggy says “like you.”
I can’t say too much about the central event, as there is a mystery to uncover, an investigation which Vermette deftly weaves in and out of with each narrative, offering only the clues that organically flow from one character’s story in one chapter to another’s story in the next. Stella calls the police in the wee hours of the morning. Louisa has just been left by her partner and the father of her second child. She seeks comfort with a co-worker, Rita, who happens to be the mother of Zegwan (Ziggy) and the best friend of Louisa’s mother. Thirteen-year-old Zegwan’s best friend is Emily; they like boy bands and label each other as geeks. Emily’s mother is Paulina, Louisa’s sister. You see how interconnected things become. The family who is dealing with the trauma continues living their lives and Vermette lets you into the mundane and ordinary details of their daily duties as mothers, caregivers, and teenagers. We are there with Zegwan as she tries to watch TV with her dad. We are in the kitchen with Kookum making bannock for Stella’s little girl so that Stella can sleep on the couch in the basement apartment that to her always feels like home even though she hasn’t been around for a while.
Stella has been distant from her family, both emotionally and physically (moving away from her family just west of the Break), since her mother’s death. Only nine when it happened, she was then raised by her grandmother (Kookom, or Kookoo as she affectionately calls her) but learned much about life as a teenager, when she would hang around Selkirk Ave with her cousins Louisa and Paulina. This is where Stella learns about and experiences the “patterns”—pasts and stories that girls and women share. Vermette embeds these patterns in the characters’ lives so that we feel them emerge organically and never as though they are expected. The reader learns about these patterns as Stella does, such as when she and her cousins are being tracked by a man in a car trying to get home from 7-11, prompting an infuriating encounter with police. Or when she hears her cousins tell their stories of childhood sexual abuse as though everyone had them. Or the domestic violence that Stella learns is a part of many of the women’s pasts. Or gang rape, addiction, and separation from families that many of the characters have normalized as common and inevitable experiences. Along with these patterns, there is also love, kindness, and a different kind of pattern—one of strength, resilience, and survival that is vibrant, hopeful, and makes the difference in the lives of some of the characters in The Break.
The strength, resilience, and kindness of the characters was like a cup of tea on a cold day and a blanket of comfort when the tragic circumstances of the story would jolt you back to the harshness of these characters’ daily reality. But Vermette does not let you look away from the grisly details, and by providing the perspective of each character (all women, except for the cop), she doesn’t let you vilify anyone either. While many characters directly experience violence and other misogynistic abuse, The Break focuses on women’s need to support and respect each other in order to break the patterns of violence and abuse. In order to do this, Vermette takes you gently by the hand and helps you stare into the fire, into the past, present, and future at the same time. At one point, the spirit of Stella’s mother makes reference to her traditional language saying,
“A storyteller once told me our languages never had a sense of time, that past and present and future happened all at once. I think this is how it happens for me now, all the same time. I think this also is why you don’t let me go, because I am still happening.”
Not only does this reflect on the notion of patterns, but it is also a really interesting part of the structure of the book and the writing itself. The tenses sometimes do shift, so that something that would have taken place in the past would be happening right along with the present, which provides the reader with an eagle eye perspective of the story.
This playing with time and the reliance on various voices and perspectives to tell the story is similar to Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Both are mysteries in their own way. And both use jumps in time to discover “whodunit” but also to examine the different ways the past can affect how we deal with trauma. For the characters in The Break, their trauma includes both the central incident of the novel and a history of personal and cultural loss that has determined much of their present circumstance. In the end, both novels remind us that trauma is never contained in a particular event or in a particular moment in time; it is passed down through time and does not land on every person in the same way.
Vermette is skilled at writing with a language that is conversational and comfortable and with a poetic ease that makes the hard things easier to swallow. The result is a book that is at times emotionally demanding, funny, suspenseful, and always engaging.
Anansi | 288 pages | $22.95 | paper | ISBN 978-1487001117