‘Scarborough’ by Catherine Hernandez

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Phoebe Wang 

Scarborough, Catherine Hernandez’s debut novel, isn’t about the perfect families, the families with “two whole parents with two whole jobs.” Instead, she attempts to speak for “We, the brown kids with one and one-half parents, with siblings from different dads we see only in photos; we who call our grandmothers Mom; we who touch our father’s hands through Plexiglass.” Scarborough is a prismatic portrait of a community and its inhabitants. Each chapter switches from character to character like a vibrant viewfinder. We see the cracked sidewalks and corner stores as Sylvie, an Indigenous girl, as Hina, a Muslim literacy-centre worker, as Cory, a young father gripped by his demons within, or as one of the many other colourful characters who flash through the pages.

While Scarborough is a work of imagination, the characters’ lives are informed by Hernandez’s own upbringing and years of working in this multicultural suburb. The novel’s striking realism is one of its strongest elements, but also the one that makes the most demands on the reader. Her stories do not turn away from the harsher elements of poverty, addiction, and racism, but show how its characters meet, and sometimes succumb to, these overwhelming obstacles. Hernandez depicts the wearying steps and humiliations her characters must undergo to do things most of us take for granted: feeding your child breakfast, registering them for school, or visiting one’s spouse in hospital care. Scarborough also spans one year, starting with the fall, winter, spring, then summer, lingering on the Christmas season where a tragic event is told through multiple points of view.

It’s an ambitiously structured novel, and one that is at times disorienting. It takes some time to become accustomed to each character, and just when their back stories become familiar, new characters present themselves. This prismatic and episodic structure keeps the reader alert and engaged. Because of the novel’s focus on character and voice, at times key plot reveals are flat and lacking in suspense. It is particularly difficult to create a sense of build-up and anticipation with this type of fragmented plot structure, where the timeline often leaps forward weeks or months. However, Hernandez powerfully evokes the lived experience of her characters in empathetic and authentic ways. There is a visceral quality to her writing that immerses the reader in the physical landscape as well as the emotional headspace of the characters:

Last summer, before we were evicted from the community housing townhome complex because of Daddy’s gambling, it seemed holes were being burned into the entire neighbourhood. First there were holes burning into the face of Mitchell next door. Then there were holes burning into the faces of his friends who came over. They all looked like evil bowling balls. I wondered how they could drink without it leaking through their cheeks.

Living day-to-day in this world, for Sylvie, was like “watching your favourite show. We didn’t need cable, which we didn’t have anyway.”

The two endearing children, Sylvie and Bing, compel the novel forward with their emotional depth, which reveals how quickly they’ve had to grow up. Hernandez vividly captures the loss of their innocence, their growing shame at their own longings and resilience in the face of deprivation. She also emphasizes how interconnected and interdependent these characters are through the children’s friendships, the relationships between parents and children, neighbours and community workers. These relationships are safety nets, but they can also snag on the characters who feel judged, as Cory does when he brings his daughter to the Literacy Centre, run by Hina, for a free breakfast: “Cory’s face was red, what with this towelhead observing the state of their trashiness, acute poverty hanging like mucus drying under Laura’s nose.” Cory’s unpleasant racism and his resentment at Hina’s kindness is treated with subtlety and understanding. Hernandez’s depiction of Cory allows us to be sympathetic toward his situation, even as we condemn his pride and antagonism.

Hina faces another type of antagonism with the supervisor of her program, whose patronizing and asinine emails question Hina’s hijab, her political views, and her weekly request for breakfast supplies. Her supervisor’s lack of cultural sensitivity shows how forms of discrimination can take place at the bureaucratic and institutional level. It is telling that Hina’s supervisor never makes a physical appearance in the book but is only manifest through her emails, where she criticizes Hina for getting too personal with the families at the centre. In response, one parent writes: “The truth is you can’t NOT get too personal with us. And let me tell you, there is DRAMA! Can’t help it. It’s Scarborough (lol).” Life seems a never-ending series of emergencies for these characters, with triumphs hard-earned in increments and tiny handholds.

In Greek drama, the chorus comments on the actions and decisions of the hero or heroine, but in Scarborough, it’s as though Hernandez has pushed up that band of anonymous villagers into the centre, giving them each distinctive voices. Her background in theatre is very apparent through the book’s comical, rhythmic dialogue that is a blend of local lingo and each character’s speech patterns. There are some echoes to the polyphonic plays of Michel Tremblay. Yet Hernandez tunes our ear to that which each character cannot express even as they share in the bluster and chatter that surrounds them. Even brief visitors to Scarborough will leave with a sense of its rumbling song and eager pulse.

Arsenal Pulp Press | 264 pages | $17.95| paper | ISBN # 978-1551526775



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Phoebe Wang

Phoebe Wang is a writer and educator based in Toronto. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto. Her work has appeared in numerous journals, such as Arc, Canadian Literature, Maisonneuve, This Magazine and Prism. Her first chapbook, Occasional Emergencies, published with Odourless Press in 2013, and a second chapbook is forthcoming with The Emergency Response Unit in Spring 2016. More of her work can be found at www.alittleprint.com.