“Sad Stories”: Katherena Vermette, The Strangers

vermetteThat’s what everyone became, small stories, tiny really, to explain their whole lives. Those too-short lives.

Margaret used to think this was normal, that all families were made up of so many sad stories. But as she got older, it seemed only Indians, Métis, who had sorrow built into their bones, who exchanged despair as ordinarily as recipes, who had devastation after devastation after dismissal after denial woven into their skin. As if sad stories were the only heirloom they had to pass on.

This excerpt from Katherena Vermette’s The Strangers perfectly captures the kind of book it is: it is a collection of the sad stories that make up the family the novel is named for. They are sad stories indeed—and sometimes also infuriating or horrifying—and they are important stories to tell. The value of that project makes The Strangers a difficult book to criticize—but on the other hand, if all I wanted was information, I would choose a documentary form, not fiction.

The challenge of writing a highly topical novel is to make it compelling as art. Vermette did this brilliantly with The Break, which used the structure and momentum of a whodunit to explore complicated and ultimately far-reaching questions about guilt, responsibility, and social justice. By the end of The Break it is obvious that knowing who committed the specific assault that launches the novel’s plot is not going to fix anything that really matters about the world Vermette has shown us. The world of The Strangers is the same one—it is not so much a sequel as a companion to its predecessor. But it lacks the feeling of urgency that made The Break so readable: it just plods unhappily along. Even as time passes in it, The Strangers doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. It ends on a faintly hopeful note, but the conclusion doesn’t feel like a resolution: it’s just the next thing that happens. Like The Break it has an array of voices and an intricate narrative structure, with multiple timelines and perspectives interwoven; in The Strangers I often found the shifts in time or point of view confusing, rather than thought-provoking, and the characters blurring into one another. It feels awkward to say this about this particular novel, given the stories it specifically tells, but it just wasn’t very interesting to read qua novel.

It’s certainly possible that I’ve underestimated The Strangers, and also that the degree to which I kept comparing it to The Break as I read put it at an unfair disadvantage. It’s not that I object in principle to novels that have what we might broadly call sociological or political aims, or aims to give voice or space to stories that are too often denied them: Gaskell fan here, after all! But Gaskell knew well the importance of plot, of drama, even of melodrama, for carrying her vision outwards. Vermette, on my reading, does not create memorable or impressive fiction out of her sad stories this time—she just tells them, and in the end that isn’t quite enough.

Broken: Katherena Vermette, The Break

We have all been broken in one way or another.

I probably wouldn’t label Katherena Vermette’s The Break as “crime fiction,” but it’s a good example of the difficulty and, at some level, the inutility or pointlessness of genre distinctions. It is certainly a novel organized around a single crime, and its plot includes an investigation into “whodunit” and why: its revelations involve social, political, and personal issues far more deep and complicated than we expect from, say, one of Agatha Christie’s puzzlers, but that just means if it is crime fiction it is in a different tradition than hers–there are a lot of genre writers, after all, whose plots are about social justice as much as individual cases.

I was thinking about this question of labels and categories because reading The Break I found myself wondering if it would be appropriate to assign it in the class I teach on “mystery and detective fiction.” I kept thinking how well it lends itself to the basic interpretive approach we often take: looking at the central crime as a symptom of whatever is wrong or broken in the world of the novel, and then at its investigation and (when it happens) its solution as the novel’s proposal for what it would take to fix things–to end up with what, on the novel’s terms, looks like justice. We often focus on who helps and who hinders the investigation, and about who is and who isn’t able to solve the crime: in a lot of the books we read, paying attention to these basic elements of the plot reveals patterns about who is or isn’t listened to, who does or doesn’t have authority or power–thematic patterns that usually turn out to reflect whatever moral rot or societal failure has led to the crime.

The crime at the heart of The Break can definitely be read in this “symptomatic” way. Though on one level it is a vicious act by a particular person, the novel sets it in a wider context of prejudice, hardship, and (sometimes worst of all) callous indifference that, while not mitigating at all the horror of the violence or removing the perpetrator’s specific culpability, still complicates our response, both to her individually and to the situation as a whole. It is easy enough, in the story Vermette has constructed, to lay the blame for the specific attack that sets the novel’s parts in motion. It is much harder, by the end of the book, to imagine that locking up one lost soul will actually do much to create a safer, happier, more just world for any of the people whose stories we’ve been following.  So much is wrong: there is so much tragedy, some of it at the same level of explicit violence, but a lot of it more subtle, pervasive, and elusive. The Break is the only fiction listed as a resource on the website for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls: as that suggests, it is about historic and systemic problems. But as it effectively dramatizes, these are always intractably personal problems as well.

Formally, The Break is well structured to show that reciprocity between systemic problems and individual lives. Its interlocking voices carry our attention outwards from the precipitating incident, but also always keep us connected to it, so that we don’t think about it by itself but as part of a web of relationships and circumstances. The only one of these voices that I found a bit strained was the one that actually opens the book, which recurs as a framing device: by the end of the novel I could appreciate better that it reflects a belief in continued presence where my own beliefs would allow only absence. This kind of spiritual continuity is one source of strength for the characters in The Break. Another is their strong family ties, and particularly, conspicuously, the ties between them as women: it is striking how peripheral the male characters seem, even when they are loved and cherished by the novel’s women–“all these women,” as one of the police officers observes, “holding each other up.”

The Break is both polished and gripping, and it avoids seeming like fiction written solely “with a purpose,” though at the same time it clearly has one and, I think, fulfills it: to put it in clichéd but apt terms, Vermette puts human faces on a problem that remains a remote abstraction for too many Canadians. I had actually hesitated to pick up The Break because it was a contender in Canada Reads this year. I find the rhetoric of Canada Reads off-putting: too often, the program seems to approach literature as medicine rather than art, urging us to read what is good for us (“one book is chosen as the title the whole country should read”). I’m glad I paid attention to what other readers I know were saying about it, though, and gave it a chance. It probably was good for me, and it’s also a good novel.

Update: Kerry Clare pointed me to this really interesting and useful review by Carleigh Baker. I didn’t realize (because I hadn’t previously read any other reviews of The Break) that the genre question has come up a lot already — though it obviously makes perfect sense to me that it has. I was surprised by this objection to considering the novel as crime fiction:

This brings up another issue with the critical treatment of The Break. It has already been considered by reviewers as a whodunit mystery and a police procedural, which unfortunately takes the work completely out of context. It is, in fact, a powerful indictment of the real-life police investigation of crimes involving indigenous victims in Winnipeg, both female and male.

This seems to presuppose that mysteries routinely take the side of the police, or at any rate that within the genre you won’t find a critique or even an “indictment” of official law enforcement. I would say that even within the subgenre of police procedurals you can find plenty of skepticism about how just and accountable the police are (think of The Terrorists, for instance, which pretty directly proposes that the police themselves deserve that label), but also many series feature amateur sleuths or private investigators working outside the state system precisely because they want to raise doubts about the capacity of of that system to address the real problems the books explore.

I wonder if the anxiety about (mis)labeling The Break as crime fiction is a self-perpetuating assumption that crime fiction isn’t taken seriously so the issues the novel focuses on won’t get the serious consideration they deserve if that’s what people think it is. A possible counter-argument is that (as mystery writers concerned with social justice issues are well aware) you can often reach a wider audience with your political concerns if you package them as genre fiction.