This book has been getting a lot of press and with good reason, but unfortunately, I’m the type of person who sees something draped with accolades and thinks it can’t be that good.
Katherena Vermette’s debut novel The Break is good; there’s no doubt about it. Vermette’s background is in poetry and it comes through in the beautiful ways she constructs her sentences. She’s been praised for her ability to pace plot and develop character. She’s being congratulated for speaking about racism in society.
“She looks at her grandmother, serious and straight. ‘Girls don’t get attacked in good neighbourhoods.’
Kookoo looks right back, just as hard, no harder, even with her near-blind eyes. ‘My Stella, girls get attacked everywhere.'”
—Katherena Vermette, The Break
Except, her plot doesn’t really move. A thing happens in the beginning. So early that the reader isn’t present for it and doesn’t find out about it in detail until much later. That’s fine, actually, that’s quite good. The thing that happens is the traumatic rape of a thirteen-year-old girl in a snowy hydro corridor known as the break. The rest of the book is the family dealing with it, mulling it over, reminiscing about their own experiences with violence (sexual or otherwise), thinking about men and how they are mostly bad, but some are good, and worrying away about their girl. Worrying every single day about their girl who the doctors have already told them is going to be completely fine. She’s fine and yet all of them crowd her hospital room every day.
Now, as a white reader, I can see how this, the family’s overbearing love, might be a cultural difference. I come from a history of people who value their boundaries admittedly too much. But when I read reviews of The Break that describe the book as a “thriller” I have to make sure future readers understand that this book doesn’t move. It’s stuck in the snow.
The Break is divided up into four parts, each beginning with an unnumbered chapter from the perspective of a mystery narrator. The chapters proper are labelled with the name of one of the people in this expansive family. I myself didn’t think to count, but others have said there are ten narrators. Ten narrators are way too many, especially when they all exist in the same small social circle. Even the mystery narrator fits into this social circle. The single exception (and lone male narrator) is the Métis officer investigating the rape. It’s not his maleness that makes his chapters the most compelling: it’s the change of scenery. If there was going to be part of this novel described as a thriller, it would be Officer Tommy Scott’s struggle with his identity while trying to solve the mystery of whodunnit.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh on the novel. The Break does shed light on how violence is perpetrated systematically and disproportionately in marginalized groups. In a northern Winnipeg winter, who is more marginalized than poor Indigenous women?
Vermette’s handling of the sexual violence is rather dexterous as well. If you’re worried about graphic scenes of violence, as the trigger warning on the title page suggests, don’t panic. Vermette employs plain language without lingering on details to try to make the reader squirm. She keeps a cool head about the scenes, communicating their trauma without forcing the reader to see more than necessary.
As award after award piles up for Vermette’s book, I can’t help but think back to two books of similar natures and subject matter and wonder if The Break really is better. If you’re looking for a story about Indigenous women and family, there’s Tracey Lindberg’s Birdie. I’ve seen Birdie described as “nigh-indecipherable” and that may be true, but I think Birdie takes chances on things The Break does not. It struggles with modernity-versus-tradition and it does it without conforming to Eurocentric standards of how a novel “should” be written. The choice to make Birdie as fluid in time and space as it is was deliberate and therefore worth deeper consideration.
The other novel I’m reminded of is So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum. While the protagonist in So Much Love is white, the book explores themes of love, family, and how those two things collide and react in the face of tragedy. Like The Break, it switches between narrators and flips back in time to create a social network connected to the tragedy that is a little looser and more ragtag than a straight family tree. Like The Break, it looks (however briefly) at the systemic ways male violence is normalized by society.
Nonetheless, The Break is a mature debut from a young author. Katherena Vermette’s success is well-earned and I congratulate her. If you’re looking for a slow but steady work about family, love, and tragedy that will still give you a happy ending you can walk away from feeling good about, this is the book for you.