In The Break, award-winning Métis-Canadian poet and novelist, Katherena Vermette, assumes a level of knowledge and understanding which may not be forthcoming from Irish or other European readers. Controversial in Canada, the term Métis was originally used in the 17th century to refer to families with a French father and a First Nation, often Cree, mother.
Métis has, as a descriptor, become similar to Creole in that it can be used as a source of pride, as an insult or as a geographical ethnicity. Michif, the Métis language, constructed of French nouns mingled with Cree verbs and grammar, has more or less disappeared. Evidence of Scottish fur traders has survived in a similarly threatened sister language, Bungee, which incorporates Gaelic words as well.
Vermette identifies the Break itself as a ‘piece of land just west of McPhillips Street’. This locates the novel in North End, a suburb near the Red River in Winnipeg. The street divides a rundown area from one that is marginally more respectable. There is gang warfare and the seasoned police and social workers have become hardened to everyday violence on their patch.
But the phrase, the break, has symbolic meanings too. It suggests racial gaps between those who are First Nation, those who are Métis and those who are white. First Nation and Métis have the ‘advantage’ of quotas giving them preferential treatment in employment opportunities, provided that they register for, and carry, an identity/ethnicity card. But white citizens can still sneer at them from a perceived position of superiority.
The Métis characters think of themselves as ‘broken’ or as ‘half-breeds’ and most of them have spent time living in ‘the bush’ as well as in the city. There are strong ties to family members, and nostalgia about childhood holidays on the reserves carries weight in the tribal memories. Vermette supplies a family tree in which the main characters, four generations of women, are typed in bold. This sisterhood will have to raise its efforts to combat those who have power over them. Societal systems will prove as threatening as perpetrators of physical violence.
There are men in the novel but they are peripheral, some of them literally so, as they are away with mistresses or casual girlfriends. The women, loving to their mothers, sisters and children are fearful of men. If they are not absent, men are frequently drunk and violent. When a 13-year-old is raped, her aunts, grandmother and great grandmother eye the stepfather with suspicion.
But, as the great Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood makes clear in her affirmative blurb this is ‘ a tough, close-up look at a side of female life that’s often hard to acknowledge: the violence girls and women sometimes display towards other girls and women’.
The opening foregrounds a pool of red blood in white snow. Literally, as well as metaphorically, innocence and purity have been sullied. The setting is the wasteland or Break, marched over by robot-like hydro towers. When it snows the overhead wires on these pylons buzz menacingly. It is a place where ‘cars come late at night’ and leave immediately after a hasty transaction.
A young mother nursing a colicky baby witnesses an attack but when the police arrive, four and a half hours later, the evidence is tainted. Snow has fallen, smothering the signs of carnage and hindering forensic work. Not that the cynical police officer, Christie, wishing his nightshift were over, is in the mood to be outside in the cold. A report is written by the younger Métis officer, Scott, but it is destined for an obscure file in ‘the cloud’.
Atwood recommends this novel and she is right. It should be read, not only be feminists but by those who aspire to a deeper knowledge of the underworld of Justin Trudeau’s Canada. The action is visceral and presented at breakneck speed by an unflinching and compassionate writer.
Vermette, K. The Break. Atlantic. 2018.
Vermette, K. North End Love Songs. The Muses Company. 2012.
Vermette, K. A Girl Called Echo. Portage and Main Press. 2017.
A version of this review was first published on page 36 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 7th April 2018. It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.