The Break by Katherena Vermette

Breaking Bad?

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An unidentified Métis family.  Photo:Robert Bell, Library and Archives Canada.

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.

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Detail from one of the cover designs of The Break.

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.

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McPhillips Street. Image: cbc.ca

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.

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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.

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Katharena Vermette’s genealogy chart.

 

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’.

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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.

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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’.

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http://www.thepicta.com

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.

 

Works cited

Vermette, K. The Break. Atlantic. 2018.

See also:

Vermette, K. North End Love Songs. The Muses Company. 2012.

images.jpegVermette, 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.

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Not just a pretty face?

Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body by Sara Pascoe

Pascoe argues that we women are merely animals with very large 40,000 year old brains. The fat on our bottoms has evolved for pleasing males so why, she asks, do we hate it so?

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Louise’s column in the Irish Examiner

 This is a book that Irish Examiner columnist Louise O’Neill will probably love.  Both she and Pascoe are in their thirties. Both are largely defined by their feminism. Both are funny. Louise is from Clonakilty in West Cork and Sara from Dagenham in Essex; neither of which locations shout London! or Dublin! or even Cork!

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Sara Pascoe. Image: the Telegraph.

Intelligent women who are lovely to look at have a real dilemma. How do they reconcile their rational ideas with their longing to look pretty? How can they justify an interest in fashion with the need to be judged for their work? What if they actually like being loved and cuddled, by a man, at the same time as being entirely independent financially? It’s tricky.

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Sara’s Twitter icon.  @sarapascoe

This is how Pascoe begins. She challenges the way she is introduced in comedy venues. I imagine that she might ask why Dara Ó’Briain is not announced as male? Her name is Sara Pascoe and audiences might expect a woman. But no, they must be told that she is female. Sometimes she is described as a comedienne. And, that’s a strange word, isn’t it? Why not just call Pascoe a stand-up comedian? What is the difference? How does her gender come into focus?

Pascoe addresses these problems, and more serious ones, in her particular way. First she read loads (more than two anyway – her joke) of scientific books about evolution, genetics, environment and chemistry. Then she filters what she learns through her humour.images.png

Pascoe explores, and then communicates in her indomitable way, what most of us sort of know. We have big brains. Our heads are so big that we must be born before they are fully formed. We must be nurtured very carefully for many years. We need a mother to feed us and, what Pascoe describes as a boy-mother, otherwise known as a father, to provide for and protect us. The other women and the other men in the tribe, who are also pair bonded, can help out too and we can support them. It all works well on the Savannah, she says.

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Zulu women with babies. B W Caney. 1880.

It’s not like that anymore. Women can work and bring up children without men. They do not even have to have sex.

The modern woman, however, is tied to her ancestors who lived and bred millennia ago. When we lifted ourselves from four to two feet we survived better, and thus passed on our genes, if we bonded by having sex face to face. Women with fat on their chests (aka as breasts) emulating buttock fat, were preferred. The Page 3 girls were on their way.

Pascoe’s style is very attractive. There are jokes on every page. Laughing out loud is frequent, if dangerous, like incontinence. At the same time there are almost unbearable revelations about aspects of her life. I suppose her experience has been no more full of suffering than anyone else’s. Maybe she is just more honest. Or maybe, because of her vocation, she is prepared to share with everyone.

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The Face of Satire: Sara Pascoe by Rachel King

Pascoe’s publisher was shocked when she referred to an incident when she cut her thigh with a razor blade. She riposted: this is normal for girls.   The incident remains in the book. There are also detailed descriptions of her early life which might be heart breaking were it not that they are laced with humour. Pascoe tells us about her failed love affairs and her struggles with eating disorders. Some things are harrowing but we have all been through similar times and we, like her, have survived. And she is self-deprecating in such a funny way.

Now that this review is written I am going to send the volume, disguised in a wrapping of brown paper, into the Examiner office, marked ‘Louise O’Neill, woman columnist’. No, cut the word woman.  She is a columnist.  The book should reach her, whether she is gendered or not, and I think she will like it.

 Works cited

Pascoe, Sara.  Animal: the Autobiography of the Female Body. Faber.  2016

A version of this review was first published in the Irish Examiner on page 37 of the Weekend section, 15 Apr. 2017.