Bread, Bones, and Black Feathers: a CanLit Book Review Three-fer

Black Feathers, Robert J. Wiersema. HarperCollins Canada, 2015.

Black Feathers, Robert J. Wiersema. HarperCollins Canada, 2015.

In the course of two sterling novels (Before I WakeBedtime Story), one superb novella (The World More Full of Weeping), and one unread-by-me work of non-fiction (Walk Like a Man), Robert J. Wiersema has proven himself a sure bet for stories of tremendous imagination, fine characterizations, and hearty dollops of suspense. Black Feathers continues the trend, and then some. As well as his unspoken trend in beginning his novel titles with a “B.”

The city of Wiersema summons up one of his finest characters in Cassie Weathers, a teen-aged runaway living on the streets of Victoria, BC. Finding friendship with another runaway named Skylark, Cassie finds a home of sorts in a homeless camp, but a combination of police harassment, citizen ignorance, and a rash of unsolved prostitute murders serves to break Cassie’s fragile grip on her situation. Haunted by vivid dreams and unable to discern reality from fantasy, Cassie’s sanity threatens to unravel even as true-life dangers stalk her at every turn.

Wiersema wisely drives home the harsh life of the homeless and disenfranchised, grounding Black Feathers‘ gripping mystery-thriller in an all-too-real situation most people are content to ignore. Wiersema’s Victoria is a cityscape of brutal nights and cruel days, as stark as vintage film noir and as dangerous as a straight razor. Cassie’s encroaching instability drives the narrative into a twisting labyrinth of hallucinations and red herrings, keeping the reader guessing as to which reality is correct. By novel’s end, as multiple narratives tie themselves together in a satisfying fashion, Wiersema’s skill at penning some of the finest genre literature in the land remains assured.

But really, now, Robert; three novels beginning with B? Time to branch out to other consonants.

The Reckoning, Carsten Stroud. Vintage, 2015.

The Reckoning, Carsten Stroud. Vintage, 2015.

“Niceville has earned a place with some of the great destinations in the Land of Make Believe, like Middle Earth, Narnia, and Arkham.” So says the great one himself, Stephen King, about Carsten Stroud’s fictional city. Far be it for me to argue with King’s opinion, so I won’t bother. And even if I wanted to, I couldn’t; The Reckoning, Stroud’s conclusion to his Niceville trilogy, is a weird, gory, mysterious capper to a series already chock full of weird, gory, and mysterious stuff. Meaning it’s rather excellent.

After the first two novels, it’s way apparent that Niceville ain’t a stable sort of place (think Twin Peaks, but far more violent). There’s a bumper crop’s worth of unexplained killings, strangely deformed bones are being dredged from the river, and many of the citizens are falling prey to an inner voice that’s coaching them into committing some remarkably evil acts. Meanwhile, characters thought dead are returning to the streets, reality is proving a nebulous concept at best, and hero cop Nick Kavanaugh is in danger of losing the city entire to a malevolence that lurks about the nearby mountain of Tallulah’s Wall.

As amply proved in Niceville and Homecoming, Stroud is a genius at combining viciously-realized action sequences with scenes of terrific suspense, topping it all off with a gift for characterization firmly in the rarefied realm of Elmore Leonard and George Pelecanos. Be warned, however; The Reckoning is not meant to be read before the first two acts. You go in blind, you’re going to be more than confused. Go in armed, and you’re set for one hell of a fine time.

Bone and Bread

Bone & Bread, Saleema Nawaz. House of Anansi Press, 2013.

This one’s been sitting on my shelf for some time now, ever since I met Saleema Nawaz at the Kingston WritersFest and purchased her novel solely on the strength of her personality (seriously, she’s a lovely person). Let’s face it, I’m the first to admit my tastes run towards the oddball and bizarre, so Bone & Bread, on the face of it, is a little outside my usual fare. I mean, c’mon, a realistic novel about sisters growing up in Montreal? Without any demons or magic spells? What’s that about? Luckily, Bone & Bread easily overcomes my weird personal hurdle and stands as a damnably wonderful read.

Beena and Sadhana are sisters, orphaned as teenagers and forced to live with their Sikh uncle. Bereft of their mother’s free-wheeling life and their father’s stabilizing presence, the sisters struggle to make sense of the confusing brew of values, rituals, and beliefs that form their inheritance. Beena falls for one of her uncle’s employees and quickly becomes pregnant, while Sadhana’s drive for personal satisfaction pushes her into anorexia.

Ah, sometimes it feels so good to leave one’s comfort zone and be reminded of the joys inherent in superb storytelling, no matter the content or genre. Nawaz effortlessly cuts back and forth through time, following Beena as adult and child, letting the reader travel alongside her as she slowly pieces together the elements of her life. Her characters breathe real, their pains ache beyond the page. It’s a novel filled with moments of grief, toil, and random cruelty, yet it never feels oppressive, never crumbles under its own weight. Nawaz’s graceful plotting and style keep the story intimate, tender, and surprisingly funny.

Bone and Bread is a great, great book, as insightful as an Alice Munro story and as warm as a fresh bagel. Trust me, that simile makes sense in the context of the narrative. As far as Canadian bildungsromans go, Nawaz delivers as fine a work as Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness and Lynn Coady’s Strange Heaven.

More, please.