canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Where the Rocks Say Your Name
by Brenda Hasiuk
Thistledown Press, 2006

Reviewed by Paul Duder

"Brenda Hasiuk’s debut novel details eight weeks in the lives of four teens in a hardcore mining town in northern Canada" begins the promo copy for Where the Rocks Say Your Name, and boy but doesn’t THAT have you reflexively girding your loins for a dreary, medicinal slog through the gnarliest thickets of the Canadian literary jungle?

And there’s more where that came from: other familiar touchstones thrown into the soupy mix include ice-fishing, deer hunting, prodigal sons, absent fathers, and the rigours of contemporary aboriginal life. (Oh, and the biathlon, which one suspects is included here only because its constituent elements--shooting and skiing--provide a two-fer on the Northern referents.)

But if orchestras can still dine out on Mozart and Beethoven, 200 years on, is it really fair to rap writers across the knuckles for similarly trotting out their own creaky old tropes?

No, probably not. But in choosing to make a meal of such oft-masticated material, they set themselves an exacting task, as the niceties of their authorship can only be proffered, and admired, at the margins: in a nice turn of phrase, a perceptive aperçu, a new array of the old pieces. And by this yardstick, Hasiuk, in the main, comes up trumps.

Where the Rocks unfolds principally in Franklin, the afore-mentioned mining town located some hours north of Hasiuk’s native Winnipeg, and where--and how’s this for a pithy evocation of all that’s unyielding and dignity-sapping in the North?--the “land is so rocky that sewage pipes had to be enclosed in wooden boxes above ground”.

Our teen protagonists are Ally and Toby, life-long townies; Rina, a recent Bosnian immigrant and Ally’s new best friend as well as Toby’s inamorata; and Adam, Ally’s cousin, whose arrival from Winnipeg ahead of some mysterious but unsavoury circumstance looses the snake in the garden.

Nothing too momentous happens in this Franklin summer, at least on the surface. Toby works the mine, the girls sunbathe, Rina worries about her move to Winnipeg and university; one character silently pines for another, relationships are stressed, wildcard Adam marinates in his manifold discontents, and we wait for one or other shoe to drop.

Hasiuk is parsimonious with dialogue; much of the novel is internal. But, like many writers exploring the inner lives of younger people, she doesn’t have the courage to go all-in with her premise, so that what would be a realistic level of internal monologue--banal, status-obsessed, pre-moral--is replaced with something more perspicacious and adult, giving the proceedings a stagy overlay.

Hasiuk also seems unduly attached to the notion of the privations of the north as being a priori ennobling, so that a miasma of worthiness tends to hover. (Along these lines, I suspect that her title, aside from its allusion to the self-referential spray-painting required of teens everywhere with access to big rocks, is intended to ascribe to the North that bosomy acceptance celebrated in the Cheers theme song.)

Hasiuk begins with, and occasionally returns to, one of those portentous meta-narratives--‘listen up, here is what’s going to happen’--that nurtures a seed of trepidation, the kind that the harshness of environment inexorably plays into. This makes Where the Rocks an uncomfortable read for those (few?) who don’t particularly relish the idea of a cautionary wallow in others’ gloom. Still, her prose, if astringent, is unfailingly muscular and precise, excelling especially in those little moments of familial awkwardness and other sublimated tensions where the ineffable briefly pokes through the mundane.

Unhappily, in that he’s so pivotal, the character of Adam is particularly difficult to parse. Though Hasiuk is slow to bring it to the fore, he is Native; but, whether accidentally or by way of a brave political incorrectness, he is drawn not as any kind of a victim of circumstance, but rather as simply a rotten apple. Venal, irresponsible, pointlessly cruel, and inclined only to fret about injustices to “his people” when he sees advantage in it, his unpleasantness lacks the panache to render him viable as a fully realized character, so that at times he reads like little more than a McGuffin over which other characters can stumble.

Indeed, the crisis that Adam seems purpose-built to precipitate does arrive on cue, but Hasiuk, to her credit, works in an American Graffiti-style bait-and-switch, so that the characters’ fates don’t arrange themselves as we’ve come to expect.

What we’re left with, it seems, is a tidy sermon on the barriers to communication--between old world and new, parents and children, Natives and whites, town and country--and the perils that result if the effort isn’t made to surmount them. And instead of a sop to those who would see redemption on the other side of tragedy. Hasiuk only offers a choice of railing against, or acquiescing in the face of, the helplessness that is life.

Where the Rocks is a difficult book to enjoy (too downbeat) or to admire (too familiar), but impossible to dislike. A bitter brew to swallow, but cleansing, and maybe even a little bit restorative.

Torontonian Paul Duder aspires to visit the North some day, but to date has only made it as far as Orillia.






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