All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: The Break by Katherena Vermette

on February 22, 2018

The Break 
Katherena Vermette
Allen & Unwin
2018, 350p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

Stella, a young Metis mother, lives with her family by the Break, an isolated strip of land on the edge of their small Canadian town. Glancing out of her window one winter’s evening Stella spots someone in trouble; horrified, she calls the police. But when they arrive, no one is there, scuff marks in the compacted snow the only sign anything may have happened.

What follows is a heartbreaking and powerful tale of a community in crisis as the people connected to the victim, a young girl on the edge of a precipice, begin to lay bare their stories leading up to that fateful night. Lou is a social worker grappling with the end of a relationship. Cheryl, an artist, mourns the premature death of her sister. Phoenix, a homeless teenager, is released from a youth detention centre with no one to turn to. Officer Scott is a Metis policeman caught between two worlds.

A powerful family saga, Katherena Vermette’s urgent, acclaimed and multi-award-winning novel shines a light on the fear every woman carries within her―fear of male power and violence―and on the love and empathy shared by all women.

When I read the blurb for this, I knew I had to request it because of my obsession with books set in remote communities. This is a harsh environment in the grip of a Canadian winter, a small town filled with poverty, gangs, drugs and violence. In the middle of the night, young mother Stella is home with her children while her husband works the night shift. Seeing to the baby at around midnight, she glances out the window and sees a violent act being committed on ‘the Break’, a strip of land separating houses. Although Stella calls the police, it’s an old seasoned cop and young new one pair and the older one doesn’t take her report very seriously. It was dark, Stella is a Métis (halfbreed native), it probably wasn’t as bad as she thought it was. Just some gang punch on that she mistook for something else.

But Stella isn’t wrong and there is a victim. What follows is a revolving narrative of people connected to her – various members of her family, the perpetrator and also, the young cop, who is Métis himself, struggling to fit in in an environment that doesn’t respect his kind, has preconceived ideas about them all and where he struggles to make himself heard by his older partner who is only a small amount of time away from retirement in Florida.

This book was so harrowing. There are quite a lot of characters and the family tree is a bit complex so I was quite grateful for the diagram of the family tree at the beginning, which I kept referring back to. It’s very atmospheric – set in the midst of a Canadian winter, a small, isolated town, it’s hard to imagine cosy here in my Australian summer! These girls, young as they are, going to gang parties perhaps unknowing what they are really getting in to. The violence that occurs is horrific – perhaps all the more so because of who the perpetrator is. And the reasoning why. What is done to the victim, you wonder what people have seen to even think of something like that.

This book is an intergenerational story, women living alone, having raised their children mostly alone. Even Stella, who is married (but not a Métis) seems to do most of the parenting on her own and her husband seems reluctant to engage with her family or even the fact that she is who she is, dismissing her claims of seeing something as something in her mind ‘because of her past’. Men it seems, are an inconstant in this world, coming and going, but what the women do have is each other – their family and the friends that they have adopted into their world as family. Family is very important, overseen by the matriarch they refer to as Kookoo. Despite the losses, the faded relationships, the struggles they are tight knit and come together to support each other, particularly the mother of the young victim.

I found the only real main male character, that of young Officer Scott, to be really interesting. He’s very new on the job and he is in two minds about having indicated that he was Métis on his application, because of equal employment. He didn’t want the job because of his heritage, but because they thought he could do it. His partner is an old white man, very set in his ways about the native population and not at all afraid to voice those opinions, generally to his young partner’s face. Officer Scott really wants to look into Stella’s claim more but is constantly dismissed by his older partner, told that it’ll be nothing. When the victim emerges, finally they have the old man’s attention but without much to go on from the victim’s testimony, they have to work together in order to piece together the story of what happened that night and who did it. They need to get this person off the streets before they harm someone else, possibly with a fatal outcome next time. Slowly, grudgingly, Officer Scott earns his partner’s respect for his dedicated policing but I think it comes as a backhanded compliment because he’s ‘not like other Métis’. I don’t think Officer Scott will change his partner’s mind about the Métis, more than he will come to view Officer Scott as an anomaly – successful in spite of his background.

At times this is not an easy book to read, both for its large cast of characters and its difficult subject matter. But it’s worth it because Katherena Vermette weaves a complex story very, very well. Her writing is simply beautiful and despite the savage violence that occurs, she handles the topic very well, without being gratuitous or gory. It’s the sort of book where the story lingers in your mind for a long time. Even though the family was quite large, I feel as though all of the characters have remained fresh in my mind now. This is a powerful debut novel, gritty and stunningly portrayed. Can’t wait to read something more from this author in the future.


Book #35 of 2018


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