Haisla/Heiltsuk novelist Eden Robinson is the author of a collection of short stories written when she was a Goth called Traplines. Her two previous novels, Monkey Beach and Blood Sports, were written before she discovered she was gluten-intolerant and tend to be quite grim, the latter being especially gruesome because, halfway through writing the manuscript, Robinson gave up a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit and the more she suffered, the more her characters suffered. Son of a Trickster was written under the influence of pan-fried tofu and nutritional yeast, which may explain things but probably doesn’t.
— Eden Robinson’s biography in the back of Son of a Trickster
Monkey Beach was one of the best books I read last year, and I was so afraid that Eden Robinson’s new novel wouldn’t measure up that Son of a Trickster sat untouched on my bookshelf for three months before I could get up the nerve to open it.
Reader, I have good news: it measures up. The novel is exactly what you’d expect and hope for: a seamless blend of indigenous myth into the grim present of drug abuse, poverty, and the terrifyingly casual viciousness of teenagers.
Our 16-year-old protagonist Jared is a normal guy; he navigates the salty waters of family politics and divorced parents, does his best to graduate high school despite its sheer and total boredom, shovels the driveway for his elderly neighbours, and harbours a crush on the mystifying girl next door. Unfortunately for Jared, life isn’t exactly simple. His dog dies; he sells pot cookies to support his father; he treads lightly around his loving, but violent mother; he treads even more lightly around her suspicious, drug-dealing boyfriend.
There are stranger problems, too – like the swarm of glowing, poetry-spouting fireflies that only he and the girl next door can see, or the fact that his grandmother seems to think he is Coyote – the trickster – reincarnate.
No matter the odds, or the cost, Jared is as wryly sarcastic about his situation as he is grimly determined to make things work. The universe might be intent on pushing him down, but he’s not going without a fight.
Son of a Trickster has more than its fair share of violence, terror, and viscerally disturbing imagery, but somehow remains tender, warm, and seriously funny. It’s grim, in a lovely way; it’s lovely, in a grim way, and this balance is the most intriguing thing about the novel. I haven’t read Blood Sports, but Monkey Beach certainly played with – centred on, obsessed over – the same push and pull. Monkey Beach skews to the dark – finishing with weight, a stern and inescapable finality, the sort of dusky shadow that lingers between the impenetrable trees of Haida Gwaii.
Yet somehow, up to this point, the novel fights to be fiercely bright. The ending is grim, sure, but Robinson knows how to paint grimness without edging into *gloom. This is the other balance defining her work: not just the evenness between dark and light, but the evenness between dark and dark.
This is what Robinson’s work does – throws the reader into a diving bell to explore layers of grimness, of what it means to be dark without quite being dark. Because how can a novel have such grimness and still be so, so light – as light as a dust mote, shining in the sunlight from an open window and floating up, and up, and up? How to reconcile this luminescence with the sheer *grimness of the thing?
Nothing proves and inhabits this impossible two-ness more than Son of a Trickster – Robinson’s masterwork in the subject. The novel follows a similar arc of familiar, familial tragedy, mystic intervention, an unwanted coming of age, and increasing bad luck and trouble resulting in grimness on grimness on grimness until the conclusion, the dark conclusion, seems inevitable.
And yet, somehow, Jared struggles out alive – not only alive, but still his own – not belonging to the violence of his family history, or the weight of myth, or the insidious possessiveness of drugs. He stands solidly on his ground – and as small and as tattered and as grim as that patch of earth may be, it represents the most unexpected and lovely of endings: a happy one.