Local Harvest: Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson

Local Harvest: Books, Reviews

Home grown Westcoasters Dessa Bayrock and Jess Wind bringing you some local literary flavour. We review works set in the valley, written by authors from the valley, or that have that British Columbia, Fraser Valley vibe. Come back each month to see what the Fraser Valley has to offer.

Monkey Beach immediately places you in the heart of itself—in the traditional Haisla village of Kitamaat on the coast of British Columbia. Before she even tells you her name, the narrator seems to take you physically by the hand to drag your finger down a map of the coast. Look, she says, here is the whole of it.

The novel pulls you so deeply—so intimately, so immediately and easily—into its traditional geography that you can’t finish the chapter without feeling as though you’ve lived there all your life. You can see the water of the Douglas Channel, deep and serene in the early morning; you can see the crows settling in the trees outside her bedroom, impatient and silent; you can see the trees rising out of the shoreline, out of the fog, like ghosts of themselves.

This geography—and not just the place of it, but the history of that place—settles around you like a blanket. And that’s it. The novel has you, before you learn the narrator’s name, before you learn her brother has been swallowed by this geography’s treacherous waters, before you learn the landscape is as rife with ghosts as it is with people, as rife with secrets as it is with stories.

It would be easy to float on the image of this serene landscape forever, but of course the landscape is not just a quiet background. History refuses to be quiet. Monkey Beach takes place as much in the past as it does the present, as much in the world of the living as it does in the world of the dead. Our narrator, Lisamarie, has been avoiding the omens for years – the bad dreams, the funny ginger-haired man who appears in her bedroom the night before a tragedy, the words she hears crows squawk at her in the traditional Haisla tongue. Because how can she place trust in it? How can any of it be possible in a world of telephones and computers and a cannery continually belching smoke over the community?

And yet here she is, home in Kitamaat despite her best intentions to desert it forever. Here she is, searching for the clues to her brother’s disappearance – not only in the present, but in the past—not only in the world belonging to the living, but in the world belonging to ghosts and spirits.

Robinson is masterful at weaving these disparate pieces together into a whole, creating a fantastical narrative without diving too deeply into fantasy. Lisamarie’s omens and visions could be—and have been—read as metaphors for mental illness, or inherited tragedy, or for wounds wreaked on her community by the myriad poisons of colonisation. However, they also provide a much-needed shift in perspective, a move of reconsideration and reconciliation. What truly became lost when the stories and traditions were stripped from these communities? What depth and vibrancy may be returned through the vision of a single person? What is the nature of the wound – and what is the nature of its healing?

Most chillingly, Robinson draws a portrait of a place where myth and reality blend into one another – where the flash of the sasquatch disappears between the trees, and yet the true monsters walk the streets of the community disguised by smiling faces and tragedies of their own, wreaking devastation on themselves and those around them.

Here is where the novel tightens its fist around your heart, and tightens, and tightens, until its histories come together in a single moment on a cold, wet beach, and you wonder how you ever existed before reading this novel.

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