I actually The Break a while ago, but the draft of this review just got lost, and I’m just finding it now. But everything remains true, so here it is at last. Better late than never, as they say.
So here’s the deal. I kept seeing The Break come up in book-related emails and it was part of Canada Reads in 2017, but what finally convinced me to buy it was seeing Katherina Vermette at The Festival of Literary Diversity last year. She was fantastic and I just couldn’t resist picking it up afterwards.
Through a series of shifting narratives, The Break follows the lives of a group of Indigenous characters tied together by a violent crime. Stella, a young Métis mother disconnected from her family, witnesses the crime and calls the police. Cheryl, an artist, still mourns the loss of her sister. Lou, a social worker, tries to come to terms with the departure of her live-in boyfriend. Paulina, a single mother, struggles to trust her new boyfriend. Pheonix, a homeless teen, leaves a detention centre. And Scott, a police officer, feels torn between identities as he tries to do his job.
Their overlapping perspectives form a story about life in their community and the impact of violence.
Let’s get into it…
Oh my goodness, is it ever clear why this book got so many awards and nominations! It’s remarkable!
Vermette’s writing is stunning. She expertly weaves together the threads of her story, treating the subject matter with respect. She creates wonderfully nuanced characters each with their own struggles, strengths, and weaknesses. Her setting is realistic and compliments the plot well. And the story sheds light on important issues regarding racism and feminism.
This novel deals with trauma, so it might be hard for some to read. The bleakness of the story is emphasized by the harsh winter weather of the setting. Yet, in Vermette’s capable hands, the reader also gets to witness the warmth of the love between family members and the ferocity of the female characters. The women and girls of The Break are hard to forget. They are the very definition of resilience. They survive, they keep going, despite their individual hardships and the forces of systemic inequality. For that reason, I think there’s actually a lot more hope in The Break than one might expect.
The story takes place within a relatively short amount of time – winter to spring, but the characters are from multiple generations which allows for greater insight into how their identities are shaped. There’s a tension throughout the novel between modern urban life and past ways. The characters sometimes long to retreat to nature, but doing so isn’t always practical. I imagine this is a feeling shared by many Indigenous Peoples who have lost land and heritage over the years.
It was nice to hear Vermette speak at the FOLD about her own Métis heritage and how it informed her writing, but that background isn’t necessary to enjoy the story.
I highly recommend this book. It made me uncomfortable (in the way that you know you’re learning something), it made me think, and it entertained me. I hope it does the same for everyone else who picks it up.
Final thoughts: Get it. Read it. Let it sit with you for a while. The Break is a book that deserves to be read, enjoyed, and deeply considered.