While Monkey Beach takes place in British Columbia, the same province in which I live, it really is worlds away. Set in the tiny Haisla community of Kitamaat, we follow Lisamarie Hill in the aftermath of her brother Jimmy’s disappearance. The First Nations community (Edited to add: It was brought to my attention that “First Nations” is a specifically Canadian term that not everyone is familiar with. It’s a general term used to refer to Aboriginal Canadians, other than Inuit or Métis.) is close-knit and intricately connected. There is heavy history, both ancient and modern and Lisa’s life is peopled with ghosts. Literally and figuratively.
While the present action of the story begins directly after Jimmy’s vanishes at sea, most of the story is actually about Lisa’s childhood. Her relationship with her loving but volatile and mysterious Uncle Mick and her Ma-ma-oo, who teaches Lisa much about their traditional ways but won’t speak about the more recent past of her own life.
Eden Robinson blends realism – Jimmy’s Olympic-hopeful dreams, issues with drugs both locally and the issues that follow members of the community to the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, the brutal reality of sexual assault – with magic realism. People and spirits appear to Lisa – a sort of gift that she isn’t sure she wants or that benefits her. The boundaries between these two worlds are often blurred, both for the reader and for Lisa. Robinson does well here in letting just the right amount of confusion reign. We aren’t quite sure what’s real – or what we’re expected to believe – just as Lisa isn’t sure. And the more confused and frenetic Lisa’s life grows, the more the two worlds seem to slip together.
This is a very Canadian story. The pull between tradition and modernity is a difficult one and Robinson excellently expresses the troubles of many First Nations communities while, at the same time, creating real, honest, and believable characters. I loved Lisa’s family relationship with her mother and father. Sometimes it seems that solid, loving families in First Nations communities are not portrayed in media enough but the Hills are an excellent example of one. Some knowledge of First Nations issues in Canada – residential schools, for example – is helpful when reading Monkey Beach but Robinson does a decent job of explaining what’s necessary (while still assuming her reader is intelligent).
Monkey Beach is well-deserving of the praise it’s received over the years (Giller Prize winner, Governor General’s Award Nominee, Canada Reads Finalist) and should definitely be read by Canadians today.