Many years ago Dania Tomlinson and I worked together at a bookstore. So when I learned that she was publishing her first novel I made sure to order a copy. I like to support authors I know, plus, based on the books I’d seen Dania read and recommend, I felt like we have somewhat similar taste. I wasn’t disappointed.
Our Animal Hearts is truly excellent. Set in the Okanagan – a region of British Columbia in Canada – in the early 20th century it is magical, compelling and more than a bit eery. Iris sparks narrates her life, growing up on the share of Lake Okanagan, still something of a wild frontier, with her genteel English father and her working class Welsh mother, Llewelyna. Llewelyna is full of tales and myths, mixing fact, myth, and legend as Iris and her brother grow up in the wildness of this new country. One of Llewelyna’s most compelling tales is of the addanc, also known as Naitaka. An ancient monster said to dwell in the depths of the lake. Spirit or beast, the novel beautifully walks the line of letting the reader wonder, how much is real? Can Iris trust her mother’s stories? Can she trust her own vision? What is the darker truth in Llewelyna’s past and how will this play out as Iris grows to womanhood.
The tale of the Okanagan lake monster is well known here in BC and we know the monster now as the Ogopogo, a goofy and benign creature. OurAnimal Hearts is much darker, going further into history and combining Llewelyna’s Welsh mythology with the local Indigenous tales of water demons. The novel does an excellent job of blending the stories and characters that make up BC history. There are the dominant European settlers, mostly English, newly arrived. There are the First Nations tribes, dwelling on the edges, pushed out of their traditional homes. Here they exist as a strong but ghostly presence, a frequent reminder to both Iris and the reader that this land is much more ancient than the European settlers think. There are also the Japanese workers. Labouring on the orchards, together but separate, needed but mistreated.
This relationship is portrayed through Iris’ friendship with Azami, a young Japanese immigrant whose father is employed on Iris’ family’s peach orchard. Their friendship grows through a sharing of myths but falls apart as they grow. The novel shines here as we watch Iris grow up and, increasingly, be the cause of suffering to those around her. Sometimes out of fear or self-preservation, sometimes intentionally. She is not necessarily a good or likeable person but well-written so that we care what happens to her. The reader is sympathetic, watching her complex relationship with Llewelyna, her isolation and the increasing blurring of the line between what’s real and what’s not as Iris ages and her mother’s myths develop in the world around her.
I’m pleased to be able to recommend Our Animal Hearts so highly and I know we’ll be hearing more from Dania.