I’d had All the Broken Things on my To Read list for a couple of years and when I finally began reading it realized I had no idea what it was actually about.
The novel is set in 1984 in Toronto. Bo is fourteen years old. He and his mom and his sister are refugees, having arrived from Vietnam by boat about four years previous. His father died on the voyage and after Bo and his mother arrived in Canada his sister, Orange Blossom, was born. Exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam means that Orange (as Bo calls her) was born with extreme deformities. She neither speaks nor walks. Bo’s mother, Thao (or Rose as most of the Canadians call her) will not allow Orange out of the house. Rose is barely hanging on, drinking too much, working an unskilled job, mourning the loss of her husband and her life in Vietnam. Bo is an outcast at school, unable to talk to anyone about the traumas he has undergone or about what life for his sister is like.
Bo loves to fight though and revels in the regular brawls he gets into with a classmate. One day a man spots him fighting and offers him a job on the circus circuit, fighting bears. Eventually the man, Gerry, gives Bo a bear cub to raise and train. Bo’s involvement with the circus introduces him to Max who runs what he calls the sideshow but others might call a freak show. When Max learns about Orange he is eager to add her to his collection.
The setting and characters are obviously unique. Yet, at the same time, they feel so honest and real that you don’t question too much the idea of a bear living in their home and residential neighbourhood or the fact that Bo’s mother has no problem with allowing her teenager to take off with a man neither of them know. Every action and reaction of each character feels honest and real within the context and world that Kuitenbrouwer creates. People are complicated, relationships even more so.
Bo in particular is a wonderful character to follow. The novel is told in third person but right up close to Bo so we know what he is thinking and feeling and follow his uncertainties as he navigates life and the people around him. Kuitenbrouwer does a fantastic job of portraying a fourteen-year-old, almost but not quite an adult, especially one like Bo who has had so much worry and responsibility put on his shoulders. His relationship with his sister is also very well handled. Bo doesn’t sugar coat Orange’s deformities or feel an undue amount of pity for her. He loves her but is also heavily aware of his own duty toward her. It’s a unique sibling relationship and one I haven’t seen quite this way before in a book.