Book Review: The Break by Katherena Vermette

The Break – Katherena (Anansi, 2016)

I have to start by saying this book is truly excellent. I’d been waiting for weeks for a copy at our local library and it came available right before we went away for Spring Break. Afraid they wouldn’t hold it for too long, I took it with me and ended up reading it in the first couple of days.

Set in the North End of Winnipeg, The Break follows several women, interconnected in a variety of ways (mostly family), over a few days following a horrifically violent act. The novel opens with Stella, a young wife and mother who has recently moved back into her old neighbourhood. Up late at night with her baby, she witnesses something horrible from her window. From there, we go back a few days to the lead-up of this violent act and the women involved.

I don’t know Winnipeg (beyond what I’ve heard in songs from The Weakerthans, really) but I know neighbourhoods like this one. Immigrant neighbourhoods, ones that slowly change as cost of living increases, ones where violence is not uncommon but neither is a strong sense of community. Vermette does a good job of balancing a sense of danger with a sense of home that each character has for their neighbourhood.

This is a story of Indigenous women in Canada today. And while I hate to describe it as “timely”, it really is, as focus grows surrounding the issue of murdered and missing Indigenous women in our country. The book powerfully portrays how these issues and incidences of violence are covered up, ignored, swept away. Of how difficult it is for women in so many communities to avoid violence. After finishing the novel, I really thought it would win this year’s Canada Reads competition and I was shocked to learn it was the first to be eliminated. Honestly, I’m disappointed because it feels like another instance of ignoring such a huge issue. I can only hope that The Break will still be read by many Canadians.

Each chapter focuses on a different character and Vermette does a mostly great job of voice and characterization. The characters range from teenagers to an elderly grandmother, social workers to an escapee from a juvenile detention centre. Vermette gives each story weight and importance and as she slowly reveals more of their history and background, she beautifully creates sympathy for each one. These are women (even the very young ones) who have already started life with many obstacles stacked against them. Some will be more successful than others, but each will be battered by circumstances and will struggle to move forward, to not simply be defined by their personal histories or the violence enacted against them.

The weakest part of the novel, in my opinion, was Stella’s story. Stella is slightly separate from the other characters for most of the book and so it felt like her sections could be easily lifted out without altering the trajectory of the plot or development of the others. She seems to exist to show an alternate lifestyle – a woman who left the community, married a white man, and then returned. But I really didn’t get enough of a sense of her life before the opening chapter, or her relationship with her husband, to say how different life had been for her. Or how similar.

That said, that is a small weakness in an otherwise powerful book and one definitely worth reading.