It was snowing when it happened. The sky was pink and swollen and the snow had finally started to fall…
*Content Warning – Violence, Sexual Assault
Some books weigh heavier on the bookshelf than others. Not because of their size, nor because of the material that makes up the pages, nor because they are a hardbound edition. Rather, the narrative itself adds to the book’s weight.
Katherena Vermette’s The Break is heavy. Powerful. Poetic. Vermette inserts a much-needed voice into the Canadian literary canon:
To expound my point here, the content is traumatic. Not because it is written as traumatic—Vermette is not capitalizing on trauma for the sake of storytelling—but because the violence Vermette writes is real in that it is the violence that haunts our society like a specter. The trauma is lived every day in certain communities. A violence that, at first, may appear fictitious because it is not disclosed in our everyday living. The kind of violence that we know lurks in the open, but we shy away from because to challenge that violence would be uncomfortable and would put our entire way of life into question.
Here, I am using the category of “our” or “we” in the sense that I am outside the experience depicted in this novel. In other words, I am a white man who lives a comfortable existence, but who is also aware of the trauma The Break brings to light based on his reading and studies. My “our”/”we” refers to other white men.
I also keep speaking in negatives because I have a difficult time finding the words or phrases that can accurately depict the emotional pull of this story. Few books, novel or otherwise, have me pause on their spine with my finger to recall the narrative. I also wish to refrain from totalizing the experiences and narratives explored in The Break—so I refer to claiming what The Break is not to avoid the pitfall of “imperialistically” claiming what it must be.
In some circles this approach is rightfully called colonization.
I used to think spirits envied their lost skin. That ghosts swayed in shadows, just out of the corners of living eyes, loving and admiring bodies, waiting to be let back in…
In the snow, in a quiet and stilted field, Stella watches the rape of a girl. She watches the girl disappear into the night. It remains quiet until she dials 911.
The Break is a novel about healing and inter-generational trauma. Though the sexual assault of one girl, Emily, sets the novel forward, Vermette painfully explores the work of racism and colonialism that produces a bored and unsympathetic police force and, perhaps, a cynical Stella who can only watch from her window. Most importantly, Vermette exposes how these historical and social forces sustain trauma over generations. Emily’s experience is but one more break along generations.
I like to think “break” as a word tells us about the breaks in continuity. Perhaps, The Break breaks or ruptures the adored coming of age story many of us are familiar with: the transition from innocence into nostalgia. Instead, it is the initiation into the violence of colonialism.
To be sure, this isn’t a tale with good guys and bad guys. Nor is it concerned with “reconciliation” narratives the average Canadian reader might be looking for. The Break is completely expository, revealing the afterlife of trauma and how it emerges in the first place.
I don’t want to label this novel as dark—dark belongs to fantasy. Some people seem to think that Vermette portrays something “too dark,” something that belongs to the news or “real life.” But that is how trauma works. It is real. It persists whether one likes it or not. We cannot always choose to shy away from this subject matter because it is the daily lived experience of millions of women, particularly women of Indigenous communities, and other marginalized communities in Canada.
For example, the many works depicting the Canadian diaspora, such as Austin Clarke’s More or Rawi Hage’s Cockroach, evaluate or expose the violence experienced by these communities. But even in the Canadian literary canon that has broadened to include the voices of the communities outside the mainstream, Indigenous voices remain on the periphery.
What makes the violence particular to Indigenous communities in Canada is it is intergenerational, which is Vermette’s focus in this novel. Intergenerational trauma is violence that persists through generations of Indigenous families or communities such as the Resident School System. Vermette shows us that one of the long-reaching effects of this trauma is the abuse within the communities.
Emily is sexually assaulted by members of her community, by her peers. The violence depicted, and I think is an important disclosure by Vermette, is not gendered. Emily is not taken advantage by a man or a boy but assaulted by another girl, Phoenix, who feels threatened by Emily. And as the novel progresses, we witness how Phoenix is also subjected to violence and neglect in her community.
Vermette paints an honest portrait of violence in that it can’t be reduced to common interpretations. I think this is the most brilliant thing about The Break.
Even though I would categorize The Break as literary fiction (among many other categorizations—see the tags), Vermette doesn’t experiment with language. She keeps her narrative clear and straight forward while maintaining a unique voice within Canadian fiction.