When Margaret Atwood describes a book as ‘very tough and real’ you know you’re in for a hard few hundred pages. Reading the multi award-winning novel, The Break by Katherena Vermette was like being wounded in a thousand small ways, both through the story itself and the resurrection of my own memories.
A 13-year-old girl is assaulted in a small, largely First Nation, community in the depths of a harsh Canadian winter. And yet, the story is not really about the assault itself, although it’s certainly the anchor for the other stories which unfold around it.
The narrative passes from woman to woman – Lou, the social worker who is dealing with her own relationship breakdown; Cheryl, the artist who still struggles with her sister’s untimely death many years ago; Phoenix, an angry teenager newly out of a youth detention centre – until we see the ripple effects of a single assault, and the prevalence and effects of violence against too many women through generations.
For me, this was a real #metoo moment. It’s a heartbreaking story that is so real and so timely. This is art reflecting life back to us without offering a solution. But, as the #metoo movement has shown, we need to recognise the staggering reach of a problem before we can take real steps toward solving it.
One of my favourite underlying themes was the commentary on how people can live in the same neighbourhood all their lives but see things so differently.
There are those who see everything whether they want to or not, like Stella:
[The area around The Break is] a good neighbourhood but you can still see it, if you know what to look for… My Stella can see it. I taught her how to look and be aware all the time. I don’t know if it was right or wrong, but she’s still alive so there has to be some good in it.
And then there’s Hannah, police officer Tommy’s wife, who chooses to see nothing:
Hannah wants life to be simple and has no desire to understand. She wants him to arrest everybody and not think about it anymore. She only wants to have nice Sunday dinners and pleasant conversation.
Stella tries to argue that girls don’t get attacked in good neighbourhoods, that if they could just move to another neighbourhood they would be okay. But elderly Kookoo has seen a lifetime of pain and knows better:
Kookoo looks right back, just as hard, no harder, even with her near-blind eyes. ‘My Stella, girls get attacked everywhere.’
For all its weighty and horrifying subject matter, somehow The Break‘s ultimate message is one of hope – we can survive the worst experiences if we can support each other. We’ll be okay. We’re strong.
I’m not sure I believe it, but it’s food for thought.