Monday, 1 June 2015

Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway

Different books bring different pleasures. Sometimes it's the plot, tense and urgent and carrying me along. Sometimes it's characters, people I come to love and want to see what happens to, and who make it hurt when bad things come. Most rarely of all, I think, it's the writing itself, the kind of writing that wraps you up and carries you along, that, rather than being at best unobtrusive, leaves me searching for just the right turn of phrase to capture how the prose makes me feel.

I remember describing Lionel Shriver's We Need To Talk About Kevin as being liked being sucked down into molasses. I've described Guy Gavriel Kay's writing as creating moments of pure crystal. Catherynne Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making had such surgical precision in the placement of each word.

It's a good sign when I start looking for these metaphors. Kiss of the Fur Queen is another such. The best I can come up with at the moment is that the prose is graceful and gliding, with occasional moments of blunt force impact. There are echoes of oral storytelling that I really enjoyed, repetitions of phrase that recur, adding a pleasing note to an already exciting style.

Kiss of the Fur Queen is not an easy book. But it's not an overly dark one either. There are moments of lightness, of hope, in a story that is ultimately rich and complex, avoiding easy answers to difficult questions.

It is about two brothers, Cree children from Northern Manitoba who are the first generation to be sent away to residential schools, where horrific abuses occur. These are not lingered on, but they are not obscured either. Both children carry those scars with them into later life. One, Champion, renamed Jeremiah, trying to become a concert pianist and striving to assimilate, while the other, Gabriel, becomes a dancer, and exorcises his demons by throwing himself into his body, in ways beautiful and dangerous.

The book also touches on missing Native women in Winnipeg, outreach done in urban Native communities, racism, and those who are trying to reclaim their Native heritage as worthy and beautiful in its own right. Jeremiah's inability to accept it for most of the book, shown through his reaction to Native music, so unlike what he has been training himself to perform, is poignant.

As I said, one of the things I like most here is that there are no easy answers, no easy outs, no simple reclaiming that can make someone whole. It's a struggle, and a daily one, to find meaning in a world that does not admire complexity, that wishes to see in binaries.

The prose is remarkable, the story compelling, the characters intriguing, and the wrongs done horrific and far too real. This was the choice for our book club last month, and it was widely enjoyed.

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