Through Black Spruce
By Joseph Boyden. Viking Canada, 360 pp, $34, hardcover
Joseph Boyden’s 2005 debut novel, Three Day Road, was a rare flash of literary illumination. A desperate tumble through the heart of darkness, it led us deep into the boreal forest and even deeper into the mud and muck of Flanders during the First World War.
The first of these stark landscapes, relatively unknown to all but its inhabitants, proved uncommonly compelling as described by Boyden’s female-shaman narrator; the second, already worked over by five generations of great writers, was revealed anew under the scrutiny of Anishnabe sharpshooters Xavier Bird and Elijah Whiskeyjack.
As a sequel of sorts, Through Black Spruce is almost inevitably a lesser undertaking than Three Day Road. But Boyden remains such a gifted writer that it is still an engrossing story.
The new book returns us to the desolate forests that surround James Bay, and its protagonists are the children and grandchildren of the earlier book’s heroes. As before, Boyden is lyrical and assured in this northern setting; Will Bird’s flight to a remote, bear-haunted island, following his shooting of Cree crime boss and drug dealer Marius Netmaker, is a Robinson Crusoe idyll that turns into an epic tale of survival.
In a parallel plot, however, Bird’s niece Annie is seeking her sister Suzanne, who’s disappeared into the fashion world’s underground. Her adventures in Toronto and Montreal have their moments, but Boyden’s New York City is more like a film set than a fleshed-out locale; it never feels real.
This is likely intentional; supermodels Kenya and Soleil’s lives are no doubt meant to feel as glitteringly artificial as their names. Nonetheless, Annie’s big-city adventures escape crime-fiction predictability only through the surprise intervention of some Perrier-drinking, Internet-savvy street people of aboriginal descent, one of whom becomes her protector and, eventually, her lover.
But let’s not make too much of Through Black Spruce’s few, small failings. Boyden continues to please with his ability to craft fresh variations on narrative fiction; his approach is based on old-fashioned storytelling, but its feel is resolutely up-to-date. And, most of all, he writes with so much heart that readers will have no choice but to fall in love with Will and Annie, however flawed and human they might be.
Joseph Boyden’s October 22 appearance at the Vancouver International Writers & Readers Festival is sold out, but you can still catch him in a 10 a.m. panel discussion on October 24, at Performance Works.