George & Rue, by George Elliott Clarke

HarperCollins, 223 pp, $32.95, hardcover.

George Elliott Clarke's assured debut novel draws on the same family history--the story of his first cousins George and Rufus Hamilton, hanged in 1949 for robbing and murdering a white taxi driver in Fredericton, New Brunswick--that netted him a Governor General's Award for poetry in 2001 for Execution Poems. The new book is already drawing inevitable comparisons to Richard Wright's Native Son, as both elicit sympathy (if not forgiveness) for violent crimes by evocatively sketching the lives of their black protagonists. What most sets these two tales apart, however, is not so much the difference between the Canadian and American diasporas as the stark contrast between Clarke's lush lyricism and Wright's gritty realism.

Clarke's fertile imagery embraces the expected pastoral inspirations--"the sun cringed amid the kitchen's kerosene and cranky smoke," "each drop was noisy ointment for flowers. (Rain is how the sea summers in grass.)"--and the harsh violence of the story: "the cold, grisly wrist kiss of handcuffs".

In a "disclaimer" at the beginning, Clarke says George and Rufus "always lived outside boundaries (including knowledge... history... archives). They are 'encompassed' here only by unrestrained imagination. That is the only truth in this novel, whose English ain't broken, but 'blackened.'" If "blackened" conjures Cajun cooking, the allusion may be no accident, as the Acadians' expulsion and transformation into Louisiana Cajuns finds an "Africadian", Creolized mirroring here in the history of freed blacks who came up to Nova Scotia and mixed with the Mi'kmaq--the protagonists' parents one such blend--and also in Clarke's potent use of the theme of food throughout George & Rue.

Food is central to any culture, and hunger is a strong motivation for desperate acts, as Clarke reminds us. "Georgie's first love was food. Life was a meal....If sweet potatoes could be roasted in ashes, if Sunday brought biscuits with molasses and fried chicken, if someone got a mess of smelts or eels and fried em good, this was pure pleasure."

In the opening pages' description of the crime, Rue thinks "The hunger in his gut was, he figured, much worse than any maybe pain he did." And in George's actual jailhouse journal, excerpted near the novel's end, he writes of the good food in custody, an anchor for the familiar tragedy of hunger becoming anger.

George Elliott Clarke will read from George & Rue at the Library Square (350 West Georgia Street) on Wednesday (February 16), at 7:30 pm. Admission is free.