By Eden Robinson. Knopf Canada, $32.95, hardcover.
Monkey Beach is 32-year-old Eden Robinson's first attempt at long-form fiction, and as a debut it shows much promise, although not the electrifying promise that animated each page of her 1996 story collection, Traplines. This novel tells the story of Jimmy Hill, former swimmer and beloved son of the village of Kitamaat, B.C. (population 700 or so). As the story opens, Jimmy has gone missing. The narrator, Lisa, awaits word of her brother and as she waits, she remembers, these recollections bringing us from Lisa and Jimmy's childhood through their very different adolescences into the present-tense search for a body.
There are problems inherent in this structure. What can Lisa do all day but listen for the phone? How can the novelist spark Lisa's flashbacks to fill in the story we need in order to see Lisa, Jimmy, their parents and relatives, and the villagers as fleshed-out creatures? Well, she smokes and drinks coffee and stares out the window for the first third of the book, remembering, remembering, remembering. Surprisingly, this double presence works well. The passive Lisa of the present fades in and out of the story of her past the way the North Shore mountains uncloak from fog-just long enough to reassure us, in Lisa's case, that she does survive the past, does gain a measure of wisdom and calm.
Robinson, who lives in North Vancouver and whose father is Haisla and mother Heiltsuk, is many things in Monkey Beach. She is lyrical: "The crows are tiny black dots against a faded denim sky. In the distance, I hear a speedboat. For the last week, I have been dreaming about the ocean-lapping softly against the hull of a boat, hissing as it rolls gravel up a beach, ocean swells hammering the shore, lifting off the rocks in an ethereal spray before the waves make a grumbling retreat."
She is morbidly funny: "In the time of the great dying, whole families were buried in one plot. Pick wild blueberries when you're hungry, let the tart taste sink into your tongue, followed by that sharp sweetness that store-bought berries lack. Realize that the plumpest berries are over the graves."
She is audacious: "Make your hand into a fist. This is roughly the size of your heart. If you could open up your own chest, you would find your heart behind your breastbone, nestled between your lungs. Each lung has a notch, the cardiac impression, that the heart fits into.”¦Reach into your chest cavity and pull your lungs away from your heart to fully appreciate the complexity of this organ."
But are these talents enough to create a satisfying novel?
In the second section, Lisa sets off in the family speedboat to investigate a possible clue to her brother. The pacing lurches here and Robinson never recovers the light balance she achieved off the top. The more time we spend with present-tense Lisa, the more she becomes a liability. The Lisa of the past never recovers her balance, either, and the sweet self-confidence of her childhood gives way to adolescent apathy and despair. The smart kid going down is well-trodden territory for Robinson-Traplines is brimful of such tragic heroes-and the author lowers Lisa gently, compassionately, skillfully, deeper and deeper into helpless misery. But with Lisa's withdrawal from family and nature, and with the deaths of two significant characters from her childhood, Lisa loses her connection with the village and the outdoors. The return to Traplines territory begins at the novel's midpoint: "The first report cards came in. My grades hovered dangerously at a C-. Most of the comments read, 'Doesn't participate in class. Not working to full potential. Not concentrating, please set up an appointment to discuss study habits, etc.' "
Her disconnection from family and the past may serve to underline her misery, but it also makes her increasingly unsympathetic and opaque. The young Lisa starts out as an engaging guide to this village and its villagers. Perhaps this role is overly naturalistic for an eager young novelist, but the dull decline into the city and partydom, rape and rock bottom, is no more stylistically challenging; the teen Lisa lost not only my sympathy but my attention for a good hundred pages, and the present-tense version, relating this downward spiral, just sits by, smoking and drinking coffee. There is little incentive to pursue the past story of Lisa's ruin, and even less the present-tense search for Jimmy.
Recognizing these major hurdles, perhaps the two most irritating elements of the novel can be explained by an imagined confrontation between the Wizened Publishing Executive and the Ardent Young Novelist:
INT. OFFICE. DAY
WPE: So, we're sitting there, in the powerboat, listening to Lisa tell us about her wild youth and all. And what's happened to this Jimmy character we've never even really met?
AYN: Well”¦he's missing, right? Through his swimming, his health, and his struggles to win, he represents nature, strength, and the moral compass missing from Lisa's life.
WPE: Yeah, well, that may be so, but we need a hook, you hear? A hook. Let's slip something in to suggest maybe he killed himself. That'll keep us reading. Like, a Native whodunit.
AYN: But why would he kill himself?
WPE: Listen, ya cashed the advance, you can write the lines. And another thing, this supernatural thing”¦
AYN: You have a problem with Lisa contacting the dead?
WPE: A problem? No way, magic's hot. No, we want more. Lots more, especially toward the end. We need a hook. Couldn't you write a fourth part where she gets really into the spirit realm? That'll keep us reading. Like, a Native Twin Peaks.
AYN (looking worried): I guess”¦
So we end up with clunky plot advancers about Jimmy like "If he was chatting to her about his aches and pains, he could hardly be planning anything stupid," and a heavy-handed justification of the supernatural: "As I drove away, I felt deeply comforted knowing that magical things were still living in the world." Not to mention a coda that bears no emotional relationship to what precedes it. Robinson can write lovely scenes, not just about the sweetness of blueberries and the light off the water but about the silences that families use to reconstruct the past, and the compromises that come with growing up. When the powerboat fumes and magic mists clear from Monkey Beach, it's the interactions of the novel's first section, which Robinson achieves with the enviable appearance of effortlessness, that are the heart of this project. The subsequent 200 pages cannot transform a perfect story into a first-class novel.
-- Georgia Straight, 2002