Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer's All the Broken Things haunted by the traumas of war

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      All the Broken Things
      By Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer. Random House Canada, 304 pp, softcover

      Since her Danuta Gleed Award–nominated debut, 2003’s Way Up, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer has etched lives reeling from disenchantment and grief in stories that broach blood ties and unresolved tensions.

      All the Broken Things, her latest novel, deviates from previous works in both tone and pace, the artful lines and luminous observations that typify the Toronto author’s prose replaced by a trim plot furnished with two-dimensional characters.

      A muted consideration of acceptance and reparation, the tale traces 14-year-old Bo, a bear trainer with Jennings’ Magic and Carnival Enterprises Unlimited, as he brawls through 1980s Ontario in search of kinship and a haven to rest his weary head.

      Haunted by his escape from Vietnam, a traumatic passage in which his father perished, he and his remaining clan arrived in Canada to less-than-auspicious prospects; his younger sister, Orange Blossom, was severely deformed by inutero exposure to Agent Orange and continues to stay hidden at the behest of their mother, Thao, a cleaner. The emotional fallout of war and displacement—themes Kuitenbrouwer raised in 2009’s Perfecting—are explored here alongside the exploitation of the vulnerable. As Bo bonds with his ursine charge, his conniving employer, Mr. Jennings, endears himself to Thao, luring her and Orange Blossom toward illusory refuge.

      “He was gutted by the time he arrived,” Kuitenbrouwer writes of when Bo retreats to Toronto’s High Park, “so emptied, so cried out, finally, over all that had happened—his mother and sister leaving, and his father dying, all compiled into one pitted loss. He was alone with it all, and it hollowed him.”

      Bears appear elsewhere in Kuitenbrouwer’s fiction, such as in 2005’s The Nettle Spinner, as harbingers of lurking personal danger, lightning bolts foretelling storm, and on these pages become symbolic of captivity, freedom, and the ways brass rings taunt those imprisoned by fate. Though All the Broken Things falters due to an underdeveloped cast and nebulous closures, its primary misstep is that it never showcases the full range of skills at the author’s command.