THROUGH BLACK SPRUCE - Joseph Boyden
THROUGH BLACK SPRUCE isn't the first book it's taken me quite a long time to read, it's not even the one that took the longest to read, but it did take many attempts before I was able to get any traction. This attempt I read the blurb first-up and did a little Google hunting - something I normally try not to do. But this time I really needed it to find out what on earth was going on. Then it dawned on me why I was having so much trouble getting into the book.
THROUGH BLACK SPRUCE is a family story, told from two main points of view. Annie is the sister of the missing Suzanne, as per the blurb. She's the one who did come home, after a whirlwind time in the big cities which started off with her looking for Suzanne and ended up with her almost living Suzanne's life. The other main narrator is their Uncle Will, a man haunted by loss, old, looking back at his life and the disastrous outcomes surrounding the disappearance of Suzanne. The book launches into these individual voices very quickly, and there's no real hint at the start as to what the story is about, and where the reader is being taken. It's a controlled, contained, almost placid book to start off with, beautifully evocative of life in a harsh and difficult environment and the joys and tensions of living in a small community. It draws a series of wonderful, thoughtful, sometimes eccentric, often quite poignant characterisations. At no stage does THROUGH THE BLACK SPRUCE give anything unnecessary away.
And that is why the book may have been so difficult to get any traction on. There is no indication at the start where this is going, even for a while who is narrating; what has happened; how anybody got to the position they are in, or even what exact position that is; where the story is leading. This is immersion reading, and in a way extreme faith reading. The reader has to simply give in to the author, allow this world and these people to slowly, very very slowly emerge, draw their pictures, cohere into a tale of violence and extremes, kindness, love and compassion. Once you do give in, allow this book to work it's way into it's own story and draw you into the world, it's often rather beautiful. Uncle Will is a marvellous old character, wise and stupid, kind, stubborn and game as. Annie is very much a survivor, whether that's in the modelling studios and parties of New York and Toronto or deep in the frozen forest in the hunting camps, setting traps and coaxing the old snowmobile into one more trip, she's strong and very very like her Uncle.
THROUGH BLACK SPRUCE is not however, a perfect book. It's strengths are most definitely in Will's world, as he narrates his life, as he moves through the Canadian wilderness, as he goes backwards and forwards through his past and his present. Less convincing are the times that Annie spends away from forest, in the cities and the modelling life. This is more sketchy, flat and bland, hard to follow, less immersing. Because of that there's frequently a lack of balance in the narration. Will became a real focus, allowing the reader to understand and accept his connection to his home, the land and the creatures around him. There was less of that connection with Annie - maybe because of the Indian spiritualism which worked well for Will but didn't seem to have such authenticity in her city based world. Once she's back in the forest, at her Uncle's side, and once the events surrounding the disappearance of Suzanne start to clarify, Annie starts to make more sense. But it was hard to shake a slight suspicion of contrivance.
But that's a minor quibble. Ultimately I really liked this book, once I'd figured out how to read it. It's probably not a book for a more traditional crime fiction fan - it's definitely about the journey and not the destination, but once into it, once I'd figured out who was who and that I wasn't supposed to have the slightest idea what was going on for most of the book, I just went with it. And along the way there were some glorious moments.
Fifteen years after the death of their patriarch, the Bird Clan finds itself struggling to survive on the hardscrabble reservation it calls home.
On Christmas Day, the youngest of the clan, beautiful Suzanne Bird, leaves by snowmobile with her boyfriend Gus Netmaker, against both families' wishes, hoping to find purpose and a better life in Toronto. When word from Suzanne and Gus suddenly ceases, the Netmakers and Birds fear the worst and tensions between the two families escalate to violent levels.
Suzanne's sister Annie, a loner and a hunter, decides to search for them, leaving behind their Uncle Will, a man haunted by loss. While Annie travels from Toronto to New York, from modelling studios to A-list parties, Will encounters dire troubles at home.