by Eden Robinson
Published by Knopf Canada
233 pages, 2000
Reviewed by J.M. Bridgeman
B'gwus is the Haisla name for a Sasquatch, a creature that looks like a "large hairy monkey" rumored to live in the rain forest of the Pacific Coast. Monkey Beach is a place where Sasquatches are often sighted. The appearance of these mythical creatures -- in reality, in story, in dreams, or in visions -- is central to the plot of Eden Robinson's first novel, Monkey Beach. The award-winning author of Traplines has a legitimate claim to this untold part of the map, around the Douglas Channel between Prince Rupert and Bella Bella on British Columbia's northwest coast. With Monkey Beach, Robinson makes this territory her own.
Set in 1989 and narrated by 19-year-old Lisamarie Michelle Hill from Kitamaat Village, Monkey Beach is a psychological thriller with supernatural overtones. As the story opens, the boat Lisa's 18-year-old brother Jimmy is working on is overdue. Jimmy and his boss Josh are missing and feared drowned. Lisa and her parents, Albert and Gladys, wait by the telephone for news. Her parents fly out to be nearer the search site. Lisa takes the outboard and travels by water to join them. Suspense rivets the reader's attention until the very last page.
Jimmy's disappearance triggers Lisa's memories of other lost loved ones -- her favorite uncle, Mick, killed in a fishing accident some ten years earlier; her aged grandmother Ma-ma-oo, dead in a house fire and a childhood friend who recently committed suicide. Flashing back through those ten traumatic years, Lisamarie relives her childhood, her floundering through puberty, her running away to the city to party-party-party, trying to leave her grief behind her, to block out the things she feels and the things she sees.
As a coming-of-age story told from the 19-year-old girl's point of view, Monkey Beach is better than good. Lisa offers insights on loving families, sibling rivalry, scapegoating, fear, aggression, sexuality, alcohol and drug abuse. She hints at the connection between grief and anger; at getting stuck in anger as a way to avoid life. Through Lisa's keen observations, we recognize people who wear their pain on the outside like medals and others who have put their medals away and given up.
Yet Monkey Beach is more than a coming-of-age novel. Life in Kitamaat Village is evoked beautifully and honestly, without being prettified. The incredibly beautiful land and seascapes, places where worlds entwine, are not merely backdrops or stages for action. Alive, home to other living creatures, the place is a breathing character, fully integrated with other elements of the novel. Lisamarie's world teems with life, including the life of supernatural beings who communicate with her in dreams, visions, soundings and sightings. Lisamarie has inherited spiritual power from both sides of her family. Although her parents deny her gift, teasing her about Prozac and taking her to psychiatrists, preferring to focus on her brother's athletic talents, her grandmother helps her cope. Instructing her in history, in plant medicine, in coping with fear, in showing the proper respect, in communicating with the dead, Ma-ma-oo in effect helps initiate Lisamarie as a shaman. Although she tries to run away from her calling, Lisa survives the city and finds a way home. On the drive home, she experiences a sighting. "I felt deeply comforted knowing that magical things were still living in the world." Then Lisa begins to demonstrate her powers by bringing lovers together, finding the lost, detecting abuse and crime. So when Jimmy goes missing, Lisa takes it upon herself to seek assistance from her spirit helpers to find him, or to rescue his drowned soul. The commandeered speedboat of her travels is a modern incarnation of the Spirit Canoe to the Land of the Dead from traditional West Coast mythologies. Thus, her flashbacks to her childhood training inform both the plot and the themes. There are other worlds inhabited by spirits, by ghosts who are relatives, who need not be feared. Human beings can contact the realm of spirits for assistance if the supplicant knows what he or she is doing.
Monkey Beach marks the moment of transition when an oral tradition, abandoned by Lisa's parents' generation, its language almost lost, its conventions mistaken for rules, morphs into a written literature. Here the role of the shaman passes to the writer, the storyteller who has lived in more than one world, who combines what she knows to tell a tale that has the power to perform transformations, to redeem souls.
The writer has become the keeper of memory, the mediator between worlds, the practitioner of magic. Yet accepting this wand puts Robinson on center stage, the focus of criticism from all sides, for cultures in transition experience a confusion of authority. Who knows? What are the risks? The artist knows that what she is trying to do is not understood by everyone. The danger of ill-informed criticism is that it may move the artist to self-censor. If she chooses to leave out important parts of the truth, she risks presenting a partial and distorted picture. The world she creates, after the grandmothers have died, may seem more hopeless than it actually is.
Although Robinson thanks "her babysitters" (a term used in initiation ceremonies), there is no mention in Monkey Beach of winter dances or inductions into the mysteries, which are still available in many First Nation communities today. In addition, Part 2 is entitled "The Song of Your Breath." This phrase is not referenced in the story, yet suggests the quest for a song from a spirit guardian which longhouse initiates seek. Of course, the writer chooses what to include and what to leave out. But to leave out an avenue of spiritual training and cultural guidance that may be available seems to distort, to make the options for young people seem fewer than they may in reality be.
Titling the book Monkey Beach also misleads readers. "Monkey" has no connotation identified with North America or the Pacific Coast. It sends the reader in the exact opposite direction, away from Haisla territory, with a name from other cultures centered elsewhere. It must be a trickster's inside joke. Raven who invented the world just because he was bored still enjoys "pulling the wool over everyone else's eyes."
At a certain point, artists come of age. Do what their gifts tell them to do, rather than what their keepers permit. Make that necessary break. Let us hope that, if Robinson is self-censoring, it is not to protect once-secret activities or to present a misleading picture, but rather, to hold something back for the next novel. For this magic world of Earth, Sky and Water is a place that this gullible reader cannot wait to visit again. Hoping to be called to witness the re-creation of the world. | March 2000