Reviewed by K. S. A. Brazier-Tompkins
Corvus. Thistledown, 2015.
Harold Johnson’s Corvus mixes ecocriticism and social criticism in a post-Apocalyptic dystopian novel that tries – and sometimes fails – to articulate a holistic way of being with/in the world. Based in the now-metropolitan La Ronge, the novel follows the intersecting lives of George, Lenore, Richard, and Katherine as they struggle to negotiate boundaries of space, place, and identity in a world in which human actions have caused catastrophic changes, killing soil, creating superviruses, and making large parts of the world uninhabitable.
Johnson has a penchant for providing interpretations of characters’ actions and offering truths, often from the mouths of figures who play archetypal parts—the prophet, the Trickster, or the crone—and then disappear from the narrative. In the Second Intra-American war, for example, Lenore lifted the lid of a poor family’s cooking pot and discovered a baby’s arm inside (94-95). She replaced the lid. This act characterizes her behaviour throughout the novel; she is heavily invested in keeping the lid on the pot, on not looking inside, dealing with truths and emotions by repressing or ignoring them. “She studies all the time,” Richard tells Katherine, “but when she’s offered obvious solutions, she turns away. I get the feeling that she doesn’t want to face something” (254). Such statements contribute to the didactic undercurrents of the text, and the interpretation of the text by the text seeks to cement a single correct interpretation of characters’ motives and behaviours, and undermines the multiplicity of the primary characters’ attempts to learn to interact ethically with the world.
George and Richard try to understand and navigate this ethical interaction with the help of narrative, Richard with his copy of Virgil’s Little Book on Virginity, George with a story given to him by Cree medicine man Two Bears. In a postmodern fashion, Johnson mixes fictitious and historical narratives in Corvus to create metanarratives that both blend into and contribute to the novel’s meaning. The most prominent of such elements are the blending of raven stories, alluding to elements from Christian, First Nations, Greek, and Norse mythology – even playing with the concept of “the lost Lenore” from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” – and creating a single, deified Raven who exists across time and cultures and who continues to interact with people and the world as a whole, simultaneously raven and Raven.
Raven is a key figure in what may be the most complex philosophical thread in the novel: the question of the Other. When one names certain humans Other, “they are easier to kill” (198). The same principle pertains to human treatment of nonhuman animals and even of the land itself. Corvus challenges that division, troubling the line between that which is merely biotic and that which is alive, articulating a conceptualization of a holistic world in which all things spring from the soil and return to it.
Significantly, Corvus’s three more successful seekers also struggle to understand the ravens who appear in the text, symbolic of Raven, who appears in guises from the bird itself – "‘Whatever the hell are you saying?’" Richard demands of the bird, who vocalizes in “a rhythm that sound[s] like speech, as though he urgently want[s] to tell someone something” (13) – to the prophet who likens George to the biblical Saul and “walk[s] away making loud ‘Kraw, Kraw’ sounds” (212) to George’s raven-shaped Organic Recreational Vehicle (ORV), which makes sounds it has not been programmed to make and moves of its own volition (202). George, Richard, and Katherine all speak to ravens – and, through ravens, to Raven – and in so doing recall the “days of Odin, when men sought to learn his language, to speak, to converse, and to learn” (133). Corvus addresses layers of Othering and calls for a return to communion and communication with the living world as crucial to both spiritual wellbeing and living in right relationship with the earth. While these layers are generally sophisticated, they sometimes exhibit problematic simplicities, such as a binary understanding of natural spaces as being opposed to “developed” spaces.
Corvus is heavy-handed and at times appears more fixated upon prominent socio-political and environmental concerns than on plot or character development. Nevertheless, the regular return to the regard of Raven, from humans’ perspectives and from Raven’s himself, provides a focal point that creates cohesion out of a text that struggles to encompass a litany of issues that includes identity, trauma, crime, the nature of reality, belonging, and boundaries of space and place. Its sometimes black-and-white conceptualizations (e.g. natural/developed, male/female) are jarring precisely because, overall, Corvus pushes back against such worldviews, playing with the space between the real and the imagined, the organic and the alive, the human and the animal. These binary structures are weak spots in a text that creates connections between things that are often considered opposites, conceptualizing a whole.
K. S. A. Brazier-Tompkins is a Ph. D. candidate at the University of Saskatchewan, where she is a Teacher-Scholar Doctoral Fellow. She specializes in the study of animals in Canadian literature, with a particular focus on realistic wild animal stories. She has been part of the editorial team for the University of Saskatchewan’s The Fieldstone Review since 2008.
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