The Bull Calf

Reviews of Fiction, Poetry, and Literary Criticism

The Heaviness of Things that Float by Jennifer Manuel

Reviewed by Carmen Gindi

Jennifer Manuel

The Heaviness of Things that Float. Douglas & McIntyre, 2016.

289 pp.

$22.95

Manuel’s Heaviness, her first novel, centres on the story of Chase Charlie. This bright, young, well-loved First Nations man has suddenly vanished. Chase’s friends and relatives search for him, conjure his whereabouts in dreams, speculate about his soul-searching journey, and hope that he hasn’t drowned in the Pacific. The children of the reserve imagine he’s become a hairy puukmis, a mythical thing of nightmares. Every once in a while, false news of his discovery arises. Readers don’t discover Chase’s fate till a few pages before the book ends.

The narrator is Bernadette Perkal, a white nurse at Tawakin (a fictional reserve on an island in northern British Columbia). “Bernie” has been there for 40 years. After having notified the Health Ministry that she intends to retire, she has three weeks to train her young replacement, Wren Featherstone, but Bernie doesn’t want to leave with Chase still missing. A series of flashbacks reveal the characters on the reserve, especially Chase: his odd birth, tragic family history, promising school performance, marriage, and his daughter (who has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome). Readers also discover Bernie’s past love affair with Frank, who cheated on Bernie with her friend, Miranda. Chase is Frank and Miranda’s son, but instead of viewing Chase as a constant reminder of Frank’s betrayal, Bernie chooses to love Chase as her own son and finally to forgive Miranda and Frank. The people of Tawakin can forgive each other for awful things, but the forgiveness happens gradually, unassumingly, and without formal apologies.

The book questions whether it is possible to really know another person. Bernie has spent decades imagining herself Chase’s second mother and a mainstay of the community, but a series of epiphanic conversations reveal that she is still an outsider. Frank, become an old friend by now, reminds her: “You think you know all the secrets of this place, but you don’t…Some secrets stay on the reserve” (217).  The perpetual outsider, Bernie finally admits with a heavy heart, “I was not First Nations. I was white…I hated how it had continually threatened to set me apart from others here” (223). The narrator discovers that she knows only the surface of things because she’s different, but also because “nobody could ever wholly know the heart of another” (284).

Skin colour determines class, power, education, ways of seeing, suffering, and dying. Manuel sees her narrator as unwittingly and inherently privileged. Her house is better built than the other reserve houses, but aside from that, objective examples of Bernie’s privilege are scarce. Though she is told that she is not really part of Tawakin, Bernie at first refuses to believe it; she finally “grows” when she discovers just how “other” she has been. Forty years counts for something, but not as much as Bernie imagines.

Heaviness suggests that no matter how one tries, how many years one serves such a community, to fully understand the “other” and truly integrate takes more; it takes being First Nations. Of course, class and race may generally intersect to separate people into categories, but Manuel denies the power of the individual to cross those boundaries and integrate—as much as any individual can “fully” integrate within any community, including his or her own. After all, one can be born and raised in a community, dwell among those who share one’s race and status, yet still feel more alien than an “outsider” who has spent decades cooperating, serving, and participating in that same community. The book’s well-meaning message may seem discouraging to some.

The novel’s plot reflects the slow rhythm of life in Tawakin. Hardly anything happens…well, except for a suspenseful encounter with a bear, a failed attempt to train her replacement (a self-identified “revolutionary” who doesn’t last three weeks), and the agonizing wait for Chase. Thus, prose is as important as plot. Long, Dickensian passages about landscape and stormy weather offer effective examples of imagery and local colour, but they purposely tantalize the reader by delaying what happens next. Manuel’s descriptive passages do have a purpose, however: to reveal the reserve’s harsh, dreary reality, and by extension, the community’s resilience in the face of it.

Manuel’s narrative style shines best in her anecdotal portrayals of the people’s coping mechanisms. We learn of community-building feasts, an intriguing justice system based on creative “punishments” such as feeding the whole community, the concept of forgiveness via time, a funny photograph-exchange tradition, comfort through sharing grief, a readiness to help, gift giving, and a reliance on story-telling as a token of friendship. Stories move “in the water, in the wind, and up the tree trunks” (91). They fly on crows’ wings. They make heavy burdens float.

Carmen Gindi is an English professor at Fanshawe College.  With an undergraduate degree from Egypt and an M.A. in English Literature from the US, Carmen is fairly new to Canada and its literature.  Her teaching interests include interdisciplinary studies in the humanities, world literature, and rhetorical analysis.  She is the mother of twin boys.

 

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