Sunday, November 30, 2014

What We All Long For by Dionne Brand

The CBC recently published its list of the top 100 Canadian novels of all time so I've started to work my way through ones on the list that appealed to me (and that I had not already read).  This is the first that came up on the library waiting list.

It's similar to The Vacationers in some ways as the point of view is constantly shifting - though tends to do so only as the chapters change rather than midstream.  Here the characters were all young people of colour in the city of Toronto.  All of them felt like misfits for various reasons and all of them were also dealing with family drama, yet this book was very different from The Vacationers in that the troubles here seemed more severe (and many were brought on by forces of history and social politics rather than mere human frailty).  I also loved how Toronto itself was almost another character in the book - there were so many familiar neighbourhoods I could easily visualize where a lot of the action was taking place.

The action takes place in the summer of 2002 during the World Cup.  We first meet Tuyen.  She is an aspiring artist who, against her family's wishes, lives in an apartment downtown where she barely gets by.  Though Tuyen and one of her brothers were born in Toronto, the rest of her family immigrated from Vietnam and suffered tragedy along the way.  Their oldest son, Quy, was lost as they made their way from the country by boat - he followed legs that he thought were those of his father but were not.  Quy is the only character whose life we follow outside of Toronto - as we hear what happened to him after he got on the wrong boat and how he eventually makes his way to Toronto.  We also see the terrible impact this event had on Tuyen's parents and, by extension, Tuyen and her Canadian born brother who must both "take the place of" the lost brother and act as their parents' interpreters of a strange world.

Tuyen is very much in love with her neighbour Carla.  Carla is the most steadily employed of the main characters - she works as a bicycle courier and a lot of the narrative from her perspective takes place as she bikes through Toronto's streets.  Carla's early life was also marred by tragedy.  She was the illegitimate daughter of an Italian woman who was disowned by her family when she became involved with a black man.  Carla spends much of her early years at her mother's side staring at her father's home.  He fathers another son with Carla's mother and when he is just a baby Carla's mother hands her the baby, asks her to look after him and walks off their balcony.  At the urging of the Italian family, and his wife who seems to be quite decent, Carla's father takes the children in.  But they never quite get it together and Carla's brother is in jail, again, begging for Carla to bail him out.  She does not have the means and has to face her father for help.

Tuyen and Carla are also friends with Oku, whose family are Jamaican immigrants who work hard and are trying to create a better life for him.  But he is disillusioned with university, has all but dropped out (though not told his father who he fears) and spends much time in Kensington market with the homeless and writing poetry.  He is also desperately in love with Jackie.  Jackie's parents are black Nova Scotians who came to Toronto in the 70s to get ahead - and really never have.  If the other three were not particularly well of as children, Jackie was really poor.  And trying to escape her past she will only date white men, much to Oku's dismay.

The book follows these characters and others in their lives over the course of a few weeks.  At the end their is a disturbing scene where their family's worlds collide.  We are left unsure of the outcome, but it doesn't really seem positive.  A bit of a difficult book to read, but worth it nonetheless.

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