Saturday, February 1, 2014
Review: All the Broken Things, by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer
I should admit off the bat that I have a real soft spot for reading (and, frankly, writing) stories that weave two seemingly unconnected tropes into a cohesive artistic whole. So needless to say Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s new novel, All the Broken Things, hits a number of buttons for me. Despite being out for barely a month, this book has already received ubiquitously glowing reviews: in the Globe, the Post, the Star, etc. etc. And I have no qualms adding my voice to the chorus of praise. This is a solid outing from an immensely talented writer.
The two tropes in question—in case you’re one of the 11 literate people in Canada who hasn’t heard yet—is bear wrestling and the lingering affects of America’s use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War. The novel, set in 1983, tells the story of Bo, a 14-year-old Vietnam immigrant living near High Park in Toronto with his mother Rose and severely disabled younger sister Orange. A scrappy kid, Bo gets recruited one day by a carnie named Gerry to be a bear wrestler after he witnesses Bo tussling in the street with a schoolmate.
Gerry introduces Bo to the world freaks and sideshows, of travelling entertainment and the carnival life. He even gives him his own bear cub, named Bear, to raise. But he also introduces him to his morally questionable boss, Max. Max eventually meets and begins a relationship with Rose, but his interest in Bo’s family proves to be far more nefarious: he’s looking to exploit the physical deformities of young Orange in his freak show. Her name, in fact, has several meanings in the novel: her Vietnamese name means Orange Blossom; but her deformities are caused as a result of America's use of Agent Orange during the war a decade and a half earlier—a chemical that, ironically enough, was manufactured in one of the small Ontario towns that the carnival travels to.
All the Broken Things soon takes on a fantastical quality as Bo sets out with Bear to rescue Orange from Max’s clutches. The two hide out in High Park, take advantage of the help of Bo’s gentle-hearted teacher (there’s an absolutely devastating scene early in the novel, involving her attempt to get Bo to talk about his Vietnamese heritage and immigration experiences with the class as a way of curtailing the bullying he suffers), a pretty classmate named Emily, and a derelict he and Bear meet in the park called Soldier Man. Kuitenbrouwer stretches the realistic framework of her tale to make way for scenes and interactions that can only be described as miraculous. A lot of the success of this novel requires us to suspend our disbelief to allow the magic in. For the most part, it works. Bear wrestling, for example, was actually banned in Ontario in the 1970s, but we allow Kuitenbrouwer’s fudging here because it’s integral to the plot. We also allow images of Bo and Bear together from High Park to the CNE grounds because, well, we believe it in the moment.
But while there are several large improbabilities that we let go, there are other, smaller improbabilities that threaten this novel. Gerry, for example, is literally some guy that Bo meets off the street, and yet this carnie faces virtually no resistance from Rose when he wants to take her son away to a small town to show him the carnival life. I mean, I know it’s the 1980s and she’s most likely an alcoholic, but I did wonder why kidnapping and/or sexual impropriety never crossed her mind. There is also a scene where Bo learns of a death in his family—not that I want to give the plot away—and yet has no real visceral reaction of grief or even dismay. This struck me as a bit of a false note.
But what keeps these improbabilities from wrenching us out of All the Broken Things’s fictional world is, of course, Kuitenbrouwer’s incredible skill with language. Her ability to create mood and emotional resonance with her style is top notch; and her prose, for the most part, resists the urge to become self-consciously literary. She is deft at showing us Bo’s inner landscapes, and she weaves together the various thematic threads of this book marvelously. As we close in one of the novel’s final miracles—Orange gaining the ability to communicate with Bo—we soon forgive any of the near-contrivances that came earlier. The depth of emotion at the book’s climax is very real, and very moving.