Sunday, July 13, 2014

Review: Prairie Ostrich, by Tamai Kobayashi

Grief, displacement, immigrants living on the prairies, a taciturn father, an alcoholic mother, a precocious child narrator – put these tropes into a work of Canadian fiction and I’ll be convinced I’ve read that book someplace before. This was certainly the impression I got during the first 100 or so pages of Tamai Kobayashi’s debut novel, Prairie Ostrich. Both the story and the style seemed a touch over-familiar: a tale about hardship, cruelty and loss on the Canadian prairie, processed through the winsome mind of a child whose level of awareness and creative thinking pushes the boundaries of the realistic.

It was clear during the first half that what Prairie Ostrich lacked in originality it tried to make up with a moxy reminiscent of Lullabies for Little Criminals or Come, Thou Tortoise. Our narrator is an eight-year-old girl, inexplicably named Egg (she’s still in gestation – get it?), growing up in the 1970s on an ostrich farm in Bittercreek, Alberta. Her family – the only Japanese one on the prairies, she tells us – is in mourning: Egg’s older brother Albert has been killed in a mysterious accident, and the tragedy has reduced Egg’s mother to a whiskey-swilling drunk and her father to a grieving nonentity who refuses to leave the barn. Egg finds solace and companionship only with her older sister Kathy, who manages to be Popular (spelled, in Egg’s mind, forever with a capital P) while Egg herself faces the torments of a school bully named Raymond and the indifference of her teachers.

Kobayashi is trying to hit all the right buttons in her portrait of Egg: she makes her a lover of books and dictionaries (she wants to be a writer when she grows up, natch); she gives her a passion for Anne Frank; she makes her question, in the context of her family’s church, the purpose of life (or lack thereof) and the tragic death of her brother. Egg also grows steadily aware that Kathy is in fact a lesbian, and that there is more to her sister’s own experiences at school than first meets the eye. Each of these elements to Egg’s character is charming, but I was still left with a sense that I had seen these setups, these approaches to character and story, too many times before.

Thankfully, through the sheer will of its craft, Prairie Ostrich eventually won me over. Something happens in the second half of the novel that takes Egg’s experiences to a whole new level – one infused with such tenderness and believability that I became engrossed in her narrative. Egg’s slow realizations about what really happened to her brother and how his death has impacted her family is so incredibly gradual, yet we soon detect just how much she is growing into her own consciousness in this process. The results are spellbinding: the inner world of this child becomes such a complex place, and we move through the story wanting to find out how her realizations will alter the trajectory of her life in Bittercreek.

There is a much larger effect here as well. Egg soon learns a powerful lesson about the very words she has come to love. She learns that words can in fact deceive her, can hold multiple meanings and obscurities that can betray her and her sense of how the world works. She also learns that there is another edge to that sword – that words can be laced with a nuance that brings a deeper understanding to things, a power that makes us feel less alone in the world. It is a great testament to Kobayashi’s accomplishment that she manages to pull all this off while staying realistically inside the head of an eight-year-old, that she never pushes these epiphanies too far as to make them trite or unbelievable.

 In the end, Prairie Ostrich makes up for its somewhat predictable framework with a charm and emotional drive that cannot be denied. Kobayashi has contributed a welcome addition to the well-populated body of Canada’s immigrant literature.

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