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Book Reviews

Overflow

Monkey Beach
by Eden Robinson
(Houghton Mifflin) $24.95

Like many people whose lives are complicated by borders, Eden Robinson lives with what she calls "double exposure": She's always seeing what's there overlaid with what used to be there, or what she imagines. Robinson is Haisla, and she grew up on her tribe's reservation north of Vancouver. Her debut novel, Monkey Beach, is set in this in-between place, and it is full of resultant dissonance. "When I dreamed," the narrator says in Monkey Beach, "I could see things in double exposure--the real world, and beyond it, the same world but whole, with no clear-cuts, no pollution, no boats, no cars, no planes... the beaches were white with herring eggs."

It is this dissonance that makes Monkey Beach such a haunted book. The novel's narrator, Lisamarie Hill, is named after Elvis' daughter, but her rock and roll soul is thronged by visions of B'gwus (Sasquatches), talking ravens, and an elf who foreshadows disaster. Lisa's brother Jimmy bridges the worlds of Haisla and pop culture fluidly: He is such a talented swimmer that he's tapped for the Olympics. When Jimmy disappears on a fishing boat, Lisa's visions and the larger world collide, and the result is a gripping story, featuring a female character who embraces her conflicted nature and never succumbs to the easy answers.

I met Eden for coffee at Elliott Bay Book Company, and talked to her about her novel.

A lot of Canadian writers are becoming big sellers suddenly. Do you think there's a reason that's started happening?

I think it started off with writers like Henry O'Donnell and Gail Anderson-Dargatz. After they came on the scene, publishers became a lot more interested in new writers, and there was a lot of funding and support. A lot of people are self-taught in BC, and there are a lot of writing programs. For the size of the province, there's a large percentage of writers; I don't know about the other parts of Canada, but in Vancouver writing as a cultural expression has been encouraged; it's been fostered.

Place is a primary theme in Monkey Beach. Do you consider yourself a regional writer, or is the setting just the place where the narrator has the experience?

Oh, the story couldn't have happened anywhere else. The first collection I did, I was interested in true crime, and specifically in killers: sociopaths, psychopaths, the extremes of human nature--just asshole domain. So the setting was flexible because, well, assholes are everywhere. But Monkey Beach was very place-specific, very culturally specific. It actually started as a whole bunch of regional anecdotes that were strung together. The people in my creative writing workshop went, "This is lovely, but you might want to consider having a main character narrate them."

How did you find your main character? She's been described as "feisty."

Originally she was more like me, and it was really boring. I like to sit back and watch things, and that wasn't any good for this story. I have a lot of very strong friends, though, so I would ask them, "If this happened to you, what would you do?" Sometimes imagination doesn't come near reality.

Visions keeps popping up in the book--you're not sure what's real or not....

That was me trying to experiment, expand a bit. Some of my friends come from a strong poetry background, so that's in their fiction without any effort. But I like the fast-paced, simple declarative sentences. As few adjectives and adverbs as possible.

So what do you think of that, not magical realism, but sort of surreal stuff that keeps coming up in this book? Is it cultural?

I find realism culturally specific: What's real to one culture is magical to another. There are lots of things in Haisla culture that people take for granted, and I just assumed everyone else had the same beliefs as me--it's only in the last few years when I started traveling that I realized that my world view is very different from a lot of other people. So in a cultural context, it's not a magical realism story; it's not strange at all. Some of it is my own personal vision, some of it's just stuff I made up. That's what my dad calls my "goofy stuff."

The little elf guy, is that goofy?

He's goofy. He's actually a character in Haisla mythology, but he's been adapted for the book. Dad was very amused.