The Break by Katherena Vermette: Surviving the odds

Cover image I’m a frequent visitor to Naomi’s Consumed by Ink. She often whets my appetite for Canadian novels that seem right up my street but for some reason rarely find their way to the UK. I was particularly taken by her review of Katherena Vermette’s debut last year and delighted to find it was to be published here. It’s about an indigenous family, already contending with a history of violence and loss, faced with an appalling sexual assault on one of their daughters.

Woken by her teething baby, Stella looks out of her window one moonlit night and sees an act of violence she thinks is a rape. She rings the police but when she looks again there’s no sign of the assailants or their victim. When the police finally arrive – the younger one keen, the older one dismissive of this crime committed on the strip of land which divides the up and coming white neighbourhood from the indigenous – the only evidence is a pool of blood. Next morning, thirteen-year-old Emily is rushed to hospital by her mother’s partner after collapsing. Later that day, her best friend Ziggy is brought in, beaten about the face. Emily has been the victim of a horrible crime on the way home from a gang party she and Ziggy had stumbled into, finding themselves out of their depth. As the police try to piece together what has happened to these two friends, a picture of a community emerges in which most men are either absent, feckless or violent, and damaged women either survive or go under.

The Break was never going to be an easy read but such is Vermette’s skill that she succeeds in drawing her readers into this story in which domestic and sexual violence is more common than not. The novel’s perspective shifts from character to character, effectively unfolding the events leading up to the attack and its investigation while creating a multi-layered portrait of the tight-knit community to which Emily belongs. Vermette is careful with her characterisation, no black and white caricatures here including the perpetrator. She meticulously reveals the low buzz of racism, the particular difficulties faced by people of mixed race and the pull of one culture over another but her strength lies in her portrayal of women and the bonds between them despite the harshness of their lives. All this may sound unremittingly dark but Vermette’s story is riveting, her characters convincing and there is hope in the form of young men who find ways to avoid the lure of drink and drugs, looking out for their younger siblings. A tough read, then, but a rewarding one thoroughly deserving of the Margaret Atwood endorsement adorning its jacket.

15 thoughts on “The Break by Katherena Vermette: Surviving the odds”

      1. My Canadian reads so far in 2018 have been The Boat People by Sharon Bala and Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry. Both v. good! Maybe later in the year I’ll do a roundup of Canadian authors to encourage myself to read some more.

  1. You summed this up beautifully! Something I had great difficulty with. There’s just so many things to say about it!
    Thanks for the mention. 🙂

  2. The description here reminded me somewhat of Louise Erdrich’s The Round House which confronts rape and racism in the context of indigenous American communities. That was a suspenseful, difficult to read novel and this sounds like it is too. A difficult subject to approach without falling into cliché or stereotype, but it sounds like Vermette has managed it here. Great review.

    1. Thanks, Belinda. That’s interesting – I’ve not read The Round House. There is a twist re the perpetrator in The Break which I’d rather not discuss but it is quite shocking, all very deftly handled.

  3. Totally agree – Naomi reviews are wonderful, of many great sounding books that frustratingly don’t seem to have a UK publisher. This sounds excellent, I’m glad UK readers are getting the opportunity to try it.

  4. Vermette’s poetry is very accessible and North End Love Songs is actually a brilliant companion to this debut novel (and may, in some ways, explain why this feels like such an accomplished work, as much of the work was actually begun there I imagine) so I think you would find it an exception as well. The Break was one of my favourite reads that season and I am always thrilled when someone else – especially overseas! – discovers its challenges and its beauty. The bit that you don’t discuss (thank you, says the spoilerphobe in me) is breathtaking in its complexity.

    Having recently read The Round House, which takes an interesting perspective in terms of relaying the events from the perspective of a teenage son, I feel as though Vermette’s work was more “hopeful-but-not-exactly-hopeful” in the end, with the matter of resilience somehow shining through so fiercely that it carried me through the novel in a burst (with only one hiccup – you will probably guess where) whereas I set Erdrich’s novel down many times – although never considered leaving it there either (I am an Erdrich fan too).

    There is a sense of community in The Break which I think is amazing. The boy in The Round House has that, too, but the reader feels his mother’s isolation so keenly that it changes the overall experience to my mind. So for those who have read The Round House, I hope you’ll consider The Break as well, because it only sounds like the same story, it reads very differently but is every bit as accomplished as Erdrich’s story.

    1. I was delighted that it was published here. Perhaps those Atwood comments helped the pitch along. Interesting comparison with The Round House. Did you read it before The Break or did one lead you to the other?

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