Almost a year ago I read Eden Robinson’s new novel, Son of a Trickster, and I immediately wanted to read more of her stuff. But, of course, wanting and actually getting around to it are two different things. So here I am, at the end of 2017, finally reading Monkey Beach. Which I bought, mind you, a month or two prior, but it was finally a friend/former coworker reading it and wanting my opinion that galvanized me. I don’t know; as the end of the year approaches I’ve very much been yearning for fluffier or at least more upbeat fiction rather than so-called “serious” stuff. Yet I don’t think that mindset is what soured me on Monkey Beach. Rather, Robinson’s style is different here from Son of a Trickster, and I just can’t stop comparing this one unfavourably to it.
Trigger warning in this book for rape; I mention it (in very general terms) much later on this review.
Nineteen-year-old Lisamarie Hill’s younger brother, Jimmy, has gone missing while on a commercial fishing trip off the coast of B.C. After her parents leave their small community to coordinate the search, Lisa decides to strike off on her own in her dad’s powerboat. She finds herself drawn to the eponymous Monkey Beach, so named for the history of b'gwus (sasquatch) sightings on or near the island. While she travels, she ruminates upon her life to date, and we relive it through a series of (mostly) linear flashbacks that shed light on Lisa’s relationships with Jimmy, her parents, her uncle, her grandmother, and the kids she grew up.
It’s not that I think Monkey Beach is bad or even poorly written. Like Son of a Trickster, there is a powerful story here. Robinson is very good at connecting the background of her story (in this case, Kitamaat, B.C. and the surrounding Douglas Channel area) with her protagonist’s personal life. She makes connections between how the colonial and industrial history of this area, the pressures and trauma of residential school, the ways in which the logging and mining and manufacturing industries have had an impact on the people of the area, particularly the Haisla people for whom this is their traditional territory. Robinson explores what this means personally for Lisa, as a 19-year-old on the cusp of the new millennium.
The book starts to lose me gradually, as we start touring through Lisa’s childhood. Robinson’s writing style here is very stream-of-consciousness, with a lot of attention to what I might term superfluous detail. I think I’m just more used to these kinds of frame narratives and flashback structures having a much more obvious trajectory. With Monkey Beach, time is a more slippery concept, and that made it harder for me to stay present within the narrative. It isn’t a hard book to read by any means, and I actually enjoyed the act of reading it and wanted to keep reading it constantly. Yet so much of it seemed to slip off me like rain rather than into me like a cool drink of water. And that’s how I know it’s a difference in the writer’s style versus how I read.
I’m going to digress for a moment to talk about one interesting part of my experience reading this: I headcanon Lisa as asexual. Throughout the flashbacks, she describes the sensation of feeling left behind as her female friends start pining over classmates and experimenting with their sexual expression, while Lisa doesn’t see the point. She starts hanging out more with boys, and even when some of them express interest in her, she doesn’t ever speak of reciprocal sexual attraction on her part. (If anything, she might be romantically interested in Frank, but she doesn’t seem to have a corresponding sexual attraction, resulting in a lot of confusion as she watches him hook up with other girls). Regardless of Robinson’s intention (Lisa’s sexuality definitely seems to depart from the heternormative narrative), I like that there is space within this book to interpret Lisa as ace-spec. I especially appreciate that Robinson seems to make a point of remarking on Lisa’s lack of attraction before her rape, because if there’s anything we don’t need more of, it’s conflating asexuality or sex-repulsion (which are themselves not the same!) with trauma.
Part of me really wishes that we spent more time with Lisa processing and working through her feelings following her rape. But I get that this is a complex issue, that sometimes there is no processing, or that the processing works very differently, and that a lot of what happens much later in the book is part of that journey towards healing. Again, it’s just that the style in which Robinson does this means I didn’t
I have yet to Skype with my friend Emma, the one who just finished this book. She asked, “Did you like the ending??” and I replied, “I didn’t really like the whole thing. I’m ambivalent about the ending.” The more I think on it, though, perhaps the ending is what I liked best. Monkey Beach is not about finding one’s missing brother, or even about fixing one’s own life. It’s an introspective story about one’s relationships to people and the land, and the ending really captures that well. Unfortunately, I just wasn’t as invested for the majority of the book. It’s strange, because Son of the Trickster stays with me to this day, and I’m super excited for that to come out in paperback so I can look into getting a class set and teaching it to my adult students. Monkey Beach, on the other hand, has not left the same impact on me.