Review: Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson

Author: Eden Robinson
Title: Monkey Beach
Format/Source: ebook/Kobo
Published: April 2002
Publisher: Mariner Books
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction (magical realism?)
Why I Read: CBC Books group read for February
Read If You’re: A fan of B.C. as a setting; interested in Indigenous literature 
Rating:  ★★★½ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

One of my goals this year is to read more books by Indigenous Canadian authors. I’m happy this book was chosen for CBC Books’ February group read because I hadn’t heard of it before. I jotted down my own thoughts, then went through the GoodReads discussion and added responses to some comments. When I’m quoting someone else, it’s from that group discussion. Here’s the link if you want to check it out.

I really enjoyed this book but I’m having a hard time writing about it! I just like most everything – the mood, the setting, the focus on culture and spirituality, Lisa’s narrative voice. I didn’t like the ending. That’s pretty much all you need to know. Please humour me as I try to explain 😉

First and foremost, I love the atmosphere of this novel. I’m having a hard time putting it into words. The foggy atmosphere is created (for me) by the setting and tone/mood of the narrator. I love the British Columbia setting. I haven’t read many novels set in B.C., but Monkey Beach brought to mind A Tale for the Time Being. The dense forests coming to meet the vast ocean naturally creates a moody atmosphere. The setting helps to fuel the atmosphere of the novel. MJ wrote “I am not sure that I would call the mood of the book melancholic but it definitely had an unearthliness or other worldish aspect to it – most likely because the book was filled with so many references to the spirit world, the afterworld, ghosts, mythic creatures and living creatures (birds, seals, whales, crows, snakes, cats) all who seemed to have aptitudes and impacts far exceeding what non-native people usually attribute to these same creatures.” Well-said! I also enjoyed Lisa’s narrative voice, though it took me a bit to really settle into the reminiscent style. I didn’t realize most of the story would take place in the past. The mood felt like one shrouded in fog, I think one could describe the novel, at least in part, as an exploration of how we deal with different types of loss. The melancholic, distant feeling comes from looking back into the past, to those difficult memories.

I push myself out of bed and go to the open window, but they luanch themselves upward, cawing. Morning light slants over the mountains behind the reserve. A breeze coming down the channel makes my curtains flap limply. Ripples sparkle in the shallows as a seal bobs its head. (1)

I understood I had just had a vision, but I was afraid to think about what it meant. I went downstairs and waited until Jimmy woke an hour later. I followed him onto the porch as he took a bag of stale bread out to feed the crows for good luck. The crows fluttered around his feet. He seemed puzzled that I was watching him do what he’d done for years. (64% of part two)

Family relationships are at the heart of this story. Jane from BC writes, “I feel that Robinson is doing a great job of giving us a sense of place and the dynamics amongst the characters. So many sibling relationships that have been introduced and then the relationship between the generations.” Agreed! Many types of familial relationships are explored, both horizontal (siblings) and vertical (parents/aunts/etc.).

All major characters in the novel are Haisla. Indigenous spirituality plays a significant role, and was one of the most interesting parts of the story for me. This is where the ‘magical realism’ comes from, but I never thought of using that term until I read it in the discussion. If someone asked me for some magical realism to read, I wouldn’t recommend this book. Aboriginal experiences that one may often hear of, such as residential schools, play a less major role in the story, because Lisa herself wasn’t affected by them. One scene in particular (when Lisa stands up to a group of white guys and is almost attacked) stood out for me, though, and was tough to read. In my hometown, I hear too much about missing and murdered Indigenous women. There are too many of them, but what’s almost as sad is that while not every Indigenous women is going to be attacked, a large majority have experiences such as what Lisa had, some likely on a regular basis. For them it’s just a part of everyday life.

One struggle I had while reading this book was keeping track of Lisa’s age. I was very happy to read I wasn’t the only one with that problem! Her experiences are so much older than she is. I thought she was three or four years older than she actually was when she started smoking. Specific ages are rarely mentioned and I kept losing track. I was always surprised when an age was mentioned. It was always far younger than I thought. I wonder if this uncertainty about ages was intentional on the author’s part? I suppose you could look at it as a comment on memory, as some people in the discussion mentioned. I think also part of my issue was that I thought the Lisa we meet at the beginning of the story is also older, but she’s still young. I was surprised to find her reminiscing take us up to Jimmy’s decision to go fishing. I wasn’t expecting that.

The main qualm I have with the story is the narrative skipping over critical events (and just as I’m typing that I’ve thought – maybe it’s because Lisa doesn’t want to recall those awful, specific moments? But that’s beside the point here). Usually this type of narration really bothers me, and I was kind of bothered…but only because I usually am? Hah, what I guess I mean is. – the skipping over major events didn’t actively bother me until I thought about it afterwards – “Hey, how come I didn’t get to read about that? I’d rather read about it than find out in casually dropped comments!” I still enjoyed the book. So, I only became annoyed at the skipping when I thought about it because I enjoyed all the stuff I did read. It didn’t feel like I had missed out (though if I followed my usual reactions/logic, it felt like I did). My note during reading when this happened for the first time was “AUGH do I or do I not hate this convention?” (beginning of part two). Later notes include “not a fan of skipping big parts”, “boo why’s all the action off the page”, “another big off stage moment” but the last note is “I WANT ANSWERS but I’m kind of content”. A related note is that the reader doesn’t know much about many of the characters background, which I suppose is realistic given Lisa’s age. So much of your family’s relationships play out before your born. Michelle noted,  “What is interesting about this book is that we are left to fill in some of the stories of many of the characters- we know them, but not everything about them.” I think because we can fill in the gaps on our own, skipping the main scenes doesn’t bother me tooooo much. This ambiguity is why I’m giving it 3.5 stars here and 4 on GoodReads. If it bothered me more, I’d be going down to 3.

Please note: The next paragraph discusses the novel’s conclusion. Skip to The Bottom Line to avoid.

I don’t mind if characters die towards a novel’s conclusion and I don’t mind if the protagonist’s situation ends the same as it was (i.e, I just don’t want to see them worse off). Can you imagine really if Jimmy was dead? That’s the impression I got, but how awful that would be for Lisa. Jimmy’s death could be just another part of her story. It could have been portrayed like the others deaths. Because of my wish for Lisa not to lose another significant person in her life, I’m on the side that Jimmy lives. I don’t like that it’s so ambiguous, though.

The Bottom Line: A sad story, perhaps, but full of heart, featuring thoughtful and soothing (somehow, it was soothing to me) prose and beautiful locations. An intense examination of an Indigenous family. The conclusion may be difficult for some readers to accept but I still recommend it.

Further Reading: