Review: The Evolution of Alice by David A. Robertson

Author: David A. Robertson
Title: The Evolution of Alice
Format/Source: Paperback/library 
Published: 2014
Publisher: Highwater Press
Length: 203 pages
Genre: Indigenous fiction
Why I Read: Library browsing
Read If You: Like sombre, character-driven stories 
Quote: “Sometimes pain needed a quiet place to be, to spread out and get less sharp, I guess.” (25)
Links: GoodReads | Chapters | Amazon

 This haunting, emotionally resonant story delivers us into the world of Alice, a single mother raising her three young daughters on the rez where she grew up. Alice has never had an easy life, but has managed to get by with the support of her best friend, Gideon, and her family. When an unthinkable loss occurs, Alice is forced onto a different path, one that will challenge her belief in herself and the world she thought she knew.

The province-wide On the Same Page programme encourages everyone in the province to read and discuss a book at the same time. Readers voted this year for The Evolution of Alice.The programme includes “author appearances and special events”, though unfortunately I won’t be able to attend any. I decided to read this book because 1)the summary + reviews on the back enticed me, 2) it’s the novel debut of a local Indigenous author whose graphic novels I previously studied and 3)I’ve never participated in On the Same Page.

Though the story pivots around an awful death and follows a family’s sorrows, I found the tale ultimately satisfying and uplifting because of its deeply realistic characters. They endure tragedy, yet  remain decent human beings. No nasty or vicious people populate this story when you might expect them. That’s not to say everyone is on their best behaviour at all times…only to say that here is a story about not about vile monsters or permanently shattered souls, but about real people realizing their flaws and their troubles and trying to do better.

The local setting injected a layer of reality to the story for me. I have an awkward prejudice against books explicitly set in my home area. I assume they’ll be boring and I feel weird when locations are specified. However, I appreciated the local setting in this story. I liked Robertson’s references to places I could recognize from context alone. For example, I know the city is where I live, I walk past the coffee shop across the street from the big department store on my way to university, and I can picture the bridge a woman prepared to leap from. Instead of thinking “Ugh, this is weird, I know that place” like I do when places are explicitly stated, I thought “Hey, I know where that is!” as I put together the cues to create a location in my mind. Having to recreate these familiar places made me feel more connected to the story and the characters’ experiences.  

I also appreciate that Robertson has written an Indigenous story that isn’t solely about Indigenous issues. This book can be read as a universal tale that could teach us something about empathy.  Indigenous people are not always ‘other’; we are all the same people. This makes the story highly relevant for my fellow citizens. (Last year an ‘infamous’ article was published about how my city is the most racist in the country for its attitude toward Indigenous peoples.) I don’t want to disvalue the differences between Indigenous and White experiences. However, I think in my province’s case, at this time, we may be better served in recognizing our similarities rather than allowing ourselves to become disenchanted when we perceive stereotypical differences.

Gideon’s first person narration about Alice comprises the bulk of the tale, shifting to third person about halfway through. Robertson intersperses vignettes and some longer chapters from other perspectives. Often these alternative chapters added another perspective to Gideon’s. My favourites were the chapters about Edward, who sees Kathy on the highway when she tries to run away, and Harvey, who briefly connects with Alice in the city. A few of the vignettes felt too disjointed from the main story, such as the boy who discovers his Cree heritage.

Finally, I found Gideon’s voice, and Robertson’s prose in general, soothing. It was very easy for me to read this book in a day. On the back of the book, Alison Gilmour describes Robertson’s voice as “immediate, unflinching, and emotionally generous.” I would “unpretentious” and “articulate”, though those words seem to fall short of what I’m trying to invoke! Perhaps this passage captures it, a little bit.

[Gideon speaks to Alice as she swings.] It was a long conversation to have that way, but as I heard more and more I wasn’t about to ask her to come down from the tire swing. Up there, she was safe, and the girls were safe and that was that. After she told me everything, she stopped pumping her legs, and after a few minutes her swinging settled into a light rocking. made our visit a lot easier. I saw her struggling with it a bit, her brain that is. So I decided to say something all Elder-like to her. I pointed to an old dirt road just about 20 yards to our right. It was pretty much grown over with grass, you could hardly see it, but it was still a road. It went right through the field, right up to the distant tree line, and got tinier and tinier on its way. “You know, my grandpa used to tell me that all the roads around here just lead us right back home,” I said. I wasn’t even sure what the connection was, and after I’d said it I kind of felt dumb about it. I tried to figure what I was getting at, for Alice and for me, so I added, “But, I don’t know, maybe he was wrong, maybe roads take us where we’re s’posed to be.” (21)

    The Bottom Line: A worthy selection for the province-wide book club. In The Evolution of Alice, Robertson has penned a vivid and moving story about Indigenous experiences that has relevancy for all readers.

    Further Reading: 

    Family Reads: And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

     Welcome to Family Reads! Family Reads is a monthly feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book. Posts with a link-up go live during the last week of each month, so feel free to grab the banner and join in however you like.

    Reno: This post was meant to go up at the end of July, but evidently I didn’t finish it then…Well, here it is now! Let me introduce my final participant – my Dad! Dad chose this month’s book. I’d never read anything by Hosseini, so this was a good opportunity to give him a go.

    Dad: I wanted to read this book because I really liked The Kite Runner. I had also seen a lot of positive reviews about And the Mountains Echoed.

    I give this book 3 stars and Dad gives it 3.5 stars (he says, “I’m not a big reader, otherwise I might give it 4 stars. I re-read The Kite Runner but that was by accident. I started reading it, thought ‘Hey, this is familiar…’ and then kept reading it because it was good!”). This discussion was a little more challenging for us than the others – Dad doesn’t usually talk about the books he reads, and I don’t usually read this kind of story. But, that’s why I wanted to start doing these Family Reads! We both enjoyed reflecting on this book through conversation. You’ll get more out of this discussion if you’ve read the book (spoilers ahead!). Here’s our condensed discussion on chronology, characters, and how the stories fit together.

    They say, Find a purpose in your life and live it. But, sometimes, it is only after you have lived that you recognize your life had a purpose, and likely one you never had in mind.

    Dad: I liked the book because it’s about human interest, about real life, and I like those types of stories. For years I only read genre books like spy or mystery novels. Then I started reading more books like these – stories about ordinary lives. I found And the Mountains Echoed interesting and challenging because I was trying to understand what’s happening in the story, as it jumps around so much. The story’s kind of choppy; it can be very non-linear. Didn’t you wonder about how the character’s lives connect, how they might be introduced early on, you wonder how they connect, and then find out later on?
    Reno: I liked that interlocking component to the stories, but I wasn’t dying to figure everything out or actively put it together. What about you?
    Dad: No, I didn’t think too hard, either. I just read and thought, “Oh, that’s cool, I see” as things started to cohere. Like how you’re introduced to the doctor across the street, then you get a back story on him and how he connects to Nabi’s (and therefore Pari’s) story.
    Reno: That was the main story for me – Nabi and all the characters who are affected by his story – even if Pari seems to be the main connecting thread.
    Dad: I found it a bit confusing to keep track of Pari’s family.
    Reno: Yeah, the story of Adel and his Admiral dad really confused me. I’m not sure how it fit in. At first I thought the old man and his son fighting to get back their land were Saboor and Abdullah. It was someone related to them, but I can’t remember who or how. That story didn’t seem too integral – you could have skipped it and not missed anything.
    Dad: Mostly, though, I liked how the storytelling worked. You couldn’t predict where it was going.
    Reno: Yeah! Because you have so many characters working in different ways. But on the flip side, I found some of the stories didn’t really fit for me. Such as the Greek doctor and his childhood friend. It was kind of a long story… I guess it shows why Markos is in Afghanistan. I can feel my brain hurting trying to figure it out! Some people don’t like all the little stories. They think the book is too disconnected. What did you think?
    Dad: No, I thought it forced me to pay attention to what I was reading. I made notes, arrows of names and connections. …
    Reno: I should have done that, haha. It was okay while I was reading but now I’m forgetting names and who was who. Especially with the two Paris at the end!
    *We talked about Idris and Tamir’s story*
    Dad: So, how did that tie in?
    Reno: I guess that’s the big question about this book! How do all these stories tie in? They grew up across the street from Nabi, but it seems they have nothing to do with his story. It’s a good story on its own, but what’s the point of including their story in the novel? I guess you have to decide for yourself if you want to make the connections (hm, in this way maybe it is a bit like Annihilation!). I guess you can discount some stories more than others. Consider how you like the book and making connections but some stories you don’t even remember.
    Dad: I would reread it to understand the connections better. It’s not that I want to reread it because it was amazing.
    Reno: Hear hear.

     Have you anything by Hosseini? What would you add to our conversation?