The Break by Katherena Vermette has been quite popular in the world of books lately. A national bestseller, The Break has received an abundance of literary attention, from being a 2016 Governor General’s Literary Finalist to a 2017 Canada Reads Finalist, and much more in between.
The story centres around an extended family of Indigenous women living in Winnipeg’s North End. The synopsis on the back is as follows: “When Stella, a young Métis mother, looks out her window one evening and spots someone in trouble on the Break — a barren field on an isolated strip of land outside her house — she calls the police to alert them to a possible crime.” From there, The Break delves into several narratives of family, friends, and police, each connected in some way to the crime.
I would be lying if I said I thoroughly enjoyed this book – but that’s only because I think it would take a sick person to admit such a thing because the content is so violent and sad in parts. It made me cry – probably the only time a book has actually done that – but nonetheless I don’t regret reading it because it was simply so well written and so relevant to current times (though apparently not enough to win the Canada Reads contest – but that’s for a whole other post).
The book is sectioned into four parts and is told from multiple third-person perspectives, except for two that are in first-person. Doing a quick skim through, I believe there are in total ten different perspectives. Most of the perspectives are from the women of the extended family including the great-grandmother Flora (aka Kookom); her daughters, Cheryl and Lorraine; their daughters, Stella, Paulina and Louisa, and finally Paulina’s daughter, Emily. Vermette has kindly provided us with a family tree at the beginning of the novel, which I made thorough use of, but don’t be put off – it doesn’t take long to become familiar with the relationships between each of these women. And then there are the final three perspectives: the Métis police officer, Tommy; the troubled, homeless teenager Phoenix, and Emily’s high school friend, Zegwan.
The Break was so well written, and the voices of each character so distinct, it felt like a different person had written each chapter. The “break” refers to both a literal place in the neighbourhood and the emotional breakage within the family because of this violent act Stella witnesses. The women of the St. Cross-Charles family are crushed and their souls are in perpetual pain, but they move forward and support one another and heal and endure, even though their family has already endured so much.
One thing I wanted to note were the two first-person narratives. Why have first-person narratives intermixed with other numerous third-person narratives? And why only these two specific characters? One of these first-person narratives is not labeled like the others, though I did later figure out who was talking, but I won’t spoil it here (not that it’s a big spoiler – I’m just sure some of you would rather figure it out for yourself). The other first-person narrative is Louisa’s, or “Lou.” She’s a social worker dealing with the recent departure of her live-in boyfriend, but I didn’t really understand why her point of view out of all the other POVs was chosen to be first-person. Perhaps another re-read will reveal why, or perhaps there’s no reason at all. If you’ve read The Break I’d be curious to know your thoughts on this.
Overall, The Break was enjoyable as a piece of literary goodness, and I would highly recommend it if you like high quality writing, clear characters, and distinctive storytelling. However, the book does come with a trigger warning at the beginning (which had I seen before I bought it, I might not have bought it), but the subject matter is relevant and current and so important to address, not just as a nation but as a race – which is why I was so mad it lost Canada Reads. You can read my rant/argument for that here. Otherwise, if you decide to pick up The Break, I hope you can see the value and quality in it as much as I did, but be warned: it may hurt.