Monday, January 01, 2007

#1 - Consumption

It's oddly fitting that this book straddled my 2006-2007 reading; it's possibly the best book I've read in ages. And it made me cry, full, flooding tears dripping onto the pages. Kevin Patterson's brilliant novel, and I use that word without a hint of exaggeration, centres around a young Inuit girl named Victoria who leaves the north when she's diagnosed with TB to return a virtual stranger becomes an epic tale of how change impacts a culture, which in turn, affects every single character in Consumption.

The title that refers at once to both the disease and to our own consumptive culture, becomes a metaphor for what happens to every single character in the book. Victoria is consumed by the disease and then obsessed with it for the rest of her life. Robertson, a Hudson Bay man and Victoria's husband, becomes consumed with both his love for her and his own material success, striving to find a balance between the place he's fallen for, the Arctic, and the world defined by his own skin colour. Their children, Pauloosie, Justine and Marie, each struggle with growing up in a world, even in the north, more and more defined by material culture. And each child reacts in his or her own way: Pauloosie, who rebels against his father by turning to his grandfather and the land; Justine, who leaves Rankin Inlet the first chance she can get; and Marie, who becomes lost in so many different, heartbreaking ways.

On the periphery of Victoria's life are Bernard and Keith, the community's priest and doctor respectively, and each struggle with their own commitments to their professions and to the barren world they have come to both know and love. The teachers, Johanna and Penny, who go their separate ways, one toward love, the other toward the land, and come to very different ends, and Keith's family back in the States, especially his niece Amanda, who finds her own struggles as a result of her parents' split.

And there's also the story of the third generation, as the Cubans say, of Victoria's parents, Winnie and Emo, who themselves come in off the land when she's taken south to be cured of her TB. Emo takes a job at the newly opened nickel mine and all of their lives are forever changed.

This book is as much about the struggle to remain true in an ever-changing world as it is about the inevitable problems that occur as a result of said change. The moments cannot be taken back, like a wheel set in motion, to use a tired old metaphor, the culture of Patterson's novel explores the very essence of change in the Arctic, using the body, and its diseases, almost as a trope to describe what's happening within.

But what I liked most of all about this book is the clinical eye of Patterson, himself a doctor, as he speaks through Keith Balthazar toward the end of the novel, in a section entitled, "The Diseases of Affluence."

When the immune system is never called upon, it behaves the way underworked soldiers do and makes trouble. If it's not finding infections, then it must not be looking hard enough. So it looks harder, and starts to detect infections that aren't there: thus the terrible toll of autoimmune disease rises steadily in our era of antiseptic floors and single-child families.

An apt description of both my own perilous health situation and a metaphor perhaps for our entire world. We look so hard for what's wrong with us, questing for happiness and material gain, that we haven't noticed that we've infected our own surroundings in ways we can't even fathom yet.

There are moments in this book, little unexpected bits of tragedy that come upon you so suddenly that reveal Patterson's deft hand as a novelist. There are a few spots where the narrative voice breaks, cracks slightly under the pressure of this immense story, but nowhere does it pull you out so much that you lose your way. These characters, so rich and full of life in ways that it's hard to describe without giving the story away, are broad and introspective all at the same time.

I left this book many times, the first time, in the summer when I started to read it and just couldn't get into it; the second, just before we left for Cuba because I didn't want to take a hardcover with me; and the last, between New Year's Eve and New Year's Day because I thought it would be the perfect book to start off my reading for this year. But am I ever glad I finished it. In the end, it remains probably the best book I read in 2006, which is no small feat considering the fact that in that year I also tackled two Jane Austen novels and a Giller Prize winner. It's the first book on my 52 Countries in 52 Books challenge, and even though it doesn't get me any closer to the 1001 Books challenge, it does make me start my reading at home, here in Canada.

I would highly recommend this book to readers and writers; it's one for the shelves for sure.


Beth said...

What a fabulous review - so well written.

Kailana said...

Okay, between you and a bunch of other people, I am going to get this when it comes out in paperback, if I can't get it sooner. I am hearing good things!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you for my copy which arrived today. So very thoughtful of you, I'll report back (and hopefully write a review for the blog).

Will see Tanya tomorrow night - 1st night of a new bookclub - am very excited!

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