An award-winning read

The Journal reviews Joseph Boyden’s Giller Prize-winning novel about family, loss and the redemptive nature of storytelling

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The invocation of Canada’s various landscapes is a common motif in Canadian literature. Whether a work is set in a small town or a big city, a prairie farm or a northern radio station, a sense of place is often necessary in understanding the characters in a novel.

In his Giller Prize-winning second novel Through Black Spruce, follow-up to 2005’s Three Day Road, Joseph Boyden carries the reader from Moosonee to the streets of Toronto, the clubs of Montreal and New York City and back. He takes us to James Bay, up the coast and out to sea. The locations visited in Through Black Spruce are many, but they are well-crafted and described in such precise detail that each one stands on its own. Rather than running together or becoming confusing, the locales create a kind of wandering structure, carefully guiding the reader through the characters’ pasts and presents.

Told through the voices of Annie Bird and her comatose uncle Will Bird, the narrative shifts between the two in a type of dialogue. Annie has been south to look for her sister Suzanne, a model who has disappeared. Her journey, which she tells her uncle about over the course of her hospital visits, describes her search for her lost sister.

Will’s story, which he isn’t so much telling as thinking, details his past leading up to his coma. He tells of his alcoholism, his problems with a drug dealer who terrorizes his existence and the woman he meets and falls in love with. As the son of Three Day Road’s Xavier Bird, Will has a past filled with ghosts, some of which he’s forced to face and some of which he is able to accept.

By overlaying the past with present realities—Will’s coma and Annie’s return to Moosonee—Boyden’s characters come alive in three dimensions, making them hard to let go once you’ve finished the novel. Throughout the course of reading Through Black Spruce, the characters’ lives become entangled with your own, forcing you to consider them as more than the construct of ink on the page.

The realism of Boyden’s work is what makes the novel captivating. The people and places are real without being mundane and familiar. In this sense, Boyden provides a sense of dignity to the daily necessities of life, giving special attention not only to food and shelter but also to the way the objects of addiction become fundamental aspects of life without our realizing it. Although sometimes difficult to read because of the emotions Boyden forces you to experience, Through Black Spruce is a novel you won’t regret devoting your time to.

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