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October 20th, 2011

#75 – What We All Long For by Dionne Brand

There’s a definite advantage to being back at work and that’s reading time during my morning and evening commutes. One would think that would have me reading at a furious pace except that now my days are so full that I feel as though we are in a sailboat during one hell of a windstorm with the waves threatening to capsize our vessel at any moment. So, I’m reading but I’m not finishing a lot of books. And I’m still desperately trying to get through my shelves because I’ve started, gasp, collecting all kinds of books again now that they are there and ripe for the picking. I just can’t seem to resist a shortlist these days.

So, I finished Dionne Brand’s novel, What We All Long For, a couple weeks ago, and haven’t had the chance to string any thoughts together until now. The novel opens up with a heartbreaking tragedy: a Vietnamese family attempting to flee their native country loses their son in the mayhem of the escape. Quy’s father thinks his mother has him; his mother thinks the opposite. And it turns out neither does, the boy, just a toddler really, mistakes a pair of shoes, pants, for his father and ends up on a boat that takes him entirely away from his loved ones and into a world of crime, abuse and relentless self-survival. When his family lands in Toronto, they are broken and never truly recover, even the siblings born after the boy is lost feel an emptiness where a there should be a brother.

Quy’s youngest sister Tuyen, whom he never met, bridges the difficult gap between the two worlds. Her parents want her to stay home, to be more family-oriented, and she wants to spread her wings, explore her art and her sexuality, move beyond the sadness that has defined their lives to this point. Tuyen and her friends Carla, Oku and Jackie, are all young, just trying to find a way to live life on their own terms, to battle their own demons. They are the children of immigrants straddling expectations and opportunities with an increasingly split perspective, and writing this kind of dichotomy is something that Brand does exceptionally well.

One can’t fault the novel’s characters — they are rich, finely drawn and unflinchingly honest. There are passages in this novel where characters become more like tapestry. They weave the fabric of the city and are like landscape in the sense of how Brand writes about them — visually, richly, and with an eye for the beauty in the everyday life. Toronto itself isn’t so much a city as it is a landing place for Brand’s characters, from the briefcased men on their way to work at Yonge and Bloor to the commuters on the subway seeing the group of twenty-somethings coming home from a night on the town. Everywhere you turn in this novel, there’s exceptional writing, that can’t be faulted.

Yet, there’s a pervading feeling on my part that the characters at times, overrun the book. Each has their own subplot, their own story, and it’s hard to see at moments how they all tie together other than the idea of friendship. There’s a lot of description of backstory, especially when it comes to Jackie and her hard-drinking, hard-partying parents, but as secondary characters, it doesn’t really lead anywhere in terms of the novel’s conclusion except perhaps to further contextualize our society. I was drawn into this Toronto. I believe in this Toronto. But I wanted more consistency to the story. I wanted it all to tie together like a Steven Soderbergh film, if that makes any sense.

When I first started reading, within the first 10 pages I had earmarked half of them because I was so enthralled by the writing. But, by the end of the novel, I wanted a richer, deeper narrative to evolve and despite Brand’s considerable talents, I felt a little lost in terms of where the book concluded. Yet, I can see how this is relevant to modern life, which is messy and inconclusive and full of divided interests and loyalties. The tragedy contained within the pages is heartbreaking — the loss of a child, the hollow mark it leaves on a family, the lost children who live between worlds and exist in a space that can’t be easily defined, these are all rich, rich areas for a writer to explore. And Brand, whose distinct talents are incomparable in this regard, does an incredible job at creating people we don’t always see on paper and in our collective stories. And that’s something I respect entirely.

 

One Response to “#75 – What We All Long For by Dionne Brand”

  • Kailana says:

    That’s too bad the book sort of faded off by the end. It does sound good…


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Girl with titanium hip will rock. Girl with titanium hip will write. Girl with titanium hip will read. Girl with titanium hip will battle crazy-ass disease called Wegener's Granulomatosis. Now stuff that in your spelling bee!

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