Brian Thomas Isaac’s debut novel comes with a long list of awards and almosts:
Finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction
Longlisted for the 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize
A National Bestseller
Winner of the 2022 Indigenous Voices Awards’ Published Prose in English Prize
Shortlisted for the 2022 Amazon Canada First Novel Award
Longlisted for CBC Canada Reads 2022
An Indigo Top 100 Book of 2021
An Indigo Top 10 Best Canadian Fiction Book of 2021
And it is for this reason I chose to read this much-acclaimed novel.
My decision was met with disappointment and even frustration. I shall enumerate for those who care to read:
– The writing was flat, like reading a 14 year-old’s English literature assignment. There were no literary devices to engage and evoke response. There was no emotion. Only events and facts. It was almost like reading a statement from a person suffering from PTSD.
– There was no character development, no nuance, no tying character to environment and situation. It was simply a recounting of events.
To illustrate: early in the novel there is a death of the child-protagonist’s friend and relative. It is a tragic event. But there is no emotion whatever involved in that event, or that crucial scene. No reaction. The boy drowns. The friend finds him. The families pack up and move on.
In the early portion of the novel there is a hint of the misery about which Steinbeck wrote so well in The Grapes of Wrath. But unlike Steinbeck, Isaac fails to evoke any sense of social injustice, of rage, of misery. It’s all just events moving across a flat cinematic landscape. And more’s the pity, because there is much about which to rage, to engage, to evoke response. But instead Isaac’s novel remains in the flatline grey zone of a could-be great.
At about the halfway point the writing, characterization, and plot arc had become so predictable, stereotyped, and tedious I started speed-reading just to get through it, hoping at some point to find some nugget, some gem to engage my pathos, my investment.
And in the end, in this hopeless tale, hopelessly written, is a hopeless finality which loses all impact because as a reader I wasn’t invested.
Certainly the plight of Canada’s First Nations people is worthy of examination, of our engagement, of our call to action. And that has been done very eloquently and powerfully by writers like Thomas King, Joseph Boyden, Richard Wagamese, and more. But Isaac? Sadly, his is a whisper of a voice among a forest of giants.