Joseph Boyden won huge critical acclaim with his first novel, Three Day Road, which concerns the First World War experience of Elijah Weesageechak and Xavier Bird, two Cree hunters who fought as snipers with a Canadian regiment. In it, Boyden brought a fresh angle to a well-trodden subject. Now, in Through Black Spruce, he connects these protagonists to explore the overarching theme of addiction and trauma.
The much-decorated Elijah tried to forget his wartime trauma through morphine while his descendants, Gus and Maurius Netmaker, have become dealers in crystal meth and cocaine. Set in the old fur-trading post of Moosonee on the edge of Hudson Bay, the novel is narrated by Annie, a young woman trapper, to her comatose Uncle Will, the son of Xavier. Lying unconscious in hospital after a brutal beating, Will silently recounts his own story. Each narrative adds to a tale of northern violence, police incompetence and the struggle to survive in a region where unemployment is high and addictions rife.
Boyden's writing is most vivid when he describes Will Bird's adventures as a bush pilot. Escaping from a violent encounter with Maurius, he flies to an uninhabited island, breaks camp and survives on his wits. The scenes of this life are mesmerising. In the wild, dreams are prophetic and spiritual truths are revealed. As Will realises that his fight with the Netmakers can only beget further violence, he performs his own ritual: "I collected the regret and fear in my arms before they could fester and I threw them in the river."
But the novel weakens when Annie narrates her search for Suzanne, a celebrity model, in Toronto and New York. Manhattan is full of clichés: Soleil the society hostess who toys with newcomers, the coke-head models, the tough-guy drug dealers. It makes a dull contrast to the vivid scenes in the northern wilderness. His characters are most moving when revelations occur in small, quiet moments.
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