The Break by Katherena Vermette

The Break is a harrowing yet lucidly written intergenerational family saga that examines the repercussions of a horrific act of violence.
The book opens with Stella, a young Métis mother, witnessing a violent attack on some land near her house. Although torn, Stella doesn’t rush to the victim’s rescue and calls the police instead. When they show up the senior officer is quick to dismiss her, as there is no ‘body’, just some blood, and believes that she merely saw some ‘gang violence’. Scott, the younger officer, who is of Métis heritage, is not so sure. We eventually learn that the victim’s identity and that she happens to be related to Stella. The girl, a self-identifying ‘good’ girl who is an all-around good egg, is hospitalized and both physically and psychologically traumatized. Her mother, aunt, grandmother and great-grandmother are all deeply affected by her attack. They question who would do it and how to best help her in her recovery. Some want answers, others believe that finding the people who did this to her will not solve matters. We are also given the perspective of Scott who is hellbent on ‘solving’ this case, to the point where he disregards the magnitude of what the girl has experienced (pushing her to talk even if she shows signs of distress etc.). We learn of his struggle over his identity, from his colleague’s microaggressions to his own partner’s unfunny remarks about indigenous people. Although we are given insight into his experiences I had a hard time sympathizing with him as his voice stood out (and not in a good way) from the rest. I would have much preferred if the narrative hadn’t included his perspective and had focused on the women making up the girl’s family. There was something gimmicky about his chapters and it seemed to me that the author couldn’t’ choose between making him into a flawed yet ultimately empathetic guy or an unscrupulous ambitious dick. Another pov that felt unnecessary was Phoenix’s. She is an older teen who has severe mental health issues (from body dysmorphia and disordered eating to extreme anger and violent episodes). There were aspects of her character that struck me as gratuitous and sensationalistic. Also, having her pov didn’t really make her into a more nuanced character. While I understand that often abuse breeds abuse (so we have someone who was abused becoming an abuser) I am tired of how often this is ‘used’ in fiction as a way of not quite condoning but of making ‘sense’ of an abusive character’s actions. I also found it frustrating that her pov featured more in the story than the girl (i have forgotten her name, even though she is meant to be the figure tying all of these narratives together) who was attacked. She and her friend have a chapter now and again but I found them somewhat simplistic compared to the others. That the first time that they sneak out and ‘lie’ to their mothers ends in such a horrifying way also struck me as a wee bit much.

Still, this book certainly packs a punch or two. Katherena Vermette doesn’t soften the brutality of what the victim experiences nor are she quick to condemn characters like Stella. Throughout these perspectives, Vermette also explores the discrimination, violence, and abuse directed at indigenous women. Some of the characters are trapped in a stark cycle of violence, addiction, and or abuse and Vermette doesn’t shy away from portraying the harsh realities that many of them live in. The story also dabbles with magical realism as there are chapters from the perspective of a character who is no longer alive. Their identity isn’t quite a mystery but I appreciated that Vermette didn’t feel the need to over-explain their presence in the overarching narrative.
I would definitely read more by this author and I would encourage readers who can tolerate graphic descriptions of violent/sexual assault(s) to give The Break a chance.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok

Despite the many moments of poignancy that appear throughout the course of Searching for Sylvie Lee, the novel is ultimately diminished by unnecessary melodrama and convoluted (yet predictable) soap-opera-ish twists.

At its heart Searching for Sylvie Lee is a family drama about long-held family secrets. The narrative switches between three points of view: a mother and her two daughters. On the surface, Sylvie Lee, the eldest daughter, is the more successful and accomplished of the two Lee daughters. She’s married to a wealthy man and has a solid career. Unlike her younger sister, Sylvie did not spend her first years with her parents and in fact, grew up in the Netherlands with her grandmother and some cousins of her mother. At age nine she finally joins her parents and younger sister in America. While Sylvie shows open affection towards Amy, not seeming to resent her for being the one who got to stay with their parents, she is unable and or unwilling to grow closer to either her mother or her father, in fact, her relationship with her father is fraught indeed. When news that her beloved grandmother is dying reaches her Sylvie rushes to the Netherlands. Weeks after Amy receives a worrying call from the son of her mother’s cousins (the people who Sylvie was raised by). Sylvie has vanished.
Overcome by anxiety Amy too flies to the Netherlands where she stays with her cousins. Here she picks up on the weird atmosphere that suggests that not everyone was as in awe of Sylvie as she was. Her mother’s cousin is hostile and contemptuous about anything concerning Sylvie and her husband is rather creepy. Their son, Sylvie’s best friend, is also being somewhat cagey.
As time goes by Amy’s image of Sylvie as this perfectly put-together adult begins to shatter as more of her secrets come to the light. Apparently, both her marriage and her work life were far from idyllic.

Sylvie’s chapters reveal her month in the Netherlands and give us insight into her childhood there. Her bond with her cousin and another man also play way too much of a role in the story. There is a quasi-love triangle that feels kind of icky and unconvincing. The reveals we get at the end were entirely too predictable and yet the way these are disclosed struck me as profoundly anticlimactic. There is also way too much time spent on Sylvie’s trip to Venice alongside these two men and a friend of theirs (Sylvie is not much a friend to her tbh given that she goes behind her back and shows little remorse about doing so). Here the author goes out of her way to describe the classic lightning trip to Venice, name-checking the various sites etc. Yet, here she also makes a big gaffe by writing in cursive what she must have thought was orange juice in Italian but it was in fact, French. This small detail irked me as to why then spend so much time showcasing how ‘knowledged’ you are about Venice? And then you just try to make the setting more ‘vivid’ by throwing unnecessary untranslated terms in italic? And getting them wrong? Orange juice is also not really a Venetian speciality. This is the North of Italy…not exactly orangeville. Anyway, this whole trip lacked tension and the argument(s) between the male characters felt very rehearsed. I also did not appreciate how the one gay character is portrayed (unhappily married and in love with his straight possibly homophobic friend who will never reciprocate his feelings and is willing to sabotage his friend’s relationship because of jealousy).
I would have liked less time spent on the shitty men orbiting Sylvie’s life and more time on her bond with Amy and her relationship with her mother. I also could have done without the over the top dodgy cousins. It would have been nice if Amy had been given more of her own personal arc. Nevertheless, the author does incorporate compelling themes within her narrative: she describes the experiences of immigrant families both in America and in the Netherlands, and how class plays into it, emphasizing the fallacy of the American dream. Another key aspect of the novel is how appearances can be deceptive and how one’s image of someone (for example Amy seeing her sister as perfect) can stop you from truly seeing that person.
All in all, this was a rather mixed bag. If there had been less melodrama and more moments of introspection I would have probably liked this one better. Still, I would probably read more by this author.

The Maid by Nita Prose

edit: after some reflection i have decided to lower my rating as i am frustrated by the way autistic-coded Nina is presented as so exaggeratedly ‘quirky’ & ‘naive’, someone who we will inevitably find ‘endearing’

The Maid could have been a solid escapist read. This is less of a cozy whodunnit than a ‘trying hard too hard to be quirky’ character-driven tale about Molly Gray, a neurodivergent 25-year-old woman who works as a maid for a prestigious hotel. Molly’s grandmother, who was her sole carer and companion, died a few months before the novel’s events take place, and Molly is struggling to navigate the world without her.
Its many flaws ultimately soured my relationship with The Maid: there were some very cheesy/ridiculous moments, the author’s decision not to mention neurodivergency was frustrating, especially given the way she portrays Nina, and a character who is undocumented is depicted in an exceedingly clichéd way (of course, he is ‘rescued’ by the white characters).

While Molly does find her work as a maid deeply fulfilling, she’s very lonely without her Gran. Growing up she was always made to feel like a ‘weirdo’ and a ‘freak’, and even now her colleagues at the hotel regard her with a mixture of bemusement and condescension and are generally quite mean towards her. Because Molly struggles to read people’s body language, to ‘read’ their emotions, and to pick up on things like sarcasm etc, social interactions can become quite difficult, especially when others (mis)perceive her behaviour or responses as ‘odd’, ‘off’, and ‘not normal’.

Her life is upended when during a shift she comes across a guest’s dead body. The deceased, Mr. Black, was a wealthy man of dubious manners who died in dubious circumstances. His now widowed wife, Giselle, was one of the few people who made Molly feel seen, in a good way that is. Having watched a lot of Columbo Molly knows that Giselle will be the prime suspect for her husband’s murder, so she decides to help her out. It is Molly however who becomes suspect in the police’s eyes, as the people around her are quick to pile on her, painting her as being ‘antisocial’ and ‘standoffish’, someone who wouldn’t have a problem killing someone. Molly ends up trusting in the wrong people, and while most readers will be able to see beyond their ‘nice’ act, Molly herself doesn’t (and this is sort-of played up for laugh). She eventually becomes deeply embroiled in this murder case, and the lead detective seems determined to see Molly as the culprit. Thankfully for Molly, she does come across people who have her best interest at heart, and with their aid, she decides to take down those who had manipulated her.

While there are stakes, such as Molly being arrested for a crime she did not commit, the narrative maintains a very lighthearted tone.

I will say that I didn’t like how no one, as far as I can recall, mentions words such as autism, neurodivergent, or neuroatypical. Almost every character mentions that Molly is ‘different’, or ‘odd’, or ‘weird’, or a ‘freak’. But no one ever acknowledges that she’s on the spectrum. Molly, herself doesn’t. Given that this novel has a contemporary setting this seemed a bit unlikely. I mean, maybe I would have believed it if this book was set during the 90s in a country like the one where I was brought up in, but 21st century North America? I also think that the way the author portrayed Molly was fairly stereotypical as she does seem to exhibit all the classic signs associated with autism & is kind of infantilised.
Juan’s character was also depicted in a questionable way. The man is made to seem gullible and somewhat childlike. I didn’t care for the way the author infantilised him (i guess she wanted to stress that undocumented men do not pose a threat…but making him come across as ‘simple’ is not great). Additionally, the other maids were portrayed in a way that verged on the offensive.

The mystery storyline did have a few predictable twists & turns, not only when it came to the people who were clearly scheming against Molly, but the identity of the murderer and Molly’s ‘unreliability/evasions’.
This could have made for a quick, entertaining, and rather charming read, but I cannot in good faith describe it as such…The Maid may have had a well-meaning message, but the author portrays autism in such a clichéd way (without ever acknowledging it) that I feel very uneasy about recommending it to other readers…

my rating: ★ ★