The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

“I was Tookie, always too much Tookie. For better or worse, that’s a fact.”

I feel quite conflicted over The Sentence. Although I loved the first half of this novel I found the latter to be boring and somewhat disjointed. While I’m sure many will be able to love everything about this book I wish it hadn’t quite tried to juggle so many different themes and genres.

The Sentence follows Tookie, an ex-con who now works as a bookseller at an Indigenous bookstore in Minneapolis after falling in love with books and words during her incarceration. Tookie’s winning voice is the book’s biggest strength. Her humor, remarks, and inner-monologue were a delight to read. It is rare to come across a narrator that is so genuinely funny. Her voice drew me in from the very opening pages which give us a recap of the events that led to her imprisonment. She could be down to earth, in a gritty sort of way, but she was also a compassionate and forgiving person. While her assessment of others (especially her customers) often poked fun at them (their appearance/reading habits/mannerism), she never struck me as a judgemental person. She was the kind of character that I wish existed so I could meet in real life. Not only did I find Tookie’s unruliness amusing but her love for literature certainly won me over. Throughout the course of The Sentence, Tookie talks about books, a lot of them, many of which I’ve read. Her analysis of these books, as well as their authors, certainly kept me engaged. It just so happens that in addition to the bookstore angle the narrative includes quite a few other storylines. A regular customer of the bookstore Tookie works at die. It just so happens that Fiona, the customer in question, was an annoying white woman who tried to legitimise her ‘interest’ in Native American cultures by claiming to have indigenous heritage. While Tookie did find her irksome, she’s not happy about her passing, especially when Flora’s ghost starts haunting her bookstore. While Tookie’s partner, a former tribal police officer, is somewhat sceptical about these visitations, Tookie knows that Flora ghost is haunting her.
Now, I found this premise compelling enough, and I even appreciate the narrative’s slow-pace as I found Tookie’s voice to be engaging enough. Sadly, the story takes a swerve halfway through when the covid pandemic steals much of the ‘show’. Personally, it’s too soon for me to be reading about the pandemic, given that it’s still ongoing. It just aggravated my anxiety and unease at the current situation. I also had very little interest in reading about these relatively ‘fresh’ events in such detail. The narrative then also touches upon BLM in a not quite superficial way but not the tone of the story undergoes a jarring change. The ghost aspect of the story fades into the background. The latter half of the novel lacked direction and seemed too intent on being relevant and topical than on continuing the story it had so far worked to establish. There was just too much going on and because of this secondary plotlines and characters suffered because of it. They lacked depth, nuance, and page-time. This is a pity as I was really invested in Tookie and her story. There were certain portions of the book later on that would have been more suited to an essay or a work of nonfiction. I also found the inclusion of ‘Louise’ self-insert cringey. I’m not a fan of the whole author inserting themselves in a story following their fictional character thing. I mean, why? Because Tookie works at a bookstore? Eeh…it just rubbed me the wrong way. Towards the end we also get random povs following other characters and I found them unnecessary.

Despite my somewhat conflicting feelings over this novel, I would still recommend it. Just because I found the more topical sections to detract from the whole ghost-story setup, it may very well appeal to other readers. Tookie, as I said already, is a fantastic character and certainly worth getting to ‘know’. The dialogues rang true to life, the setting was well-established, and the dynamic between Tookie and the other characters (be it her partner, his daughter, or her colleagues & customers) was entertaining. Maybe if I were to read this when this pandemic is but a distant memory (ah!) I won’t be as critical of its 2020 setting. I appreciated the author’s discussions on literature, as well as her reflections on race, grief, fear, history, and love.

my rating: ★★★½

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The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich — book review

Untitled drawing (4).jpgAfter reading many reviews praising The Night Watchman, I had quite high expectations for this novel. Having now read it, I can’t say that I found this to be either very good or bad.
Louise Erdrich’s own grandfather was the inspiration for the character of Thomas Wazhashk and for the events that transpire in The Night Watchman. Set in 1953 Thomas, like Erdrich’s grandfather, works as a night watchman. As a member of the Chippewa Council he loves and wants to protect his community. When he hears of Congress’ new “emancipation” bill, he knows that is the United States newest threat against his people.
The serious and inspirational subject matter captivated my attention. Sadly, I think I would preferred to read a non-fictionalised account of this important story. In The Night Watchman Thomas’ fight against Native dispossession is lost in a plodding narrative that follows an array of inconsequential characters. While I understand that shifting the focus on many different characters can give an impression of a certain family or community…here we also get entirely unnecessary segments on characters such as Barnes and two mormons.
Pixie Paranteau, a young woman who is beautiful, ‘spunky’, good at her job, different from other women, was a surprisingly grating character. The story tries so hard to make her into some sort of heroine that I just found her annoying. Her story didn’t have the same tone as Thomas and felt very meandering. The first quarter of her arc seems to promise one of those ‘my sister is missing’ narratives…but then it reverts to her back at the reservation where she seems to occupied feeling ‘righteously’ angry/jealous of her friends and deciding which guy she fancies (everyone seems in love with her).
Thomas and Pixie struck me as very one-dimensional. Thomas has only the outlines of a personality…but he is mostly presented as simply being ‘good’. Characters in general (regardless if ‘good’ or ‘bad’) lacked psychological complexity.
The prose often made characters sound silly. There is an overuse of exclamation marks. Some dialogues came across as stilted (as if two characters were being forced to interact for plot reasons) and there were one too may platitudes (such as “Women’s bodies make such miracles”).
There were few description of the characters’ environment, and because of this I never had a clear picture of their surroundings.
The magical realism that threads this story was perhaps one of the elements I most liked in the overall novel.
All in all, I’m afraid that this novel didn’t really inspire any strong feelings in me. I had a similar experience with Isabel Allende’s A Long Petal of the Sea (which also draws upon real events). Both of these books tell important stories through rather one-dimensional characters.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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