This is a novel of love and loss and persistence set primarily in Ontario at the southern end of the James Bay.
Though about half the narration takes place northern Ontario in their Cree community, and half in New York City, the taiga forest is obviously a well-loved home for both narrators. But this is not a novel full of action.
What hooked me was the tone of the narrators, Will & Annie, reflective and measured, always reaching out to the other. The sentences are short, terse really, but clear and descriptive. Yet the picture is tantalizingly out of focus, and it takes quite awhile to put the pieces together, and even then there are things unfinished, unsaid, unresolved.
The first chapter is clearly a man talking to his nieces, obviously in trouble and talking to help keep himself moving. But what kind of trouble isn’t clear. In trouble with alcohol? When the first paragraph of a novel is a description of what to blend with rye whiskey, you know alcohol plays an important role in the story. Alcohol plays a role through rest of the chapter, a description of Will’s first plane crash onto a partially frozen creek lined with black spruce, but not the only one. The other thing that plays a significant role in the story are his family and friends, particularly his nieces; the final paragraph of the chapter makes clear that getting back to them is keeping the narrator going.
The second chapter introduces niece Annie, who lets us know her uncle is in the hospital, in intensive care and unconscious. Why isn’t clear until we’re a quite a way into the story. Annie has been away for a long time, out of communication with her uncle (and her mother). We learn eventually that she started out searching for her missing sister, and followed her trail to the glamorous life of a model, locating her sister’s “friends” and living the high in New York City, until Annie’s life there falls apart.
Her friend Eva, a nurse at the hospital, encourages Annie to talk to her uncle. Her first attempt is awkward, and it’s clear she feels guilty, somehow responsible for his ending up here (It took me awhile after I finished the book to figure out why.) But Annie and Will have a bond because, as Annie says, speaking of her sister, “I bet you believe she’s still alive . . . Nobody else around here does but you and me, I bet.” The other bond they have is they both love living in the bush, hunting and trapping.
The remainder of the book alternates back and forth between Will’s voice and Annie’s, and we are left to attempt to piece together the story of what happened to Suzanne and to Will. What happened to Suzanne? Is it possible that she will come back? And what about Will? What happened to him? Clearly he and his niece both desire his return to the land of the living. Will he make it?
This novel won the Giller Prize in 2008.