Lisamarie Hill, the protagonist of Eden Robinson's coming-of-age novel Monkey Beach
, is a terror. She'll run out of an evacuating car to get a better view of a tidal wave. She'll drag you unconscious to a deserted island with nothing but cigarettes, marshmallows, and the need to get you talking. Whatever her age, she'll ask awkward questions.
Set in the coastal Haisla village of Kitamaat near British Columbia's dauntingly gorgeous Queen Charlotte Islands, Monkey Beach is the story of Lisa and her Haisla community, including uncles involved in First Nations warrior movements, industrious grandmothers with one foot in the grave and the other in various spirit worlds, and the long-armed specter of residential schools. The path to adulthood (and you risk a bloody nose if you call Lisa an adult) for Lisa and her friends is beset by the dangers of substance abuse and family violence but sprinkled with hopes as varied as Olympic gold or, sadly, a "really great truck."
Monkey Beach succeeds as a novel of voice. Narrator and hero Lisa is whip-smart and ever cracking-wise: "The sky, one sheet of pissing greyness, stretches low across the horizon." Plot, however, doesn't come off so naturally. The Big Horrible Event at the story's end seems produced by page count alone, not by character. Voice and character do carry the novel, but the plot feels microwaved where it should be slow-roasted. --Darryl Whetter
From Publishers Weekly
Jimmy Hill's fishing boat is lost at sea, and while his older sister, Lisa, waits for word, her thoughts drift to their childhood in Kitamaat, a small Haisla Canadian Indian community off the coast of British Columbia. Skipping back and forth between the 20-year-old Lisa's anxious vigil and the story of her upbringing, this lyrical first novel by half-Haisla short story writer Robinson (Traplines) sings with honesty. As a child, Lisa is a feisty kid, a fighter. Her heroes are her Uncle Mick, a Native rights activist who teaches her to sing "Fuck the Oppressors," and her grandmother Ma-ma-oo, who instructs her in Haisla ways. Popular culture and tradition go hand in hand in Kitamaat, where a burnt offering to the dead is likely to be a box of Twinkies, and Lisa's sensible, hard-working parents try to give their children the best of both worlds. Jimmy, a straight arrow, shows early promise as a swimmer and trains for the Olympics. Lisa, meanwhile, is thrown off course by the tragic death of Uncle Mick and joins a gang of tough boys in junior high. A few years later, she runs away to Vancouver and a life of drugs and alcohol. Startled at last out of her downward spiral by the spirits that have visited her since she was a little girl, she comes home just in time to watch as her brother's life falls apart and he inexplicably takes a job as a deckhand. Eventually, she sets out alone to meet her parents near the spot where Jimmy's boat was last seen. Lisa is an unsentimental, ferocious, funny and utterly believable protagonist; Robinson's narrative is engrossing but fiercely uncompromising, avoiding easy resolution. Fans of writers like Lois Anne Yamanaka and Sherman Alexie, who blurbs the book, will appreciate this gritty, touching story. Author tour. (Dec. 6)
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