Monkey Beach

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Vintage Canada, 2001 - Fiction - 384 pages
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Monkey Beach combines both joy and tragedy in a harrowing yet restrained story of grief and survival, and of a family on the edge of heartbreak. In the first English-language novel to be published by a Haisla writer, Eden Robinson offers a rich celebration of life in the Native settlement of Kitamaat, on the coast of British Columbia.

The story grips the reader from the beginning. It is the morning after the narrator’s brother has gone missing at sea; the mood is tense in the family house, as speculations remain unspoken. Jimmy is a prospective Olympic swimmer, seventeen years old and on the edge of proposing to his beautiful girlfriend Karaoke. As his elder sister, Lisa, faces possible disaster, she chain-smokes and drifts into thoughts of their lives so far. She recalls the time when she and Jimmy saw the sasquatch, or b’gwus – and this sighting introduces the novel's fascinating undercurrent of characters from the spirit world. These ghostly presences may strike the reader as mysterious or frightening, but they provide Lisa with guidance through a difficult coming of age.

In and out of the emergency room as a child, Lisa is a fighter. Her smart mouth and temper constantly threaten to land her in serious trouble. Those who have the most influence on her are her stubbornly traditional, machete-wielding grandmother, and her wild, passionate, political Uncle Mick, who teaches her to make moose calls. When they empty fishing nets together, she pretends she doesn’t feel the jellyfish stinging her young hands – she’s Uncle Mick’s “little warrior.”

We watch Lisa leave her teenage years behind as she waits for news of her younger brother. She reflects on the many rich episodes of their lives – so many of which take place around the water, reminding us of the news she fears, and revealing the menacing power of nature. But Lisa has a special recourse – a “gift” that enables her to see and hear spirits, and ask for their help.

Monkey Beach, Eden Robinson’s first novel, was nominated for Canada’s two largest literary prizes: the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award. The book was also published in Great Britain, the United States and Germany, and was a Canadian bestseller for many weeks. Monkey Beach is beautifully written, in prose that is simple and subtle, bold and vivid, and pervaded by humour.

Robinson fills her novel with details of Haisla culture and the rich wildlife surrounding Kitamaat. She uses traditional elements of storytelling – such as dreams, and people’s ties to nature – but also demystifies Native beliefs, simultaneously peeling away and intensifying the mystery surrounding spirits. Ancient rituals are shown as part of the reality of a modern Native community, along with Kraft Dinner and TV soaps and the legacy of residential schools. Robinson’s previous book of stories, Traplines, was remarked upon for being brutally honest, featuring rapists and drunks and drug dealers, psychopaths and sadists – proving to The New York Times that “Canadians are as weird and violent as anyone else.” Monkey Beach is just as honest, but only hints at the darker elements. In the words of the author, “None of the characters are bad. They’re just reacting like anyone else to situations of loss and death.”

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About the author (2001)

“I was born on the same day as Edgar Allan Poe and Dolly Parton: January 19. I am absolutely certain that this affects my writing in some way.”

One of Eden Robinson’s biggest literary influences has been Stephen King, whose books she read compulsively between the ages of ten and fourteen, when she started writing her own stories. “I was a bookworm, right from the beginning. When I got bored of classes, I’d skip them and go to the library.” Later, studying creative writing at the University of Victoria, Eden says she flunked in fiction and blossomed in poetry. “My first-year poetry professor was Robin Skelton. He was a bit late for class and showed up wearing a pentagram ring. I thought — hey, cool.”

As a young writer, Eden Robinson shares some literary territory with the likes of Michelle Berry, Michael Turner, Evelyn Lau and Andrew Pyper, none of whom shirks from portraying the bleaker sides of growing up in the seventies and eighties. As a Native Canadian writer, Robinson joins the ranks of novelists Thomas King, Tomson Highway, Richard Wagamese and Lee Maracle, non-fiction author and poet Gregory Scofield, and playwrights Daniel David Moses and Drew Hayden Taylor in describing Native traditions and modern realities with beautiful, honest language and biting black humour.

Robinson grew up with her older brother and younger sister (CBC-TV anchor Carla Robinson) in Haisla territory near Kitamaat Village, surrounded by the forests and mountains of the central coast of British Columbia. They were children of a mixed marriage — her Haisla father met her Heiltsuk mother during a stop in Bella Bella in his fishing days. Kitamaat, a Tsimshian word meaning “people of the falling snow,” (and not to be confused with nearby Kitimat town), is home to seven hundred members of the Haisla nation, with another eight hundred or so living off-reserve.

After earning her B.A., Eden Robinson moved to Vancouver to look for work that would allow her to spend time writing. A late-night writer, she ended up taking “a lot of McJobs” — janitor, mail clerk, napkin ironer. She decided to enter the masters program at the University of British Columbia after having a short story published in its literary magazine PRISM international. Traplines was the young woman's first book, a collection of dark and brutal stories that feature a deadpan, gritty humour. While Eden was finishing work on the book, her paternal grandmother died; Eden feels the knowledge of real grief affected her writing. The book was published in 1996 and won the UK’s Winifred Holtby prize.

Eden holed herself up in her Vancouver apartment to write Monkey Beach. Though she had written a novella before (Traplines is composed of just four stories, one over 100 pages long), Eden had to work hard at the structuring of her first novel. The result is compelling and complex; The Washington Post called it “artfully constructed,” the National Post deemed it “intricately patterned.” Critics in the US, the UK and Canada were unanimous in their appreciation of the book.

Eden Robinson has become one of Canada’s first female Native writers to gain international attention, making her an important role model. Monkey Beach evinces a love of her culture — Robinson maintains that if you don’t grow up on Oolichan grease, you’re not going to learn to love it, never mind make it; and if you grow up on supermarket vegetables, you’re not going to learn when and where to find salmonberry shoots. She has used her celebrity to draw attention in Time magazine to the Canadian government’s chipping away at Native health care, and to the lack of subsidized housing for urban Natives. This limited housing leads to overcrowding on reserves, where there is little access to jobs. Robinson argues that Natives forfeited rights and land for just these types of government services. Eden Robinson has been a Writer-in-Residence at the Whitehorse Public Library, and will be working with the Writers in Electronic Residence program, which links schools across the country with professional writers. She enjoys travelling, and supported herself with travel writing in Europe before the publication of Monkey Beach.

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