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Book review: The Strangers a family story of both resilience and tragedy


The Strangers

Katherena Vermette

Penguin Random House


When Métis author Katherena Vermette set out to write The Strangers, she wanted to write about family and how families are connected by stories.

Her inter-generational novel centred on four Indigenous women weaves back and forth between the perspectives of Phoenix and Cedar, two siblings, and Elsie, their mother, and Margaret, their grandmother.

Phoenix was a character in Métis author Vermette’s first novel, The Break, which I haven’t read yet. As soon as I heard about The Strangers having an Indigenous child in foster care as one of the main characters and I knew I had to read it. The Break, which is a connected novel, is now on my list.

Vermette appeared this week at the Vancouver Writers’ Fest, in conversation with Lisa Bird-Wilson, who recently wrote the novel Probably Ruby, another one on my must-read list.

Vermette said she loves complicated characters and unreliable narrators in fiction, and in creating these four women, she has succeeded in creating complex characters living complicated lives.

Phoenix is in jail and pregnant; the book opens with her going into labour with a baby she is giving up for adoption. Cedar is a teenager in foster care, but finds out she’s going to be moved to live with her dad, who she hasn’t seen since she was a toddler and barely remembers.

Elsie couldn’t care for her kids because she was living with addiction and her character is perhaps the most heartbreaking in the story. She tries so hard for her kids who she loves, but she is flawed and vulnerable. Margaret is equally tragic in that she was unable to show her feelings to her family, based on her own history and situation.

“I’m drawn to these ideas of trauma and figuring out trauma and how it lives inside of us,” Vermette told the audience. She isn’t sure who the protagonist of her story is, but says Cedar is the heroine of the story and her favourite character she has ever written.

This novel has deservedly been longlisted for the Giller Prize and is a finalist for the Atwood Gibson Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, which will be announced Nov. 2. Her first novel, The Break, won the Amazon First Novel Award, Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction, Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Prize, and McNally Robinson Book of the Year.

While the subject matter can be dark, this story is well written and fast-paced. Each of these four women, though separated by both time and space, and connected by blood and the stories that bind families together. In their own way, they are each “superheroes,” a word Vermette used to describe all Indigenous people in Canada, who have survived despite colonialism, racism and attempts at cultural genocide.

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