Monkey Beach: A Novel
Five hundred miles north of Vancouver is Kitamaat, an Indian reservation in the homeland of the Haisla people. Growing up a tough, wild tomboy, swimming, fighting, and fishing in a remote village where the land slips into the green ocean on the edge of the world, Lisamarie has always been different. Visited by ghosts and shapeshifters, tormented by premonitions, she can’t escape the sense that something terrible is waiting for her. She recounts her enchanted yet scarred life as she journeys in her speedboat up the frigid waters of the Douglas Channel. She is searching for her brother, dead by drowning, and in her own way running as fast as she can toward danger.
Circling her brother’s tragic death are the remarkable characters that make up her family: Lisamarie’s parents, struggling to join their Haisla heritage with Western ways; Uncle Mick, a Native rights activist and devoted Elvis fan; and the headstrong Ma-ma-oo (Haisla for “grandmother”), a guardian of tradition.
Haunting, funny, and vividly poignant, Monkey Beach gives full scope to Robinson’sstartling ability to make bedfellows of comedy and the dark underside of life. Informed as much by its lush living wilderness as by the humanity of its colorful characters, Monkey Beach is a profoundly moving story about childhood and the pain of growing older—a multilayered tale of family grief and redemption.
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
Barnes and Noble
“Find a map of British Columbia…. Beneath Alaska, find the Queen Charlotte Islands. Drag your finger across the map…to the coast, and you should be able to see a large island.” The place described is the land of the Haisla, reservation land famous for its “black bears that are usually white.” First novelist Eden Robinson is a native of this unique landscape, and her debut novel, told in the voice of a fiercely independent young woman, rings with authenticity. In Monkey Beach, she has drawn the sensitive and rebellious character of Lisa Hill, a fiery 20-year old whose little brother, Jimmy, is lost at sea in the opening scene. As the Coast Guard searches for Jimmy’s missing boat, which had headed out salmon fishing several days earlier, Lisa sits at home, smoking furiously and ruminating over their shared childhood. In flashbacks illuminating the tethered lives of the Hill family, Robinson introduces several unforgettable characters: Lisa’s matriarchal grandmother, Ma-ma-oo, who refuses to relinquish the Haisla traditions; her parents, who struggle to commingle ways both Western and Native American; and her Uncle Mick, a Native American activist and Elvis fan. But the truly indelible portrait painted is of Lisa, who struggles between physical reality and the spirit world that is very much a part of her psyche. Refusing to believe the reports of her brother’s death, Lisa goes in search of him herself, only to discover that she’s running from her own life rather than trying to save his. Monkey Beach is a moving, deeply engaging debut. (Winter 2001 Selection)