The Book Nook
Le Coin Lecture
Curl up and grab one of these books to help you navigate the work that's ahead.
This list is meant to help, challenge, and encourage discussions around DEI, Anti-Racism and Emerging Leadership practices.
September 1, 2022
Credit: Penguin Random House Canada
Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson
What's this about?
Monkey Beach is a coming-of-age tale, but not the typical kind. The narrator, Lisamarie Hill, recounts the story of her brother Jimmy’s mysterious disappearance at sea. Throughout her involvement in the search for her brother and the seiner he had been on, she reflects on different memories and important moments of her life. Her introspection, she hopes, will help her make sense of the impending sense of doom and tragedy building up in Kitamaat, the village she grew up in. As we, readers, walk down memory lane with Lisamarie, we are introduced to various colourful characters who had a profound impact on her life, from her grandmother to her uncle to her parents and childhood friends. Each of these characters and memories allow the reader to map out the complex and rich life of Lisamarie and her community, but also the struggles and painful experiences that shaped her, her family members and the generational trauma she carries and tries to escape.
Our narrator is not the typical “hero”; her struggle between the supernatural and reality mirrors the tension between her identity as a Haisla woman and how it fits within mainstream, colonial society. It’s a tension that feels familiar to a lot of people with marginalized identities. And that’s where Lisamarie’s story becomes especially compelling; she stops trying to be someone she is not, just to please people around her. She stops trying to erase or rewrite her identity . She becomes a leader and someone who is now deeply aware that her value was never less than because of her background, her identity, her abilities.
About The Author
Eden Robinson is an Indigenous writer from Kitamaat, British Columbia. A member of the Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations, she published her first book, Traplines, a collection of short stories, in 1995. Monkey Beach (2000), her second book, received the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and was also shortlisted for both the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Literary award. She is one of the first Indigenous women from Canada to gain international recognition for her writing, and often uses her platform to draw attention to important problems affecting reserves and Indigenous communities in general, such as housing shortage and limited health care access. Her writing, firmly rooted in her Haisla-Heiltsuk heritage, describes the complex modern realities of Indigenous communities and how they coexist with traditions and oral histories.
Indigenous literature, spirituality, residential schools, reservations, Canada
What We Liked
Eden Robinson’s writing is as beautiful, intricate and evocative as it is honest and authentic, woven with a delightful dose of sharp wit and biting dark humour. What makes Monkey Beach such a fascinating story, beyond the intriguing characters and settings, is Robinson’s ability to combine mysticism and contemporary realism in a way that transcends identity, a quest for answers, internal struggles – and yet never forgets about any of them. She balances all these elements like trinkets at different ends of a mobile, each pulling it in a different direction but in a delicate, careful equilibrium, creating metaphors of metaphors in a way that is both carefully constructed and tongue-in-cheek.
Lisamarie offers the reader much more than an insightful perspective on her upbringing on a British Columbia reserve; she proposes a spiritual journey, a search for introspection, a thirst for the world, for answers to questions that feel older than she is. She is the voice of Indigenous women all over Canada, the voice of youth, the voice of generational trauma, the voice of loss, the voice of memory, the voice of her family, community, history, both personal and global.
What we remember: the different tone Eden Robinson uses to describe certain processes and situations, such as the directions she gives to situate Kitamaat on the map in the first few pages of the book. These shifts offer the reader something different, something that the narrator cannot say in as many words in the context of the novel, something important, and something almost soothing and hopeful too.
What this book is : a beautiful, though sometimes incredibly sad and painful, novel, inspired by Eden Robinson lived experiences, opinions and commentary on Indigeneity and being part of the Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations.
What this book isn't : nonfiction or a memoir of Eden Robinson’s life. Although the story takes place in the village the author grew up in, Monkey Beach is a work of fiction. It’s not a thriller exactly, but it’s also not quite fantasy or science-fiction; the novel touches on many different genres, including magical realism and mysticism, using at as vessel for a coming of age story, a story about reclaiming yourself, your power, by embracing yourself completely.
Why Read This Book
Reading this book, as a non-Indigenous person, feels particularly important. Robinson proposes characters that have various backgrounds and lives. She addresses head-on the real, deep trauma that spans generations, such as residential schools, racism and the ongoing genocide of Indigenous people in Canada. She offers a portrait of what she knows, what she has seen, what she has lived though, what she has been told – and the best we can do, as non-Indigenous people, is sit back and listen, one page at a time.
Fiction is a great vehicle for truths about the world we live in, and Eden Robinson is a master at revealing them, at reclaiming identities and power. Monkey Beach is as delightful a novel as it is insightful, thoughtful – and also, sometimes quite painful. Robinson firmly roots her stories in her own Haisla-Heiltsuk culture, in her own village of Kitamaat, but also in Indigeneity and what it means to be Indigenous in Canada, from a broader perspective. She doesn’t shy away from telling the hard truths of Canada’s colonialism, her characters reflecting the living experiences of many people of her community, her family, her friends.
“I used to think that if I could talk to the spirit world, I'd get some answers. Ha bloody ha. I wish the dead would just come out and say what they mean instead of being so passive-aggressive about the whole thing.” (p.17)
“Names have power. This is the fundamental principle of magic everywhere. Call out the name of a supernatural being, and you will have its instant and undivided attention in the same way that your lost toddler will have yours the second it calls your name.” (p.180)
Get the Gist
Eden Robinson is quite gifted at making the political, not only necessary, but an indissociable part of each of her characters and their intertwining stories. She actually challenges the way the political exists in opposition with the supernatural, the way the pragmatic is detached from the ancestral lore, the way recorded history is perceived in opposition with oral tales. Her body of work showcases the clear joy and delight she finds in mixing everything up; for her, just like “a rose is a rose is a rose”, the political is the supernatural is the political.
Read a summary of the book by CBC.
In 2020, the movie version of this book was released, by the same name.
How does it fare?
“Yet Monkey Beach is more than a coming-of-age novel. Life in Kitamaat Village is evoked beautifully and honestly, without being prettified. The incredibly beautiful land and seascapes, places where worlds entwine, are not merely backdrops or stages for action. Alive, home to other living creatures, the place is a breathing character, fully integrated with other elements of the novel.”
– J.M. Bridgeman, January Magazine
“Monkey Beach is an important novel. It exposes the redemptive, vital lives of a once dying culture with Robinson’s insider compassion and trickster wit. And it contributes to a body of work – Dogrib Richard Van Camp’s writing is there – that gives hard proof to young native writers that they can publish and dazzle. What’s gained when we push hard? Robinson has energy; she resists the slickster sophistication that dries out so much of today’s fiction; her humour is not urbane and nasty, but shifty and wise.”
– Lorna Jackson, Quill & Quire