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Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson (thoughts)

April 16, 2012

I picked up Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson after Ana mentioned it in a discussion of Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (which I adored). Once I got it, I was thrilled to see that it was set along the coast of British Columbia, a place I would love to visit one day. I was also thrilled by the beginning of the novel; it’s told from the point of view of Lisamarie, a nineteen-year-old who has just found out her brother is lost at sea. The plot then weaves together her present world with flashbacks to her child, in effect creating a coming-of-age story.

I loved the first half of the book unconditionally. The variety of characters, Robinson’s willingness to leave it up to the reader to fill in the blanks left by Lisamarie’s childhood eyes, the small hints of the supernatural, the wonderful sense of place, everything added up to a book I couldn’t wait to keep reading. But then Lisamarie got a bit older, and the book turned grittier (sexual abuse, drugs, and alcoholism become prominent players), and while I cannot fault Robinson for including that in the story, I found my reading experience becoming a bit stressful. I think the cause, ironically, was Robinson’s skill as a writer and her ability to bring the reader into Lisamarie’s head. She conjured up the emotions and situations so well, the hopelessness and haze, that I felt rather trapped and claustrophobic.

I do think Robinson is a wonderfully clever author, and I’m positive that the contrast between Lisamarie’s childhood, with her strong connections to the natural environment around her town and wise, mentoring figures, and her adolescent hopelessness is intentional. I can also see that Monkey Beach is a stronger book for including that dichotomy, and allowing Lisamarie to process that (I don’t want to give you the impression that the last half of the book is hopeless or anything). But I still couldn’t help wishing to stay in that childhood, fishing with her uncle and hiking with her grandmother, just a little bit longer.

I do highly recommend this novel, and I’ll be seeking out more of her books. Next time, I’ll be prepared for things to turn darker, and I’ll stiffen my moral fiber enough to fully appreciate Robinson’s incredible skill as a writer.

P.S.: Writing this post, and reflecting on the book and my experience, has made me change my mind and mark this as a five-star read rather than four-star. It was so powerful, and I can see myself rereading it, that despite the parts that made me squirm, I think I must have loved it. Does blogging about a book ever make you reconsider it?

Suggested Companion Reads

  • Tropical Fish by Doreen Baingana (This is an incredibly powerful interlinked short story collection that tells the story of three sisters growing up in Entebbe, Uganda. It also doesn’t shy away from emotionally wrenching moments and has a strong sense of place.)
  • Paper Towns by John Green (If you’re after more teenage hijinks, this would be a fun follow-up to Monkey Beach. Who doesn’t love Green?)
  • Medicine River by Thomas King (King is one of my very favourite authors, as well as another Canadian Native American author, and this novel also uses flashbacks and has a wonderful depth of emotion. It’s a bit more cheerful too, which is nice.)
13 Comments leave one →
  1. April 16, 2012 10:51 am

    I’ve heard good things about this one, and have it on my list of books to look for at the library at some point. I’m in the mood for dark, so I’ll put it on my list for the next time I go.

  2. April 16, 2012 11:37 am

    Thanks for reviewing and suggesting some books I’d like to read.

    And yes. Blogging makes me reconsider what I read and how I feel about it. For me, that kind of on-going interaction with a book is one of the things I like best about blogging.

  3. April 16, 2012 11:59 am

    I also enjoyed this book and suggest you add House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday to your TBR list. I hope my library has a copy of Tropical Fish!

  4. April 16, 2012 1:11 pm

    It’s definitely a dark novel and I completely understand why reading it was a stressful experience, but she’s an amazing writer, isn’t she? It’s been close to five years since I read it, and I still think about it often. And yes, blogging makes me change my mind about books all the time!

  5. April 17, 2012 1:12 pm

    I’m not up for the squirming….

  6. boardinginmyforties permalink
    April 17, 2012 4:18 pm

    This sounds like the sort of read that I have to “recover” from once I finished it. I often have to take a break for several days after reading something that is this intense emotionally.

  7. April 19, 2012 7:30 pm

    I love the sound of that contradiction – it sounds achingly sad, but very powerful. And yes, often I am surprised by my own book reviews – it’s almost as if I’m convincing myself to change my opinion as I type sometimes!

  8. bostonbibliophile permalink
    April 19, 2012 8:51 pm

    Sounds great! I’ve found myself really loving dark stuff lately- this sounds fantastic!

  9. April 22, 2012 11:18 pm

    I have this book on my shelf, and have been meaning to read it for a couple of years now. I think I’ve been hesitating because it deals with loss, and as you say so eloquently, I have to strenthen myself emotionally to go into that dark space. I want to, though, read this.

    And yes, definitely finding that when I blog about a book, I sometimes discover I liked it more – or sometimes less- than I thought before writing about it.

  10. April 23, 2012 2:19 pm

    I recommend her short story collection, Traplines. One of the stories was the kernel for this novel. And I know you’ve read Thomas King, but I can’t help putting in a word for him if others are interested in First Nations Canadian writing. Truth and Bright Water is brilliant.

  11. Betty permalink
    April 24, 2012 5:50 pm

    I really appreciate that you include companion reads. I like to read that way myself, as if the books were conversing with each other through me. Plus one of my book clubs reads a pair of books each month. Sometimes it is really difficult to find an appropriate pair. Like, I’d really like to recommend The Call by Yannick Murphy for that group, but I just can’t come up with a mate. If anyone has any ideas, I’d love to hear them.

  12. May 1, 2012 10:50 am

    I can’t deal with claustrophobia while reading.

  13. May 16, 2012 5:45 pm

    I’m so glad to hear you that you enjoyed this book. I got a copy through Bookmooch some time ago and hadn’t got to it yet. I look forward to reading it more than ever now.

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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