Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson (thoughts)
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.)