I thought I'd share with you my latest review, a 600-word appraisal of Eden Robinson's Blood Sports.
It will appear in tomorrow's Winnipeg Free Press, specifically in the Books Section.
* * *
By Eden Robinson
McClelland & Stewart, 280 pages, $34.99
Reviewed by Ariel Gordon
So far, West Coast Aboriginal writer Eden Robinson has based two novels on stories from her first book, 1997’s Traplines.
Monkey Beach (2000) is based on the short story “The Queen of the North.” Her latest outing, Blood Sports, can be traced back to the novella “Contact Sports,” which tells the story of Tom Bauer, a teenage epileptic and resident of Vancouver’s Downtown East Side.
Tom is fifteen years-old when his cousin Jeremy appears in his life, paying the bills that his alcoholic mother Christa has let lapse but also seducing Paulie, Tom’s high school crush, and providing her with enough drugs to turn her weekend habit into a full-blown addiction.
Learning of the liaison and resenting Jeremy’s insistence on controlling every aspect of his life, Tom arranges for local hoods to steal Jeremy’s beloved vintage car. Jeremy responds by concocting an elaborate plan that begins with Paulie, a handful of magic mushrooms, and cigarette burns and ends with a hopped-up Jeremy, fast food, and threats on Christa’s life.
Although Blood Sports is nearly two hundred pages longer than “Contact Sports,” Robinson would be hard pressed to deny that the latter provides the novel’s emotional core.
Any other writer would have long since earned herself accusations of laziness or, worse, uninventiveness, but so far it’s earned Robinson spots on the New York Times’ Notable Book of the Year and Editor’s Choice lists, the BC Book Prize for Fiction, and nominations for both the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Awards.
Perhaps more importantly, it has made her a favorite of book clubs and coffee klatches across the country.
This leniency on the part of both critics and readers may be due to the fact that Robinson writes extraordinarily well.
Take Blood Sports, which opens a few years after “Contact Sports” ends. Jeremy is in prison. Tom and Paulie, who have survived both Jeremy’s machinations and his enemies, have a one-year-old daughter and an apartment they are in the process of painting bright yellow.
Jeremy is just about to be released, however. His former colleagues, convinced that Tom ‘knows something,’ kidnap Tom and his family and take them to a remote cabin.
And it only gets worse from there, in what Robinson calls a “dark fantasy” but that most readers would recognize as urban noir of the grittiest shade.
Along the way, Robinson proves that she is equally at ease writing from the point of view of both men and women, native and non-native characters, and abused and cherished children. She is also somehow able to write about poverty and addiction in a way that is both unaffected and unflinching.
And, perhaps most remarkably, Robinson is able to pen dark-as-death, plot-driven prose without falling into the literary traps of unrelenting bleakness ala David Adams Richards or prurient cynicism ala Michael Turner or Evelyn Lau.
What’s most interesting about Blood Sports, besides all the literary hat tricks, is the fact that Robinson has put aside what must have been, for her, a very comfortable formula and attempted something much more ambitious.
Monkey Beach relied on Robinson’s melding of Haisla culture, life on a northern BC reserve, and elements of the supernatural for its not insubstantial charm but in some ways, it was reminiscent of Stephen King’s books (and Robinson has gone on record saying that King is one of her biggest literary influences).
Blood Sports, on the other hand, is peopled by poor, white, relentlessly urban characters. There is nothing charming about their lives. Not the most appealing setting for a literary novel nor the easiest to write about, but in the end, despite some very graphic violence, Blood Sports is both startlingly original and highly emotionally engaging.