Water monsters and other beasts in the prewar Okanagan
Disclaimer: I won a copy of this book via the Goodreads Giveaways program.
I generally find literary novels to be a challenge to review/rate because they often aren't the sort of thing that you 'like'. They're not asking to be liked or to provide entertainment in the same way genre fiction does. So when I say I didn't like this book, that's not meant as a criticism, exactly. It was an engaging, well-written piece of fiction and an excellent debut.
Iris is a preteen of British descent living in the Okanagan around the turn of the last century. Her working-class Welsh mother prefers to be called by her first name, drifts around their fanciful house with her pet peacock generally defying propriety, and tells alarming legends or fairy stories. Her father is upper-class English and generally absent. Iris's mother may be a seer, a character from legend, a madwoman, an abusive parent, an epileptic, an abused child, unfaithful, or a mother of monsters. Iris is her mother's daughter and lives in her mother's world of magic and monsters. It is not a kind world.
I would have enjoyed more emphasis on the supernatural elements, and less of the dark heart of man, but that's not the sort of book this is. It reminded me of Gone With The Wind - selfishness, pettiness, jealousy, cruelty and a lack of taking responsibility for one's actions wrapped up in a story about coming of age as your world falls to the violence and loss of wartime. This is not a book about the redemptive power of stories. It is not a story about using magic to escape or defeat darkness.
However, there is much to like. The setting - a tiny lakefront settlement in the Okanagan in the early 1900s - is tangible, rich, earthy and otherworldly by turns and all at once. I appreciated the nuanced portrayal of diverse communities, both their existence and the challenges they faced. I hadn't previously been aware of a significant Japenese community in the Okanagan working the orchards, and while the book doesn't quite cover both wars, it does stretch up to the Japanese internment tragedy. The First Nations community exist mostly as ghosts or a marginal presence, quite literally unseen or half-seen at the edges of things, and the tension between British-descent Canadians and immigrants, and other white (specifically Eastern-European) immigrants and their children was also handled well. Supernatural elements similarly feature a blending of influences, most strongly in the water monster in the lake, who is referred to by Welsh, First Nations, and Japanese terms.
This story is both beautiful - ethereal, intricate, magical - and horrific in its portrayal of humanity. Its excellent quality, historical detail, imaginative format, and philosophical positioning will likely make it a polarizing read, with both fervent fans and those who won't appreciate its uniqueness. I wouldn't be surprised to see it shortlisted in more than a few of next year's literary prizes.