Lisamarie Michelle Hill is a young girl from the Haisla Native American Tribe that lives on the West Coast of Canada in Kitamaat Village. Lisa lives together with her mother, father, and younger brother Jimmy. The story opens with her family receiving the news that her brother and the boat he was crewing have disappeared at sea. But Lisa already knew something was wrong;
she has received visions and portents all her life, through dreams and through visitations from spirits. What follows after she hears the news is a flashback journey through her life up to this moment, as she searches for her brother.
Lisa comes from a large extended family, with many aunts and uncles and cousins casually taking of space in her life. There are many long walks through the forests around Kitmaat with her Ma-ma-oo, her grandmother, and hunting trips with her beloved uncle Mick. Memorable moments in her life are described in vivid detail, placing the reader easily within her world. The references to the Haisla people and their culture barely cause a ripple, as Lisa, and therefore the reader, accepts them as naturally as we do our own history.
Growing up is never easy, but for Lisa, it becomes very hard, as she continues to lose the people she loves most through the inevitable cycle of life and death. Two family members that she is closest to pass away within a few years of each other, just as she is becoming a teenager, and her grieving process for them is dangerous, self-destructive, and necessary. Interwoven through her life are legends and stories from the Haisla, as well as descriptions of the prophetic dreams Lisa has and her strange encounters with magical creatures. B’gwus, the Sasquatch, is my personal favorite.
This is a story about family and loss and how one deals with them. Robinson weaves a captivating story, bringing to life this girl and her people as they balance tragedy with happiness. It isn’t about balancing between Native traditions and Western culture, although that aspect is there. It is about growing up, and remembrance, and accepting things the way they are, regardless of how strange that reality might be. Lisa struggles to understand her strange gift and goes through phases of hating it and fearing it; at times, she wishes she understood it better so its use would be easier. The magical realism of the book blends so well with the narrative that if the reader were ever in Canada, it would be easy to imagine stepping into the woods and running into a B’gwus or other spirit.
It is such a rich story, with wonderful and memorable characters. Uncle Mick loves Elvis to distraction, and goes on a drunken bender upon the news of his death in 1977. Ma-ma-oo is a tough woman determined to live as she pleases, with a solemn love for her children and grandchildren. Jimmy is passionately devoted to swimming and wants to be the first Haisla to win a gold in the Olympics, and later becomes passionate about Adelaine, the girl he falls in love with. Lisa herself is strong, stubborn, quick to fight and quick to comfort. The cousins that she grows up with are each individual, with their own faults and personalities. It is amazing how complex Robinson managed to make her characters in such a small space. This book could easily have spread over several volumes from an author less adept at storytelling.
Monkey Beach is absolutely a must read. The glimpses of a different culture and mythos are a big part of it’s charm, but this is a story about family that easily translates to any culture. Families all have their secrets, their shady pasts, their slights and offenses. But they are also full of intimate moments, of loud games of tag with siblings and cousins, of special things that only a few share with you. Eden Robinson has portrayed these moments with unforgettable depth. Go read this book.
Bonnie Norman. I'm an English Major, a feminist, and a book lover. Sometimes a writer, too. I'm committed to being a voice for diversification and inclusion in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre, as well as all books and the world at large. Check out Bonnie at A Working Title.