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An uneasy but beautiful road

Book review: The Heaviness of Things That Float by Jennifer Manuel



Whistler hosts the 2016 Writers Festival from Oct. 13 to 16. Pique is running book reviews by attending authors to celebrate. For information and tickets: www.whistlerwritersfest.com.

Listen for stories in the wind and the water."

This is the advice given to nurse Bernadette Perkal when she first arrives at the remote Tawakin First Nations medical outpost on the shores of a tiny island on B.C.'s rough West Coast. But like the wind and the water, whose currents run deep and are unknowable, the stories are not always what they appear to Bernie, or to readers of Jennifer Manuel's beautiful new book The Heaviness of Things That Float.

Manuel is a writer, teacher and activist from Vancouver Island. Her lyrical and tragic debut novel is layered with tension: between love and betrayal, belonging and being an outsider, the value of secrets and the cost of keeping them.

The book's main character, nurse "Bernie," is a compassionate, rebellious healer who listens, learns and invests herself in a world few of us see. In serving the remote First Nations community for 40 years, she gains an intimate knowledge of the people, their weaknesses, sorrows and joys. She joins them as they feast on gooseneck barnacles and fish-head soup, raw oysters and salmon eyeballs. She weaves cedar baskets, searches the seashore for glass balls, plays bingo. She delivers babies, heals the sick, and tends to the dying. She saves lives and makes mistakes.

Weeks before Bernie's scheduled retirement, the community is thrown into upheaval when Chase Charlie, a man Bernie loves like a son, seems to vanish. Everyone has their theories, their fears and their reasons for wanting him to return. As the community is preoccupied with finding Chase, Bernie's successor Wren Featherstone, an idealistic young nurse, shows up on the wharf.

The collision of Wren's appearance, Chase's disappearance, and Bernie's pending life change forces the elder nurse to question the life she thought she knew. Can an "outsider" ever be truly accepted into a community with roots that stretch back for generations?

Manuel weaves traditional First Nations legends and stories into her narrative, and it isn't always clear where the division between fact and fiction lies. The real question is: how can the stories and secrets help find a lost father, heal a broken heart, or figure out where one belongs?

As the adorable (and somewhat intimidating) elder Nan Lily tells Bernie, "You have to turn in a circle many times to get the truth, picking up just a little each time, taking it in while you eat, digesting what you learn until you are well-fed."

This is not an easy read. Though there is beauty and laughter, there is also great pain in The Heaviness of Things That Float. The burdens of shame, guilt, secrets and silence eventually rise to the surface. What floats is indeed what is heavy.

Jennifer Manuel is teaching a workshop: Parallax Editing, Four Powerful Tools on Saturday, Oct. 8:30 a.m., and reading at the Whistler Writers Festival on October 15 at 3 p.m. at an event entitled, Writers of Fiction at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler.

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