We're All in This Together / Amy Jones
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, c2016.
From my last review (The Widows by Suzette Mayr) with three women going over Niagara Falls together, to this novel, in which Parker family matriarch Kate goes over Thunder Bay's Kakabeka Falls in a barrel --with the youtube video of the feat going viral -- there are plenty of women trying, as Jones says in this book, "to be remembered for something".
The Parker family is a bit of mess in the first place. Serafina (Finn) Parker lives an orderly life in Mississauga, but heads back to Thunder Bay once she realizes that her mother is in a coma following her Kakabeka Falls stunt.
She's been estranged from her twin sister & adoptive brother for a while now, after misunderstandings and personality clashes since childhood. She and her sister Nicki have always been opposites -- Nicki is rough and careless, has 3 children by different fathers, is now married to a bootlegger, and has never left Thunder Bay. Finn is single and lives alone, but she also has some rough edges that she prefers to ignore, pretending she's moved onward and upward.
The Parker family must deal with their own dysfunction, while at the same time acknowledging their mother Kate's dementia, something they've all been trying to avoid doing. Over the course of four days, we get to meet 10 narrators, from Finn & Nicki to their parents, brother, sister-in-law, nieces and more. There is a lot folded into this story, with each character facing some kind of existential crisis. It mostly works, even if it felt very chaotic to me as a reader. It's very based in the emotional reactions of all the characters to various events and interactions, and I find that tiring in real life as well as in my fiction!
But overall this was a fun, contemporary read. It's full of real people, and the very real sense of living in a small town that you either love or hate, that you either want to stay in forever, or leave posthaste. The pace of the story makes you feel like you're going over the falls yourself -- it's rapid and bumpy, and might leave you a little battered. But it's an adventure.
If you like family dramas with a bit of humour, pathos and personality thrown in, give this new book a try. As a bonus, you'll get a strong sense of place (Thunder Bay) and perhaps even feel a craving for some Finnish pancakes...
Books set in Thunder Bay are thin on the ground, but another relationship-based (if slightly implausible) read set there is Michael Christie's If I Fall I Die, about a boy and his agoraphobic mother. It gets very epic near the end, with hero Will Cardiel being swept up into the criminal world almost as soon as he first leaves his house (at age 12) but is a fast-paced book that also looks inside its characters.
Another read that reminds me of this one is Daria Salamon's The Prairie Bridesmaid. It is also contemporary and sardonic, mixing humour & pathos, and is heavily centred in its location - in this case Winnipeg. Prickly main character Anna is similar to Finn, as she goes home again and has to deal with family drama and exes, in her own way.