There are actually two distinct books at play in All The Broken Things, the powerful new novel by Toronto writer and teacher Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer; two worlds at times in conflict, at times reinforcing one another, dynamically seeking a fictional equilibrium. Far from a problem, this bifurcated nature of the book is the key to its understated power.
On the one hand, All The Broken Things is a realistic, even gritty novel, which leans considerably on the hallmarks and standards of Canadian immigrant fiction. The novel is set in 1983; Bo is a 14-year-old Vietnamese refugee living in Toronto in a church-sponsored home with his mother, Rose, and his sister, Orange Blossom. Orange, as he calls her, was born after Bo and his family escaped Vietnam, but she bears the history of that conflict in a terrible disfigurement, the lingering effect of Agent Orange. Rose keeps the damaged girl hidden. Bo acts as her caretaker.
This storyline fits comfortably into well-worn themes: Bo struggles with racism and fighting, is drawn to a Canadian girl, finds comfort in a kindly (almost saintly) teacher, and gets the lead part in the school play. It’s familiar, though made fresh and unique through Kuitenbrouwer’s incisive prose style and her full-blooded characterization of Bo.
The second strand of the story, on the other hand, is something unique, something breathtaking, something unexpected. Something closer to fable, in fact.
One night, a mysterious older man witnesses Bo fighting with one of the neighbourhood boys. The man, Gerry, who works the Ontario carnival circuit, compliments Bo on his fighting skills, and offers him a job bear wrestling. Yes, bear wrestling.
From Bo’s first encounter with Gerry’s bear Loralei, from their first contact in the ring, he seems to have found his place in the world. “He luxuriated in her smell. The awful stench reminded him of the melting spring earth in parts of High Park, of the raw of unwashed body. Loralei lifted her right paw then and drew Bo to her, sat back on her haunches, and clasped her other paw over the first.”
When Gerry gives Bo his own bear cub to raise and train, it is a transforming moment: “The cub smelled milky and was warm against him. Bigger than Orange, but Bo could still manage her. She splayed her body wide open and melted right against him, nuzzled his collar for a bit, then fell asleep. Mine, thought Bo, and Gerry must have seen the thought in his eyes.”
The carnival plot initially complements the quotidian storyline, providing a surreal counterpoint to the grinding reality of Bo’s daily life. Interestingly, though, the narratives inform each other at a stylistic level: perhaps counter to expectation, the scenes of Bo’s daily life are characterized by a spare distance that lends them the feel of fairy tale, while the surreal carnival scenes – reminiscent of Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love – are rooted in the earthy physicality and sensualism of violence and decay.
The simultaneous conflict and confluence of the worlds increases when Max – Gerry’s boss at the carnival, the man in charge of the “oddities” – becomes aware of, and enamoured with, Orange. When Max begins to show up in Bo’s house, and a relationship develops between he and Rose, the boundaries between the worlds crumble, leading up to the point where Rose and Orange disappear with Max and Bo must run with Bear, hiding and building a life in High Park.
The threading of these divergent worlds within All the Broken Things serves to unsettle the reader at an almost subliminal level. With Kuitenbrouwer’s clear and uncluttered prose, what is happening at a narrative level is always clear, but just how it is happening, psychologically, remains a mystery. The novel surprises throughout because the reader is never sure just which world they are inhabiting, just which set of rules it will obey. As a result, the novel as a whole feels tinged with magic, despite being resolutely – and frequently heartbreakingly – rooted in the “real.” All The Broken Things defies the purely rational and finds something much deeper, something out of time.
Robert J. Wiersema is the author of Before I Wake and Bedtime Story. His new novel, Black Feathers, will be published next year.