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Review: Debuts from David Clerson, Ajith Boyagoda and Bethlehem Terrefe Gebreyohannes

Brothers

By David Clerson, translated by Katia Grubisic

QC Fiction, 150 pages, $19.95

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Two boys, brothers, one missing an arm, the other's arms too short for his body, push through "beating wings and squawks, dozens of birds flapping around them," through the briny marshes, farther than they have ever gone before, to see the thing the birds swarm. It is a sea monster. The brothers, their faces those of "primitive gods" tell the "leech boys" how their mother formed the short-armed one from the arm she cut off the slightly older boy. It's a gripping first chapter. What is it? Post-apocalyptic fable, I originally thought, or maybe just surrealism born of childhood. But no, the boys grow up and the imagery becomes only darker, stranger, more brutal and mythic until there run two currents of meaning, one allegorical, although I find the face-value reading a richer experience. David Clerson's debut novel is among the first titles published by QC Fiction, a new imprint of Montreal's Baraka Books dedicated to French Quebec fiction in translation.

A Long Watch: War, Captivity and Return in Sri Lanka

By Commodore Ajith Boyagoda, as told to Sunila Galappatti

Hurst, 256 pages, $32.95

"When I joined the Navy, I had bathed in the sea but never been in a boat." Ajith Boyagoda was a boy, and he joined for boyish reasons: he liked the uniform, and he was from a hill city as far inland as possible in Sri Lanka. In 1974, the Tamil separatist movement was still nascent. Boyagoda (who is Sinhalese) was of perhaps the last generation of Government Forces who could enlist non-ideologically. This is significant, for Boyagoda would become in the civil war that followed a "show prisoner," the highest-ranking detainee of the Tamil Tigers, who held him for eight years. In his memoir, Sunila Galappatti captures Boyagoda's remarkably tempered voice as he recalls war, captivity and homecoming. He mourns the war, which he has called "a mistake," mourns particularly the lost opportunity for peace in 1994, and generally the changes in Sri Lankan society he witnesses on his return. A dramaturge and theatre director, this is Galappatti's first book.

Fire Walkers

By Bethlehem Terrefe Gebreyohannes

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Mawenzi House, 264 pages, $24.95

In 1980, 14-year-old Bethlehem Gebreyohannes went on holiday with her family to Dire Dawa, a market city in Ethiopia's east. This was supposed to be "vacation" – the family of six was to see the work of Beth's father, Terrefe, a government agricultural scientist – but things were off: they didn't usually take family photos with them when they travelled. Days later, Terrefe would reveal their holiday plans were a cover for escape: the years since the 1974 coup had seen an increase in political killings of anyone associated with Haile Selassie, and Terrefe worried for his family. Fire Walkers is Beth's memoir, but it is in a way two stories: a harrowing journey across the Danakil Desert, one of the hottest places on earth, it is also an ode to Terrefe's generation's lost dream for Ethiopia. After a 15-month journey, the family came to Canada, settling in Lethbridge, Alta. A forceful reminder of the paths taken to reach here.

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