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book review

Black River Road: An Unthinkable Crime, an Unlikely Suspect, and the Question of Character

By Debra Komar, Goose Lane, 224 pages, $19.95

Two years into Confederation, berry pickers in the woods outside Saint John discovered the heavily decomposed bodies of an adult and an infant. The inquest soon turned into a murder trial, with a prominent member of Saint John society in the dock. John Munroe's trial was the first time a Canadian jury heard the accused's character used as a defence. Black River Road is the latest in Debra Komar's series of thoroughly researched histories of Canadian crime. As in her previous books, the crime itself is less significant than what it shows about Canadian history. Komar doesn't solve the case in Black River Road – it doesn't need much solving; instead, she applies her skills as a forensic anthropologist to analyzing the collection and presentation of evidence. Despite the principle of "universal lethality in people," character still comes up as a defence in Canadian courts and in public reaction to the accused. A careful dissection of "the question of character."


By Xue Yiwei, translated by Darryl Sterk, Linda Leith, 188 pages, $18.95

In the opening story to Xue Yiwei's collection, a chance encounter on a train to Montreal leads a Canadian woman to leave her life near Trois-Rivières for Shenzhen. For both character and reader, Montreal becomes a portal to "China's youngest city," but the book's dedication brings another city into the mix: "To the Irishman who inspires me" – Shenzheners is Xue's Dubliners. It is also Xue's first book translated into English, though he's an acclaimed author in China and has lived in Canada since 2002. Shenzhen, which lies just north of Hong Kong, was a market town until 1980, when China designated it a Special Economic Zone. Today, metro Shenzhen's population breaks 18 million. Perhaps in response to this astronomical growth, the people who variegate Xue's stories share a sense of psychological solitude (alternative reading: emotional isolation) cut through with moments of intense personal connection. A quiet but intimate interlocution with the city.

Arts of Engagement: Taking Aesthetic Action In and Beyond the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada

Edited by Dylan Robinson and Keavy Martin, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 384 pages, $39.99

This collection of essays and conversations by indigenous and settler scholars and artists queries the aesthetic politics of "reconciliation" using the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian residential schools as a starting point. As the editors readily admit, aesthetics can be a loaded term for many indigenous people, but it is also the closest term for critiquing the affective value of conciliatory gesture and for analyzing modes of anti-colonial activism, healing and resistance. Arts of Engagement is not written for the Canadian settler public specifically, nor is it a how-to in cultural action (though there are many hints of what could be developed into artistic practice). That said, this is essential reading for anyone in settler Canadian arts and culture who wants to work through conciliation, which is a process, not an end. We (by which I mean this reader included) need to listen to this critique, to be unsettled, before we can properly embark on that.

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