Monkey Beach

Eden Robinson
Knopf Canada
Review by: 
Jillian Ridington & Karolle Wall
Reading Eden Robinson's Monkey Beach is like sitting around a campfire with a skilled storyteller. Right from the beginning, Robinson's narrator and protagonist, Lisamarie, draws us into her world. In a voice that is clear, compelling and colloquial, Lisamarie takes us on a physical and emotional journey through the inlets and forests of the B.C. coastal mountains, into the hotels and back alleys of Vancouver's skid row, and back again. Through a series of deeply textured, interwoven and related stories, the primary tale-the search for her brother lost at sea-unfolds. Shamans or dreamers are humans who can visit other worlds and return to our own. Lisamarie has the dreamer's gift. She sees things in double exposure; the spirit world is ever present in shapes and sounds that overlay the real word. A little man with red hair-the spirit of the huge cedar trees that hug the mountains of the central B.C. coast-is Lisamarie's primary spirit guide. He warns her of dangers to come. Her struggle is to learn to accept such knowledge and her own gifts. Still, Lisamarie is no puritanical seeker. She is a warrior, a "little monster," a tomboy, a maker of fire and a fisher, who becomes a party girl. She is a young woman coping with the loss of people who have given her love and guidance. The physical search for her brother becomes a painful (and often humorous) journey into memory and self-knowledge. Both Robinson and Lisamarie have the gift of flying between worlds. It takes indigenous knowing to describe Haisla territory as Robinson does. It takes a woman who knows both the dominant popular culture and her own indigenous one to juxtapose images from both worlds as Lisamarie does. The quest for pipxs'm, sya'kºnalh and mimayus (varieties of blueberries) with her grandmother Ma-ma-oo shape shifts into an afternoon watching the soap opera Dynasty. The sea glistens "like crumpled aluminum." The "hard, nubby buds" of salmonberries open "into five-petaled hot-pink flowers about the diameter of a quarter"-evoking both a young woman's pubescence, in all its beauty and vulnerability, and the white man's economy. Robinson takes the rich stories of her people's oral tradition, uses language that is deceptively simple and creates worlds that are hauntingly real, powerful and extremely complex -and definitely worth visiting.