There’s a special pleasure and a special anxiety in reviewing books from a small Canadian press. While certainly not inaccessible, there’s an impression that maybe they’re harder to get, they’re not Big Five (or whatever it is now that PRH is acquiring S&S?) so they’re somehow odd or have to prove themselves in a way that Books from Big Publishers Don’t– I don’t really know. What I do know is that Urchin by Kate Story (you can buy from that link in the USA) from Running the Goat (or you can buy direct from the press in Canada!) in Newfoundland could not have achieved what it did with the dexterity and rough beauty it did, the jaggedness and windiness it did, without the attention to atmosphere and the honest understanding of the Newfoundland history a publisher who lives right there could give, so I’m glad that it was done in Newfoundland by Newfoundlanders who know the history and the ground. And it’s beautiful.
Just look at that cover design. There, right there, you see the power of a publisher, editor, and designer who get it. That’s the book. When I saw the cover design, I knew I needed it, and I have never been so right. (Look at the crow. I love the crow.)
I’m going to say something that may sound like I’m overstating things, but I really don’t think I am: If there’s a novel that expresses the trapped dual-and-unreal feeling of living through this pandemic, this is that novel. Yes, it’s local, and yet the local focus has universal appeal. I think Kate Story’s book, written before but out now, is the closest I’ve come to the living-in-two-spaces feeling of the pandemic in a novel, though. (As I said in another post, Brian Selznick’s fractured and non-linear Kaleidoscope also has the feeling of time and space being fluid.)
One of the issues with encapsulating what makes this book so particularly special is that I want to tell the story, but I also want to convey the atmosphere. I want to pin down the protagonist, but also tell the history. Basically, I want to give you the full reading experience, which you can only get by reading the book (which I highly recommend). It’s very tricky! But I’m enjoying the process of revolving my mind around this beautifully readable and yet original and experimental book.
The book is told in the first person, which is decidedly never my preference for a novel, yet Kate Story makes it work. The limitations of this point of view get us into protagonist Dor’s mind, letting us see through Dor’s eyes, hear through Dor’s ears, and, most importantly, feel with Dor’s heart and body. It’s intimate, but it’s limited, which works to the book’s advantage. We start in the future: a pandemic is raging (hahah yeah don’t stop there, please, it’s worth it), we aren’t sure where, exactly. And Dor, at the bedside of someone sick and beloved, is being begged to write down the story they lived. So Dor does.
Back to Newfoundland. We see Dor as an uneasy girl. At that point Dor is seen exclusively as a young woman, but is already and increasingly uneasy in that skin. And here’s where that first person perspective so clearly comes through as the right way to do things: today, and hereafter, I’m going to use they/them as Dor’s pronouns, which is accurate– but the book is never in that position since Dor is doing the talking. That intimacy is exactly the lens that allows them to elide any need for a clumsy category. Dor, we slowly discover, is nonbinary, but I see in Dor’s story, which doesn’t use that term and doesn’t use those pronouns (though, to be clear, I will and we certainly should), something more intimate and deeper in our appreciation of them: not what they’re not (“Dor is not binary”) but what they are (Dor is Dor, and Dor is unique and beautiful and vivid and brave and sometimes timid). After learning from a number of friends how frustratingly limiting the standard vocabulary of gender can be, I found this plunge into perspective of a human, a person, a brain and a soul, frankly liberating. I felt Dor’s liberation in “boy’s clothes” and I likewise felt their humiliation and loathing in being called “young lady.”
You, the reader, feel this, but this is not the story. The story is Newfoundland. The story is, in banal terms, a historical fiction set when Guglielmo Marconi comes to Newfoundland and captures a transatlantic wireless transmission on Signal Hill near St. John’s. Well, you think, isn’t that nice! A cool moment in local history, for a local press. Don’t stop there, this is not the story either.
Dor’s family lives close by Signal Hill, and her ancestor actually moved the house to a hill to be far from the risk of St. John’s traumatic fires– but in doing so actually moved it to a fairy mound. Putting it right on their path was a dangerous thing to do, and the consequences resonate for generations, and so it all comes to a crux when Dor’s deeply depressed midwife mother disappears when called out one night– and Dor, not believing she’s dead, sets out to set things right, and, in the process, is right at the heart of Marconi’s work, discovering what he’s up to, as well.
With every breath of the story you feel the high winds, you see the crashing waves, you stumble on rocks, and you hear the Newfoundland voice (even the quick changes as Dor notes that someone switches to proper English when they want to be impressive). There’s the desire for escape to New York, as her friends, a journalist and a singer, set their sights on a greater future, and Dor wants to join them, but, simultaneously, a rootedness by the sea, a feeling all too familiar to anyone who’s spent much time on the Atlantic coast (oh hi, that’d be me).
And, through it all, is the personal whisper: “Who am I? What am I? Am I even ok? Please, someone just see me for me and still care about me.”
Kate Story, really, has created an original, interwoven story, present yet historic, realist yet fantastic, which feels so fractured and whole that it’s resonance with this fractured yet whole Covid-19 day and age will not disappear. This is not a book which will have only a year’s relevance. It feels so rooted in history and present in the soul that I think it has staying power. And I feel so grateful to have read it at a moment like this, when I needed someone to echo my own feelings: “What is this world? Where are we? Is my house talking around my ears?”
Oh! And, if you’re not already sold? There’s a crow. And if you stick with reading, you will hear the crow and even the crow’s name but I’m not telling you more. You’ve got to read it for that.