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September 9, 2016
The Word On The Street Toronto will be hosting the authors and editors of all five finalists for the 2016 Toronto Book Awards at this year’s festival on Sunday, September 25, at Harbourfront Centre. As a special treat, we’ll be posting reviews of the nominated books in the weeks leading up to the festival from a panel of writers, reviewers, and editors working in Toronto today.
Next is On the Shores of Darkness, There Is Light by Cordelia Strube, reviewed by Nikolina Likarevic. Nikolina, the second of five 2016 Toronto Book Awards reviewers, is the Associate Editor of the online magazine Sewer Lid. Cordelia Strube will be reading at The Word On the Street at Harbourfront Centre on September 25, at 12:00 – 12:30pm at the Toronto Book Awards Tent and again at 3:00 – 3:30pm at the Vibrant Voices of Ontario Tent. This year’s Toronto Book Awards will be awarded on October 11, 2016.
The title of author Cordelia Strube’s new fiction novel, On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light, may seem slightly cliché with the light vs. dark dichotomy, but the contents of the novel are most definitely integral. “There is a budding morrow in midnight,” a line from John Keats’ poem, “To Homer,” a poem Strube quotes in the first pages, is a bit more on the nose in describing the tone of the novel. Midnight is the darkest time of night and this darkness can be deeply unsettling, but midnight is also the beginning of a new day; from the depths of despair a new hope is born. This ability to see light in dreadful scenarios is a gift Strube possesses. Her characters ache as they carry complex burdens, but there is always a comedic moment, a line that makes you laugh because it is so relatable. One thing I assure, you will fall in love with little Harriet and Irwin, the main characters of this bittersweet tale.
Harriet is a deeply intelligent, lively and talented, eleven-year old artist who is misunderstood by the often irresponsible and distracted adults in her life. Harriet’s younger brother Irwin, loves Harriet but, due to his condition of hydrocephalus (fluid in the brain), takes up all of their mother’s time and attention. This leaves Harriet to a stepfather she loathes, a largely absentee biological father and an equally self-absorbed stepmother. In the Shangrila, a lower-income housing apartment building in Toronto, where Harriet and her family live, it is the seniors, the neighbours and Mr. Hung who provide Harriet with guidance. This fictional building is an ecosystem. Readers will find it simple to imagine the occupiers of the building turning about in their cycles even when they are not in the story or are only in the background. The seniors often act as a chorus of comic relief or add to the tragedy of Harriet’s day-to-day life. Harriet puts up with them since they are a source of income for her. Each errand for them has a price tag and Harriet is collecting, for her escape to Algonquin Park.
Harriet buzzes on the inside with life, with action, with wanting to wear, or immerse herself in, the beauty of life and is someone who challenges the unspoken and spoken truths she encounters. This inner strength Harriet possesses begins to crumble underneath the mistakes of the adults in her life. For those who do not understand her, her strengths are assumed to be attempts at rebellion; in actuality, she navigates the world differently than most children. While, Irwin is in and out of the hospital but rather than grow weary of the world, he is excited about everything and has a strong moral character – always able to empathize or sympathize with others’ misfortune. The mistakes made by the adults with Harriet and Irwin eventually adds up, leaving a dark cloud over the children’s lives.
Strube’s playwright experience is easily seen in this dialogue-heavy novel. The characters shine most when they open (or choose not to open) their mouths. Not far into the novel, I felt like I could sit back and let Strube take the conversations to: commentary about Toronto, about our moment in history, gossip about the other seniors, or whatever she felt needed to be said.
It is not just the dialogue that delivers. In select sections of the novel, Strube deftly melds scenes together – i.e. ones happening in the future or past with one happening in the present – without confusion. It is unsettling, having time manipulated, or warped, in this way, but this time melding only serves depth to the narrative. I found myself flipping through the pages faster in these moments, wondering how else the author may unsettle the comfortable relationship I’d fallen into with the characters.
A quiet, but incessant tension runs throughout the novel, the opening scene being the perfect example of impending doom. In this scene, Harriet runs to her mother and stepfather to let them know she’s seen a baby locked in a car on this humid day, but her mother and stepfather don’t listen to her and the reader begins to worry the baby may die. Harriet refuses to let her voice be silenced, she screams out, “There’s a baby stuck in a car!” twice before the baby’s father runs off to the rescue. The lack of attention paid to Harriet is immediately jarring, especially when it becomes clear Harriet has done nothing to deserve such treatment except be an eleven-year-old girl.
The heart of this novel is always clear: Strube presents us with strong characters in fully formed environments and never let’s opportunities to add more richness go by. Each scene is subtly beautiful in its own right but if you dig just a little there are many levels of complexity to explore. The narrative opens up space for discussion on issues such as the lack of affordable day care and programs for youth in Canada, the treatment of the elderly by our institutions, the way modern parents view their children and interact with them and the role technology plays in raising children. Both the children and the seniors of the story are isolated from the adults, often excluded because they require too much patience and time. Prioritizing after reading this novel will become easier; sincerely paying attention to loved ones is of the utmost importance.
Tip: I read the novel over a few days and forgot something that could have saved me some heartache. Pay special attention to how the book is divided. The first section of the book is titled, “Before.” This way you may be slightly more prepared for when the, “After,” or the second half of the novel, hits.
Nikolina Likarevic is a graduate of the MA Literatures of Modernity program at Ryerson University. She is the Associate Editor of Sewer Lid, a magazine of urban art and literature. Currently, she is completing a Master of Information in Library and Information Science at the University of Toronto.
Name just ONE of the many awards Cordelia Strube has been nominated for during her successful career.
Keep an eye out for the rest of the Toronto Book Awards reviews, and more chances to enter.