Thursday, August 14, 2008

What We All Long For by Dionne Brand

I received this book through Library Thing's Early Reviewers program, and I was pleased to be selected to review it. Since I began reading I've struggled greatly with what exactly I think of this book, and even more, what rating to give it. Brand's work tells the story of four twenty-somethings living in Toronto negotiating the sometimes tragic details of their lives. There are elements of this book that are very, very good. The way Brand sets the scene in Toronto and its suburbs, in the present and thirty years earlier is excellent. Brand also creates some incredible characters who exist with a reality and depth that is admirable. Brand is a good writer- while perhaps that should go without saying for published fiction, that's certainly not always the case. But with the good comes the bad, too. Parts of this book did not impress me nearly as much. While Brand does create some very impressive characters, there were others who were under-developed, and seemed to have little purpose in the overall work. Oku and Jackie, in particular, and even Carla, to an extent, were marginal. Tuyen was far more complex and interesting than any of the others. This book is not a plot-driven one. It is very much character-driven. Brand is clearly trying to get at some larger issues. The book is about identity, about how people construct their identity and how it is constructed for them. On one level this book is about multi-culturalism in Canada, and what it means to be a Canadian of color. But even more (and connected to that) this book is about how family shapes identity. Each of the main characters is significantly shaped by tragedy in family life. Tuyen is shaped by the loss of her brother, Carla by her mother's suicide and brother's problems, Oku by his difficult relationship with his father, and Jackie by the decline of her parents' Toronto neighborhood. This is a saga about parents, children, and siblings, and how these people play as much of a role in the formation of the self as anything else. Interestingly, all of the main characters are rebelling in some way against their families, abut their rebellions serve only to underscore how deeply they are shaped by their family experiences. Ultimately my opinion was divided on this book, hence the 3. I admired some things, but disliked others, and would have liked more attention to plot and the ending.

Dionne Brand, What We All Long For (St. Martin's Griffin, 2008) ISBN: 0312377711

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