My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a thoughtful and well-written novel which will challenge those in 'comfortable pews' as well as those readers who try to avoid reading about genocide (in this case, Guatemala) or those who have set ideas about Catholic priests. This is to name just three good reasons to read this challenging book. The central characters are not having easy lives: Isabel is a recovering alcoholic in her late forties, living in a small northern Canadian town. She is a lonely woman who has made many poor choices in male companionship while under the influence and who has difficult relationships with two of her three adult children. Her daughter Janna is bright, hardworking and just as stubborn as her mother but she has managed to escape the town where her mother's drunken, lustful escapades brought down more than her fair share of shame amongst her peers. There are two brothers with different fathers, one increasingly remote and disapproving and the other, wonderfully developed, the emotional and sensible pillar of the family, who provides stability for them all. His Gitxan family roots are exemplified by his behaviour and leadership.
One character observed that Isabel was "fierce for her children" for all her lapses and failings. She struggles to pay her mortgage, working as the assistant manager of a discount clothing store for $12.50/hour. She finds solace in gardening though, descriptions of which illuminate the darkness of the story in much the same way as bulbs planted in late fall restore the faith of northern gardeners when they emerge to announce another spring.
Isabel tucked the (peony)root into the ground. Before she covered it, she said a prayer for Janna, a prayer to overcome anger. Isabel had felt it in herself when she hugged Janna at her college graduation last spring. She'd felt it in her daughter, the way her pretty face pinched in resistance and her body became an awkward stick that Isabel wanted to shake. She covered the root and prayed that Janna would grow soft, would send out tender shoots, and that she would come home.
Alvaro is the Catholic priest who has lost his faith, his calling and who is suffering terribly from post-traumatic stress. Alvaro endured torture in Guatemala and encountered its manifestations daily while working to reunite families, even if some of the members were bones in a mass grave. There are many more characters, all masterfully created 3-D people, great, reprehensible or merely meddling, with devastating results to show for it. They are characters that linger in my mind, each one fully developed. This is not a book to rush through but to think and feel and hope through and the author's skill is such that one is forced to confront one's own prejudices and easy judgments.
The author, Sheila Peters, has done a substantial amount of research with human rights workers in Guatemala, with Catholic priests and lay persons, and with trauma counselors in Canada. By tackling the sacred and the profane, the best and worst behaviours of humanity, she has offered us an ambitious first novel of great depth and complexity with memorable characters that will linger a long while after the ending, which is just exactly right for the story.The Taste of Ashes
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