Beasts and Spirits

Reviewed by Jenny Kerber

Dania Tomlinson’s debut novel Our Animal Hearts explores the harmonies and dissonances among humans and other species in the Okanagan Valley during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a time of transition that included Indigenous displacement, colonial settlement, the arrival of Japanese and other labourers, and the turmoil of World War I. The central character is Iris, a young woman living on a peach farm who is trying to find her way between two parental paths. Her wealthy father is loving but often absent, viewing British Columbia as a temporary place to exercise his bohemian inclinations before returning his family to England. Meanwhile, Iris’ enigmatic mother, Llewelyna, has developed a deep attachment to the Okanagan, one nurtured by her friendship with a local Indigenous man and her own rootedness in Welsh oral traditions wherein human, animal, and spirit worlds readily overlap. Yet with attachment to locale comes awareness of the shadow sides of places, people, and things—whether as a result of cultural tensions, repressed memories, or humanity’s treatment of nature. As the novel progresses, Iris dives deeper into these shadow worlds, and their real-life consequences become tangible when her brother is attacked by a mysterious lake creature. He survives, but the encounter sets up a key conflict between those who hold to older, more reciprocal, land-based modes of belief, and those who demand conformity to Christianity and Western science. Although the idea of a “lake monster” in the Okanagan might call to mind cartoonish cryptozoology, in Tomlinson’s hands the story of Ogopogo or Naitaka becomes a nuanced metaphor for the haunting secrets of human desire, unseen natural forces, and the limits of what we are meant to know. In the end, Tomlinson’s rendering of this figure also strikes an environmentalist note, exploring what the treatment of nature reveals about human (in)capacities to reckon with our own demons.

Readers familiar with the works of Sheila Watson and Gail Anderson-Dargatz will hear familiar echoes in the novel’s interweaving of local Indigenous and European mythologies in the BC Interior. Yet where Watson’s style in The Double Hook is spare, Tomlinson’s is lush, with detailed descriptions of flora, fauna, and people of the Okanagan, and her plot is rollicking, with more twists and turns than a mountainside highway. Our Animal Hearts will have no trouble sustaining readers’ attention as the betrayals and countermoves pile up, though it also illustrates a few of the perils of a first novel: the number of subplots could be trimmed, for instance, and some of the characters seem to be given odd quirks for quirks’ sake. Still, one of the strengths of the book is the fact that none of its characters are purely likeable or “good”; Iris herself is not immune to sins of omission and commission, but nor are her motivations impenetrable. Overall, this debut shows epic range in storytelling nicely balanced with detailed attention to place.

This review “Beasts and Spirits” originally appeared in Rescaling CanLit: Global Readings Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 238 (2019): 166.

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