Degrees of Separation

Reviewed by Dorothy F. Lane

These fascinating new works of fiction are rooted in personal and shared stories, and are set geographically in the city of Toronto; both unravel the unexpected threads that connect personal lives and public histories, disentangling the hidden dwellers of streets, malls, and neighbourhoods, and exploring interconnectivity and segregation based on ethnicity, language, physical appearance, education, gender, and economic status. The reader comes away with a rich, multidimensional kaleidoscope of the city. More remarkably, both books are almost spellbinding in their ability to explore individual lives and locations, yet also to reach temporally and spatially into the ancient past and into remote places often repressed in Canadian history.

Andrea Gunraj’s The Lost Sister was, as the publisher’s blurb states, “inspired by the true-life experiences of a close friend and former resident” of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children. As Gunraj has emphasized, the book’s proceeds will fund a bursary for descendants of the Home’s survivors. While her first novel is set primarily on an unidentified island in the Caribbean, The Lost Sister explores the specific space of Toronto’s “Jane & Finch”—and the cross-cultural and multi-generational landscape of that neighbourhood. At the same time, the first-person narration reflects the perspective of the un-lost “cowardly sister,” Alisha. (The intratextual audience of the account remains unknown until the novel’s Epilogue.) Alisha’s story is interwoven with Paula’s much older story of family, loss, and unresolved fractures.

Gunraj has noted her fascination with the ambivalent relationship between sisters, and explores a mix of protection, resentment, emulation, and competition through the linking of these two distinct stories. Alisha’s recollection of her relationship with Diana is interwoven with Paula’s more distanced memories of her relationship with her younger sister, Ave. The stories develop through two distinct chronological frameworks, alternating between multiple present and past lives skilfully. However, Alisha’s story is the more haunting and evocative for the reader, while that of the Nova Scotia Home—resurrecting “Queen Nanny of the Blue Mountains” on “Big Turtle Island”—feels more detached, and at times somewhat overly convenient or pedantic. The resulting novel is still, though, a powerful truth-telling that contributes to a deeper understanding of Canada’s uncelebrated past.

Similarly, the didactic component of Phillip Ernest’s The Far Himalaya is at times distancing for the reader, yet it successfully integrates the ancient epic Mahābhārata with the no-less-troubling wars on the streets of Toronto and in the hallways of the University of Toronto. Moreover, that blend of intimacy and distance seems appropriate, since the primary character, Ben, and his mentor, “Moksha,” explore their places as both insiders and outsiders in these locales. Ernest has noted in an interview with the publisher (accessible online at that he is fascinated with art as an instrument for self-exploration, so that his weaving of interior and “remote” worlds (like the Mahābhārata) holds “tragedy and comedy in one hand and the other at the same moment.” The centre is more profoundly the university campus and its politics, reflecting violence, addiction, and misuse of power both within and outside the academy. That focus is prominent especially in the relationship of Ben and Aditi, a doctoral student in East Asian studies.

Ernest has also commented that his construction of this intimate relationship is one of the novel’s weaknesses, as his portrayal of this relationship idealizes the bond but leaves Aditi’s character largely enigmatic and underdeveloped. For instance, the rationale for Ben’s shadow-writing role in Aditi’s dissertation, with its emphasis on desire, can be somewhat unsettling. On the other side, the mapping of Toronto’s streets, and (further) the ashram on Lake Simcoe creates an intriguing pilgrimage. While the couple does inevitably journey to the “Far Himalaya” in South Asia, the labyrinth in Toronto becomes a more profound and sacred space—the “devabhūmi” or “land of the gods.”

Also evocative is the interplay of hallucinogenic substances and altered states of consciousness, an interplay that results in a Canadian “magic realism,” even with a third-person narrator. In many episodes, the reader is caught in the web of imagined reality, and in moments of transformation from individual to character type, and to archetype. While this translation is sometimes rather heavy-handed, Ernest manages to create an approach that is both riveting and powerful. The limited-omniscient perspective invites the reader on an often terrifying, yet awe-inspiring, journey through the labyrinth of material conditions in Toronto.

Both these novels are richer when one reads the “back story” of their creation. In Ernest’s novel, Ben’s struggle to grasp solid ground—reality and joy—becomes the reader’s struggle also. Similarly, in Gunraj’s book, the unlost sister’s fabrication after her sister’s disappearance—and her burden of guilt and grief—become both compelling and intolerable as the narrative unfolds. We may know that the truth will resist concealment, but we are also invested in the dilemma of Alisha to reveal her role in the disappearance.

This review “Degrees of Separation” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 28 Aug. 2020. Web.

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