Looking for Happiness

Reviewed by Maria Noëlle Ng

If a reader wants to find one or two novels to provide her with cultural and historical background to British Columbia, especially the coastal region, she can find it in either Joe Denham’s The Year of Broken Glass or Myrna Dey’s Extensions. Denham locates his work mainly on the Sunshine Coast, while Dey’s novel is set in Vancouver and in a small mining town on Vancouver Island. Both works are also similar in their central trope of a main character in search of a happier life in The Year of Broken Glass and the truth of the past in Extensions. Because Denham and Dey eschew using a linear narrative and a single point of view, the novels are more challenging to read than the run-of-the-mill fiction available to the general public. The writers’ attempts to employ narrative complexity and character development to produce a quality work are laudable, but not without problems.

Denham’s Francis Wichbaun is a university graduate-turned-fisherman. In a fairytale-like scene, he captures a glass float that has mythical power. Having been told that the glass float would garner him a small fortune, Francis decides to take the object to Hawaii where the buyer lives, because Francis has a second family and wants to leave his eco-warrior Anna and son for loving Jin Su and daughter Emily. Francis is not a happy character. The reader’s introduction to him is: I’m tired of the end of the world. This is a sentiment repeated in the novel. Why is Francis so weary of life? Is it because of his principled but nagging Anna, whom he met at university? Is it because the fishing business is not flourishing? Is it because, like all adulterous men, it is hard to keep two households going and to keep the lies straight? Is it because he realizes that he is a failure? Probably all of the above and more. That means Francis is not much different from the average person living and breathing in reality.

At this point the reader might question the charisma that should be radiating from Francis, since he is the focus of three women, including Miriam who sails with him; unfortunately, he comes across as a whiner. Then one wonders at the genre-mixing that happens throughout the novel. The Year of Broken Glass begins as a soft-spoken existential meditation. At some point, it becomes a kind of literary Waterworld with a bit of Melville and Conrad: adventures on the high seas, self-discovery, romantic interest, individual endurance, and so on. The third generic turn occurs when guns are fired and assassins are rappelling from a helicopter. Many writers have tried to mix elements of genres to produce a more original narrative. But this is a fine balance not easily maintained. However, Denham’s novel is written with integrity and, often, elegance. The exception is when Denham introduces multiple first-person narrations. Anna’s voice is vigorous and believable. Jin Su’s is a mere whisper, an accessory. Others are not convincing.

Extensions is narrated in first-person. Bella Dryvynsydes is a policewoman looking to solve the mystery of her great-grandmother’s early life in a mining town in British Columbia. The novel moves from Bella’s reflections on her life—her mother has died, her lover has dumped her, and she is finding repeated visits to domestic violence unrewarding —to letters written by her great-grandmother Jane, a child of Welsh immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century. These letters are retrieved from various sources. The process of retrieval becomes a series of discoveries of lost relatives and stories of the past. Fitting the pieces of puzzles together, Dey implies, is Bella’s way to fit the pieces of her life together: to overcome her low self-esteem, to change to a more fulfilling area of police work, and finally, to accept romantic attention from someone she once arrested. The novel’s rhythm moves from the narrator’s don’t-mess-with-me evaluations (of people, of life) which, given her profession, predictably sound caustic and cynical, to the epistolary style of Jane, who comes through as a strong woman with solid beliefs in what she has to do to endure the hardship of the lives of immigrant miners. The result is that the reader might be more interested in Jane and would like to know more about her. Still, the reader is happy with the happy ending.

This review “Looking for Happiness” originally appeared in Of Borders and Bioregions. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 218 (Autumn 2013): 155-56.

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