Chelene Knight’s highly anticipated novel, Junie, is a triumphant and breathtakingly beautiful account of a largely neglected novelistic terrain—Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver. It reminded me what is possible when an author of Knight’s magnitude and talent creates a luminous sense of place. I emerged from reading her captivating work with a few observations, but most of all, I felt as if I had actively visited another world at a different time — in this case, Hogan’s Alley in the neighbourhood of Strathcona, Vancouver, in the 1930s.
Junie, a wise and observant young Black queer artist, struggles with her alcoholic mother and her own blossoming feelings of love for her best friend, Estelle, who has issues with her own mother for entirely different, and similar, reasons. Knight squarely positions her protagonist during this period and by painting us pictures in this vivid geography, allows us access to a social and cultural feminist geography that has too often been neglected in fictional depictions of Black Canada.
Knight is a renowned poet whose gifts were on display in her collection Braided Skin. Junie offers full view of her talents as a prose writer, with particular lines so evocative that they stopped me in my tracks — for example, “sure enough there were three empty bottles of lager resting on the side table like family” (174). It’s almost as if she has taken the very best of her poetry and brought it into prose form. It is, ultimately, too, a cinematic kind of novel, one which you can see frame by frame. The story is one that gestures to the Creative (and I use that capital-C deliberately) in multiple forms, as Junie is a blossoming painter, and the colours and stories she evokes jump off the page. But Knight not only touches upon art in her storytelling — no, she also speaks to music and voice, in all their metaphoric forms. Junie’s mother is a force unto herself, a singer of immense talent, albeit self-destructive and at times, cruel, thus leaving Junie left to pick up the pieces at home. What follows is a complex and poignant story about mother-daughter relations, and how we bring what we know about our parents to all our other relationships., may it be friendships or romantic alliances, and both.
After spending time with this novel, and flipping through pages and pages of the book, I still marvel at Knight’s ability to weave together the points of view in this story. At times, we hear Junie’s voice, at others, it’s third person — or the voice of Estelle, Junie’s troubled best friend, amongst others. It never feels gimmicky or trite, however, but serves to enrich the text. I tend to use the word “scaffolding” a lot in my teaching, and in reading this book I realized something: Knight well may be the queen of scaffolding. In a taut and careful way, Knight has created a foundation for her novel by skipping back and forth in time and through various characters, and through an innovative use of white space. I’m still not sure how she accomplished this gargantuan task as a writer: I have to admit I was a little amazed that I never once felt lost, and only felt greater empathy and understanding for the characters as a result of her fine-tuned technique.
One of the most moving elements of the novel is its commitment to speaking about mentorship in the Black community through the love and care Junie receives from two individuals who support her unequivocally. These storylines bring an abundance of tenderness to an already tender novel.
I’ve already put this book on my list for next year’s must-reads in my social justice classes. While some less generous readers might balk at that statement, I truly felt that this book held not only magic for my students but also offered poignant insight into a long-lost community of which too many of us, even those of us (particularly those of us?) who live here are unaware. While critics might well claim that Knight does not draw from specific cartographic historical imperatives in her novel —meaning she doesn’t offer us deep dives into actual places that existed — like bars and restaurants that existed in Hogan’s Alley in the 1930s, I’m glad she made the choice she did. Knight’s depictions of the place she visits here, as she says, are solely:
sparked from my imagination [. . .] I wanted to create a world in which the readers could fall into the daily lives of these characters, I wanted the readers to feel the everydayness of their world without distraction. And because of this, I chose not to focus on the destruction to set the book in 1933 to 1939, and instead bring back a small moment in time where everything was in full bloom. Maybe this would allow the reader to dream this place back into existence, or think about another place where life was happening and flourishing, but not truly paid attention to. (author’s note)
As a social cultural geographer, I was moved by Knight’s decision to “challenge the lens through which we view the world” — offering us a way to counter the violence of the white epistemic frame that governs too many historical tales of geographic spaces in Canada. The history of Hogan’s Alley is thus illuminated here but in a thoughtful way, through the stories that Knight offers us, illustrated in the points of view of its residents.
This is a book that is deserving of reverence and care, and one that carries within it crucial substance in its offering of a look at a historically under-served neighbourhood in novelistic representations, and one that showcases the skill of a true creative, with all its nuances and intricate tellings.
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