Author Tags: Fiction

Joanna Streetly was born in Trinidad, W.I., and educated in England. She moved to the West Coast of Vancouver Island in 1990, where she lives on a floathouse in Clayoquot Sound and works as a freelance writer, illustrator, editor and kayak guide. For seven years she was married to a Tla-o-qui-aht canoe carver, and forged many links to the local First Nations community. Her first novel is Silent Inlet (Oolichan, 2005). [See review]

[BCBW 2006] "Fiction"

Silent Inlet (Oolichan $22.95)

Five years ago, Hannah escaped from Hansen Sound, a storm-wrapped, isolated sliver of a village on Vancouver Island’s west coast. She fled north to train and work as a nurse, perhaps desperate for the reliable rays of a Yukon sun.

In the sopping bi-cultural home of her birth, the sun is a rare occurrence, especially at the darkest time of the year, the winter solstice, the time when she returns. This time Hannah is escaping from an abusive relationship in Whitehorse, carrying bruises and bumps, one of which is not going to go away anytime soon.

While the story of a prodigal daughter returning home humbled and pregnant is not new, there is nothing clichéd about Hannah or the home to which she returns. Joanna Streetly’s Silent Inlet unfolds slowly and believably through the thoughts and actions of four people: Hannah and her mother, Harry, (short for Harriet); and two Aboriginals, Big Mack Stanley and his nephew, Lonny.

Writing from a male view point with a different cultural outlook would be challenging for most, but Streetly knows what she’s doing, having had a seven-year marriage to a Tla-o-qui-aht carver. She obviously learned more than just a new language. Having lived in Clayoquot Sound for 16 years, she has had time to absorb the tang and bluster of a sodden Tofino winter, and having arrived in Canada in 1990 as an immigrant from Trinidad and England, Streetly also knows what it’s like to be connected to two cultures, never fully belonging to either—just like some of her characters.

“Harry”, a self-reliant loner who lives on her own small island about two hours by boat from the village, was a single mother who brought up her daughter, Hannah, to be like she was. As a young teenager, Hannah rebelled and went to live in town, staying with a loving but childless couple, Jack and Ada, in order to attend school. Ada is dead, but Jack’s home is still Hannah’s and he remains her surrogate father. Hannah never knew or wanted to know anything about her birth father who left without even knowing he had planted a seed, but now, contemplating single motherhood herself, Hannah wants to know more about her past. What she learns will slightly alter the way she sees the world.

Big Mack has no idea what happened to his mother when she disappeared when he was a young boy. His father went on a binge and before they knew it, the children were dispersed. Now in his late 30s he is again living in his father’s home, trying in turn to be father to two boys, one of whom, Lonny, is as good as orphaned. Lonny is the son of one of Big Mack’s brothers, in jail for murdering Lonny’s mother. Ten-year-old Lonny is on the brink—so which way will he teeter? On the side of love, openness and the optimism of childhood? or toward the cynical, despairing ennui of those who have gone before?

A frightening accident suddenly puts pressure on all these fragile relationships.

A fifth character is the setting itself—the rain, the storms, the quality of light and smell of the sea, the remoteness. The Sound blankets the inhabitants, warming, chilling, imprisoning and freeing them.

Streetly’s approach to writing a first novel was literally picturesque. “When I began this book, I didn’t write,” she says. “I drew. I drew people, houses, floor plans, maps, maps and more maps. I named every street in town and every river in the Sound. Hansen Sound came alive for me, even though it is completely fictional.”

The sudden revelations that appear in a world where everything must happen in its own time, and where ways of thinking will only alter over generations, can sometimes run a bit thick. For example: “Hannah is suddenly overcome by the way sadness can be everywhere and nowhere; present, yet invisible.... It makes her feel connected on a different level, as if this thread of sadness binds them together.... For someone who has always been a loner, the feeling is strange, but she welcomes it.”

Or for Big Mack: “From a faraway corner of his brain, he feels his mother’s smile creeping out at him again. It beams at him for a few seconds and then vanishes. Mack feels his own mouth lift at the corners, returning the smile. He smiles harder as a sense of joy and love run into him.” But Joanna Streetly’s unerring sense of place is one of the strength’s of the novel, along with her sensitive exploration of the ambivalent feelings between mother and daughter. Guilt and love and fear and pity and anger all bundled together into one inescapable bond.

In addition to being an artist, Streetly is also a kayak guide, the author of Paddling Through Time and the editor of the west coast anthology Salt in Our Blood. A kayaker moves slowly and knows the land in a way that others never will. And that’s Streetly’s approach to narrative. She has used her experiences on the water to provide depth to the brooding setting of the novel.

For someone reading in Europe or South America or Toronto, Silent Inlet would no doubt be an exotic story; for those of us on the West Coast, Streetly has made an earnest attempt to tell it like it is. 0-88982-207-7

--by Cherie Thiessen who reviews books from Pender Island.

[BCBW 2006] "Fiction"