Silent Inlet

April 22nd, 2009  |  Published in Book Reviews

by Joanna Streetly
Oolichan Books
S.C. $22.95, 448 pp.

Five years ago, Hannah escaped from Hansen Sound, a storm-wrapped, isolated sliver of 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. She is escaping again, this time from Whitehorse and an abusive relationship, carrying bruises and bumps, one of which is not going to go away anytime soon.

This is no easy homecoming.

While the concept of a “runaway” daughter returning home humbled and pregnant is a bit of a cliché, there is nothing clichéd about Hannah or the home she returns to. The novel unfolds through the thoughts and actions of four people: Hannah and her mother, Harry, (short for Harriet) and 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. Married to a Tla-o-qui-aht carver for seven years, she obviously learned more than just a new language. Having lived in Clayoquot Sound for 16 years, she also has had time to absorb the tang and bluster of a sodden Tofino winter. Arriving in Canada in 1990 as an immigrant from Trinidad and England, she also knows what it’s like to be connected to two cultures but to not fully belong to either, something that haunts some of the novel’s characters.

She has a unique approach to her writing. 

“When I began this book, I didn’t write. 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. Hanson Sound came alive for me, even though it is completely fictional.”

In addition to being an artist, the author is also a kayak guide – she’s the author of Paddling Through Time and editor of Salt in Our Blood . Thus she drew on all her skills to give credibility and depth to the brooding setting of the novel. 

Harry, a self reliant loner who lives on her own small island about 2 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 childless couple, Jack and Ada, in order to attend school. Now Ada is dead, but Jack’s home is still Hannah’s and he is still 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. Now, however, contemplating being a single mother herself, Hannah wants to know more. 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 30’s he is again living in his father’s home, trying in turn to be father to two boys, one of whom is as good as orphaned. Lonny is the son of one of Big Mack’s brothers, in jail for murdering Lonny’s mother. The ten- year old is on the brink – what 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. This is a strong part of the book, and no surprise. A kayaker moves slowly and knows the land in a way that others never will. The ambivalent feelings as well between mother and daughter are also sensitively explored. What daughter doesn’t know this emotion? “Guilt and love and fear and pity and anger all bundled into one feeling.”

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, however, feel like too much too soon. 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.” 

Silent Inlet gives us a sense of place and a sense of what’s possible. It’s enough.

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