The Break by Katherena Vermette

29220494[Goodreads synopsis] When Stella, a young Métis mother, looks out her window one evening and spots someone in trouble on the Break — a barren field on an isolated strip of land outside her house — she calls the police to alert them to a possible crime.

In a series of shifting narratives, people who are connected, both directly and indirectly, with the victim — police, family, and friends — tell their personal stories leading up to that fateful night. […] Through their various perspectives a larger, more comprehensive story about lives of the residents in Winnipeg’s North End is exposed.

I went into The Break with the expectation that it was going to be sad, and at times hard to read, but I did not expect it to knock the wind out of me the way it did. I read a lot of sad books, but this one really got to me.

We have all been broken in one way or another.

Set in Winnipeg Manitoba, The Break is a novel about abuse, violence, and racism. But it’s also about how our connections with each other help us to heal from these experiences. In this case, it’s a group of Indigenous women from the same family who are at the heart of the novel.

All these women holding each other up.

But what happens if you have no one, or if your someone(s) can’t even take care of themselves? The answer to that is also in this book.

The crime that the story is centered around is heinous, the gang violence is disturbing, and the conditions some people have to live in are terrible, but it was the blatant racism that horrified me the most.

Shortly after reading The Break, I heard an interview on the CBC Radio about Carl Seier, who, after reading in MacLean’s magazine that Winnipeg is the most racist city in Canada, decided to go out and talk to strangers. One year later, he’s talked to hundreds of people and posted 40 stories on his Facebook page, The Stranger Connection Winnipeg. Now when he hears the stories in the news. they are more than just facts and statistics; they have meaning and a human face.

Also one year later, the city of Winnipeg is on a mission. Obviously it’s going to be a long journey, for Winnipeg and the rest of Canada, but stories like The Break and the life stories told to Carl Seier, that tell us what it’s really like without  the sugarcoating, are essential to the process.

Candy Palmater believes this, too, as she has chosen The Break as the “one book Canadians need now” in the 2017 Canada Reads competition. Here’s what she has to say about it…

 It’s a very cold winter night in inner-city Winnipeg, and young Stella looks out the window and sees a crime taking place, and she calls the police. From there, a very well-crafted, well-written book, a story that will not let you go but will tell you the story of different generations of Indigenous women. You get to know not just the victim but the perpetrator, and you understand how colonization has created this entire situation. Every Canadian needs to read this to understand relations.

This book was so gut-wrenching and hard to write about (I’ve been writing and re-writing for a while now), that it would have been easier to just leave it. But I loved it too much to do that. It’s a tough read, but it is so worth the effort. And there are moments of hope and beauty and strength and inspiration. Just have some tissues handy, and maybe be ready to pick up something light for your next read.

Further Reading:

Katherena Vermette‘s first book, North End Love Songs, won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry. The Break was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, the Rogers Trust Fiction Prize and is now a finalist for Canada Reads.

Another beautiful book about Indigenous women is Birdie by Tracey Lindberg.

Katherena Vermette on the writing of The Break, in which she explains, among other things, the ‘magic numbers’ involved in the structure of the book.

Katherena Vermette on The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers.

Buried in Print’s review of The Break: “The perpetration of abusive and devastating cycles also leads to relentless anger and addiction. Nonetheless, despite the horrors, the overwhelming tenor of The Break is resilience and endurance.

The Winnipeg Review: “Vermette is skilled at writing with a language that is conversational and comfortable and with a poetic ease that makes the hard things easier to swallow. The result is a book that is at times emotionally demanding, funny, suspenseful, and always engaging.”

The Globe and Mail: “The Break is an astonishing act of empathy, and its conclusion is heartbreaking. A thriller gives us easy answers – a victim and a perpetrator, good guys and bad guys. The Break gives us the actual mess of life.”


38 thoughts on “The Break by Katherena Vermette

  1. sarahsbookshelvesblog says:

    Oh man – this sounds really fantastic. I love stories where there is a crime, but the book is about far more than the crime…that crime is just a catalyst to discuss other stuff.

    Adding to my TBR. Well, just checked and it appears it’s not out in the US? I hope that changes soon!

  2. TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

    Great review, Naomi. I added this book to my TBR yesterday already, but I’ll have to wait a while to get it, until it’s easier to obtain here in the US. Hopefully, the book will do well in the Canada Reads competition, so that the exposure will bring more copies onto the market.

  3. buriedinprint says:

    One of the elements that I most appreciated about this novel was that she forces hard questions – really hard questions. For most of the book, you are thinking along certain familar lines – unsure of culpability but angry and fearful for the characters – and she could have opted for a simpler resolution but the one she chose is both realistic and challenging. (Trying to avoid spoilers!) Her poetry is awesome too: I recommend it (coming from a not-very experienced reader of poetry)!

    • Naomi says:

      Yes – REALLY hard questions. VERY realistic and challenging. Which I think we all need to read and hear and think about.
      I would love to read North End Love Songs now!

      • buriedinprint says:

        It’s so accessible: I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. (Also, I meant to thank you for the shout-out to my review above. Very kind!)

  4. Laila@BigReadingLife says:

    Sounds really good. it can be hard to write about emotionally wrenching reads and not make it sound too bleak. You did a nice job! I see from others’ comments that it’s not available in the US. I’ll be sure to look for it in the future.

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, do! And, thank you. It *was* a tough one to write about. I really didn’t want to turn people off, because I think everyone should read it! (Except for anyone who might be triggered by the violent scenes.)

  5. whatmeread says:

    I guess I’ve heard that about Winnipeg. Kind of surprising since they have a large native Canadian population, don’t they? Not sure that’s the right politically correct phrase.

  6. FictionFan says:

    Great review! But please don’t tell me Canada is racist – we here in the UK and friends in the US have been looking on it as a light in the darkness sweeping our own countries at the moment! In fact, I haven’t decided yet whether to emigrate to Canada or Mars…

    • Naomi says:

      I hate to burst your bubble… 😦
      We would still love to have you, though – surely we’re better than Mars! (Although, Mars is probably less racist.)

  7. The Cue Card says:

    Wow, I’m almost scared to read it, but it sounds important. Nice review. I like how the Globe says it “gives us the actual mess of life.” I didn’t realize that was true about Winnipeg, but I haven’t been there yet. Good for Carl Seier.

    • Naomi says:

      Just as long as you go into it knowing it’s a tough read. I wasn’t expecting it to be that hard, so it threw me a bit. I do think it’s a wonderful, important book – so don’t be scared off if you were planning to read it!
      Carl Seier makes me want to talk to strangers. 🙂

  8. Read Diverse Books says:

    Wow, this book sounds powerful. I know that you read a lot of sad and gut-wrenching books, but this one seems to be especially poignant and I could tell by your review.
    The link you provided about Winnipeg’s racism was hard to read, but important. Thanks for sharing.

    • Naomi says:

      I had no idea Winnipeg was having such a hard time until I read the article myself. But I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. We just have to remember there is just as much good out there as bad, and more!

  9. Don Royster says:

    Sometimes we forget that a book can change lives. Especially we writers. To birth a book like this takes a great deal courage on the part of the writer. When the writer begins, they walk into the dark. And they walk alone. Often the writer is the only person who believes in the work. To birth a work like The Break, Katherena Vermette deserves all the praise and honor she has received. Thank you, Katherena, for your struggle and for your belief in the work.

    • Naomi says:

      You’re right… if this book was hard for me to read, it must have been even harder to write. So brave. And I’m very grateful that she wrote it. 🙂

  10. The Paperback Princess says:

    Once again I had to wait to read the book before I read your post.

    I remember hearing that about Winnipeg but it didn’t come back to me while I was reading this book so thanks for the reminder. That really adds a whole other layer to the reading. I am so glad that this book is getting the Canada Reads spotlight because I’m not sure that it would be so widely read without it. And I absolutely believe that this is the book that Canada needs to read right now.

    Excited to watch Candy champion it!

    • Naomi says:

      It was interesting to think about the book in the context of what I read in the article. Something big obviously needs to happen. I’m also hoping lots of people will read the book because of CR! Go Candy!

  11. Chelsey says:

    I’ve been building myself up to read this. This review is perfect. I always find it, with books I love the most, so difficult to put the feelings into words, but I think you did an amazing job :).

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