Two From the Giller Longlist: “Split Tooth” and “Vi”

A book that combines “memoir with fiction, traditional stories with reality and poetry with prose”.

Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq

What a physically beautiful book this is, with its white jacket and red edging. I hate to take it back to the library. There are snippets of beauty between the covers, too – but like the long bright summer days and the cold dark winters of the north, the moments of beauty and light are balanced out with times of darkness.

In fact, the darkness in the story may get more than its share of time.

The book is about a girl growing up in Nunavut in the 1970s. Some of her experiences are familiar to me – playing outside with friends, making up games. But much of it is not. There is a lot of abuse in this book. It is hard to read about, but I imagine much harder to experience and live with.

What keeps you alive in crisis can kill you once you are free.

There are lovely descriptions in the book of the landscape and the wildlife, but also bleak and graphic descriptions of violence and abuse.

Somewhere along the way the supernatural elements of the story take over. There are conversations with a fox and a woman is raped by the northern lights.

This is definitely a work to admire for how the author has told the story and what it has to offer, rather than one to enjoy. Through both prose and poetry (and prose that feels like poetry), Tagaq incorporates many topics into her book, showing the connections and the importance of the past and present, the earth, its people, and the spiritual world.

Sometimes we would hide in the closet when the drunks came home from the bar. Knee to knee, we would sit, hiding, hoping nobody would discover us. Every time it was different. Sometimes there was only thumping, screaming, moans, laughter. Sometimes the old woman would come in and smother us with her suffering love. Her love so strong and heavy it seemed a burden. Even then I knew that love could be a curse.

I look forward to the morning, when everyone is back to the people I love. A glimpse into the living room reveals ten people in the process of driving away their Protectors. This always seems like the goal. Get f*cked up enough that the shell of who you are  gets cast off, leaving room for who you don’t want to be. There are evil beings in the room near the ceiling waiting to take over the drunken bodies, Grudges and Frustrations slobbering at the chance to return to human form, to violate, to kill, to fornicate; Old Spirits conniving and contriving more strife.

The freeze traps life and stops time. The thaw releases it. We can smell the footprints of last fall and the new decomposition of all who perished in the grips of winter. Global warming will release the deeper smells and coax stories out of the permafrost. Who knows what memories lie deep in the ice? Who knows what curses? Earth’s whispers released back into the atmosphere can only wreak havoc.

 Tanya Tagaq is an award winning vocalist and artist. Her music is “aggressive” and “political”. Here’s what she says about her most recent album, Retribution: “This album is not dinner party ambience music. This album is a cohesive, whole statement. Why sugarcoat it? This album is about rape. Rape of women, rape of the land, rape of children, despoiling of traditional lands without consent.” She seems to approach her writing in the same way – no sugarcoating.

There is nothing more beautiful than someone being real.


Vi by Kim Thúy

Reading Vi after Split Tooth was like a breath of fresh air. I almost can’t separate the contrasting experience of reading the two books together in my mind. After Split Tooth‘s harsh words and heavy feeling, Vi was such a relief of light, flowing prose. Which is funny, because Vi’s world is not a piece of cake.

When the Vietnam War breaks out, Vi and her family are forced to leave their home and travel to Canada. Despite the foreign climate and the foreign language, and without their father, they must make a new life for themselves.

My body had adapted itself to the shape of my brothers and my mother. I’d slept surrounded by their arms, their ribs, and the unevenness of the ground. How to find oneself alone one day atop the softness of a mattress without being cocooned in the sweat of my family, without being lulled by their breath? How to suddenly lose the permanent presence of my mother? How to find one’s way before an endless horizon, with no barbed wire, no overseers?

Given the absence of addresses in the refugee camp, we had resorted to visual aids: the woman who lends out needles has an enamel water pail with a handle; the German interpreter sleeps under a blue clothesline mended with rags; the hairdresser has a mirror nailed to a skinny tree trunk. To locate the dressmaker, you have to go past the rock where the monk meditates at dawn, turn left at the well, circle the latrines, and ask neighbours and passersby where she may be found. And so, with my eyes still unaccustomed to the vastness, how could I find my way in the midst of the wide, long boulevard whose trees all seem perfectly identical?

Growing up, from all around her, Vi has been taking in messages about what it means to be a woman. She’s expected to serve, to please, and to mold her life to accommodate others.

Like other Vietnamese families, we put all the dishes out in the middle of the table at the same time, with one exception. My mother served my father separately, in order to save the best for him: the soft-shelled crab overflowing with eggs, the perfectly shaped sticks of fried potatoes, the most tender chicory leaves. It went without saying that the fifty seeds of the sugar apple were removed, and its sweet white flesh held out to him like an offering.

Vi tries to break free of this idea – she strives to be independent at the risk of her mother’s disapproval (“I failed in your education. I have just come to look my failure in the face.”). She learns, she travels, she loves, and all the while she moves toward a better understanding of her mother’s perspective and sacrifices.

Kim Thúy is also the author of Ru and Mãn. Ru has also been nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, as well as the Governor General’s Literary Award, and it was the winner of Canada Reads 2015. Vi might be my favourite of the three.


Further Reading: 

Review of Split Tooth in the Quill and Quire: “Like a smirking teenager, Split Tooth blithely gives typical literary expectations the finger, daring us to see and experience narrative as chaotic, emotional, and deeply instinctive. And it succeeds.”

Review of Split Tooth in The Globe and Mail: ““This book was written for my own heart, and because I’m Inuk – because I’m an Indigenous woman – I’m assuming others will find alignment with it,” she explains. “But also, whoever wants to feel these things, to heal from it or get insight into what it feels like to be an Indigenous woman, it’s like right on.”

Article on Kim Thúy and her writing in The Globe and Mail: “In person, Thúy seems a dynamo of energy. Her fiction, however, moves at a reflective pace. It’s less occupied with driving a story forward than with grasping the presence of a person, the effects of history and tradition on a relationship, or the sensations of living, especially of eating.”

Review of Vi in The Star: “At once highly stylized and emotionally raw, Vi is as elegant, refined. Exquisite from start to finish.”

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36 thoughts on “Two From the Giller Longlist: “Split Tooth” and “Vi”

  1. Laura says:

    Again, these both sound really interesting! I’ve had trouble in the past getting hold of Canadian books in the UK, even when I’ve tried to buy them online, so haven’t been able to try as many suggestions from your blog as I’d like. I’m going to the US at the end of this month and hoping that some of them may be available there.

  2. A Life in Books says:

    Split Tooth sounds as if it has a sharply honed if harrowing beauty but given the choice I think I’d plump for Vi. I remember Thuy’s writing on food and the part it plays in the yearning for home to be quite wonderful from Man.

  3. annelogan17 says:

    Oh gosh I really need to read Split Tooth-it’s up next! And Kim Thuy is an absolute firecracker, which you’re right, is in complete contrast to her beautiful, slow writing-so much to savour there!

  4. Brona says:

    I was lucky enough to meet Kim when she came to Sydney for the Writers Festival here a couple of years ago – she really is an amazing ball of energy and I had a night chatting with her.
    Vi doesn’t appear to be on the Australian publishing radar yet, so I’ll have to search further afield, although that makes it an expensive option for me *sigh*

    • Naomi says:

      That’s too bad… maybe it’ll just take a little more time.
      She sounds like an amazing person – that’s awesome that you got to chat with her!
      Thanks for dropping by, Brona! 🙂

  5. kimbofo says:

    These both sound amazing but Vi isn’t published in the UK (yet) and, like Lisa (above) I’m not sure I could read another book about abuse for awhile.

  6. buriedinprint says:

    It’s funny that the first book (I think?) you were able to get from the library for the Shadow Giller is likely to be the last one that I will get (which I’m not complaining about – given my incredible luck with the other Giller titles via the library). That observation you’ve quoted straight off – What keeps you alive in crisis can kill you once you are free ‘ that seems simply profound. Immediately I can think of so many instances in which that has been true. This is not one that I am looking forward to reading, but it is one that I will be glad to have read when it’s behind me. The story in Vi is difficult to read at times, too, but the lyrical prose seems to keep us at a distance (in a good way) and I really loved what she had to say about being a good daughter and a good woman. I was a little surprised that Vi didn’t make it onto the shortlist for the Giller, but she has been very fortunate with prizelistings in the past too.

    • Naomi says:

      I would have been happy to see Vi make the shortlist, but I’m sure her fans will snatch this book up anyway!

      I thought the same thing about that quote. After I read it, I kept coming back to it. Split Tooth is full of bits and pieces that I stopped to re-read – beautiful bits, profound bits – but it’s a hard book to recommend to everyone.

  7. Bradley says:

    These were the first two Giller longlist books I grabbed this year too! I had just finished Miriam Toews’s latest, so a lot of sexual abuse at once.

    Great reviews—Thanks for covering some of the books that didn’t make the shortlist!

    • Naomi says:

      Thanks for reading, Bradley!
      I try to read as many from the longlist as I can before the shortlist comes out. Some years I’m more successful than others. But I know that for most of us, they are usually just as enjoyable to read as the shortlisted books!

  8. The Cue Card says:

    Yes I just saw Kim Thuy speak at our book festival last week and she’s so lively and wonderful and funny. They sold out of her book at the festival, ugh, so I didn’t get one but I’m on the waitlist at the library. I read her book Ru but I’m thinking I’ll like this one better. The Tanya book sounds rough but her writing that you include is powerful. The style she has is neat.

    • Naomi says:

      “Powerful” is a good word to describe Tagaq’s book – maybe almost *too* powerful!

      I would love to hear Thuy speak – I bet she has a lot of interesting stories to tell.

  9. Jenna @ Falling Letters says:

    Tagaq’s book sounds like it may be similar to Heart Berries by Therese Marie Mailhout – one to admire rather than enjoy. I just picked up Heart Berries yesterday but only read 30 pages before deciding it wasn’t for me… I think I would feel the same way about Split Tooth.

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