The Broken Places by Frances Peck

Earthquakes are not something we think a lot about here in Nova Scotia – although we do get them. Experts say we don’t need to worry about something big. It’s a different story on the west coast, though.

That morning, the morning of the big earthquake, “Dogs stood in quivering hope at front doors, back doors, apartment doors, side doors, patio doors, basement suite doors for the thrilling click of the leash.”

In The Broken Places, the “Big One” hits Vancouver resulting in catastrophic repercussions. Having no experience whatsoever of living with a threat of an earthquake makes me wonder if it’s something Vancouverites think about every day? Or maybe not at all?

The earthquake divides the story up into a “before” and “after”, lending a page-turning structure to the novel, but the characters and their stories are what you want to stick around for. It’s not until well after a hundred pages that you get to the earthquake.

I found myself forgetting all about the upcoming earthquake – I was so involved in the characters’ lives, I didn’t even feel the need for a plotted event. But, as every good plot device does, the catastrophe exposes more than just the unreadiness of the city for such an event – it also exposes the cracks in the relationships between the characters and forces them to face them head-on, whether they want to or not.

Like children, addicts, and dreamers, the earth’s crust ached for the release of movement, the rush of freedom.

Kyle and Joe have been together for five years. Lately, though, Kyle has been more remote and testy than usual and he and Joe have a fight that morning before heading off to work. Kyle skips off work, asking his assistant to cancel his day’s cosmetic surgery appointments, and heads out in his kayak to try to work out the guilt and shame he feels for the way he’s been behaving. Joe is unhappy about the words they exchanged that morning, but is more hopeful than Kyle that it will work itself out as it usually does. He’s more upset about being late to work for his new landscaping client than the fight he had with Kyle.

The damp earth and fir needles have replaced the nightclub smells, but the guilt – the guilt will not be scoured. The guilt has gathered like the forest, closing in around him, dense and claustrophobic.

Charlotte and Tayne Stedman have been together for 20 years and have a seventeen-year-old daughter Sidney. Sidney is recently home from several months in rehab and is feeling isolated from her friends and unhappy in general. She feels as though her mother hates her and her father neglects everything but his work. She longs for more attention from him. Tayne and Charlotte are still together these days mostly out of convenience. Tayne doesn’t know what he’d do without her efficiency and organizational skills, but Charlotte is getting sick of doing everything for him. Including this inconvenient trip to the valley for the local cheese Tayne wants for his dinner party that night. Charlotte also dreads heading back home where her daughter is – Sidney has been nothing but trouble in Charlotte’s life. She hates to admit it, but she really enjoyed the months Sidney spent at rehab.

Charlotte whips her gaze ahead and her anger returns full force. People are disgusting and endlessly disappointing.

Anna and Miss Dodie are passers-by the Stedman property, searching for the ring Miss Dodie lost that morning as they were out walking. Anna came to work for Miss Dodie–who is in her 80s and suffers from dementia–a few years ago and lives in fear of losing her job. She is living in Canada without proper immigration papers, but never wants to go back to Ukraine where she suffered so much trauma. She’s managed to keep this as well as another big secret from her employer, so far, but often seems to just barely be holding it together.

It is not the fame but the effortlessness of these women that she longs for. The basics of life pose no challenges for them. If they need a winter coat, they buy one, brand new and pretty. If they do no wish to cook, they eat at a restaurant. They can select the best brand of vodka and the expensive cherry pie. They do not hoard envelopes of carefully thumbed bills, they cannot count their treasured belongings on one hand. They do not alternate between two brassieres, washing one in the sink each night, hoping it will dry in the rainforest humidity by the day after next.

The Great Vancouver Earthquake brings some of these characters together while keeping others apart. To prevent spoilers at this point, I will just say that, through the hours of this long and tortuous day, the characters discover truths about themselves, realizations about others, the ability to forgive, and to take risks they would never have dared to take before. They need to work together to get through this disaster–whether they want to or not–but some are better at this than others. Sidney learns quickly who she can count on and who she can’t; what is suddenly a priority and what is not anymore; and that a metal mixing bowl has the power to save a life.

Sidney, who probably wears pink shirts to protest bullying and rattles off LGBTQ more smoothly than he can, is supremely unfazed by his orientation. She sits beside him, a girl of her time, simultaneously inclusive and achingly alone, damaged hand on the granite countertop, unhurt one resting quietly in his.

What I love about this book is that it’s not a heartwarming, let’s-all-work-together-to-overcome type of a scenario. It’s real and grueling: the death toll; the fires; the terror and confusion; the selfishness; the regret; and the loss of innocence. Not only from the action after the earthquake, but also before the earthquake, and even before that. Peck gives us a good, hard look into the characters’ pasts: Kyle’s critical father; Charlotte’s important but distant mother; and Anna’s childhood of poverty. We can see where their anger and discontent comes from, we can see how it taints their present relationships and haunts their thoughts; and we can see how it informs their actions after the earthquake. But it’s not all grim: some of the characters have moments of connection and growth. There’s love and kindness and forgiveness.

In homes and on sidewalks they lay, inside crashed buses, behind dumpsters, on massage tables and under car hoists, in bubble tea shops, old age homes, alleyways, school portables, emergency rooms, jewelry shops, chem labs, in the path of all destruction, in all the broken places, trapped, dead, in pain, terrified, crammed together, desperately alone.

The looting continues. Even the Tony Whole Foods Market on Marine Drive, scant blocks from this house, has been broken into. People…. are running off with goji berries and tamari almonds, organic arugula and floral wreaths.

The Broken Places is not really about an earthquake – it’s about humanity: how we live; how we interact; how we grow.

Further Reading:

Vancouver Sun: “Peck muses smartly on how much one can bend before breaking as well as how much mending is possible after rot has set in.

The British Columbia Review: “Readers of E.M. Forster’s seminal novel A Passage to India may well find themselves hearing the muted echo, in Peck’s novel, of probably the most important words in that important novel. Dr. Aziz, faced with two worlds of acrimony and distrust, India and England, says, simply, that there is really only one principle that matters: “Kindness, more kindness, and even after that more kindness. I assure you it is the only hope.””

Writescape:The Broken Places is a rare treat. In lesser hands, it would be a great beach read or diversion for a long airport layover. But this multiple POV novel combines high-tension narrative with true literary craft, delivering characters readers will love to love, hate, pity and grieve.”

BC BookLook: Check out this interview with Frances Peck about what inspired her to write The Broken Places, the research it took to write it, and what to look for from her next. “One thing I wanted to explore in this book is how in a disaster, when basic infrastructure and communications collapse, the skills and assets that keep the wealthy aloft suddenly mean less. When you’re sheltering in place and trying to survive, it doesn’t matter how many purses you own or how big your social network is.”

Thank you to Frances Peck and NeWest Press for sending me a copy of this book!

15 thoughts on “The Broken Places by Frances Peck

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    When I briefly lived in Indonesia (in ‘The Ring of Fire’ because of the volcanoes) I used to look at the volcano looming over the city every day and keep my fingers crossed; the same when visiting New Zealand which is prone to earthquakes, and when visiting Pompeii. Always on my mind, but not enough to scare me off, I guess.

  2. A Life in Books says:

    Not something those of us living in the UK are likely to think about, although we do get the occasional very slight tremble, which makes me keen to read this one. The scene-setting sounds particularly well done.

    • Naomi says:

      I think the premise appealed to me especially because it’s not something I think about very much here.
      Selfishly, I could use the threat of earthquakes as encouragement to keep my kids on this side of the country. Lol

  3. annelogan17 says:

    This sounds like a good book! I’m surprised i haven’t heard of it before actually. The idea of earthquakes isn’t something that comes up often in Calgary either, but I wonder if tsunamis are also something Vancouverites have to worry about? Also the image of people looting a high-end natural foods store, running off with goji berries etc. is sort of funny LOL

    • Naomi says:

      I thought it was funny, too – that’s why I included the quote! If you’re going to join in the looting, you might as well go high-end. Lol
      Actually, there was the question of a tsunami in the story, but it was determined there was no danger of it. I don’t know what makes the difference.

  4. Karissa says:

    As a West Coast Canadian, I can tell you that we do not think about earthquakes very much. If anything, we all kind of acknowledge that we are probably not as prepared as we should be. It comes up in new buildings and upgrades to schools and such. As to Anne’s question of tsunamis, that’s less of an issue in Vancouver since we’re not on open ocean here. I can remember one small earthquake about a decade ago when there was a tsunami warning after but it was only a slight chance. It’s more of a concern on the east side of Vancouver Island, in Torino for example.

    • Naomi says:

      Thanks for answering our burning questions, Karissa! 🙂
      Would you be tempted to read a book like this, or is it too close to home?

      • Karissa says:

        It would be way too close to home and stressful for me! Steven Price’s first book was about an earthquake set in Victoria – where I was living at the time – and I couldn’t finish it.

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