1463 The act of breaking
The Broken Places
by Frances Peck
Edmonton: NeWest Press, 2022
$24.95 / 9781774390450
Reviewed by Theo Dombrowski
This is the novel that many Vancouverites have been half-consciously waiting for– just as they have been half-unconsciously waiting for…The Big One. The earthquake that devastates Vancouver in Frances Peck’s The Broken Places is not the big one—it is just a small fraction of its predicted strength. The fact, however, that Peck’s quake is hugely destructive creates a double chill: not only does it stir the kind of fascination many find in disaster narratives but also it ramps up real anxiety toward the much worse disaster still on its way.
As a kind of predictive document, the novel seems to be based on considerable homework: the author uses terminology and analysis suggestive of sound knowledge of the effects of a major earthquake with its epicentre under the Strait of Georgia. The results aren’t pretty.
One of the quake’s survivors says ten years later, in an interview, “Your feelings, the relationships you have, what you believe in — that’s all shaken as much as your actual surroundings.” She adds, “But the traces that are inside you, that’s what you’re always going to be haunted by.” These words are at the heart of Peck’s way of handling such a huge topic: although she taps into the power of the broad perspective typical of an epic novel, she very much focuses on the nest of interactions of a small cast of characters.
As for providing the larger perspective, the author selects a few key strategies. First, she divides her storyline into five sections that correspond to life before, during and after a major quake: “Strain,” “Rupture,” “Shockwaves,” “Deformation,” and “Reformation.” In addition, in short italicized sections, she adopts an elevated narrative voice, at times cool with factual details, at times sonorous with innuendo. The effect can be particularly arresting before the quake itself. Assertions like “The earth held its breath, for the moment” then telescope into details on the ordinary lives of the oblivious — investment brokers, street people, babies in cribs.
The almost Biblical sense of impending catastrophe is repeatedly evoked when, for example, she writes, “Swooping birds, agitated pets, and fleeing frogs and toads were spotted far and wide.” Yet the doom-laden voice is also capable of irony. For virtually all Vancouverites, the voice observes, “It is just another day.” Little do they know.
When the quake does strike, Peck zooms out to a prophetic vision far removed from a city and its citizens: “The earth had moved; nature had struck. Yet who could fault nature for following its laws? What happened was cyclical, foreordained, a matter of time and force, an event as unstoppable, as inevitable, as sunrise.”
Appropriately enough, too, the same elevated voice paints vivid images of collapsed buildings and raging fires. It is the personal overview of one of her seven main characters, having hiked to an overlooking mountain, that allows her to compress the horror. What he sees and hears as he looks down onto the city is the stuff of nightmares.
It is the way that Peck focuses on the human suffering that no doubt will make the biggest impact on most Vancouverites reading the book: “Thousands died. Tens of thousands were injured. An untold number could not get home, or no longer had a home, and waited out the hours, clutching blankets, clutching plastic water bottles, in gymnasiums and community centres, in churches and arenas.” “All of them — the injured, the stranded, the separated, the disappeared — wanted to know, will we ever be the same after this? This answer was: never. Also: always.”
It is the business of the rest of the novel to develop these two “answers” in deeply personal ways. As much as this is a novel about an earthquake, it is a novel about seven individuals. As the narrative voice reflects at one point, “The price was paid by people.” Who are these people? The author could hardly have chosen a more diverse group (except for the fact that all are white). Within the first few pages, she introduces three clusters, each through the point of view of individuals within those clusters. Joe and Kyle are a gay couple, Joe a fifty-year-old gardener, Kyle, his younger partner, a cosmetic plastic surgeon (with emphasis on the word “cosmetic”). The Stedmans, a family of three, are staggeringly wealthy: Tayne directs and owns a vast business empire; Charlotte is the stressed, multi-tasking wife, torn amongst her roles as a businesswoman, on-tap hostess, and mother to their troubled teen daughter, Sidney. The third set, unusually, is the elderly and cognitively impaired “Miss Dodie” and her paid caretaker, Anna, an illegal immigrant and fugitive from the Russian invasion of Ukraine (another instance of Peck’s predictive insight.)
Readers of Ann Patchett’s hugely popular Bel Canto (2001) will recognize one of the narrative tactics Peck employs with these characters: when the quake hits, five of them are thrown together to cope with its consequences all within the walls of the Stedmans’ West Vancouver mansion. As if representing two other kinds of survivors, though, Kyle, Joe’s partner, is far from Vancouver on a hike while Charlotte, on an errand in the Fraser Valley, is faced with life-changing decisions about her own future.
With all of these characters (though least with “Miss Dodie”), Peck digs deep. For pages at a time, she submerges us completely in the minds of one character before moving on to the next. Within the confines of each mind, the author writes with ease and energy. At points the writing approaches “stream of consciousness,” sometimes reflected in short, fractured sentences, sometimes circling in eddies and back eddies of thoughts and emotions.
At the same, though, she introduces two main currents into her characters’ flows of thought. Helpfully, her characters provide considerable exposition by thinking about the circumstances of their own lives. Thus, for example, Charlotte tells herself — and the readers — “For one thing, she has her own career: a senior position that befits her education and background at Diamond & Day, the international firm where two years ago, after leading the wildly successful Lancôme campaign, she was promoted to director of the Pacific region.” The other, and important extension of this technique, is the author’s guiding her characters to think extensively — and repeatedly — of their past lives. Thus the novel is, importantly, about the three phases in each of her characters’ lives — who they were in the past, who they are as the quake strikes, and who, as a result of the quake, they become.
One of the most striking features of Peck’s selection and development of her characters is the parallels she creates amongst them, in spite of their diversity in age, social status, and wealth. Indeed, it seems that the author wishes to build the sense that the human experience is as deeply riven with subterranean pressures and fault lines as the Cascadia fault.
As if to imbed her readers in this fabric of tensions, Peck begins her novel with compounding scenes of acrimony and anger, seething with long held resentments and erupting in harsh outbursts: “Oh, you listen, Stedman,” says Charlotte to her husband in one such scene, “I will say this once. You are a selfish fucking bastard, and I am tired of it. Bone tired.” Miss Dodie’s complaints to Anna, Sidney’s resentments of her parents, and the vicious and hurtful argument between Joe and Kyle all intensify when the anger becomes internalized, repeated and rehearsed over the next hours.
Further, as if on reflex, virtually all of the characters react to what they see — and remember — with dark fissures of unhappiness. Sidney’s (initial) resentment toward Joe, like Stedman’s biting contempt for the gardener and, to a lesser extent, the displeasure between Anna and her elderly ward, are mirrored by Joe’s contempt for Stedman, and Charlotte’s for virtually everyone and everything. The tone of what she thinks is typical. “Fucking hell! …. What a gong show this day is turning into.” “God, she hates driving in this place…. Vancouver traffic drags. No surprise in a city full of sluggish potheads and anemic vegans.”
Where does all of this unhappiness come from — in Charlotte’s terms “The life that’s grown so unbearably heavy”? It seems part of Peck’s sense of what humans do to each other — and to themselves — has its foundations in families in general and parents in particular. Anna, for example, recalls how her own life of “secrets and terrors” in Ukraine is deeply rooted in the time her father lost his hand in an “industrial shredder,” thereafter dooming the family to a life of grinding poverty, one where “her father juggled bills, lost hope, and eventually bonded with the bottle.” Kyle’s father was, if anything, worse: “Each one of those defects, somehow, Kyle’s father isolated and attacked.” Charlotte’s mother, the coldly strident and distant feminist, like Kyle’s father, becomes almost a major figure in the novel, circling and recircling through Charlotte’s thoughts. Even Joe’s mother, the one good parent depicted, is the source of repeatedly-recalled misery: “The two months he spent back in Cupids [in Newfoundland] watching her dwindle before his eyes was the hardest time in his life, the most daunting test he’d ever taken.” As for the relationship between teenage Sidney and her fabulously successful parents, Sidney’s iciness towards the one and her newfound contempt for the other are mirrored by the differing inadequacies of both. Peck’s people are unhappy people.
Relationships within the same generation are, in Peck’s hands, no better. Within the context of unhappy relationships, sex plays a particularly deadening role. Both of the couples remind themselves, often, of the deadness of their sex lives. This is not to say the author shows her characters to be sexually inactive — on the contrary. In her world, sexual betrayal is not only almost a given, but, in some ways worse — either compulsive and sordid, or dull and mechanical. Even Miss Dodie reminisces vitriolically about her now dead husband’s repellent sex drive and his “insatiable needs.” But the most harrowing moment of sex, a violent rape, recalled with compulsive horror in sordid detail, colours the novel most deeply. In this context, Charlotte’s post-quake, graphically evoked sexual fireworks with a burnished young Australian fresh out of a women’s romantic fantasy, only make matters worse.
Into this mix, alcohol and alcoholism insinuate themselves, both in the past and in the present, along with other kinds of self-destructive and compulsive behaviour. It seems unsurprising, therefore, that virtually all of the characters find many of their most hurtful thoughts directed towards their own failures and inadequacies, but especially Anna, Joe, Kyle, and Charlotte. When Kyle realizes, “It’s himself he doesn’t love,” he merely puts in the most succinct terms what the others, in different ways, must deal with.
Is it terms of her characters’ inner lives, then, that the title of the book achieves its most resonance? It’s hard to deny that much about Peck’s characters is “broken.” Yet it is no accident that one of the epigraphs for the book, from Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, is “The world breaks everyone and afterwards many are strong at the broken places.” As one of the aftershocks hits, Sidney thinks, in the final words of the chapter, “You wait. For everything to end. For something else to begin.” Both assertions, both planted in key positions in the narrative, suggest what much of Peck’s narrative picks up and develops — namely, the ways in which the act of breaking and the response to what is broken can also be part of change.
Whatever the change may be, it can only come from suffering, it seems: from the earthquake itself, of course, but elsewhere too, the novel is dense with physical pain and suffering. Something as simple as Sidney’s accidentally cut hand is mirrored in Tayne’s concussion at first and, later, Miss Dodie’s wounds from the aftershock, Joe’s battered face from Tayne’s assault, and, most vividly described, agonizing page after page, Kyle’s injuries high up the mountain: “His back, which ached and throbbed yesterday after the aftershock draped him over the rock, shrieks each time he bends to adjust the splint. His tongue is a sticky cotton ball, and he has no water.” The reader cannot help but feel that to become “strong at the broken places” the readers themselves must experience many pages of damage and pain.
But then. But then. In what Peck has shaped to be one of the seminal moments in the novel, Sidney and Anna find themselves together, Anna in the grip of her resurging alcoholism, but Sidney strangely calm and understanding. Showing Anna her drawings of butterflies emerging from cocoons, Anna explains, “Metamorphosis, that’s when the shape of something changes, like the body. Metanoia is a change of heart. Or, like, your mind.” The effect on Anna is profound: “Anna is filled suddenly, inexplicably, with a sensation she barely recognizes. It is hope.”
Sidney herself has clearly changed from the self-preoccupied teen she was at the beginning of the book. Even Tayne, the most narcissistic and utterly selfish of all the characters, changes — just a little — admitting, for the very first time, “he has to shoulder some of the blame for Sidney’s problems.” The most wrenching change, Kyle’s recognition of how much, in spite of everything he had thought about himself, he really does love and depend on Joe, in some ways epitomizes the way Peck handles the topic of change: only in a moment of telephone communication does Joe hear a fragment of Kyle’s words. As acts of kindness increasingly surface towards the end of the novel, Peck writes of Anna, “She reached for his hand, pressed it between both of hers, and kissed it. ‘You are good man, Joe. Good and strong and smart.’” Even Miss Dodie, through the webs of her confusion, shows some kindness towards Anna, her keeper.
But the novel doesn’t end there. It is part of Peck’s determination to prevent her readers from becoming too comfortable that she offsets any moments of clarity and compassion with the worst “breaking” of all. Even through moments of self-sacrifice and, in spite of them, the penultimate part of the novel ends with an act of brutal and destructive stupidity.
Ten years later, after yet more addiction and physical deformity, Sidney emerges as an artist who, in the terms of the second epigraph of the book, creates art not for “art’s sake” but “from necessity, to hold together what is beautiful and what was broken….”
While this may be true of Peck’s character, the question arises whether Peck herself has written the book with an entirely different purpose, especially since so far (key words), at least in terms of an actual earthquake, there are no broken places that, so far, need “holding together.” Having dismissed the validity of “art for art’s sake,” the author very much suggests that she writes with a sense of purpose. She has values to support and warnings to issue. The warning is difficult to miss. The earthquake in the novel is not just a plot element: it and its much more destructive cousin will be, scientists tell us, a reality. That the people of Vancouver Island and the Vancouver area should be so ill-prepared is, Peck makes clear, appalling.
Further, it is no accident that the wealthiest people imaginable suffer in this novel as much as the poorest. The book speaks intently of the author’s steady disregard for wealth, its acquisition, its display, and its grip on the values of the moneyed. The time she forces her readers to spend inside the minds of Tayne and Charlotte — even given their flickers of conscience — is time that can’t help but repel. The Birkin bag to which Charlotte clings, like Tayne’s “lust” to take over yet another major company, erupt prominently and recurrently as reminders of their hollow lives.
In contrast, there is much that the novel does hold out as values by which the author’s characters — and readers — should lead their lives. 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.”
It is difficult not to finish The Broken Places without feeling exactly the same.
Born on Vancouver Island, Theo Dombrowski grew up in Port Alberni and studied at the University of Victoria and later in Nova Scotia and London, England. With a doctorate in English literature, he returned to teach at Royal Roads, the University of Victoria, and finally at Lester Pearson College at Metchosin. He also studied painting and drawing at the Banff School of Fine Arts and at UVic. Visit his website here. Editor’s note: Theo has written and illustrated several coastal walking and hiking guides, including Secret Beaches of the Salish Sea (Heritage House, 2012), Seaside Walks of Vancouver Island (Rocky Mountain Books, 2016), Family Walks and Hikes of Vancouver Island (RMB, 2018, reviewed by Chris Fink-Jensen), as well as When Baby Boomers Retire. He has recently reviewed books by Naben Ruthnum, Rowena Rae, Kamal Al-Solaylee, Bruce Baugh, Rahela Nayebzadah, Genki Ferguson, and Keath Fraser. Theo Dombrowski lives at Nanoose Bay.
The British Columbia Review
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster
 A web search reveals Birkin purses typically fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars. This is not fiction.