Familial matters

Beautiful Beautiful
by Brandon Reid

Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2023
$24.95 / 9780889714540

Reviewed by Brett Josef Grubisic

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Beautiful Beautiful opens at sea. On board Wild Thing, a vessel heading north—past Texada Island, past Port Hardy—twelve-year-old Derik broods, frets, and wonders about his place in the grand scheme of things. He shares a close family resemblance to a library’s worth of memorably inquisitive, restless, and less-than-popular young protagonists.

On a voyage in the midst of Covid restrictions, Derik worries about the cost of texting long distance and how much more satisfied he’d be at home with his video console and playing Heroes of the Storm with friends. He’s anxious about his Aunt Lizz (last seen at a funeral “high as can be on cocaine and … yelling at everyone) and normalcy (a daily aspiration). And he listens attentively to his ship-mate Raven, a shaman, racial “total mutt,” and doctoral candidate in search of a topic, who quotes Jack Kerouac and Aleister Crowley. Raven’s wise, if gnomic: “The further you go within, the further you go without,” he shares with Derik. 

Raven speaks of grappling with change, with reconciliation, cultural evolution, and his quest to merge Western and Indigenous beliefs. Derik translates as best he’s able: “I know what you mean: my dad’s Native, but my mom’s white. I can’t win. They tried to pull me out of class to make a drum with the Indigenous teacher but I didn’t want to be singled out over my race so I refused and stayed in class with everyone else.” 

Author Brandon Reid (photo: Kevin Cruz)

With his tightly-wound father, George—proprietor of Chief’s Spot Pawn on Vancouver’s Commercial Drive—at the helm, Derik struggles with self-esteem. And with anger, resentment, and a growing sense of being misunderstood. Plus, he wants to prove himself: to demonstrate to his father that he’s a “real man who could catch a fish and provide for his family.” He’s aware that George views his only son as a “mama’s boy” who needs to “snap out of it” and grow up. And Derik believes his dad relishes the opportunity to correct him so that George feels better about himself and looks like a hero. 

The rollicking, eclectic, and brainy debut novel of Richmond’s Brandon Reid engages seriously and playfully with motifs and traditions as old as literature. Derik wanting to prove himself to his father, and disavow his supposed femininity, for instance, happens to occur aboard a boat on an epic quest; it’s racing toward Bella Bella, which Derik understands as meaning ‘beautiful beautiful’ in Spanish. There, a few other age-old rites will take place: a family reunion (awkward), a memorial (for Henry Mormin, George’s father: darkly comical), and the scattering of ashes (at sea: poetic and humorous at once). 

Henry was beloved by all except George, who hasn’t spoken to his abusive father in years. Derik, alternatively admiring and fearful of his own father, is increasing perplexed by George as he acts crazy, and goes off the deep end about about drugs, shape-shifting aliens, reincarnation, and sasquatches. 

The boy might not sense a pattern, but Reid’s readers will. Fathers and sons, amirite? 

To complicate all this posturing about manhood—it could have given Sigmund Freud material for at least one case-study—Reid’s third chapter begins with “OK, your turn.” Turns out, Redbird Anon—“Think of me as Derik’s guardian”—an irrepressible, mercurial, buoyant, and not wholly trustworthy magical spirit that defines itself as an “interdimensional apparition” as well as a “questionable narrator” is the novel’s official MC. 

This chatty guardian’s confidence—“I’m going to tell [Derik’s story] the way it should be told,” Redbird exclaims—is equalled by its short attention span and breadth of eclectic knowledge. For Redbird, something of a magpie, Plato, eugenics, and prehistoric British Columbia are part of that “should”; never dull, Redbird’s circuitous cognition suggests a godly indifference to merely human logic. 

Coupled with Raven’s cerebral discoursing on First Nations traditions, the trickster figure (“a part of our psyche. They force us to question our perceptions of reality to keep us rooted”), cultural evolution, and Indigeneity, reader can sense that young Derik has plenty of material to reflect on. There’s a discordant chorus, a village of voices—opinions, storytelling, facts, fiction, myths, feelings and trivia—flooding his head with stuff that he needs to sift through. 

The novel proceeds in roving, full-course chapters in which George, pawn shop philosopher who rubs shoulders with a local mafioso, speaks in tangents about witches, sexual abuse, racism, alcoholism, shape-shifting aliens, the royal family (“inbred pedophiles”), and Satanism. As Redbird interjects about Billie Eilish, fellow demigod Coyote, the “problem of evil,” and the beauty of loons, Raven waxes philosophically about language, identity, heritage, and history. 

Derik, meanwhile, listens and watches, quarrels with or capitulates to the voices in his head, longs to catch a salmon, recalls life at home, and gradually comes to understand that he might help sooth his father’s complex grief—that’s part anger, part regret, and part sorrow. 

And yet Derik’s calm is shattered by rambunctious relatives in Bella Bella (“a dumb, primitive land,” the boy decides during one outburst); he later rebounds from seeing his father as a “deranged fisherman” and gently asks the perplexing man about his volatile relationship to Henry. Derik is informed, “He was an asshole. That’s why I stopped taking his calls. Any more questions?”

If nothing else, Derik intuits that relative to the bewildered adults—purported roles models—in his midst, being a tween is a cinch.  

Derik connects fishing to manliness, becoming a “real Native,” and carrying on a tradition. His ongoing lack of luck, until the novel’s final page, suggests not only the complexity of (dual) cultural inheritance, but the sheer enormity of individuality: who knew there were so many moving parts? And considering that any society is composed of many of such individuals, Derik also has an inkling about the sheer uphillness of it all when it comes to joining the fray.

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Brett Josef Grubisic

My Two-Faced Luck, the fifth novel by Salt Spring Islander Brett Josef Grubisic, published in 2021 with Now or Never Publishing, is reviewed here by Geoffrey Morrison. A previous book, Oldness; or, the Last-Ditch Efforts of Marcus O (2018), was reviewed by Dustin Cole. [Editor’s note: Brett Josef Grubisic has reviewed books by Beatrice Mosionier, Hazel Jane Plante, Sam Wiebe, Joseph Kakwinokanasum, Chelene Knight, Lyndsie Bourgon, Gurjinder Basran, and Don LePan for BCR.]

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The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-25: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an online book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, 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. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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