Christopher Drayton was a lucky man; he was rich, multilingual, living in a luxurious house on the Scarborough Bluffs in Toronto, and engaged to a beautiful, voluptuous woman. But when he falls off the Bluffs to his death, investigators Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty are brought in to assess the situtation because all is not as it appears: Christopher Drayton’s true identity might actually be Dražen Krstić, a Bosnian war criminal responsible for the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995, where thousands of Bosnian Muslims were murdered.
Esa and Rachel are the core investigators of Community Police Services, a special unit designed to handle “minority-sensitive” cases. Esa, a practicing Muslim and former member of the Toronto Police, is the perfect man for the job; Rachel, much younger, is the stepdaughter of a revered cop and is part of CPS because no other unit will have her due to some past indiscretion — although what she did isn’t clear.
As evidence increasingly mounts that Christopher Drayton is Dražen Krstić, Esa and Rachel realize that the situation is murkier than they realize: while his fiancee thought she was the primary beneficiary of his will, it appears that Krstić also left a substantial bequest to a local museum celebrating the history of Andalusia, long known for its inclusivity and religious tolerance before the Reconquista of Spain. Why would a genocidal war criminal settle in Toronto, a city with a sizable Bosnian Muslim population? How much did his fiancee know about his past? And, perhaps most importantly, what possible reason would an Islamophobic murderer have for supporting a museum built in remembrance of a high-water mark of religious and multicultural tolerance?
I started to read The Unquiet Dead because noted fantasy writer Saladin Ahmed recommended it on Twitter earlier this year — the idea of reading a book where both the author and the protagonist were Muslim was a big part of the appeal for me. Throw in the fact that I don’t read a whole lot of mystery novels anyway, and it felt like just the book I was looking for to stretch my reading boundaries.
My eagerness intensified once I learned that the book was set in Scarborough, where I live. Scarborough is the eastern-most part of Toronto, and gets a really bad rap — it’s the Staten Island to downtown Toronto’s Manhattan. Now, while there have been other mystery novels set in Toronto, like Robert Rotenberg’s series, the ones I’ve read have been awfully downtown-centric, and if Scarborough’s mentioned at all, it’s usually only the really sketchy parts that are mentioned, like the string of motels on Kingston Road.
On top of that, I’m Macedonian, and Macedonia, like Bosnia, was one of the former constituent regions of Yugoslavia, which broke up in the early 90s. So in a lot of ways, The Unquiet Dead seemed like a book maximally calculated to appeal to me: it was a story that had connections both to where I live now, and to where my family came from.
However, I really struggled while reading this. For one thing, although the story takes place in Scarborough, it focuses on one or two particular high-income enclaves (the Bluffs and what sounds an awful lot like the Guildwood area) that that are really different from the rest of the borough where I live. Where are the strip malls? Where are the post-war neighbourhoods full of immigrant families? One or two scenes take place at the University of Toronto Scarborough campus, which is literally a 10-minute drive from my house, but the most that is said about the location is a snarky comment about its brutalist architecture. Where are the gaggles of students from all across the GTA? What about the charming shops on Old Kingston Road around the corner? What about the long stretch of Military Trail that leads into the campus, full of houses with obscenely large lots that are being bought up and redeveloped?
I wanted to see a reflection of my neighbourhood, but all I got was a city setting with a serious case of white room syndrome. It didn’t feel like Scarborough. Hell, Rachel lives in Etobicoke (the borough on the extreme western end of Toronto) but Scarborough is in the east. Why are there no interminable drives from place to place, or barely any mention of the 401?
On top of that, I thought that one of the subplots was far more compelling than the main plot. As Esa and Rachel gather more and more evidence pointing to Drayton’s true identity, Rachel also learns a key piece of information about her family: the whereabouts of her younger half-brother, whom she assumed was missing or dead on the streets for years. When she finally gathers the courage to meet him in person, she learns that their mother knew where he was all along and met up with him repeatedly, even as she repeatedly blamed Rachel for making him run away in the first place.
As the book progresses, Rachel constantly monitors her mother’s speech and actions, and slowly realizes how passive aggressive her mother has been to the family. This family dynamic is really interesting, and I want to see how it plays out in future books.
However, the central relationship between Esa and Rachel is one that I’m a bit more ambivalent about, as they both appear to have repressed feelings about each other — I really want their relationship to stay professional, rather than give in to some sort of future mandated heteronormativity. I find their potential romantic pairing even more problematic because of an incident from Esa’s past: he was falsely accused of sexual harassment by an attractive and sexually charismatic coworker because he spurned her advances, and she roped his best friend, a noted author, into corroborating her claims, resulting in a major professional setback for him.
Considering that the use of rape as a weapon of war in Bosnia is brought up as a repeated plot point in The Unquiet Dead, this use of the whole “woman claiming sexual abuse as a form of revenge” trope is incredibly off-putting. Especially in the context of contemporary Canadian politics and culture, where the judge of the Jian Ghomeshi trial justified a “not guilty” verdict with reasoning like this:
As I have stated more than once, the courts must be very cautious in assessing the evidence of complainants in sexual assault and abuse cases. Courts must guard against applying false stereotypes concerning the expected conduct of complainants. I have a firm understanding that the reasonableness of reactive human behaviour in the dynamics of a relationship can be variable and unpredictable. However, the twists and turns of the complainants’ evidence in this trial, illustrate the need to be vigilant in avoiding the equally dangerous false assumption that sexual assault complainants are always truthful. [Emphasis mine]
Oh, those women. They just can’t be trusted, can they? I sense an uncomfortable strain of internalized misogyny throughout The Unquiet Dead, actually. Rachel constantly assesses her appearance against those of the women she encounters during her investigation, and always considers herself lacking, what with her thick, athletic build and mousy appearance. Rachel’s mother contributes to this low self-esteem with constant gaslighting. Laine, the woman who accused Esa of sexual harassment, is a curvy bombshell with a coterie of men surrounding her like mayflies. Melanie Blessant, the woman who was engaged to Drayton before he died, is portrayed as nothing more than a tasteless, tacky gold-digger who is willing to sacrifice the safety of her own daughters in order to snag a rich man. Mink Norman, the captivating woman who runs the Andalusian history museum, briefly catches Esa’s eye but is revealed to have ulterior motives.
In other words, most of the women in The Unquiet Dead, if not all of them, never have a chance to be three-dimensional beings. Rachel comes the closest due to her keen sense of detail that allows her and Esa to crack the case, but she still always judges herself as falling short of some unattainable feminine ideal that she thinks every other woman in the story meets. Internally, Rachel always feels herself to be in competition with these women, whether aesthetically or morally.
That lack of three-dimensionality, along with the treatment of the part of the city where I live as nearly a blank map, really rankles me....more
Keita Ali is a gifted long-distance runner and a native of the small island of Zantoroland, in the middle of the Indian Ocean. When Zantoroland undergoes a political coup and his journalist father is tortured and killed, Keita goes on the run to the nearby prosperous island of Freedom State. As an undocumented refugee in a country reaching new heights of xenophobia, Keita needs to lay low. But that’s an option he can’t afford to take after his sister gets kidnapped and held for ransom — the only way he can earn enough money to win her freedom is by running, and winning, local long-distance races.
That’s not the only problem in Freedom State. AfricTown, the country’s largest slum, is ruled with an iron fist by Lula DiStefano — in addition to being the slum’s de-facto landlord, she also runs brothels and generally has her fingers in many unsavoury pies. She is desperately trying to get the government to install local infrastructure and she’s not above blackmailing the Prime Minister to get things done. At the same time, two journalists — one a gifted student and the other a marginalized reporter looking to get off the sports pages — start sniffing when word gets around about a young prostitute who got deported to Zantoroland and died under torture.
Okay, so we’ve got military coups in third-world countries, lots of refugees fleeing towards safe harbour, and the residents of those safer countries trying to deport newcomers back to where they came from. Considering that there’s a certain refugee crisis filling the headlines right now, this book is full of Very Topical Geopolitical Issues. This is clearly a book that has Important Things to say.
Alas that it could not say them in a way I found engaging. I had several issues with the book.
Let’s start with the fact that I found it hard to take The Illegal seriously from page one because of two particular words: Freedom State. At the risk of sounding pedantic, that’s a shitty, unimaginative name for a fictional country. It’s a fictional name so politically baldfaced and ostentatious that I can’t take the story seriously as anything more nuanced than a manifesto, or, at best, an extremely clumsy parable. I mean, if I opened a restaurant and called it “The Food Place”, would you consider me a serious restauranteur? Probably not. You’d think, at best, that I was an insufferable hipster aiming for meta humour.
This lack of imagination extends to describing exactly what it is that makes Freedom State so special. Throughout the book, both the characters and the omniscient narration say repeatedly that Freedom State “is one of the best countries in the world”, has a “strong economy”, and so forth. But what exactly makes Freedom State such an attractive place to live? What are its chief industries? Does it have a thriving technology sector, like in the US? Is it, like Canada, built primarily on the extraction of natural resources? The book doesn’t say.
It’s fair to assume that like many English-speaking first-world economies (e.g., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the U.S.), Freedom State is a former colonial state. However, unlike other former colonial states, there’s very little evidence of any culture outside of the Western/European norm bubbling up from the bottom to give the country its own stamp — no non-Eurocentric place names, no unusual slang, no sense of uniquely “Freedom-Statonian” cuisine.
Thus, like its economy, Freedom State’s cultural identifiers are cobbled together from a mishmash of elements from other developed countries. Everyone seems to listen to country music and get coffee from Tim Hortons. There’s a restaurant at a major intersection in the capital city called The Lox and Bagel. When Keita attempts to open a bank account, he briefly considers going to a Bank of Montreal branch. Freedom State’s main newspaper, The Clarkson Evening Telegram, is constantly stated to be one of the best in the world and is frequently mentioned in the same breath as such luminaries as The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, and… uh… The Toronto Star. (Hill is Canadian. I happen to think he lays on the CanCon love a little thick here.)
Speaking of which, this book takes place in 2018, yet there’s little to no mention at all of the pressures that the newspaper is industry is facing over the Death of Print. When you consider that one of the main characters is a newspaper journalist who files her stories via email, the vaunting of print seems a little out of place. If you’re writing a story that takes place in the near future where one of the main character is a journalist, and yet refuse to engage with the way the internet is radically shaking up the industry, that seems both lazy and highly implausible.
So, the worldbuilding is cardboard thin. What about the people inhabiting that world? What are they like?
With a few exceptions, they’re also pretty thin. Perhaps the most vibrant character is Viola Hill, a journalist struggling to be taken seriously at the Telegram. Black, gay, and using a wheelchair, Viola’s under no illusions about how she has to work harder than anyone else around her to get a shred of respect:
To be given a crack at serious news stories, Viola Hill had to be perfect on the job. Always on time. Always ready. Invincible. Got the flu? Don’t tell anybody. Having a day when all she could think about was that she wished her mom were still alive? Swallow that emotion. Having a rare burst of phantom pain, like a knife ripping through her thighs? How bloody fair was that, to feel ten-out-of-ten agony in a part of her body that she no longer even owned? Even phantom pains she had to mask. She had learned not to scream when they came out of nowhere. She could not have people thinking she’d keel over and die. They would never promote her. Viola was sick and tired of having to be unassailable. But she answered the phone whenever it rang, because that’s what professionals did.
But few of the others fare so well. John Falconer, a high school student trying to make a documentary about AfricTown for a school project, is basically an annoying boy genius. Rocco Calder, Freedom State’s new and beleaguered Minister of Immigration, develops little more depth beyond the idea that he’s in over his head. Ivernia Beech, a spunky senior citizen, pretty much exists to solve people’s problems and act as living proof that Not All White People In This Story Are Awful.
And Keita? Aside from the rash decision he makes to abandon his sports agent and go underground in Freedom State, he’s seen as a golden boy. People constantly remark on how handsome he is, how well-trained he is, how polite he is. Nearly everyone who meets him treats him kindly and shields him from the true harshness of being an undocumented refugee. Ivernia offers to have him stay at her house. Lula DiStefano gives him a big meal and even some impromptu medical treatment. The director of a local race repeatedly offers to train him so that he can join Freedom State’s Olympic marathon team. Hell, a local cop falls for him and has a one-night stand with him; in the epilogue, they become a couple and both try out for the Olympic marathon team. How convenient is that?
I sense an uncomfortable subtext to the way that Keita is treated: in essence, he’s a Model Minority. Be talented and polite like Keita, the story seems to say, and the ugly realities of life as a refugee will cease to apply. If you’re living a substandard life as a refugee, well, it’s just because you don’t have enough innate dignity to make the right kind of people want to help you.
Hill is a biracial author whose past works have dealt intimately with the topic of racial discrimination. Isn’t it kind of disingenuous for him to create a character who survives because of such preferential treatment?
The Illegal fails on several levels of craft, as well: it’s dialogue is belaboured, its ending wraps up too neatly, and it features some truly clunky (and unnecessary) info dumps. All of the political allegory in the world can’t make me overlook such narrative flaws....more
Sometimes, a book comes along that satisfies you completely — its characters make your heart happy, its themes make your soul happy, and its prose makes your head happy.
These books are rare. Pen Pal is one of them.
The central conceit is simple: Em is a young girl living in Mermaid’s Hands, a squatter’s community on the Gulf Coast, who sets a message in a bottle adrift hoping to find a pen pal. But Em’s bottle ends up in the hands of the most unlikely person imaginable: Kaya, an imprisoned political activist in Southeast Asia.
Kaya is a member of an oppressed minority on the island of W— off the coast of Indonesia. Worship of one of her community’s central religious figures, the Lady of the Ruby Lake, has been suppressed in an attempt to “modernize the natives” and “bring progress to the region.” When Kaya tries to resurrect a banned celebration on the Lady’s behalf, she gets thrown into prison. What’s more, her prison is built as a mockery of her religious practices: the government forces her to inhabit an ersatz temple built over the Ruby Lake itself, which is really the lava lake of an active volcano.
Em’s sweet, wistful letter brings a spark of hope to Kaya’s life, and the two correspond, with Kaya using her tamed crow Sumi as a link to the outside world. Gradually, it becomes clear that Em’s and Kaya’s situations are similar. Both of them are part of communities who are actively ignored or denigrated by the dominant culture surrounding them. Both of them believe in deities who represent forces of nature; Kaya has the Lady of the Ruby Lake, while Em has the Seafather. Both of them dream of their respective religious figures. And both of them are strong — strong like volcanoes, strong like hurricanes.
Pen Pal is written in a mostly epistolary format, with Kaya and Em writing letters to each other, letters to their respective families, and journals to themselves. There are also messages written by secondary characters to each other providing additional context on various plots and subplots.
One such subplot is that Em’s older brother Jiminy is in jail, and that her family refuses to visit him out of shame. Jiminy’s actions just serve as proof to the outside world that the folks of Mermaid’s Hands aren’t to be trusted, aren’t worth helping. But if Kaya’s in jail for standing up for her beliefs, and Em likes writing to her, does that mean she’s a bad sister if she doesn’t write to Jiminy? If Kaya’s in jail for doing something good, what does that say about her brother, who was just in a bad place at a bad time, and loyal to the wrong people?
Em’s guilt over losing contact with Jiminy spurs her to try and run away to meet him. At one point, Em tries to sneak onto a truck to cross state lines, but she’s discovered by Cody, a fellow resident of Mermaid’s Hands. Here, her keen sense of morals over how she should support her family clashes with society’s perception of who she is and what she’s allowed to do. Cody attempts to defuse this situation by making it look as if it’s really Em’s younger, more socially accepted sister Tammy who wants to run away:
“You making mischief again?” he said, smiling, like the two of them had a secret joke. Tammy looked confused. She never makes mischief. Her lips were trembling: I could tell she was about to say No it wasn’t me, but—Cody’s smile. It was begging a return smile from her.
“I apologize for all this, sir,” said Cody, “but I’m sure my little neighbor here just got some wild idea in her head about exploring, and then the bigger two went along with it. Nobody can say no to that face!”
To Tammy he said, “You planning a stowaway adventure? Think how worried your parents would be! And Mr. Coca-Cola here would’ve had a heart attack next time he opened up the doors of his truck.”
Tammy looked at him in wonder. She’s used to being delicate Tammy, and Tammy-who-needs-to-rest, and remember-to-wait-for-Tammy, and sometimes Tammy-the-mermaid, but Cody was giving her a whole different kind of story. Small Bill’s mouth was quirking upward at the thought of Tammy the mastermind. Even the delivery man was smiling a little.
That Cody’s pretty smart. Once he got Mr. Coca-Cola looking at tiny, cute Tammy, with her good hair and big eyes and freckles, how could the man stay mad? Cody talked to him a few more minutes, asking about where he was from and if he had any kids, and got him telling stories about his four-year-old son, and by the end him and Cody were practically best buddies.
Cody’s name is apropos: he’s a master of code-switching. And here is where perceptive readers will pick up on other scattered clues throughout the novel and realize that Em’s family faces not only class oppression (for having their own off-the-grid, ad-hoc community) but race oppression as well. Unlike Em, Tammy is welcomed by the side of the family that lives normal suburban lives on dry land. Unlike Em, Tammy has “good hair and big eyes and freckles.”
In other words, unlike Em, Tammy can pass.
What makes Pen Pal such a strong and moving experience is Em’s journey — she’s the emotional centre of the novel to me. She’s stronger than she knows, and she’s facing powerful intersecting forces of class and race that she can feel, but can’t articulate. Her voice is sweet and innocent, both knowing and unknowing, without sounding overly twee or cutesy. You really get the sense that this is a real 12-year-old talking. It’s amazing to see Francesca Forrest tread such a fine balance between the innocence of Em’s voice and the brutal social truths that underlie her observations.
Kaya’s situation is a bit more straightforward — it’s hard to find much nuance in a government that would imprison its political dissidents within a volcano. But her correspondence with Em allows her to learn more about Em’s community, and Kaya takes advantage of a key public announcement to show her solidarity with her friend. In doing so, she attracts the attention of an Amnesty-International-like group, and it’s this political contact that allows the plot to reach its fullest resolution as Em and Kaya save each other from the outside forces that seek to silence each of them.
This is a self-published novel, and that I bought it upon the recommendation of Toronto-area author (and personal acquaintance) Leah Bobet. Leah works at Bakka Phoenix, one of the best independent bookstores in the city, and she’s done a lot of work to raise the profile of this book. When I first heard her talk about Pen Pal, she said one of the reasons she liked it so much was that you could read it as a work of fantasy or as a completely non-fantastic piece of literary fiction. Are the Lady of the Ruby Lake and the Seafather figments of the protagonists’ imaginations or are they real figures with their own forms of agency? You could make a compelling argument either way — which is another one of the book’s many strengths....more