Reviewed by Wendy Hawkin
Sitting Down Lake, northern Ontario. Population seven. Eccentric characters seven. Those affected by tragedy seven.
I discovered this brilliant novel quite by accident while searching up Canadian fiction in my local library. Hummingbird is so deliciously Canadian, it reminds me of Margaret Atwood in both content and style: black flies and petroglyphs, log cabins and maps, lake-swimming and leech-gathering, fire and water, life and death, and the moving on thereafter.
The story concerns two children, now around fifteen years old, who are navigating loss. Zachary Taylor’s mother slit her wrists when he was nine for no apparent reason (as far as he knows). One day, she was carving antlers, and the next she was gone. Eva Spiller comes to live with her uncle Lamar, after her parents die in a float plane crash—a float plane she was meant to be on, but which she was too afraid to board. When a child loses a parent too early, they are doomed to wonder why. Why did this happen to me? To us? “We don’t get to know why,” says Eva, even as she obsesses over finding her parents’ bodies.
Zack and Eva bond over their similar circumstances and begin to explore the landscape around Sitting Down Lake. Suffering from survivor guilt, Eva continues to test fate—smoking “green death” Export A cigarettes, jumping between trains trucks, wading into the lake with weighted pockets—while Zack attempts to figure her out and keep her safe.
This is Tristan Hughes fifth novel. With a Ph.D. in Literature, Hughes is the AHRC Fellow in Creative Writing at Cardiff University. Though he was raised on the Welsh island of Ynys Mon (Anglesey), sensory images of his Canadian birthplace—Atikokan—permeate this novel. Atikokan means “caribou bones” in Ojibwe, and it is caribou bones, among others, that Zack’s mother hunts for in the bush and carves into the creatures of dreams. After she dies, Zachary’s grieving father tosses them all in the swamp. But, this is all that remains of his mother, and so the son must face his fear of the dark water to retrieve them.
Zachary’s father, John Taylor is a displaced history professor who followed his red-haired wife to the bush…then lost her. He is tall and gangly like a “spider” wears “thick round glasses” and decorates the school where he teaches with maps. John’s geographical forays into the chronicles of Canadian explorers pepper the book and reflect his moods.
This novel is like comfort food, and I slow my reading to savour each morsel. It takes skill, but also talent, to unearth the perfect metaphor or simile to enhance the landscape of a story. And so, Hughes reveals Oskar the Finn’s boat to be a “mechanical Frankenstein’s monster, cobbled together out of engine graveyards” (31). The spring wind that melts the ice is a “giant animal…slouched out of the pages of an old book to die; a kraken or a behemoth; a leviathan (10). And Eva’s memories are “jumbled, forever shifting and re-settling in her memory like crystals in a kaleidoscope” (125).
The title Hummingbird eludes me at first. The birds don’t appear until halfway through the book, and when they do it is as a huge flock among the fireweed blossoms: “darting and hovering over the flowers, flitting in and out of sight as though the world were one huge magician’s hat” (88). But these are not the hummingbirds of the title. To know the true hummingbird you must read on. Slowly.
Hummingbird is published by Locarno Press,.