Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 6, 2016

The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden #BookReview

The Orenda This is a most awkward review to write: I have had this much-lauded Canadian novel The Orenda on my TBR since 2013 and I intended to read it as a sort of tribute to Kevin from Canada, but I’m afraid I really didn’t like it at all.

It’s a novel that has garnered high praise, not just from Kevin, but from the other members of the Giller Prize Shadow Jury who ‘called it in’ when it wasn’t shortlisted for the official Giller Prize and then awarded it the 2013 Shadow win.  Kim’s enthusiastic review is here, and there are also very positive reviews at The Washington Post and The National Post and you can find heaps more if you Google the book.  But I found the scenes of ritualised torture almost pornographic in their intensity and I never want to read a book like this again.

It is an historical novel that carries great weight in Canada, tracing as it does the early days of colonisation by French missionaries and the failure of the indigenous peoples to unite against them.  Erin Wunker and Hannah McGregor at Open Letters Monthly analyse the issues arising, arguing that it’s one of those books that change the way that people think, in the same class as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Satanic Verses and generating controversy as well as acclaim in a similar way.

The novel is a story of First Contact, told from three alternating perspectives.  These are the voices of the newly arrived Jesuit priest, Christophe, struggling to understand the Huron language and the customs of its people; Snow Falls, a young girl captured by the Huron from the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois); and Bird, a Huron warrior whose family was killed by the Haudenosaunee some years before.  The story traces the priest’s vain efforts to convert the Huron to Christianity (which he calls The Great Voice) and the gradual reconciliation between Snow Falls and Bird, who captured her to replace the daughter who was killed.  But the enmity between the two groups of indigenous peoples is ferocious, and their traditions of torturing their prisoners are horrifically rendered in obscene detail by Boyden.  I think I am fairly stoic but I expect to have nightmares tonight.

Clearly I am out of step with critical opinion.  There are endless five-star reviews at Amazon and at Goodreads.  They encapsulate much that is good about the novel, but that’s not enough to overcome my distaste…

Author: Joseph Boyden
Title: The Orenda
Publisher: One World, 2014
ISBN:9781780744407
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Readings $19.99

 


Responses

  1. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that I love The Orenda. But I do know that a lot of people have a problem with the violent scenes. I, personally, thought the scenes made sense in the context of the story he was telling, but what fun would it be if we all had the same opinions? Thanks for giving it a chance anyway! :)

    • Hi Naomi:) Your review highlights what’s good about the book, especially the way the author brings to life the way of life and beliefs of the indigenous people, and what was lost by the arrival of the colonising Jesuits who thought their way was superior.
      But I felt that the degree to which he relished going into the detail and savagery of the torture and cannibalism would make most readers feel, if not admit it out loud, that it was a good thing this way of life came to an end. And I feel uneasy about that.

      • You could be right about that, Lisa, and if people feel that way then we most likely don’t know about it. I don’t remember feeling that way when I read the book. And when I think about it now I just think that we still have problems with violence and other nasty things, so we really only switched one way for another.

        • You are right that we still certainly have violence in spades, but it’s not state sanctioned torture. (Well, maybe in the US, but not in other Western countries.) And even in days when torture was routine (e.g. the Spanish Inquisition, and the USSR) it wasn’t something that the entire community participated in and agreed with. I think we have to be careful with cultural relativism: if torture really was carried out as shown in this book it really was evil and not morally equivalent to regimes even like the Elizabethans IMO.

  2. I have to confess that I tried a sample of this book and could not bring myself to complete the purchase. But then I am a fretfully unpatriotic Canadian reader. Too many of the highly touted literary releases leave me cold or disappointed despite some very fine writing and terrific potential. At the same time, writers/books I love get sidelined in the Canadian “Books you must read” sort of dialogue. I tend to lean to the margins with English language Canadian lit (i.e. Biblioasis, Book Thug and other indies) and new Quebec releases. The Quebecois lit in translation is especially exciting.

    • RG, I would love to read CanLit from the margins, because I often like OzLit from the margins too. But I have been keeping an eye on your blog for a while now, but LOL #NoPressure I don’t remember seeing a review of anything Quebecois… if I’ve missed something you’d like to recommend, do let me know!

      • Check out Arvida and Atavisms (I am on my tablet so I can’t easily link them. Arvida was a Giller nominee and is also on the BTBA longlist. Atavisms is also a short story collection (Tony Messenger also has a review). I have more in my TBR of course and I will be reviewing the first release of a new imprint QC Fiction that is aiming for a subscription model like And Other Stories in July for Numero Cinq. Very excited for them. So good things to watch for.

        • *smacks forehead* I had actually linked your review of Arvida to my BTBA Combined Reviews post.
          I’m not keen on short story collections, so I’ll skip Atavisms. Numero Cinq is a litmag, isn’t it?

          • Both Arvida and Atavisms are storyweekcollections. I typically thought of myself as someone who doesn’t like short story collections but I read so many good ones last year, much to my surprise. Small single author collections.

            Yes Numero Cinq is an online lit, art, essay magazine created by Canadian author Douglas Glover. I’m on “staff” there and write regular reviews (longer critical pieces than what I put on my blog). I took the new QC release to NC to give it a wider audience -my part for Canlit. The publisher was pretty chuffed about that. I enjoy reviewing there, assuming the book I chose has enough meat on the bone, because the approach is respectful to the book and the writer – what’s interesting about what is going on? As a writer myself I learn so much from that sort of deep read.

            • I do try short stories from time to time but I rarely find them satisfying… a novella, on the other hand, has just enough length to engage me!
              Here in OZ, we have a number of litmags of the type you describe, always struggling for subscriptions but some of them surviving for long periods of time. I’ve subscribed to a number of them on and off but I found myself not maintaining the habit of reading them and so they tend not to survive my budget cuts.

              • Re short stories, I have taken to shorter, almost interconnected collections that have more of that novella feel.
                As for Numero Cinq and other places I contribute to like 3:AM, it’s a volunteer effort all round sustained by the donations of the editor(s). That’s why I like online mags, the ones that publish something new every day or every few days. It’s easier to keep up. And I am so impressed especially by the stories, poems and essays I do read. The old Paris Reviews etc tend to pile up unopened so I have cut back on those. It’s a shame that some of the best writing goes unrewarded financially but at my age (55) I have no illusions of living off writing, i want to be part of the conversation. Books/literature is as essential as air and water. Right?😊

                • Yes indeed.
                  I think it’s a shame that many young writers struggle financially but I suspect it was ever thus, most of the writers of the past had independent incomes of one sort or another and the others had to fit it in around other work.
                  My blog is a labour of love too:)

  3. PS. I only knew him briefly but I somehow suspect that Kevin would appreciate and respect your honesty – therein lies the honour.

  4. Thanks for your review. I certainly won’t be reading this one!

  5. Thanks for linking to my review, and for being so honest in yours. Yes, the violence is horrendous and stomach-churning, but the message I came away from was this: when is that cycle of violence ever going to stop? (One could argue that it still hasn’t.) I think the author also wanted to write about his own people without judging them or sanitising the brutality of their lives. Obviously, that kind of writing is not for everyone…

  6. I’m with you. I don’t appreciate gratuitous violence in books or movies (some American “anti-war” movies seem to me just vehicles to glorify death, the bloodier the better). And as you can guess, I wouldn’t mind an Indigenous critique of the descriptions of torture.

    • Well here it is http://www.cbc.ca/news/aboriginal/the-orenda-faces-tough-criticism-from-first-nations-scholar-1.2562786

      • Thanks, “reinforces colonial myths of savagery” sums it up I think.

        • Well yes…

          • Sorry, I’m out in the bush and just stopped for a minute to dash off a comment. But I read and appreciated the ‘First Nations’ review by Haydn King and I think that it complements yours. I think he thought the violence neither necessary nor historically accurate.

            • It’s a good review, I think. I don’t want to be iconoclastic, and of course I’m ignorant about the indigenous history of Canada, but this novel really did feel pornographic to me.

  7. […] which sustained the traditional owners, the Ngarrindjeri people for thousands of years.  And like Joseph Boyden in The Orenda, she writes of the misguided arrogance of a proselytiser who believes in a mission to […]


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