book reviews

Yellowknife by Steve Zipp: A Review

Yellowknife by Steve Zipp. Res Telluris, 2007, 286 pp.

A few months ago I received an email from Steve Zipp, who asked if he could send me his novel Yellowknife. The book had been one of those chosen for debate on the 2010 Canada Also Reads program put on by the National Post‘s Afterword. It was defended by book blogger John Mutford, whom many of you already know. Jessica Grant’s Come Thou Tortoise won, but Yellowknife was certainly a worthy contender.

I’ll admit I was dubious when I received the book. While the cover is printed on lovely stock (the book was printed by Gaspereau Press, though published by Res Telluris) and the image here looks all right, in real life the design is not especially attractive or clear, and the back material did nothing for me, being little more than a list of components and a couple of less than impressive excerpts. The argument for this might be that the book is difficult to summarize, but in that case, I might not have tried.

Thus, still negatively affected by my time at a custom-book publisher where the design of the books and the writing mostly left everything to be desired, I opened Yellowknife with an admittedly large dose of skepticism. Canada Also Reads choice or not, I didn’t read any reviews of it beforehand, on purpose. I still haven’t.

So I was extremely, pleasantly surprised when Zipp proved my suspicions wrong. Don’t you love it when that happens? Yellowknife is in fact very well written and often kept me up reading long past my bedtime. Zipp has a way with with words that so powerfully evokes a place I’ve never been (still have no desire to visit) that the cold, the snow, the community, the decade, the…Canadianness were extremely palpable. For there is indeed a Canadianness aside from that found in Ontario, or the Prairies, or the East Coast, in CanLit. You’ll see. Yellowknife is the Canadianness many of us long for but are not yet well acquainted with: funny and daring (let me tell you: a lot fits into those two words). Thomas King and Terry Fallis have given us examples.

Needless to say, I’d expected this novel to disappoint me; instead, I enthusiastically dogeared a good many pages of particularly excellent writing. Wish I could quote it all.

There can be no doubt that Yellowknife is a bit of a challenging read. It is huge in scope in terms of plots, and populated by many (memorable) characters, man and beast alike, whom I sometimes confused. But the various stories are inextricably intertwined even if they do not all continue to the end, connected by the land and climate (that is, political, weather, economic climate), so that we are indeed left with a sense of community, even if not all the individuals know or encounter each other, even if some are only visitors. I kept being reminded of that TV show Northern Exposure, but this story is far more quirky, brave, exploratory, and deep.

There is also an obvious element of magic realism, which I thoroughly enjoyed and which takes up residence in this book quite comfortably, given the setting and the able hand that forges it. There is also the blatantly ridiculous, and a sense of humour, that keeps the novel from being depressing or bleak.

More than these things, however, this is a book written by a man who intimately knows his subject. That mandate “Write what you know” (which I don’t believe one must necessarily subscribe to) has never been more in evidence than in this book. Zipp has truly lived this experience; that much is obvious, as well as the fact that he finds it all interesting and thoroughly enjoyable. The facts we are given on the landscape, weather, fish, insects, water, animals, the very strata of the territory, in this book are numerous—but never fear: they do not dry out the text but rather enrich it as well as the story. Zipp doesn’t divulge this information in a didactic manner; it is an intricate part of the prose, it blends perfectly into the story to give it as many layers as the mines that feature in the book. Yet for all that concreteness, through Zipp’s craft, one still has the sense of a shimmering landscape of the Great North, one that’s as much mysterious and ethereal, one that defies pinning down, as it is quite present (quite like Canada herself, yes?).

This is the thing: Yellowknife seems more Canadian than a great deal of the CanLit I’ve read, even though I’ve never been there or know much about the territories at all. But I have to say, if ever there was a novel that evoked a place so well, that reflected Canada so well, it’s this one.

The reason I accepted Steve’s offer of his book is that I don’t want to endorse only all the popular books that are already getting tons of attention. That’s part of the reason I haven’t yet reviewed the new books I’ve received. I want also, perhaps even especially, to give due respect and attention to those that deserve to be read. I want people to be exposed to the work of authors who remain little known because we are too often focused on the giants.

Yellowknife is both challenging and rewarding. It is both entertaining and informative. Best of all, the novel, quite as novels should, transports you wholly to and fully immerses you in another world that is at once somewhat familiar yet strange, tangible yet elusive.

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