If you want to skip the witty, erudite, entertaining review below, you can take a short cut here to my condensed Two Things Review!!!)
I snort derisorily at adverts I see on the Tube proclaiming a recent release as ” Film of the Year” or “This Is The Best Album of 2014″. I just think – “Jesus!! It’s only early February! Give the year a chance and judge it at the end!”. I also tend to think that those that get advertised this early as a possible book/film/album of the year probably aren’t!
At least that’s how I used to feel till I read Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda in the middle of January. So now, at the risk of snorting derisorily at myself, I have to say
“This will be the best book I will read in 2014″………
for I can’t envisage being lucky enough to read another as stunning as this is!!!
For The Orenda is a beast of a book. A magnificent, brilliant, beast of a book! But it’s not for the faint-hearted!
It is set in Canada in the mid 1600′s and it follows the intertwined lives of Snow Falls, a young Haudenosaunee girl of the Iroquois nation, Bird, a warrior of the Wendat from the Huron nation, hellbent on revenging the slaughter of his wife and children by the Iroquois, and Christophe “Crow”, a French Jesuit priest hellbent on saving souls for Christ and perhaps his own salvation at the same time. It is a sweeping, panoramic story of the warring Huron and Iroquois tribes of the First Nation, their conflicting and at times disastrous relationships with European settlers and the slow erosion of their values, beliefs and way of life.
The story is told through the eyes of those three main characters, Bird, Snow Falls and Crow, in alternating chapters. This isn’t the easiest narrative structure to deal with for an author as it shifts from one perspective to another, but Boyden’s touch is masterful. The three retain a wonderful individuality throughout while being influenced by the other two, and at the same time their individuality is enhanced by seeing them from the perspective of others. Best of all they are also three fantastic characters – among the very best and most engaging I’ve ever read about.
So what makes it not for the faint of heart? Well, there is nothing spared in the detail Joseph Boyden delivers about the guts and gore in places. The Iroquois and Huron have an approach to the torture of each others prisoners which involves removal of fingers, tongues, eyes, along with the use of red hot pokers inserted into various parts of the body. Yet the point of the torture isn’t to get information – the torturers focus simply on how bravely the victims bare it. This is more about honour and almost perversely tradition – and both Iroquois and Huron describe these tortures as ‘caressing’.
It’s fabulously well handled, for though Boyden writes about ‘caressing’ with an eye for the finest, minutest of details that wouldn’t look out of place in a forensic Blood Pattern Analysis Report, it never becomes gratuitous or mindless violence. It’s certainly chilling and shocking but at the risk of sounding quite weird, there is something that’s almost beautiful in the way some of this is written. Perhaps the bit that is most striking and shocking about the catalogue of brutal acts in this story is that I thought the most awful thing in the book wasn’t carried out by either of the tribes and wasn’t the most violent either. But it’s done in the name of religion and it leaves you wondering just who were the ‘savages’ and who were the ‘civilised’ in this, as in so many other parts of history.
For all the vicious physical violence of the Iroquois and Huron, when it comes to belief and values, they were for me by some distance the moral superiors of the colonising powers. Equally, don’t be fooled by thinking from what I just said above that the book settles into a cliched, glib “European settlers= The Bad Guy” approach – far from it. The book is more complex than that and it’s messages have a far sharper focus on the motives and contexts for European settlement alongside portraying the First Nation Peoples as anything but naive in metaphorically getting into bed with the English, French and Dutch – they are absolutely clear what this is about……it’s about business!
Beyond the violence in the book, this is a story about people, families, love and relationships – and not just relationships with one another but also relationships with our surroundings and the world we live in. The ‘orenda’ itself is a belief among the First Nation peoples that everything has a soul – not just people. This belief in the soul in its widest sense clashes with the much narrower Christian belief in the soul as something unique to humans. That tension over values, beliefs, and cultural identity sits very much at the heart of a large part of the story.
As horrific as some of the violence is, the love in the book is equally powerful – and it puts the violence into context. This is how Bird describes his murdered wife and daughters at the beginning of a Huron ceremony to “move” the bones of the dead, called ‘Kettle’…..
…The time for Kettle has come, and the time for the village to move has arrived. I would never leave you behind. I sit here and cry and wash your bones with my tears. I hold you again as I hug you close to me. I watch over all of you this night.
The three of you aren’t heavy as I carry you on my shoulders to the place of the kettle. I remember our life together in the village we have now left for good. I didn’t realise how sentimental I’ve grown over these last many seasons. I remember what it felt like to come home from a long journey, to walk into the longhouse and your arms, our girls hugging my legs. I’ve not been able to move on from you even though I know you want me to.
With my own two hands I place your bones into the ossuary and mingle them with the others so you will never be lonely. I sing your song as the tears flow down my face, my song weaving into those others until we are all one great voice. You are with me right now, my love. I can feel your hands upon my face and our daughters arms wrapped around my waist. We are one again, at least for now, and as we cover you with the warmth of the beaver furs, I whisper to you that it wont be too long before we are finally together again.
The Orenda is a fantastic book. For anyone thinking of reading it, I’d urge you to be prepared for, but not put off by, the violence. The characters, plot, and the writing throughout is simply stunning. So stunning that the violence will shock you for how right it feels within the story just as much as it will shock you for its graphic detail. The end of the story is utterly gripping – just one of those ‘can’t put it down and hold your breath’ endings that are so rare and so magical.
So early February or not, I think this will be my book of the year 2014. I’m convinced of it. I can’t imagine I will read something else as good as The Orenda, or that I will read about characters who I absolutely believed in the way I did Bird, Snow Falls and Crow. But if there is another book like this out there waiting for me, I can’t wait!
“The Orenda” by Joseph Boyden is published by Oneworld Publications. My genius-like partner gave it to me as part of my Christmas book presents, having heard it recommended on BBC Radio as one of the choices on Simon Mayo’s Book Club on Radio 2!
If you are interested in finding out more about ‘The Orenda’ you can hear Joseph Boyden being interviewed on Radio 2 here. Or if you prefer you can watch him discuss the novel below
Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)