At first glance the title of this
exceptional first novel would seem to refer to the
common name for tuberculosis, so named because the
infection appears to consume people from within.
However, as the novel progresses, consumption takes
on a different meaning as we see the Inuit way of
life and even the land they live on being consumed
by "civilization" and the quest for profit.
Consumption centers on the lives of one small family in a small community of Inuits living in Rankin Inlet between the 1970s and 1990s. By the end of the 1980s, almost all the Inuits in the area had left their nomadic lives behind in order to work in the mines run by Kablunauks (the Inuit word for Caucasians, meaning hairy eyebrows and bellies), a movement that was expedited by the tuberculosis epidemic. Thus, in one generation, a lifestyle that developed over more than 3,000 years came to an end.
The story centers on Victoria, an Inuit girl who was born and grew up on the land in the 1950s. At the age of 10 she contracted tuberculosis and was sent away by the local doctor to a sanitarium far from home. Six years later she returns to find that she is a stranger to her own people - not just because she has spent six formative years living and learning in the south but because the culture she left behind has changed so radically. Marriage to an Englishman who manages the local mine calms Victoria's identity-crisis for a while, but as the years go by and her children grow and start establishing their own identities, she and they find themselves straddled dangerously across the cultural divide.
Secondary storylines tell of the Kablunauks who come to work in Rankin Inlet - often escaping former lives for one reason or another and sometimes, unexpectedly, finding new life in the far north. Another storyline traces the lives of Rankin Inlet doctor Keith Balthazar (whose fascinating diary entries, essentially non-fiction essays on the philosophy and history of various aspects of medicine, intersperse the narrative) and his teenage niece Amanda, who lives in the United States. At first Amanda's story seems somewhat superfluous to the whole but her role comes clear as the novel progresses because it is through her that we see that the feelings of dislocation and generational alienation felt by the Inuit are not unique to them but a facet of modern life - except that the effect is obviously more extreme in a culture that has gone from hunter-gatherer to the internet in one generation.
This review was originally published in August 2007, and has been updated for the July 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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