Coming of Age in Winteridge


Our Animal Hearts by Dania Tomlinson (Anchor Canada) intertwines Welsh, First Nations and Japanese mythologies in a gothic coming-of-age story, set at the turn of the twentieth century in Winteridge, a fictional town on the shores of Okanagan Lake. The central character, Iris Sparks, grows up in the shadow of her wealthy English father’s progressive politics, her Welsh mother’s fantastic visions and declining health, political unrest, and the abundance of otherworldly spirits and creatures who haunt the natural world. Iris believes in the magical world, as does her mother, Llewelyna, who resembles the madwoman commonly found in books set in this era. In the decades leading up to World War II, Iris is charged with keeping her mother’s seizures a secret. She runs the orchard after her father joins the war effort, and navigates a dysfunctional love triangle with two brothers. Through it all, Iris must learn to separate her family’s mythology from the people they really are—with infidelity, mental illness, and repressed homosexuality—all while grappling with her own destructive tendencies. Contrasting with Tomlinson’s beautiful descriptions of nature, the characters in this book are dark, abusive and unredeemed. I enjoyed the dreamlike aspect of the narration, the tangible quality of the town, and how the supernatural was interwoven with the real. I also liked the weight given to non-European cultures, and how Tomlinson deftly handles the political, colonial, and racial tension of the era within the microcosm of small-town British Columbia. There is a lot to like in this book, though overall, I’m not sure that I did; while I know that not every character in a novel needs to be likeable, almost no one in this book is, and Iris is frustratingly cruel and cowardly throughout. I can’t say that I looked forward to each sitting as I was reading Our Animal Hearts, but the atmosphere, the nature imagery, and the scenes of Llewelyna skulking about the house, have stuck with me.

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Kelsea O’Connor is contributing editor to Geist. She lives in New Westminster.


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