An important novel about truth and reconciliation: The Heaviness of Things That Float, by Jennifer Manuel

A truly conscientious writer brings first-hand experience, research, and timeless understanding to a relevant issue. For this reason Jennifer Manuel’s debut novel, The Heaviness of Things That Float is well worth talking about.

The novel is set in a remote, First Nations reserve on the west coast of Canada, off Vancouver Island. The reserve is fictional, but the setting is real. This is the landscape of Emily Carr, who purposefully and respectfully inserted herself into a wilderness that few outsiders had entered. Like Carr, Manuel took a leap of faith as an artist to write as a white person, an outsider, living among people who have inhabited the land they’ve called home for thousands of years. Manuel spent time among the Tahltan and Nuu-chah-nulth peoples, as a treaty archivist and then as a teacher, and this novel grew out of those experiences. It is clear, through the loving attention to the details of the landscape, the stories, the mythology, and the characterization of those who populate her novel, how much those years have meant to the author.

To write about blood and culture other than the one you’ve been born into is difficult terrain to navigate, even in fiction. In this case, the stakes are high, given the shameful fact of colonial history, residential schools and racism towards Indigenous peoples. In her author’s note, Manuel states that the novel “is about understanding privilege.” It is also a story about belonging, loneliness, and, I believe, more about what unites, rather than what divides us as humans. It is a most welcome addition to the current discussion of truth and reconciliation.

One way Manuel executes this difficult task brilliantly is through the intimacy of her first person narrator. Manuel leaves no stone unturned in her depiction of Bernadette. We see Bernadette as she goes about her work as a nurse, and we are inside her body to feel her joys, her sorrows, her shame and her confusion.

Chase Charlie, a character who is dear to Bernadette’s heart for reasons that become clear as the novel unfolds, is missing. The potential tragedy inherent in this situation is magnified by the fact that Bernadette is scheduled to retire, and she plans to move away from the community. Bernadette is filled with doubt about leaving. She has spent forty years in Tawakin. Her one connection to the outside world, her sister, has passed away, and her sense of belonging is an idea she has tried not to think about. Her confusion about where she truly belongs, in the community of the reserve, or in the city, is believable. She has loved and been loved in Tawakin, and her responsibilities as both a nurse and a friend on this reserve have kept her busy. Manuel sets up a reasonable suspension of disbelief, and anchors it in her very animated characters. For example, Loretta, who “could find a way to blame God, the Lord Almighty Himself, for her own sins. I could picture her entry through the pearly gates, screaming at Him until her face turned red. Hurling cherubs across the firmament like bowling balls.”

There is humour in this book, because humour is part of the nature of the people. But the story leaves only precious slivers of space for laughter, for there is more than enough tragedy, suicide, accidental death, and hurt among this tiny community to last several generations. Manuel illuminates this contrast between joy and sorrow, makes it shine like the treasures that wash up on shore, the glass balls from Japanese fishing boats, the dentalia shells used to make dance shawls.

Most importantly, we are asked, “without knowing the truth, could there ever be a genuine reconciliation?”

I am pleased to add The Heaviness of Things That Float to my shelf of favourite books. Like Emily Carr’s Kleewyck, it is one I will return to.

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2 Comments on “An important novel about truth and reconciliation: The Heaviness of Things That Float, by Jennifer Manuel”

  1. Michelle Says:

    Your review itself was moving, I can only imagine the book! It’s going on my summer reading list now. And it sure seems you’ve become intimately familiar with the author’s craft 🙂 This is a lovely piece of writing.


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