Full review in the Globe and Mail
Like her first book, a collection of short stories called Drying the Bones, BC writer Madeline Sonik's debut novel, Arms, is a verbal heartache, a bravura performance of language and performance of language and perverse imagination. While it is a novel, Arms has the discrete organization of a collection of stories, and that system works well, as the book is far too pain-ridden to read all at once.
Sonik is a witch, and in her acknowledgements notes that the novel was written “as a magical text of healing: and as my black cord dissertation for 13th House Mystery School.” I confess to complete ignorance on this subject, and I don't think it matters. The power of the book is unstoppable, largely because of the amazing imagery and manipulation of language.
The novel starts with the escape of two children from their warzone of a family home. The young girl and her older brother live in appalling circumstances. Their mother and father fight constantly. “She bitched till her glasses cracked, bitched till the cherry lesions of eczema on her hands and cheeks oozed.” When the house finally falls apart under the weight of hate, Sonik's description is gripping: “The house was in ruins. Broken-limb light fixtures. Craters the size of an elephant's ass. The couch, torched. The television, imploded. Beef flaming on the back porch like napalm.” The metaphorical quality of the novel dances between the magical and the realistic in an exquisite pairing.
When the children leave, unfortunately, things only get worse. When the house blows up, shingles tear off the girl's arms. The brother and sister move into the woods, the girl frantic for her arms. “If I had arms, I would embrace my shaking body, I would lift my hands to my face, cover my eyes, hold the aching scream in my mouth.” Then the boy puts his sister in a shack while he goes back to look for her arms.
Except he doesn't. He leaves the forest, gets lost in a city, and gets grabbed by a guy who collects boys and treats them like dogs. Literally. The boy, now called Joe, is mentally and physically tortured. Meanwhile, the girl waits in the shack until a hunter finds her and rescues her, and her life takes new turns.
Arms is a slim volume, but its size belies its denseness. It's a literary black hole into which Sonik has poured a damning criticism of human beings, especially the abuse of children. Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal comes to mind: If we don't treat people properly, we may as well go in the opposite direction and devour them.
But like Swift, Sonik offers some hope. Healing comes through words. The girl is told by her arms, “Go. Write our story.” The framing device of the first-person narrator, the girl, at the beginning and ending of the novel shows how telling the story puts life back into the children, years after they leave home. The message is clear: Stories must be told.
“Tell them the arms of childhood are gone forever. Those who read these words will know, and the arms of their own childhood will be unloosened from the trees of their memory, and they will take up pens, strings, and keys, while their voices spill out, and their healing will be as a fine white mist, and the creatures of the earth shall rise and cast away their wordless suffering.”
Sonik’s voice is unusual and absolutely compelling. While there is much to be angry about in this novel, evidently the purpose is redemption, not retribution. Like all idealists, Madeline Sonik goes to extremes. But what a journey!
—Candace Fertile, Globe and Mail