In 1990, Dionne Brand released No Language is Neutral, a poetry collection preoccupied, as much of Brand’s writing is, with the limitations of language to verbalize the experience of the oppressed, and with history’s inability to listen to and acknowledge the marginalized individual’s suffering:
History will only hear you if you give birth to a
woman who smoothes starched linen in the wardrobe
drawer, trembles when she walks and who gives birth
to another woman who cries near a river
and vanishes and who gives birth to a woman who is a
poet, and, even then.
In her new novel, Brand explores the enigmas of intimacy, which, like language, do not exist on neutral ground. Through the interconnected stories of four characters – June, Bedri, Da’uud, and Lia – the author imagines the city of Toronto as a setting for pain, heartbreak, disappointment, and fear.
Love Enough begins with June watching the sunset through her car’s rear-view mirror, while driving east on Dupont Street: “It is perhaps because this street is so ugly; car-wrecking shops, taxi dispatch sheds, rooming houses, hardware stores, desolate all-night diners and front yards eaten up by a hundred winters’ salt; it is because of all this that a sunset is in the perfect location here. Needed.”
June is wildly hopeful and feels beauty where many would find repulsion. “She is not the type who is happy the way other people are happy.” This becomes especially clear as the middle-aged woman looks back on a lifetime of tumultuous lovers. June was only truly in love once: it “lasted one year but the time felt like several springs strung together.” When the romance ended, June metaphorically cut her lover out of her mind, and literally cut his street out of her map of the city.
June has since adopted a severity toward relationships – the only worthwhile lovers are those whose passion teeters toward brutality, like the Nicaraguan, Beatriz, who once told June, “I have held many people’s lives in my hands.”
Brutality also infuses the story of Bedri, which begins with violence: Bedri and his friend Ghost, have beaten a man almost to death for his car. Bedri’s father, Da’uud, left Somalia in 1994, as civil war raged. Once an economist, he now drives a taxi for a living. “In this city you have to keep your belongings with you,” Da’uud says, referring to the past – one’s figurative baggage – which must be held close to avoid repeating earlier mistakes. His own philosophy notwithstanding, Da’uud is unable to wrest Bedri out of his delinquency.
In contrast to Da’uud’s judgmental attitude, June sees Bedri as a blameless product of an inner-city youth: “As Emma Goldman said, as long as people were living a life they loathe to live then crime was inevitable.” Brand counterpoints Da’uud’s harsh attitude with June’s more empathetic one: “What would happen if no one remembered sadness?”
June wonders, in contrast to Da’uud’s ideas about the past. “We’d walk around mutilated and mutilating and not knowing how we got there and not having any remorse.” In this novel, Brand is collecting sadness.
Da’uud’s failure to adequately love Bedri is mirrored in the shortcomings of Mercede, mother to Ghost and his sister, Lia. Mercede, who feels neglected by her own mother, consistently chooses men and drugs over the care of her children. “Why didn’t you love Mercede better?” Lia asks her grandmother, not in the hope of receiving an answer, but rather as a means of articulating blame. Scarcity of love is hereditary, Brand suggests, passed down until it settles like a stone in Lia’s chest.
It is in silence that many of the novel’s characters find peace with their circumstances. Forgiveness – for oneself or someone else – can be an unspoken ritual:
“[E]ach works out the facts and fictions in her own mind, the way one does forgetting one’s own part and then forgetting the other’s part.” Brand’s novel doesn’t seek to punish the wrongs committed in the name of love and lust. Rather, it moves its characters through its urban setting as a means of shedding light on the dark and desolate aspects of life.
“All cities are ambiguous,” Brand writes early on. Beyond skylines and landmarks, different people carry different conceptions of a single, shared place. In her novel’s overlapping structure, Brand has carved out distinct spaces for her dynamic characters to breathe. By its end, the novel finds a way through its various ambiguities to a kind of understanding.