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What We All Long For

by Dionne Brand

Dionne Brand opens her latest novel with a wide shot of Toronto. A city at once mythic and ordinary, virtual yet earthily corporeal, it hovers above the 43rd parallel. Flight paths and Internet signals cross and recross above it, and all roads, sooner or later, may lead to it. For some newcomers it’s fertile ground. Other seeds don’t grow, or spring up rank and weedy. Brand’s is not a flattering portrait, but this is a city familiar in form and in event: the snowstorm that brought the army out, the celebrations after the World Cup match that saw Korea rise out of nowhere to beat Europe at its own game.

Zoom in to a shot of three young people bursting into a subway car in early morning, laughing and talking about a fourth over the heads of subdued commuters. (The metaphor is apt – the subway is a moving interface between old Toronto and the new.) Friends since high school, now in their early twenties, Tuyen, Carla, Oku, and Jackie move fluidly through the city’s arteries. Each has chosen a different path: avant-garde artist, bike courier, student, shopkeeper. The three girls have left home. Oku, eking out student loans, lives uncomfortably with his parents.

All struggle with the guilty freight of their fathers’ and mothers’ sorrows. They see their parents living on broken dreams, blighted by loss, greed, and stupidity. In their parents’ generation, families stuck together. Redemption took the form of punishingly hard work that paid off in cash. In their children’s eyes, that price was too high. Their antidotes are sex, food, jazz, art, style, hope – and love. Tuyen loves Carla, Carla loves Tuyen’s car-jacking younger brother. Oku loves Jackie, Jackie is careful not to love anyone too much.

Another voice is raised early in the novel. Grey and wraithlike, it is that of Quy, Tuyen’s older brother, lost to pirates in the family’s failed flight from Vietnam by boat. Quy’s story gradually unfolds. The child becomes an adult, surviving harrowing acts and events. If the lost son is found, is he a promise or a threat? This disturbing thread provides forward momentum in a plot that otherwise moves slowly, backward and forward, filling in the details of many lives. Brand particularly lingers with her young characters, making them lovable in their beauty, loyalty, bravado, and vulnerability.

Filmmaker, novelist, and poet, Brand draws on her multiple gifts in What We All Long For. Much of its poetry is found in the argot of her characters, their riffs and rants. Poetry is the spur with which Oku leads the charge at anti-globalization protests in Quebec. A recurring theme of Brand’s work – prominent in her previous novel, At the Full and Change of the Moon – is the deep cultural scarring left by systemized brutality. Her young people, Asian and black in varying proportions, struggle with legacies of cruelty that reduced the value of human life to dust. The residue of slavery is still there in posturing men addicted to ganja and fast cars to shore up an empty masculinity, and in women trying too hard to hold it all together.

In such a world, at this time, is happiness even possible? Longing and love are always part of the equation, but so is chance. In this, Brand’s most accomplished novel yet, chance rules in the end, providing resolution in a violent event that is both credible and incredible. Brand’s characters struggle to save who and what they love, but some broken things may never be made whole. And what we long for then may be freedom from the pain of caring.