Consumption is a haunting story of a woman’s life marked by struggle and heartbreak, but it is also much more. It stunningly evokes life in the far north, both past and present, and offers a scathing dissection of the effects of consumer life on both north and south. It does so in an unadorned, elegiac style, moving between times, places and people in beautiful counterpoint. But it is also a gripping detective story, and features medical reportage of the highest order.
In 1962 at the age of ten, Victoria is diagnosed with tuberculosis and must leave her home in the Arctic for a sanatorium in The Pas, Manitoba. Six years will pass before she returns to the north, years she spends learning English and Cree and becoming accustomed to life in the south. When she does move home, the sudden change in lifestyle leads sixteen-year-old Victoria to feel like a stranger in her own family. At the same time, Inuit culture is undergoing some equally bewildering changes: Cheetos are being eaten alongside walrus meat, and dog teams are slowly being replaced by snowmobiles.
Victoria eventually settles back into the community and marries John Robertson, a Hudson’s Bay store manager, and they raise three children together. Although their marriage is initially close, Robertson will always be Kablunauk, a southerner, and this becomes a point of contention between them. When Robertson becomes involved in arrangements to open a diamond mine in Rankin Inlet, the family’s financial condition improves, but their emotional life becomes ever more fraught: their son, Pauloosie, draws ever closer to his hunter grandfather as their daughters, Marie and Justine, develop a taste for Guns N’ Roses. Several other richly imagined characters deepen Patterson’s unsentimental portrait of both north and south. They include Dr. Keith Balthazar, a flailing doctor from New York whose despairing affection for Victoria leads to tragedy, and Victoria’s brother, Tagak, who finds that the diamond mine allows him a success and maturity he could never attain within his traditional culture.
The novel deftly tracks the meaning of “consumption” in both north and south. Consumption is tuberculosis, an illness previously unknown among the Inuit that wrenches Victoria from her home as a child, changing her family relationships, her outlook on the world and her entire future. As such consumption is a harbinger of the diseases of affluence, such as diabetes and heart disease that come to afflict the Inuit over the four-decade span of the novel. Consumption also defines the culture of post-industrial, urban North America, captured here through Keith Balthazar’s troubled relatives in New Jersey. And when the diamond mine opens in Rankin Inlet, its consumption of northern natural resources seems to symbolize Canada’s relationship with the Arctic and southern encroachments on the Inuit way of life.
Consumption is a sweeping novel, of the kind one rarely encounters today: it is an essential book for Canadians to linger over, learn from, and remember.
About the author
Kevin Patterson grew up in Selkirk, Manitoba, and put himself through medical school by enlisting in the Canadian Army. He began to write while stationed at Camp Shilo, outside Brandon, Manitoba, and studied creative writing at UBC. Now a specialist in internal medicine, he practises in the Arctic and Nanaimo, British Columbia. He lives on Saltspring Island.
Patterson’s first book, a memoir of a sailing journey across the Pacific entitled The Water in Between, was a Globe and Mail best book and an international bestseller. His debut short-story collection, Country of Cold, won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, as well as the first City of Victoria Butler Book Prize. Consumption is his first novel.
At a time when the career path of many writers involves teaching creative writing, Kevin Patterson believes in the benefits of a different day job. Practising medicine has nourished his writing, he told the Vancouver Sun: “Doctoring is a business where you go and listen to people tell you their stories all day long. It’s most gratifying and you get little glimpses into people’s lives that would never be revealed to anyone else. . . . It’s a completely different well than writing.”
His next book, Outside the Wire: The War in Afghanistan in the Words of the Combatants, will be published by Random House Canada in winter 2007.
Excerpt: Consumption (by (author) Kevin Patterson)
Here I stand,
Humble, with outstretched arms.
For the spirit of the air
Lets glorious food sink down to me.
Here I stand
Surrounded with great joy.
And this time it was an old dog seal
Starting to blow through his blowing hole.
I, little man,
Stood upright above it,
And with excitement became
Quite long of body,
Until I drove my harpoon in the beast
And tethered it to
My harpoon line!
–Recorded and translated from the Inuktitut by Danish ethnographer and explorer Knud Rasmussen in Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition, 192124
Storms are sex. They exist alongside and are indifferent to words and description and dissection. It had been blizzarding for five days and Victoria had no words to describe her restlessness. Motion everywhere, even the floors vibrated, and such motion as was impossible to ignore, just as it was impossible not to notice the squeaking walls, the relentless shuddering of the wind. Robertson was in Yellowknife, and she and the kids had been stuck in this rattling house for almost a week, the tundra trying to get inside, snow drifting higher than the windows, and everyone in the house longing to be outside.
It was morning, again, and she was awake and so were the kids, but they had all stayed in bed and listened to the walls shake. Nine, or something like that, and still perfectly black. She had been dreaming that she had been having sex with Robertson. She was glad she had woken up. Even the unreal picture of it had left her feeling alarmed–though that eased as the image of the two of them, entwined, had faded. In another conscious moment she was able to blink the topic away and out of her thoughts. As it had been.
She could hear her girls, Marie and Justine, whispering to each other in their bedroom. She couldn’t tell what they were saying. She heard the word potato. Pauloosie, her son, her oldest child, was silent. She listened carefully and thought she could hear him turning in his bed. And then the wind wound up and just howled.
As a girl she had not been this restless, waiting out storms with her parents on the land in a little iglu, drinking sweet tea and lying on caribou skins. It had been more dangerous then but less frightening. Storms make an iglu feel more substantial somehow. This house, on the other hand, felt as if it were about to become airborne, and it would have if not for the bolts tethering it to its pilings. It had been made in Montreal, of particleboard and aluminum siding, before being shipped by barge to Hudson Bay, sagging from square with each surge of the sea. Where the door frame gapped away from the kitchen door, snow sprayed through in parabolas. These wee drifts persisted as long as the door stayed closed. After five days they seemed as permanent as furniture. The wind whistling under the house kept the kitchen floor nearly as cold as the stone beneath it.
That stone slid, in its turn, through the town, to the shore, and then under the ice of Hudson Bay, angling shallowly out into the sea basin like a knife slipping between skin and meat. And on top of that water was ice, a quarter-million square miles of it, arid and flat and sucking in the frigid air from the High Arctic like a bellows–blowing it down through Rankin Inlet and into the rest of the unmindful continent. Chicago would be Rome but for this frozen ocean, not that its significance is known to anyone who doesn’t live alongside it.
Rankin Inlet, Repulse Bay, Baker Lake, Coral Harbour, Whale Cove: variations on the theme of shelter from the sea, each of these hamlets lies on the west coast of Hudson Bay, named by whalers seeking safety in the nineteenth century. The smallest is a couple hundred people and the largest of these, Rankin Inlet, is two thousand, almost all Inuit, with a handful of southerners, Kablunauks, among them.
The people exist along this coast against a backdrop of a half-million square miles of tundra, gently rolling treeless plains. In the summer, this land is boggy and moss-bound; in the winter–frozen and blasted lowlands: eskers of rock protruding through shallow snow. The Inuit lived here for ten thousand years, pulling their living from this meagre forage until the 1960s, when they accreted in the little government towns built along the coast and left the tundra empty of human inhabitants for the first time since the glacial ice melted.
Victoria and Robertson had been married a year when Robertson paid to have this house shipped here, for his new family to live in. It was twice the size of the housing department shacks offered to the rest of the community; this benefit of marrying a Kablunauk had been observed and remarked upon in Victoria’s presence since the house had floated its way to the bay at the edge of the town. The other young families were crowded into the back rooms of their relatives’ cramped houses, and privacy such as Victoria knew was held to be an uncommon luxury.
Robertson was not from here, and so no toothless and snuff-spitting aunts had been assigned to their family. The drawbacks of marrying a Hudson’s Bay Company man had been explored by dozens of women in the town, but this single advantage held. She lay in her bed now and listened to her daughters squealing and whispering and calling out to each other. This was an intimacy, she thought, that could never be available to a family who shared its house with another. She was lucky, at least on that score. But then, she thought, there might be a different kind of intimacy available to the cousins and brothers who had grown up unencumbered by the rind of privacy.
She was thinking about that when the banging at the kitchen door began. Victoria thought the door had become unfastened, and she leapt out of bed to close it before it was torn from its hinges.
“It's this thematic resonance, along with an understated humanism reminiscent of Anton Chekhov (incidentally, another physician), that makes Consumption a quietly devastating novel.”
–The Vancouver Sun
“Some first novels simply tower above their contemporaries by the scope of their ambition and the power of their vision. Last year, it was Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road; earlier this year it was Madeleine Thien’s Certainty, and now it’s Kevin Patterson’s Consumption.”
–The Globe and Mail
“On the surface, Consumption is deceptively simple and gripping. It's the story of one woman and her family. But what a woman -- and what a family!”
–The Globe and Mail
“Patterson has seen and done much where two or more world views intersect. It makes him a peculiarly well-informed and insightful guide to the conflicts within the coastal Inuit community of Rankin Inlet in the Canadian Arctic, the primary setting of Consumption…”
–The Globe and Mail
“the people in Kevin Patterson's gripping new novel of the North, Consumption, are defiantly human. They are complicated, passionate, troubled, confused and, in some cases, doomed -- by disease, by their own failings and by those of their loves ones and by economic and cultural forces beyond their control.”
–The Winnipeg Free Press
“Consumption launches a major voice in Canadian fiction”
–The Winnipeg Free Press
Praise for Country of Cold:
“[Patterson] . . . has made the leap to fiction with startling grace”
–The Georgia Straight
“A masterful debut short-story collection. . . . The stories are rich in event . . . but it’s in characterizations that Patterson shines, capturing shades of ambiguity, uncertainty and small happiness with a deft touch.”
–The Vancouver Sun
“Country of Cold is a terrific book. Kevin Patterson writes frequently about misfits and loners, but he presents them with such hard-edged clarity and insight that it’s impossible not to think of these people as kin. And whether it’s slapstick hilarity in a prairie Dairy Queen or the dead-serious menace of a winter storm north of the treeline, the writing is always pitch perfect.”
–Michael Crummey, author of River Thieves and The Wreckage