Jaime Burnet’s novel tells an urgent, socially relevant story firmly rooted in time and place. Crocuses Hatch From Snow is first and foremost a novel of Halifax, Nova Scotia, one that addresses the good, the bad and the ugly from the city’s, and the province’s, long history and recent past.
The novel opens in October 2007 with three women watching as their house in the city’s south end—a structure that was home for three generations of the family—is being demolished to make room for a new development. The three are Mattie, the elderly family matriarch, her daughter Joan, a journalist in her fifties, and Joan’s daughter Ada, a recent high school graduate. The family has just moved to Halifax’s north end. Coincidentally, their new neighbours include the man operating the excavator that’s taking their house down, whom we also meet in the opening chapter reflecting philosophically on his work and on property values that keep rising and forcing people to leave the neighbourhood where he lives. Ken is a widower, his wife Leona having recently died of cancer. He lives in the house next door to Joan’s family with his daughter Kiah, a university student, his son Shawn, and his mother Betty. Ken’s family is black. Joan’s family is white. This racial divide, though not necessarily a spark for narrative or dramatic tension because the two families hardly mix, is emblematic of one of the story’s main thrusts: that differences that are only skin deep will continue to be a root cause of innate bias, tragic injustice and flagrant inequity, and will continue to prevent us from moving forward as a society, until we discover ways to get past the differences to the more important commonalities that link us together as human beings.
But Burnet’s novel, while explicitly addressing burning social issues surrounding race and ethnicity, does not end there. Crocuses Hatch From Snow is also a love story, one that takes emotional attachment as a starting point and dives headlong into physical longing and lust. Ada has fallen deeply and passionately for a black female body piercer named Pan. This relationship is at the core of the novel’s central drama, from which Ada emerges as the book’s main character. Pan is a few years older, and Ada, seduced by the other woman’s swaggering self-confidence, raw physicality, fiercely independent spirit, and passionately held beliefs, offers up her young, white body as a kind of sacrifice to Pan’s needle, and many of their scenes together are vividly erotic.
Still another plot thread follows Mattie back to 1940s Schubenacadie, where as a teenager she meets Edith, a Mi’kmaw girl incarcerated at the local Indian Residential School. The two girls develop a fascination for each other that, without them even realizing what’s happening, grows ardent. But when they are discovered in the act of expressing their longing for each other, they are cruelly separated. Edith escapes to Toronto. Mattie is married off. Years later, long-widowed and suffering from various ailments including Alzheimer’s Disease, Mattie takes up with an imaginary Edith, acting out long-suppressed desires.
This attempt to summarize a complex, multi-layered novel probably creates the impression that the author takes a somewhat scattered or fragmented approach to storytelling. And while it is true that some characters are more fully realized than others and that not every one of the narrative threads is neatly tied off, this moving, inspiring, often achingly beautiful novel is ultimately satisfying; and, in addition, leaves the reader with a great deal to think about.
In her debut novel, Jaime Burnet refuses to soft-sell or downplay her dedication to social justice. But though her message is clear, she never lectures us. Crocuses Hatch From Snow is an ambitious and deeply humane work of fiction, one that envisions and champions something that every level-headed, empathetic human being must surely want: a more equitable society for ourselves and all future generations.
About the author: Jaime Burnet writes fiction, plays creepy folk music and sometimes punk and doomy grunge, practices labour and human rights law, and lives with her family by the ocean in Nova Scotia. She has a master’s degree in Women and Gender Studies and Sexual Diversity Studies from the University of Toronto and a law degree from Dalhousie University. Crocuses Hatch From Snow is her first novel.
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