Sombrio by Rhonda Waterfall

“This is a tale of madness, art, love, addiction, and paternal responsibility. And how men lauded as geniuses crush their daughters.” –from the back cover of Sombrio 

Rhonda Waterfall’s second novel, Sombrio, is the story of three men who move into a deserted squatter’s shack near Sombrio Beach, British Columbia, to work out their addictions and await the cataclysmic events expected that New Year’s Eve.  

A brief search on the Internet reveals ocean, waterfall, and forest scenes of breathtaking beauty in the Sombrio Beach area. We like to think that healing is easier against such a backdrop, but often, as Richard Wagamese taught in For Joshua, commitment to recovery is a step repeated many times.  

The action begins a week after the three men arrive at the shelter, as Thomas describes how his addictions have impacted his family. Thomas, a former bank robber and a poet, knows that here he will become clean, reclaim his family, and look after them. He acknowledges that all the brokenness of his daughter Iris is his fault: “All the blame rests at my feet.”  

Next, we meet Roy, a struggling artist who feels his greatness cannot be appreciated by art schools. His girlfriend, Fern, brings them supplies, sees the failings of each, and embraces them anyway. She encourages Roy to rise above his past, but as he points out, it is easy to say this when one has had an easy past. He has not. 

Charles, a master artist, prides himself on his artistic genius and superior intellect. He is going to paint his Great Work, his Guernica, there on the wall of the shack.   
We learn about the characters through their self-analysis, their stories, their reactions to the people in their lives, and the reactions of other people. Roy speaks of the wonder and love that is Fern; we turn the page to find Charles describing her as a heifer who contributes nothing intellectually. The personality of each character comes forward. We can immediately recognize when Charles is speaking, for his arrogance, his intellectual pride, and his absorption with himself as an artist are readily identified. To distinguish Roy and Thomas takes more time, but the references to childhood experiences, children, wife, or partner, guide us. 
Initially, I found Charles’s language in drawing attention to his intellectual prowess was perhaps too blunt; instead of saying, for example, “these broads really are dumb,” he could describe their expressions or the empty things they said and did. The use of dialogue when he encounters Fern is more effective. At the same time, I should remember that Charles is not the superior intellect he believes he is, and his obtuse remarks reinforce this. 

The author’s use of description is stark; Thomas’s dream about his daughter “tearing into her own gut” is raw and disturbing yet gripping. Again, there is Charles’s fear: “Perhaps my daughters, by some witchcraft, have diffused themselves into the very air itself so that I might breathe them in, and they can kill me from the inside, hatchet away at my lungs, butcher my guts.” The images are brutal and dark but echo the disturbance that is in each of them.  

Sometimes it is difficult to follow the train of thought, as when Thomas is describing his dream and suddenly awakens to sights that are perhaps as bizarre as the dream. We move to Roy, who describes the women who come to party at the shack and suddenly shifts to the birth of his son, and then back. Sometimes the shift is too sudden for me, but as the narrators are experiencing the world through a drug- and alcohol-induced haze, the abrupt and sometimes disconnected shifts are somehow appropriate. 

As their condition deteriorates or “unravels,” past and present, nightmare and reality, begin to merge. Roy dreams of his mother’s blows raining down on him. In his dream, he takes up a knife, but suddenly he is awake, and he is holding the knife over Fern. The line between reality and illusion becomes blurred. As the daughter of Charles appears, for example, we are not sure how much is real and how much is hallucination. We see their world as they see it. We deepen in our knowledge of the characters even as the characters are coming apart. This is a character driven novel, which moves us to self-evaluation. 

The author sustains our attention with strong characterizations, sharp insights, and moments of realization and despair; there is a deliberate use of an often disjointed narrative that brings an intensity to the writing. 

When a storm descends, we should not expect a tidy resolution or a reconciliation. Through the chaos, we learn, and we emerge; we do not, after all, read Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit for entertainment value. Sombrio is not a gentle or relaxing read, but it is a compelling read.  

 Short character videos for Sombrio can be found on the author’s website at:   

Rhonda Waterfall studied Sales and Marketing at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia and Creative Writing at The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University where she was mentored by Stephen Osborne. For many years she worked in ad agencies directing print production and managing creatives and the creative process. For a time she lived in Zimbabwe and worked for the Zimbabwe Book Development Council where she was involved in creating a Zimbabwean Book Skills Directory and event planning for the Zimbabwe International Book Fair. She has had fiction and non-fiction published in several literary journals along with a novel, The Strait of Anian, published by Now or Never Publishing and a short story collection, The Only Thing I Have, published by Arsenal Pulp Press. She was born in what is now the ghost town of Ocean Falls on the west coast of Canada and currently lives in Toronto.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Gordon Hill Press (Sept. 1 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 146 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1774220679
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1774220672

 -- Website
Anne M. Smith-Nochasak grew up in rural Nova Scotia and taught for many years in northern settings including Northern Labrador,  the focal setting for her second novel. She has retired to Nova Scotia, where she enjoys reading, writing, and country living. She has self-published two novels through FriesenPress: A Canoer of Shorelines(2021) and The Ice Widow: A Story of Love and Redemption  (2022).