A Review of Catherine Hernandez's Scarborough
Review by Trevor Corkum
Catherine Hernandez brings her keen gifts for observation and compassion to bear on her dynamic first novel, Scarborough. Set largely in the Scarborough neighbourhood of Kingston/Galloway, the novel explores a compelling cast of adult and youth characters who congregate in and around a family literacy centre in Rouge Hill Public School.
Hernandez’s novel is an ensemble work, narrated in first person by community members, young and old. We meet Sylvie, a Mi’kmaq mother, and her daughter Sylvie who live in supported housing; Laura, a nervous Caucasian girl, and her racist father Cory; Edna, a Filipina salon worker, and her artistically-inclined son Bing. At the heart of the novel is Ms Hina, a newly-recruited community worker, who runs the neighbourhood literacy centre where children and their caregivers gather for stories, food, and social support. It’s Ms Hina who watches over her young charges and comments, through notes and emails, on the personal details of their lives.
Hernandez is intimately familiar with Scarborough. Impeccable research renders her characters’ lives complex and truthful. The neighbourhood is expertly portrayed through precise physical locations, community landmarks such as parks and playgrounds, specific corner stores, and strip-mall restaurants. However, it’s the astute rendering of the community’s social relations that provides so much of the novel’s strength. Hernandez demonstrates the way power operates intersectionally across markers or race, gender, sexuality, age, income, employment, and ability. One of the strengths of such a large cast is the ability to observe markedly different characters interact with one another. A character may wield privilege and power in one situation — owning a store or business, for example, with the right to deny service — but experience visceral oppression or abuse in another, replicating the complicated webs of oppression and power that underlie our relations in large, complex cities.
Here’s Winsum, for example, a neighbourhood business owner, set to relax and unwind in her restaurant on Christmas Eve:
All you gotta do is take off your apron, put on a nice dress, and sit at the table in front of the counter instead of behind it. And ta-dah! All of a sudden, you’re at a restaurant that doesn’t belong to you. No explaining to white people how spicy this is or how spicy that is. No checking the expiry date on bottles of Ting or wiping down the tops of Chubby pop drinks. No dealing with malfunctioning freezers. The only task I had was to wipe away enough frost on the restaurant window so the “closed” sign could be seen, loud and proud for the holidays.
While Winsum is one of a number of cameo appearances in the novel — community members who only grace the page for a brief scene or two, yet add depth and texture to the book — it’s the core group of younger characters who provide the emotional heart to the book. One of the most vivid young characters is Bing, the gifted and sensitive Filipino boy. We empathize with Bing as he obsesses over his longing for a popular boy in his class. We feel his internal emotional turmoil as he struggles both to emulate the boy he believes he should be, but also to let down his defenses and express the person he is inside. He observes and protects his hardworking mother and struggles with the burden of responsibility he feels. While much of the conflict in the novel is external, it’s Bing’s inner conflict, between competing versions of himself, which reflects his complex internal map of stigma and shame.
Structurally, the novel is innovative. In addition to rotating voices, Hernandez uses emails between Ms Hina and her supervisor to reveal how power and privilege operate in the workplace. Ms Hina’s workbook notes and email correspondence create a three-dimensional portrait of a complex woman dedicated to her job and anchored in her commitment to the community. We root for Ms Hina and are horrified by the passive-aggressive communication from her boss. The uncertainty of her employment situation lends this particular storyline a palpable tension that builds over the course of the book.
My only small quibble with Scarborough is the occasionally awkward tone of a couple of the younger voices, particularly Laura, who sounds almost too eerily self-aware for such a young child. Any author writing adult fiction and providing first person commentary from children has to make particular choices about voice. Err on one side, and the voice becomes naïve and cliché. On the other, the voice sounds inauthentic. Hernandez does a great job generally — in particular with Bing, but at times the wise and eloquent reflections of Laura and others are at odds with their observed actions.
None of this, however, takes away from Hernandez’s success. This is a novel that will be rightly celebrated by folks in Scarborough and further afield. It’s a celebration of community, a sensitive and compassionate portrayal of how lives are irrevocably changed, moment by moment, through small acts of kindness or cruelty. It’s a novel that deserves to be read widely.
Trevor Corkum's fiction, nonfiction, essays, and reviews appear frequently across Canada. Among other honours, his work has been previously longlisted for both the CBC Short Story and CBC Nonfiction Prizes, was named a finalist for the Western Magazine Award for Personal Journalism and the 2016 National Magazine Award for Fiction, and has appeared in the prestigious Journey Prize anthology. Originally from the East Coast, he now works as a researcher, writing instructor, and consultant in Toronto, where he also runs a popular author interview series called The Chat on 49thShelf.com. He is the 2017 Writer/Alumni-in-Residence at Pearson United World College in Victoria, BC. His novel The Electric Boy is forthcoming with Doubleday Canada.