Brimming with artistry, snappyness, crude humour, and scathing sincerity, Porcupines and China Dolls is an important voice from the North, and a must-read for anyone interested in Canadian or Indigenous Literature. Robert Arthur Alexie takes us into the world of a northern Indigenous community as they struggle to come to terms with the bitter legacies of residential school. The story centres on 40 year old James Nathan, a deeply disturbed character painted over with strokes of smiling wit and womanizing charm. We follow James, his friends, and community members as they assess their lives, unearth brutalities, and come together to form bonds of solidarity. James and many other characters lapse in and out of dream worlds; engaging the reader with altered senses of reality. In these segments, readers witness the enormous and deeply embedded wounds that scar the spirits of Alexie's characters. In dialogues, Alexie takes us into the minds of multiple characters, exposing their most intimate (and often times humorous) thoughts to the reader in his typical blunt style of writing. That being said, the tone of the novel is unique in its ability to cross bridges between surfaces and depths. In moments that would otherwise be simplistic and straightforward, Alexie is consistently able to wrap dark brutality and intense longing in blankets of crudeness and humour. This ambivalence makes Porcupines and China Dolls highly successful in its approach towards the issue of residential schools. The reader is neither overwhelmed by unending stories of trauma; nor appeased by a lighter version of the truth.
Some would argue that the novel can at times be melodramatic or sensationalist in its storytelling, but readers will only feel this way if they fail to see Alexie's artful writing at work. He makes great use of hyperbole (a literacy device that uses exaggeration to evoke strong feelings or create a strong impression) in order to give meaning to much of his story. This is done not to gaudily steal the reader's emotions, but rather to articulate feelings to us in a way that plain language is incapable of doing. Through Alexie's use of hyperbole, the reader is able to understand the sheer extremity of the wounds that many characters carry. The interpretive value of Alexie's hyperbole is extended even further when one takes into account the novel's constant interplay between dream world and reality.
Porcupines and China Dolls is an original novel, unique in its ability to combine artfulness with grit and brutality. I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in interpretive/artistic literature and to anyone who wishes to explore the bane of Canada's residential school system, and the deep healing process required to overcome it.