Okay, here’s the truth. I’ve been having a horrible time trying to write this post about Black Alley by Mauricio Segura. And I keep asking myself, why? I really liked this book: I thought it was well written, had a great story and an important message. However, the more I think about the book, the less I feel like I'm able to articulate my thoughts about it in a way that will do it justice. I find myself frozen in my attempts to describe it, which is weird, because it’s a book that I really want to have the opportunity to tell more readers about.
I’m going to ease myself into this, here's how the book jacket describes the story:
"In the Côte-des-Neiges area of Montreal, the first stop for many new immigrants, live people of more than 100 nationalities. Marcelo, the sensitive son of Chilean refugees, and Cléo, a shy boy from Haiti, find friendship on the track, winning a major relay race together. Years later, in the same streets, two violent gangs, the Latino Power and the Bad Boys, confront each other, and their leaders must decide whether they will be united by their childhood friendship, or divided by race.... "
There were a lot of things that grabbed my attention about this book. Despite my love for the great historical novels written by many Canadian authors, I frequently feel that there are less stories being told about modern Canada. Even though this book is actually set more than a decade ago (it was originally published in French in 1998) it feels very much as though it depicts life in Canada as it is now—highlighting stories of immigrants, multiculturalism and the changing makeup of Canadian society. I also feel that I read a lot of Canadian books that look at life in rural areas and small towns, but not as many urban ones—so Black Alley’s Montreal setting also interested me. Finally, I always seem to be drawn to stories of youth and coming-of-age, and the various ways that authors can depict that tumultuous time of life, which was certainly an appeal here too.
So that’s what made me want to read this book, here’s what I found when I did.
The novel opens in a crowded high school gymnasium where the principal has gathered the students to talk about recent incidents in the school that have arisen through ethnic tensions. In the rough and boisterous actions of the students—quick spats with one another, power games with the school monitors who are there to keep the peace, boos and shouts at the principal's words—we are immediately immersed in the world of the characters, and we stay immersed in that world. The characters—their conversations, thoughts and struggles—feel very real, as does the setting.
There is a lot in this book to praise—both plotwise and stylistically. The plot grows gradually through the everyday lives of the characters, flashing back to their childhoods, and arriving at a climax, that for the characters seems simultaneously inevitable and a shocking surprise.
Stylistically, Segura made some interesting choices that, for me, really enhanced the story. In part of the book, he uses 2nd person narration (if you haven’t encountered it before, the wikipedia explains it as “a narrative mode in which the protagonist or another main character is referred to by employment of second-person personal pronouns and other kinds of addressing forms, for example the English second-person pronoun "you".”). In the 2nd person parts of Black Alley, the story becomes extremely personal for the reader: the character is being addressed and talked to, but on some level it feels as though you—the reader—are also being addressed, or are at least a fly-on-the-wall in a private conversation.
A second stylistic choice is the that book tells it story in a number of languages. The bulk of the story is told in English (French originally but this is a translation) but it is peppered with incidences of the characters addressing each other in their first languages–Spanish and Haitian Creole. The storyline remains clear, but the setting is enhanced by the bits of meaning that are dropped out: you feel like you are on the street with the characters, hearing the multitude of languages that are spoken in an urban centre. In particular in the scenes of tension between the rival groups,this heightens the tension, because you (presumably like the members of the rival gang), don’t necessarily know what has just been said.
This is a book that has left me with a lot to mull over in my mind: about life in Canada, life in Quebec, about the challenges for new immigrants to this country and about the things that you take for granted when you were born and raised somewhere. But it also has left me thinking about the challenges of youth, how we grow up and form our identities, the opportunities we have or in other cases don’t, the choices we made when we were young and how decisions that seem to make sense at the time, can have terrible and lasting impacts. There are probably pages worth of other things that I could have said about this book as well, but you’ll have to read it yourself and discover what those might have been.
And because here at The Reader we like to do this kind of thing, here are a few books that might also interest you if this story sounds appealing.
The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant by Michel Tremblay: several sources have made comparisons between these two, on many levels, quite different books. Tremblay's novel also examines the lives of Montrealers at a particular place and time—in this case Mont-Royal in the 1940s. The two would make interesting companion pieces for people interested in the social history of the city. Like Black Alley this novel is translated from the original French.
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton: although this book is based around clashes between economic groups, not cultural ones, I can't help but feel like there is a strong link here. If Black Alley's story of teen gang life and the difficulty of belonging appeals to you, you might want to revisit this classic.
More by Austin Clarke: for another take on the urban experience of immigrants—this time in Toronto. Clarke's book includes the reality of teen gangs, but focuses on the parent of a gang member. From the publisher "At the news of her son's involvement in gang crime, Idora Morrison collapses in her rented basement apartment. For four days and nights, she retreats into a vortex of memory, pain, and disappointment that unravels a riveting dissection of her life as a black immigrant to Toronto. "