- STAFF PICKS
- GIFTS + GIFT CARDS
- SELL BOOKS
- FIND A STORE
Consumptionby Kevin Patterson
Synopses & Reviews
From Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize winner Kevin Patterson, an epic first novel of north and south, infused with stark beauty, startlingly realized characters and fierce truths.
Born on the tundra in the early 1950s, Victoria knows nothing but the nomadic hunting life of the Inuit until, at the age of ten, she is evacuated to a southern sanitarium for the treatment of tuberculosis. For six years she has no way to contact her parents. She grows healthy, learns Cree and English, becomes accustomed to books and radio, sunbathing and store-bought food. When she is finally sent home, she steps off the plane into a world that has changed radically. Even her father, Emo, a legendary hunter, has come in off the land to hunker in on Rankin Inlet at the edge of Hudson Bay. And Victoria herself has become a stranger to her family and her birth culture.
Vividly evoking the modern contradictions of the north — walrus meat and convenience foods, dog teams and diamond mines, midnight sun and 24-hour satellite TV — Patterson takes us into the heart of Victoria's internal exile, as she marries and raises a family. Many love her, but none can heal her. Not her son, who disdains the settled life she has bought for him and who struggles to be like his grandfather. Not her daughters, who embrace the pop culture of the south. Not her husband, Robertson, who slowly becomes estranged as he pursues the economic opportunities the north offers white men. Not her Inuit lover, who can offer her only glimpses of her lost childhood. And most especially not the local doctor, Balthazar, who has come to Rankin Inlet from New York City to escape scrutiny and seems fated to harm instead of heal.
When violence strikes Victoria's world, followed quickly by horrifying medical tragedy, Kevin Patterson shows how the tenuous bonds of friendship, love and family fly apart. And then at last, with great feeling, he evokes the unexpectedly tender ways in which the survivors struggle to their feet and carry on.
"There is reason to pause at the beginning of Kevin Patterson's new novel. The epigraph, 'For the sick, the poor, and the ashamed' makes one wonder what one is in for. Indeed, the story, which takes place over a 40-year period, deals with these conditions and more. And though the narrative swings gently back and forth between two main characters, Victoria and Dr. Balthazar, it is also the story of... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) community, of cultures clashing in Canada's far north — specifically, the small town of Rankin Inlet, close to the Arctic Ocean and on the western edge of Hudson Bay. Victoria, a 10-year-old Inuit child, is diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to a southern sanatorium, where she lives for many years. Treatment at the time consists of weekly injections of streptomycin and high doses of oral medication. The more radical treatment, thoracoplasty, is eventually performed and several of her ribs excised in order to collapse cavities of infection within her lungs. This is later described by Balthazar, her northern doctor, as 'savage deforming surgery.' When Victoria finally returns to the north, an intelligent young woman with an 'incandescent energy,' she has become an outsider. The Inuit community has changed during her absence. Her parents, who had lived out on the land, fishing and hunting, are now in town, where her father has a job at a recently opened diamond mine. They worry that their daughter may be better suited to marry a white man than an Inuk, but 'this was too painful an idea for either of them to utter aloud.' Just as they fear, Victoria meets Robertson, a white man from the south, a Kablunauk, who manages the town store and eventually works for the owners of the new mine. He and Victoria will have several children together. Balthazar, the town doctor, has been coming to the Arctic since his 20s, but he maintains a life in his old world and keeps an apartment in New York to which he returns every summer. His lack of confidence about his own skill as a physician is well-based, but he is a sympathetic character, beautifully drawn. He also loves from afar the unattainable Victoria. He delivers her children, albeit in a bungling manner, and their lives go on to intertwine in other ways. One of Patterson's strengths as a writer is that he creates a wide cast of characters. Some never get to meet or interact with others, and yet each contributes to the overall complexity of this novel's theme. One of Victoria's daughters muses, a generation later and while watching Axl Rose in a Guns n' Roses performance, 'As he put it, the choice becomes whether to consume oneself along with everything else.' This is meant in the widest possible sense. A book that seems to be about tuberculosis (once known as consumption) becomes a book about isolation in its extremes — whether in the south or north, about hardship and greed and secrecy and longing and love. The pace of the storytelling is gently seductive and always informative. And woven into this are tantalizing chapters about different facets of medicine — changing epidemiology that includes Type II diabetes, drug-resistant tuberculosis, obesity — all told through the voice and writings of the isolated physician with too much time on his hands. He is lonely and often sad, but he is curious and astonished by discovery. He is also punishingly realistic, as revealed in his journals. 'All my life I have equivocated, puzzled most of all about what it was I wanted,' he writes. 'I came to the Arctic for a summer. ... But this is where I ended up spending my professional life. ... I didn't actually choose the place until I had spent half my life there.' The spell of the novel is broken only when the outside narrator intrudes, stopping the story to explain what tundra is, or the igloo, or what it is like for the tuktu (caribou). These small bits of information could easily have been filtered through the eyes and minds of Balthazar and other characters. Even so, when he is in his stride, Patterson is capable of creating sentences such as these: 'In hollows, the grasses rise to midankle and the tuktu proceed through it like mowers lined abreast. ... By August, their bellies bulge and their necks appear like swollen wineskins appended to their trunks.' Because of his unique experience in the north, where he practiced as a physician, because of his elegant style and compassionate vision, Patterson has created a remarkably compelling novel. His insight into the human condition pulls us to the heart of events, even when the idea of these is 'too painful ... to utter aloud.' Frances Itani's new novel, 'Remembering the Bones,' will be published in January." Reviewed by Frances Itani, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"Put Kevin Patterson's debut novel, Consumption, right at the top of your must-read list. This book is a staggeringly beautiful elegy for the traditional life of the Inuit, showing the inevitable loss when cultures collide... Consumption is not only a beautiful novel, but also an important one. Few people are in Patterson's position of knowledge and experience, and so readers are given a special opportunity to learn about the Inuit, the changes in their lives, and what those changes suggest for human beings in general." Edmonton Journal
"[The novel's] thematic resonance, along with an understated humanism reminiscent of Anton Chekhov (incidentally, another physician), make Consumption a quietly devastating novel." Vancouver Sun
In Rankin Inlet, a small town bordering the Arctic Ocean, the lives of the Inuit are gradually changing. The caribou and seals are no longer plentiful, and Western commerce has come to the community through a proposed diamond mine. Victoria Robertson wakes to a violent storm, her three children stirring in the dark. Her father, Emo, a legendary hunter who has come in off the land to work in a mine, checks to see if the family is all right. So does her Inuit lover, as Victorias British husband is away on business.
Thus the reader enters into the modern contradictions of the Arcticwalrus meat and convenience food, midnight sun and 24-hour satellite TV, dog teams and diamond minesand into the heart of Victoria's internal exile. Born on the tundra in the 1950s, Victoria knows nothing but the nomadic life of the Inuit until, at the age of ten, she is diagnosed with tuberculosis and evacuated to a southern sanitarium. When she returns home six years later, she finds a radically different world, where the traditionally rootless tribes have uneasily congregated in small communities. And Victoria has become a stranger to her family and her culture.
Victoria compounds her marginalization by marrying a non-Inuit, Robertson, the manager of the town store. Over the years, as her children gravitate toward the pop culture of the mainland, and as her husband aggressively exploits the economic opportunities that the Arctic offers, Victoria feels torn between her family and her ancestors, between the communal life of the North and the material life of the “South.” Through Victoria, Kevin Patterson deftly exposes the costs and consequences of cultural assimilation, and the emotional toll that such significant lifestyle changes take on communities.
Spanning countries, generations, and cultures, Consumption is an epic novel of the Arctic, and a penetrating portrait of generational division and cultural dissonance.
About the Author
KEVIN PATTERSON is the author of the memoir The Water In Between, which was a New York Times Notable Book. Country of Cold, his short fiction collection, won the Rogers Writers Trust Fiction Prize, as well as the inaugural City of Victoria Butler Book Prize. He lives on Saltspring Island, Canada.
What Our Readers Are Saying
Other books you might like
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z