When the mysterious Humphreys boys arrive in Delwood, they immediately grab the attention of the prying eyes of the townsfolk—despite Matt Humphreys’ efforts to keep a low profile and not bring attention to their unsettling home life. Matt and Ben are latchkey kids whose alcoholic, womanizing father, Jack, has been dragging them from one depressed town to another. Matt has been forced to grow up fast, raising his little brother, Ben, with unwavering devotion, and protecting him from their abusive father. Then there is the equally wounded Rutger family next door: Allie and her unfaithful husband, Doug, and their three daughters, Lyne, Glory, and Becca. Lyne is gorgeous and popular, but selfish, petty, and spiteful and trapped in a relationship with the über-jock and bully, Rick. Glory is tender and imaginative and lost in books—and deeply in love with Matt. Quickly a bond forms between Becca and Ben, the youngest and most innocent characters in the novel, which brings Matt and Glory closer together. The friendship that forms between these four characters is an idyllic haven away from the pain that envelops both families. But the vicious cycles of infidelity, lies, and vindictiveness that run through the Humphreys and Rutgers—and the buried secrets of the past—threatens to violently tear apart the precious harmony that these four characters have built.
Narine draws on these familiar types, but with purpose. The characters of Rath’s Garage are inexplicably trapped in the roles that life has set out for them, and they struggle to see a way out of a recurring spiral of pain that has trickled down from one generation to another. Matt seems destined to repeat the womanizing ways of his father, seeking release in meaningless hook-ups—until Glory opens him up and shows him a different way. Lyne is trying desperately to hold onto an increasingly unstable Rick, a destructive relationship that too closely mirrors the dynamic of her own troubled parents. The most rampant type that pervades the novel is epitomized in Rick, Jack, and Doug who are all cut from the same mould—the bad boy archetype. In crafting these three characters Narine explores the rigid gender norms of rural Canadian life: in particular, the seething, controlling men that threaten to destroy and fragment the peace and joy that Matt, Ben, Glory, and Becca have built in Delwood—a dominating presence that the characters in the novel are fatally unable to escape.
Rath’s Garage makes repeated reference to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, one of Glory’s favourite novels with the nomadic Joad family a parallel to the Humphreys, but Narine’s thematic concerns more closely echoes that of S.E. Hinton: the coming-of-age novel about broken families; loneliness; love and loyalty amidst crumbling family life; socioeconomic differences and the lure of status; and the pitfalls of stigmatizing and ostracizing others—a fatal flaw that plagues the characters of Oil Change at Rath’s Garage. And like Hinton, Narine deftly gives us glimmers of hope in the path not taken—the path the characters of Rath’s Garage cannot always vividly see—the path that as Glory reminds us, where we are all so much more than where we’ve come from.
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