Susan Musgrave has created a story that is both beautiful and heart-wrenching. Given continues where Cargo of Orchids, Musgrave’s previous novel, left off, but it is as welcoming to new readers as it is to old. Indeed, those who discover Given will no doubt be pleased to find that in Cargo, they can learn the full story of the narrator’s intriguing past.
The narrator, who remains unnamed, escapes from prison at the beginning of the novel and travels back to her home on an island in B.C. In this small community there are many protestors, a Christian vegetable salesman, a ‘Church of the Holy Brew’, and a café that serves a ‘Philosophical Chicken special’. There is humour, but the majority of it is dark, suitable for the novel’s themes of poverty, addiction, and grief. The narrator is haunted, literally, by the ghosts of her two friends from Death Row. Although they are dead, Frenchy and Rainy are incredibly vibrant. They speak in a witty and inventive slang, speaking disturbing truth using many original turns of phrase.
The journey is very much an inner, emotional one, as the narrator struggles to deal with a terrible loss. Motherhood is one of the major themes explored. Frenchy and Rainy were both mothers, and another character, Grace, is struggling to overcome her drug addiction before the birth of her baby. The mood and style of the book is both dark and beautiful, its characters struggling, broken people who are surrounded by the great natural beauty of the sea and the forest. Musgrave’s writing captures this exquisitely, as in this line: “The sea glittered with jumping light, as if someone up above had scattered a box of shiny new pins across the surface”. Musgrave renders her protagonist’s difficult story with a tender and artistic touch, and the reader finishes the novel with a feeling of deep catharsis.
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