The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

In this novel, rich in the language employed by one of the U.S.’s finest writers, two words are key. One is ‘haunting’ and the other is ‘sentence’.

Characters are haunted by place, the now infamous city of Minneapolis where injustice often determines outcomes for all non-white people, and the police are rarely accountable for their wrong-doing.

The Sentence is set in the time of the pandemic and its powerful grip on almost every aspect of life. It shapes individuals, community interactions, shopping, work relationships.

The shocking death of George Floyd, screened endlessly around the world, overshadows them, because, as is the case in many of Erdrich’s novels, the characters are indigenous Americans.

More happily, their culture, traditions and superstitions are ever present as an integral part of their lives.

A sentence can be a complete thought but also may mean a punishment. The original inhabitants of the lands usurped by Europeans are ‘punished’ to this day. Their current existence is alien to that which they had enjoyed for countless generations. Life in this century is blighted by their inability to live as their privileged white citizens do, instead relegated to one of continuous struggle and setback.

Louise Erdrich’s latest work is peopled with characters who refused to be broken. It is a testimony to the strength and determination to make a life and it is the main character, Tookie, who symbolises this.

At the outset, she is persuaded to help a friend to move a dead body…this outrageous scene becomes a disaster for Tookie. The body has drugs attached and she is caught and sentenced to 60 years in jail.

With this stunning opening, the narrative unfolds. Tookie writes it in the first person and gives poignant insight in to the world of her emergence from prison and progress as a young woman devoted to her husband, Pollux, and her friends who mostly work at a small independent bookshop. She is warm and loving and tackles hurdles to overcome with zest and humour. One regular reader to the shop she names Dissatisfaction as he is so hard to please in finding a book he likes. He loathes happy endings…

Another regular customer was Flora, who now disturbs them by haunting the bookshop after she has died. This might be considered absurd by many, but Erdrich’s clever and convincing descriptions of Tookie’s reaction, makes it a credible and sometimes humorous feature of the novel.

The lighthearted touch often surfaces. Tookie endorses rituals that involve chocolate cake. Trump, never named, is referred to causing ‘an ache in my brain’ and she resolves to ‘do the opposite of what orangery does’!

As always, the writing is beautiful, often poetic. A fallen tree is frustrated because it is unable to taste starlight any longer.

Her previous novel The Night Watchman won the Pulitzer Prize. This latest work is further proof of her ability, as a member of the Turtle Mountain Band, to portray the lives of native Americans, as proud, courageous, intelligent, and to be cheerfully resolute in tackling problems.

It praises the value of the independent bookstore, skillfully deploys a flurry with the fantastic and creates a series of characters and events that make this book one of passion, emotion, complexity of relationships and a tribute to those unbroken by injustice and adversity. The Sentence is both unique and unforgettable.

The Sentence

[2021]

by Louise Erdrich

Hatchette

ISBN 978 147215 700 3

$32.99; 374pp

 

 

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