Goose Lane Editions, 2020
Reviewed by Benjamin Weick
Blaze Island captures the essence of 2020: global warming, mass forest fires in Australia and California, and the Covid-19 pandemic. These are lessons we’ve failed to learn as a community or have been unable to acknowledge in the face of peril.
Blaze Island is a remote, rural location based on Fogo Island off the northeast coast of Newfoundland (not to be confused with Blaze Island in Nunavut). North of Blaze Island icebergs are increasingly breaking off sheets and drifting southward.
Miranda is the protagonist whose father has become fearful and overprotective after his fall from grace in the scientific community and the death of Miranda’s mother. Much like the Shakespeare character she is named for, Miranda was raised on an island in the shadow of her father’s paranoia. As part of her education on Blaze Island, Miranda learned about weather and gardening, and other survivalist skills.
Meanwhile, Miranda’s father makes ice cubes from melting glaciers saying, “No point in wasting the wreckage…better to honour it somehow before it goes.” This line embodies the story in its parody of deniers and the “make-lemonade-from-lemons” optimism that has failed to adapt to changing times.
When a climate-change-caused category 5 storm brings a traveller seeking shelter, Miranda takes him in. Their contact lays bare Miranda’s misconceptions and teaches her what it means to survive the inevitable.
Author Catherine Bush says, “Every novel begins for me in desire and emotional and ethical conflict,” and Blaze Island follows that tradition. She spent 8 summers living on Fogo Island while she wrote this book. In Bush’s acknowledgements, she thanks nearly 50 individuals for sharing specific traditions, cultural perspectives, climate research and theory, and knowledge about birdwatching, island life, and weather.
She says, “There is a village of voices in this novel.” Many cultures, from the hunting traditions of the northern Inuk to the meaning of Japanese kanji tattoos, are represented.
Bush has published 5 books over her 30-year career, but she values quality over quantity. Blaze Island was a Globe and Mail Best Book and was Book of the Year for 49th Shelf and the Writer’s Trust of Canada. She was a 2019 Fiction Meets Science Fellow at the Hanse-Wissenschaftskolleg/ Institute of Advanced Study in Delmenhorst, Germany for her international advocacy and knowledge about climate change. She is an Associate Professor at the University of Guelph, as well as a Coordinator of the Guelph Creative Writing MFA.
The story weaves between past and present, never turning an expected corner. It explores how to thrive in isolation and find pleasure in small joys. It is an easy recommendation for anyone who enjoys reading about climate change, complex family dynamics, and surprise finales. Its careful and practiced prose makes it a strong contender for literary fiction lovers who like a slow burn.