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Blogger Flannery reflects on the family truths in Nikolski

Hello again, fellow readers.

I'm sure everyone is familiar with the saying "never judge a book by its cover." I feel even more certain that no one has ever managed to follow the advice (metaphorical and literal) contained therein — at least not entirely. I'll confess (again) that I almost always judge a book by its cover, especially if I'm unfamiliar with the author. I don't think this is a bad thing, but I certainly won't argue that it's a virtue either. I've probably missed out on some really great works because of my inclination to look first.

Why the cover-based introspection? Well, it may have something to do with the fact that I'm just rounding the corner on Nicolas Dickner's Nikolski. Of all the books we're reading together, Nikolski was the only one I couldn't get a read on from the cover. The fish imagery — brilliantly coloured as it was — baffled me. I had no clue what to expect.

What a nice surprise it was to discover that Nikolski is a story about the distinctly different yet remarkably similar persons that make up one unique Canadian family, and not a story about a Russian fishing expedition as my all-too-literal mind assumed.

There are countless novels that take on the idea of family — it's a pretty fascinating subject. Each one offers its own perspective on nature versus nurture in, usually, highly relatable terms. In Generation X, Dag, Claire and Andy flee the confines of familial connection. The expectations of parents and siblings grate on these characters, who are struggling to find their own lives. In Good to a Fault, Clara Purdy's parents loom large, even after their passing. Her present is bound very much in her past relationship with her father and mother. And I won't get into the extremely complex family reality depicted in Fall on Your Knees (at least not yet).

What struck me about Dickner's approach to the subject was his evident respect for and understanding of the myth-making aspect of family. For many people, ancestors, distant relatives, even their own parents, assume the status of great fictional characters. Every family has its heroes and villains. I know this is true in my family as it is with Dickner's Doucets. It's not often that you see this particular dynamic reflected in fiction.

Though the Doucets don't really fall into conventional family archetypes — they're a nomadic crew and are scattered far and wide — they make up for their lack of Thanksgiving dinners and Christmases with their genuine interest in hearing about each other. In a strange way their stories keep the family together. I don't know about you, but I feel as if I know Noah all the better for hearing about how his parents, Jonas and Sarah, met, coupled and uncoupled.

Hearing about how your parents met, how your grandparents met — they're all tales you want to hear and re-hear. It doesn't matter if they're happy stories or sad ones — we all want to know the details. "Tell me about the day I was born" is something I asked my mother a thousand times as a child. Noah is no different. His family tree is indistinct from the maps he loves to peruse. Both indicate where he's been and where he's going.

For Joyce, her grandfather Lyzandre is the source of all things Doucet(te). He regales her with stories of her buccaneering ancestors, exciting her own desire for adventure. That knowledge of her heritage influences what she wants to become. She invokes the spirit of her wandering uncle, Jonas Doucet, right before she decides to hit the open road.

"If Uncle Jonas had the guts to haunt the icy docks of Leningrad when he was fourteen, who can prevent Joyce — no less a Doucet than he was — from doing as much?"

She so identifies with the Doucet's distinct mythology that she thinks about what her long-dead ancestor, "the fearsome pirate Herménégilde Doucette," would think of her working at a fish store rather than plundering tall ships for booty.

Not every family story is a tragedy or a comedy— sometimes, as in Nikolski, it can be a celebration, though admittedly it's not a "party hats and cake" sort of affair.

Speaking of celebration, we're now at week 10 of Canada Reads! How are you faring at this point in the game? I'm sure there are some of you out there who've finished all five books already. If so, give us the scoop on the line-up. Do you have a favourite? What do you think about Nikolski's unique family unit? As always, feel free to weigh in below.



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