Terry Fallis checks out Something Fierce

This week, the spotlight shines on Carmen Aguirre's tense and taut memoir, Something Fierce. The book is aptly named. At first glance, Carmen seems young to have written a memoir. But that shallow thought is banished after reading Something Fierce. I turned the pages so quickly in this book I have friction burns on my fingers. It is a powerful read that does what great books always do. It takes you out of your own life and plunks you down in someone else's.

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Carmen Aguirre (middle) and Shad (right) sign books at the Canada Reads launch on November 23, 2011 (Tanja-Tiziana Burdi/CBC)



Carmen was born in Chile, but spent most of her early childhood in Vancouver. Her family fled to Canada when she was six years old to escape Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship. However, Carmen's family returned to South America when she was 11, so her parents could join the resistance movement to fight for democracy. Something Fierce recounts Carmen's life from 1979 to 1989 as she lived through her teenage years and into her early twenties, essentially on the run in South America with her family, always one step ahead of the secret police. Her parents would often be away on missions, while other resistance members moved in to take care of Carmen and her younger sister Ale.

Despite the danger, the sisters led lives that in many ways were not unlike those of their classmates. They went to school, did their homework, hung around with friends and talked about boys, all the while clinging to the cover story that had been carefully constructed for them. Often without warning, the family would pack up in the night and move somewhere else where the resistance needed them more. When Carmen was 18, she became a fully-fledged operative and spent time undercover in Argentina before the resistance disbanded in 1989. Carmen then returned to Vancouver having lived more in 22 years than most of us ever will. It makes for harrowing reading.

Carmen's first-person accounts strikes an intimacy with the reader that puts you right there alongside her. She writes clearly and cleanly about the kind of life we usually only read about in spy thrillers from the airport bookstore. On the other hand, what struck me was that despite the danger, despite living a double life, Carmen still passed through the same well-documented stages of adolescence most of us did: the teenage romantic melodramas, the minor acts of rebellion, the standard chafing against parental authority. It's all there, yet it's unfolding in Bolivia or Argentina where brave activists were, and are still, fighting repressive regimes. Life, it seems, goes on regardless.

Carmen has a wry and self-deprecating sense of humour that leavens the nearly constant tension. What makes the tale all the more compelling is the juxtaposition of the benign and banal with the violent and dangerous. In one moment, she could be describing a classmate's birthday party and in the next, the secret police are closing in. This fine line separating an average schoolgirl's life and the dangerous undercover world of South America's political resistance makes the whole story seem surreal, though it all really happened.

She writes cryptically in places, providing few if any details about the specifics of the missions. She doesn't comment on this directly in the book, but it's clear that she is protecting those who are still underground, fighting the good fight. This vague writing about her clandestine activities takes nothing away from the story. In fact, for me, it heightened the enveloping sense of dread and danger that propels the narrative. It's also a timely reminder that these underground battles have not yet been won, but are still raging right now in our world.

Growing up in Canada, as I did, it's easy to grow complacent and insular, to fall into the apathy of affluence and turn a blind eye to the plight of others who just happened to have been born in countries where democracy has not taken root so easily. Something Fierce is a potent reminder that around the world, people are still languishing in prison and dying for the rights we sometimes forget we even have here in Canada. And looking ahead to the debates, this may be one of the sharpest arrows Shad, the book's Canada Reads defender, has in his quiver. That reading can, in fact, be a quiet act of solidarity with those fighting for what we've always had.

I think the greatest strength of Carmen Aguirre's memoir is the very human voice she employs to transport us, head and heart, to a different world where sinister currents relentlessly flow just beneath the surface. That's the power in her story. Shad's challenge will be to overcome the admittedly misplaced concern that this book may not seem particularly "Canadian," given its theme and setting. He'll need to persuade at least a couple of panelists that Canada Reads, unlike a Toronto real estate deal, is not all about "location, location, location." But he'll be sharing this issue with three of the other finalists, including the book we'll dig into next week, Prisoner of Tehran.


Heading into the debates, Carmen's unusual story and unique voice are sure to make Something Fierce stand out. But will its defender Shad, be able to overcome resistance to a not-so-Canadian setting?




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Terry Fallis is the author of The Best Laid Plans, a satirical novel of Canadian politics that won the 2008 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour and the 2011 Canada Reads title. It's currently being adapted as a six-part mini-series for CBC Television. His follow-up novel, The High Road, was a finalist for the 2011 Leacock Medal. McClelland & Stewart will publish his third novel in September 2012.

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