“The crocuses push up through the dense crust of spring snow like baby birds hatching, their butter yellow and velvet purple noses insisting it is time. Every year it feels like winter will last forever.”
Ada is infatuated with her body piercer, Pan. Pan has a girlfriend back home on the West Coast. Mattie is conducting a love affair with the ghost of her teenage crush, Edith. Kiah is learning to live without the love of her mother, who died of cancer. There’s a lot going on in the North End of Halifax.
Jaime Burnet’s debut novel Crocuses Hatch from Snow reads like a love story to the North End and those who call it home. “The easiest place to start is by writing a fictional version of yourself. Write what you know.” Burnet, a labour and human rights lawyer, has attached an Author’s Note to her novel to explain her inclusion of first-person narratives from Black Nova Scotian and Mi’kmaq characters. “I wanted to write a story that, among other things, includes a white character who is starting to learn and think about race, racism, and white privilege. It would be difficult to write about these issues in a story solely populated by white people.” The explanatory note goes on to describe the editing process and the involvement of Mi’kmaq and Black Nova Scotian community members in the creation of the book. I thought it might better serve as an introduction rather than an appendix, setting the stage for a reader who might otherwise be put off.
At the center of the novel is the queer romance between Ada and Pan. With a few competing storylines, their story is the most fleshed out and strongest written. The achingly love smitten Ada trails her crush across snowy Halifax streets, in the nostalgia inducing dream-like stage of being a recent high school graduate with few plans and a lot of freedom. Well written sex scenes can be hard to come by, but Burnett pulls it off (no pun intended.)
The novel also follows Ada’s grandmother, Mattie, and her teenage crush, a Mi’kmaq girl named Edith. Their storyline takes us back to the 1940s, where Edith is a resident of the Shubenacadie Residential School. It’s unclear why Edith has returned in ghost form to haunt grandmother Mattie’s bedroom (is it dementia or supernatural occurance?) Edith’s story peters out after we briefly follow her through a move to 1950s Toronto, where she works in a queer bar in The Village. Ada’s mother, journalist Joan, attends the letting go ceremony at the former site of the Shubenacadie Residential School, the scene falling emotionally flat as she views the ceremony from a distance.
Then there’s Kiah, Ada’s next door neighbour. Kiah comes from a family entrenched in the history of Africville and the Black Nova Scotian community. Kiah is the mouthpiece for issues of race and racism affecting the North End. She rages against the gentrification being built around her community, pushing out Black residents who were originally displaced from Africville. Her role as the informed social justice character renders her as two-dimensional. Where you might expect her story to entangle with Ada’s to build towards a narrative climax, there is frustration as they seem to pass like two ships in the night, never meeting. Kiah’s character had a lot of potential which went unused, almost as if she were waiting for a sequel. She functioned more as a reflection for Ada, showing how the other side of the duplex lives.
While I enjoyed the novel, there were simply too many disjointed parts and loose ends, narratives left hanging and a lack of a satisfying resolution. Where Burnet succeeds more thoroughly is in building a sense of place. She renders cityscapes beautifully, distilling the ambiance of late 2000s Halifax/Ki’jpuktuk, from the perpetually grey and slushy mid-Spring streets, to local’s penchant for giving visual directions.
“Pan describes the walk, using a red mailbox and a playground and large trees as landmarks instead of street names.”
There was something magical in the 4pm winter sunsets of a bygone era, before the Age of Social Media, when we had flip-phones and the only app was a game called Snake. When Anchor Archive was still on Roberts Street. I lived in Halifax then. I remember climbing through the friends windows to see if they were home, when every West End a apartment seemed to be making vegan soup just for you at dusk. Set in 2007 and 2008, Crocuses Hatch from Snow is a snapshot of a community in flux, on the precipice of change. A small offering to a city, Burnet’s novel is a pressed flower, a moment caught on the page forever.