A Review of Sarah de Leeuw's
Where It Hurts
NeWest Press 2017
By Siobhan M. Carlson
There is a contradiction in the synopsis on the cover; it both tells us everything there is to know about the essays and tells us nothing. Sarah de Leeuw provides a deeply visceral look at human bodies in relation to the Canadian landscape— creating an inspirable link between the two. The narrative takes a non-linear, often fragmented, look at de Leeuw’s life. The reader is guided through the author’s memories as though they are fragments of ash littered across the Canadian landscape.
The narrative elicits the feeling of suffocating: dead bodies trapped under ice, a little boy trapped in a pool, encroaching lava, swimming in in weed-filled lakes, the death of the man at the airport. These images collectively leave the reader feeling breathless. We are drowning not only in our bodies but within the Canadian landscape. The author repeatedly employs images of suffocation, often to the detriment of the text as there is little deviation from the imagery. Nonetheless, de Leeuw's style produces a powerful physical response from the reader.
In contrast to this, de Leeuw positions youth and birth as, “being alive with breath pulled deep into lung” (72). When we are young, we are full of breath, but as we continue to move through the landscape, we lose our breath, often by force. It is often the scenery that takes our breath away, but not from its beauty; rather, like her teenage friend, we are pulled into the river, never to be seen or breathe again.
De Leeuw ties the breath of youth and suffocation through the missing and murdered Indigenous woman along the BC highways, "[t]hese daughters go missing in the spring and in the winter. They are only occasionally found, frozen and crumpled amongst the roots of alder trees, left torn with pine needles resting on their eyelids, tossed without concern and scratched by eagles and ravens that draw no distinction between someone's child and the body of a porcupine clipped by a careless drive” (79). These young women become inseparably lost within the landscape, pulled under the tree roots.
Among de Leeuw’s memories are her experiences with Indigenous people and the squalor of the reserves in British Columbia. Like the decomposing landscape, the reserves were, "... the cracked-and-duct-taped-over living room windows with faded wolf-face-embroidered synthetic blankets and bath towels hung up for curtains. At the heaps of rusting cars and snowmobiles with shot-up beer cans resting on their handlebars” (24). In contrast to this, de Leeuw describes the neighboring town, with the well-manicured lawns and rust-free vehicles, further signaling the forgotten Indigenous reserve.
Not only are human bodies tied to the Canadian landscape, but our relationships as well. Our relationships, like the countryside, are lost in a land of decay—haunted by unseen contamination. Like the repurposed landfills, we try to reclaim human relationships from the contamination of anger, sadness, and death.
Canadian authors have devoted considerable time to narrating the harsh, empty and unchanging Canadian landscape, often creating a landscape that is a character onto itself. De Leeuw’s landscape is unlike the landscape we claim to know. Like the tectonic plates below her British Columbian home, the land is constantly in motion, as though it is its own body. Our bodies are not moving through the land, rather we are in motion with it, fighting to maintain breath.
De Leeuw finished the text by sharing her Oma’s struggle to create a homespace within the Canadian landscape. Unlike the other chapters, de Leeuw positions the landscape, from the perspective of an immigrant, as "a landscape so open that you may have for the first time contemplated endlessness” (106). It is as though the final two chapters are the only static element of a fractured narrative. More specifically, the second last chapter deviated from the closing chapter, in that it maintains a linear narrative, like the piece of the puzzle left over that still does not fit. In the final chapter, de Leeuw appropriates the story, Coyote’s Eyes, told to the author by an unnamed narrator. As the reader, we can only infer the identity of the narrator. In addition, de Leeuw utilizes the imagery of Thunderbird to describe a fringe film festival and a car accident, creating little distinction between the two. It is as though the narrative, filled with stories of Indigenous people, uses these stories to legitimize a connection to the Canadian landscape, particularly in relation to the experience of immigrants and their descendants. It is a vein attempt to legitimize a specific connection to the land.
Overall, de Leeuw provides a rich narrative full of the memories of growing up in a Canadian landscape. These memories force the reader to re-evaluate how we understand the Canadian landscape in relation to the bodies that move with it. Despite the suffocation, there is beauty in de Leeuw’s decomposing terrain.