17 April 2021

#Review - Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimaline

Cover design by Terri Nimmo
with Zainab's Echo

Empire of Wild
Cherie Dimaline
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1 April 2021
Available as: HB, 298pp, e, audio
Source: Advance HB copy kindly provided by the publisher
ISBN(HB): 9781474621588

I'm grateful to Will O'Mullane at Weidenfeld and Nicolson for an advance copy of Empire of Wild to read and consider for review.

Set in among a community of Canadian Métis people, Empire of Wild skilfully blends indigenous legends with those from further afield, orchestrating a clash on several different levels between the local people and the outside.

To begin with, Dimaline gives us a vivid sketch of the community: the town of Arcand, its much relocated population (moved on by the 'new Colonial authories', ie the United States, the it acquired their island in the 1820s, then further inland when the seashore they settled became desirable for fishermen and second homers, still being chivvied around to make way for pipelines, mining and resource extraction, but also, still clinging on. Joan ('of Arcand' - names are significant here, as with the Reverend Wolff who we'll meet later) is the main protagonist, heartbroken after her husband, Victor, disappeared nearly a year before. Consoling herself with drink, she's not contributing much to the family building firm but has formed a touching bond with her nephew Zeus.

Dimaline is prone to go off on slight digressions, which add to, rather than detracting from, her story and one is the sad tale of Zeus, abandoned by his unfaithful dad because he shows no talent for traditional dancing. Joan seems to be the only adult in Zeus's life who really cares for him and the relationship between them is well observed and touching, offsetting Joan's wilder moments.

The story takes off when hungover Joan staggers into a revival tent one day and becomes convinced that the charismatic preacher she sees there is her lost husband. He denies all knowledge of her, and claims to have been on the mission trail for three years. Can he really be Victor? And who is going to believe Joan anyway? As she sets out to investigate, she doesn't suspect that things will take a supernatural turn, or exactly how, why and by whom the travelling mission is being used.

Empire of Wild was a compelling read. We're given little hints of what is really going on - there are bits written from Victor's point of view, and his experience is truly baffling until near the end - as well as from various members of the mission. There is Cecile, a young woman devoted heart and soul to its success (but also to own prominence within it) plays a role, and has another of those digressions, mapping out a rather sad life which has left her insecure and craving reassurance. We also meet a man called Heiser, of Germanic extraction, who brings a different set of myths with him to cross-breed, and fight,  with the Métis 'Rogarou'. 

Blending these legends with revival Christianity and the ingrained folk Catholicism of the Arcand people, Dimaline creates a powerfully symbolic narrative within which the personal histories and dilemmas of her characters take life and play out their consequences. The central characters of Joan and Zeus are really well drawn and they pull the reader into this story, increasingly so as events move to a climax. 

Relatively short, Empire of Wild portrays a haunting world and compelling characters. It's a book I greatly enjoyed reading and would strongly recommend.

For more information about Empire of Wild, see the Weidenfeld and Nicolson website here.


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