This review may contain some spoilers.
Often, the problem with memoirs designed to leave a lasting legacy for future generations is that the life of the author is only of interest to their designed readership. Author Alastair Henry states that he wrote this novel primarily for his children, grandchildren, etc. Whereas one may be interested in their grandfather’s history – so as to have a greater understanding of their own identity – reading through the life story of a stranger can be a dull and empty experience. Yet this novel proves to be anything but.
The author takes us from his modest beginnings in a church fearing England, to his corporate success overseas in Canada, and eventual retirement. No financial burdens. A beautiful and secluded home. By all accounts, he’s won the game of life. Yet the journey is only beginning.
Following an epiphany, Alastair realizes that he’s searching for a new adventure, and decides to return to work. The universe seems to direct him far north, where he takes a job managing an aboriginal community. And this really is the heart of the novel – what truly makes it work.
Through Al we explore the workings of the Dene community, an Indian tribe based in the northern frozen terrain. A fish flung far out of water, Al must quickly acclimatize to the workings of a new land and people. What lessons and social norms he’s learned through life suddenly have little power in this world. Perhaps stubbornly, he tries to evoke change, but is only beginning to understand that the real change required may be in his way of thinking. And so, this eager reader read on, wondering what would give first: the author or the community?
I loved learning about the nomadic Dene people, and felt as though I was living a new life as I read. Often I would return to the book to find a moment of peace, and to escape a hectic day. Most importantly, the novel allowed me to examine my own way of thinking, and to re-evaluate what’s important in my own life. It will do the same for all readers, though what answers you find will be your own.
No doubt due to the author’s private journals, and his memories, he creates fully formed characters from his past. But the community as a whole, and the unforgettable setting, are the strongest characters of this work. It has been a long time since a location was brought so vividly before my eyes.
The language is crisp and clear; the author does a wonderful job of transporting you into a foreign land, in the middle of a far northern, icy world. Similarly, he effortlessly explains his thought processes in a vastly accessible style that will have you firing through the pages.
A real sense of optimism exists throughout the work, where even when there are down moments there are times of light waiting close by. Largely, the work stays relevant to the themes that bind the story together. Perhaps the book could be a little tighter; one or two scenes set in the community, particularly later on, as the book feels like it’s winding to a conclusion, could have been safely omitted.
By forging such a fascinating and distant world for the reader, and by communicating a powerful and thought-provoking message, ‘Awakening in the Northwest Territories’ transcends the boundaries of memoirs. No, this novel is not just for his grandchildren and their children, it’s for everyone.
This is just one opinion. If you’ve read the book, why not leave your own rating below?
Easily accessible writing style.