Sunday, October 22, 2006

An Artic Mockingbird

A novel I have recently finished and enjoyed is 'Unseen Companion' by Denise Gosliner Orenstein. This novel would fall under the category of 'Young Adult' fiction but is not restricted to that. At a talk I went to last month the speaker described this as a little like an Alaskan version of 'To Kill a Mockingbird', and made the heady claim that it easily held its own against Harper Lee's novel. My cynicism and my curiosity got the better of me and I bought a copy in Sydney in the October holidays. Australian readers might find it difficult to find a copy of the novel as it is not published locally and most major stores don't stock the book (I found one of two copies ordered by Dymocks- they will not be restocking the novel).

Orenstein's prose is indeed wonderful. She switches between teenage narrators in small town Alaska to tell the story of the mysterious Dove Alexie. Dove is the 'unseen companion' of the title. According to the novelist, 'unseen companion' is an astronomical term for a body in space that cannot be seen but that we know exists because of the influence it exerts on other objects. This metaphor is perfect for Dove, who has no 'voice' in the novel but yet significantly changes the lives of all the narrators. The first landing on the moon is happening in the background of events, another astronomical reference.

The novel is concerned with the treatment of Native-Americans in Alaska and is sensitive and thoughtful in its discussion of these issues. It also has a gentle sense of humour thanks mostly to the unintentionally funny narrator, Lorraine Hobbs who totters around her small town in high heels and elaborate outfits, cooking amazingly eccentric meals for the local jail. I'm not sure the 'Southwestern Gelatin Fiesta Salad' would be gracing magazine pages today.

It's not another 'Mockingbird' and at the end the novel becomes a little mawkish. I was also concerned at the 'anti-science' undercurrent in the novel. But it is a moving and compelling story, which very effectively evokes another time and place.

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