Jumpdrives & Cantrips

A Small and Remarkable Life

A Small and Remarkable LifeI usually don’t like human meets alien or alien meets human stories. Why? Because first contact novels tend to be repetitive: there are only so many ultimate outcomes from someone meeting a different species. So it is all the more impressive that A Small and Remarkable Life puts a different perspective on this type of story. Nick DiChario works more with the emotional context of the characters and provokes a sense of alienation, rather than dwelling on differences alone.

DiChario has a literary tang to his mellow writing, which is rich with allusion and symbolism despite its simple prose. Themes of faith and belief weave together throughout the book, and being that the story is set in mid-nineteenth century America, this means Christianity figures heavily in it. Time-wise, it’s around the time of the American Civil War, a time when racial issues were prime concern. This serves to highlight some of the self vs. other conflict that surrounds what we categorise as alien.

The story switches between two main characters, Tink Puddah and Jacob Piersol, jumping between different points in time. The book’s structure tends toward the non-linear–Tink’s birth and funeral are both at the beginning of the book, and what may seem to be spoilers in the following paragraphs are not. Tink is born malformed and early after the brutal death of his parents, newly arrived and adapted to life on Earth. His blue skin, fragility, and odd looks set him apart, though less so than his aversion to violence and disbelief in God. This disbelief is the root of conflict between him and the preacher from the valley he later settles in, Jacob, who is so determined to serve his congregation that it segregates him from them.

The story of A Small and Remarkable Life really comes from the characters, more so than anything else. Their lives and beliefs form a dialogue, leading them both eventually towards death and resurrection. Tink and Jacob serve to contrast beliefs about God and mercy, as well as what constitutes an act of good (or an act of God, in some cases). They also serve to show two different manners of alienation–particularly that of the outsider looking in, but also the estrangement one can feel in divisive social situations. DiChario uses the story as a lens to question the construction of what is alien, and acceptance of it, or lack thereof. The sense of alienation cultivated throughout also serves to distance the reader from the story itself–I personally found this fascinating, but other readers may feel, er, alienated by it.

DiChario manages to compress a large amount of information into this novel, which deserves unpacking of a literary sort. However, I suspect that some parts could have stood to fleshed out, most notably the revelation of Tink’s murderer. This moment didn’t feel right to me–not who it was, but rather the “final reveal” portrayed it almost as a deus ex machina, though it wasn’t. This particular moment in the book also happened to stretch out over three chapters–a massive variation in pace to the rest of the book, making it feel forced to an extent.

Regardless, Nick DiChario certainly impressed me with the deft portrayals and layered meaning in Tink’s story. A Small and Remarkable Life is the kind of book that stays with you for a while, and makes you think about things. That’s an impressive feat that leaves me looking forward to DiChario’s next release, upcoming this May.

DiChario, Nick. A Small and Remarkable Life. Calgary: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2006. 238 pages. $19.95 (Canadian).