CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 37. . . .May 23, 2014
Kaya is a high school student who is finding her life hard to cope with. She has no real friends, and her attitude doesn’t help. She is adopted and is multiracial. Her father has died, and her mother and sister are both busy with their own problems, with little patience for Kaya’s rebellious nature. Kaya chooses to leave both home and school behind her and runs away repeatedly, finally ending up living on the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and attempting to find some sort of solace in drugs and the sex work she needs to do in order to sustain her habit. Even the efforts of Sarah, another sex worker and addict, to convince Kaya to return home, don’t work. Eventually Kaya undergoes detox and treatment and group therapy sessions in an effort to save herself from becoming another of the missing women so often in the Vancouver news.
The novel has its roots in the true story of de Vries’s sister, Sarah, who was a victim of serial killer Robert Pickton, but fortunately de Vries has given her book a happier ending. Kaya is a compelling character who seems to always have a chip on her shoulder and a sneer on her lips. Many aspects of her are unpleasant, and yet readers will find they are on her side. Only gradually does de Vries help readers understand the trauma from Kaya’s past which contributes to her desperate need to find a place where she can fit in. Eventually, readers understand that Kaya is dealing with childhood abuse as well as she can, in ways which allow her to cope with the memory of what happened and her own lack of self-esteem.
The story is also told partially from the point of view of Kaya’s older sister, Beth. She, too, has had to learn to cope with problems and has often turned to food for comfort and solace. Beth is a person who seems unable to express her feelings and, at one point, even tells herself that she will wait until she gets home to her room in order to have a place to cry. Her interest in magic is one of the only ways she can get out of herself and distract herself from the difficulties of the world around her. Her efforts to take care of her sister come across as heavy-handed and overbearing, although readers understand that she means well and just is unable to communicate in a meaningful way with Kaya.
de Vries uses an interesting technique to convey Kaya’s ability to distance herself from people around her and even, at times, from her own actions. Throughout the novel, the sections which tell Kaya’s part of the story are told in the second person. At first this is disconcerting, but gradually it becomes clear that Kaya is not able to understand or deal with her own emotions, and so it is easier to constantly refer to herself as ‘you’.
de Vries’s novel has a gripping reality which stems from her own personal experiences. Readers see, hear and smell the buildings and people of the Downtown Eastside – the addicts, the sex workers, the pimps, the johns. It is an environment which revolts and disgusts readers while, at the same time somehow, attracting readers to watch life in a gritty and dark world. Like Kaya, readers are drawn to the excitement and allure of a place which is so different from normal. de Vries also expertly portrays the man who abuses Kaya and other young children. There, too, readers understand his hateful acts and yet can clearly see why children would be drawn to this person who invites them to play with the many toys he owns, who listens carefully to their stories and who serves them tea in china cups.
The Rabbit Ears title is somewhat mystifying. Kaya’s sister, Beth, is something of an amateur magician, and so presumably the title refers to her interest in performing magic tricks. Perhaps, also, it hints at Kaya’s attempts to somehow disappear from the world which is so difficult for her and to magically reappear elsewhere, only to find that the magic is disappointing and she has not truly left behind any of her problems. In an afterword, de Vries mentions that she simply liked the title and was surprised to find when she watched an old interview with her sister that her sister had a Playboy Bunny tattooed on the top of her left breast. An intriguing coincidence and, according to deVries, perhaps a sign that her sister has somehow given her blessing to the book.
Rabbit Ears is often a difficult book to read as readers watch Kaya fall into addiction and prostitution and then slowly find her way out again. The way out is not easy, nor is it straight, as de Vries paints an honest picture of someone who relapses despite her best intentions to change. It is so realistic and raw that readers are challenged throughout as de Vries boldly and somewhat harshly forces readers to feel just a tiny, tiny bit of the anguish felt by the friends and families of Vancouver’s missing women.
Ann Ketcheson, a retired high school teacher-librarian and teacher of English and French, lives in Ottawa, ON.
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