They say not to judge a book by its cover—Mongrel has two devil-headed youths seated together who appear to be writing something with a bowl of what looks like blood by their feet—but, in this case, I find the correlation between the stories and the cover to be spot on.
When a reader begins this book, it may seem like another story of rebellious youth ready for trouble. But it is soon evident that Mongrel is not what was expected. This is five tales told through the eyes of five separate characters—Sera, Gus, Sophie, Milan and Gunther—in five chapters, all of which take place over the course of twelve hours on the last day of the U.S. bombings of Serbia in 1999.
The novel starts off with three youths driving across the Canadian-American border concealing ecstasy under their tongues in case the border guards check them. (Although not mentioned, ecstasy is absorbed better under the tongue, which these teens did not think of.) As any teen or visible minority has likely encountered, some hassle crossing the border is inevitable, and that is just what Marko Sijan’s characters Basha, Sera and Lenny discover. Not shocking is how the teenage Sera does not hide her feelings on what she thinks of authority, especially when her father’s car is ransacked by border officials. And the story begins.
Sijan has made multiculturalism, a subject that has filled Canadian newspaper headlines for over a century, and one that is much discussed in Parliament, in schools and in our homes, one of the focal points of this novel. Multiculturalism in Canada is a policy the government takes pride in, but without taking the necessary measures to educate the public about it. The result is that race still plays a significant role in the mentality of society. Caucasian girls dating visible minorities and vice versa are often seen as a trend that will wear off one day, just as Sera believes her brother’s girlfriend will one day lose interest. “I believe she pretends to love Lenny because he is black. He is a novelty. It is popular to love someone from another race.”
At times, while reading Mongrel, I started drifting off, imagining teenage hippies using sex, drugs and anything they could dance to at a techno rave, believing that was their gateway to spirituality and finding their inner souls. This novel is a good illustration of the fact that however the image, music and race may change with the times, the youth mentality remains consistent as adolescents rebel, engage in spontaneous unsafe sex acts and experiment with drugs.
Even though the use of drugs such as ecstasy is on the rise at warehouse raves, with reports of sexual assaults, violence and overdoses, youth do not seem to be fazed by the dangers associated with these drugs—as long as they have a beat to dance to and a sexual partner to play with. A young girl engaging in fellatio in the back seat of a car outside a club or rave is not an uncommon occurrence these days, and Sijan brings this to life in Mongrel.
There is not a great deal in this novel that gives any more insight into the psyche of teens and why they are drawn to violence and self-destruction. Delving into the why would have given this novel the kick that could make it a book that is hard to put down, but it is an interesting story regardless. Readers should be aware that if they do not pay attention, however, they likely will not understand the hints dropped, such as when the character is in a dream world, and the not so obvious parts of the story that Sijan tries to get us to see. There is an effort required on the part of the reader in order to fully comprehend the development of the story.
Sijan, who also writes poetry, creates an opportunity for himself by dropping some poems into the novel. I found this to be a nice, much-needed break from the vomit, drugs and folly of the stories.
The old stereotype that jocks bully the weak and drink with their football buddies rings true all too often in teenage novels. Sijan does not shy away, though, and has chosen to include it in this book. Nevertheless, without his incorporating this, we would not have a proper youth story. A tough guy football quarterback takes the lead as the clichéd racist jock looking to throttle anybody who gets in his way.
The author touches on the subject of bullying in more than one instance and, although it has been an issue from the beginning of time, we need to address this problem more these days. There is a large number of dropouts and suicides occurring due to this problem. Youth who lack self–confidence and are bullied or cast out by their peers tend to be drawn to drugs and violence as the reader can somewhat discern in Mongrel. Many attempts have been made by numerous authors on youth violence and their destructive paths, which puts this novel in the category of another high school drama set in Canada.
Suicide among youth, especially females, is an all too common occurrence, and Sijan blends this into the storyline with ease. One female character states in a letter she is composing: “I want to be sleepy when I cut my wrists.” This is yet another example of low self-esteem and teenagers not being able to cope with their problems.
To pick up a book and predict an author’s style before I get a chance to get into the novel is not something I like to do. In this case there was no way I was going to be able to guess Sijan’s style, not even after a few pages of reading. At times it is abrupt and unclear, and other times the stories flow smoothly. When combined it is confusing to follow along. This novel is not your everyday, straightforward type of read. One thing to note is the limited number of characters in the novel. Normally this would make the story easier to follow, but with Sijan’s creative style the reader almost falls out of the story instead of staying engaged. This definitely was not a page turner for me.
Initially, I found the characters two-dimensional; however, after going through all five chapters, the characters became fuller. I may have enjoyed this book a little more if the characters had been fully developed in the early stages of the novel.
What makes this book somewhat interesting is how Sijan joins the views of different youth that are intertwined in one way or another. The reader gets a chance to jump into the minds of different characters that cross each others’ paths. This novel is ideal for readers looking for multiple short stories that are compiled into one book.
We like to think of our youngsters as rebellious but somewhat law-abiding citizens, but this story shows them a bit more on the extreme side of the teen world. If presented right, this novel could be used as a “what not to do” guide for youth.