Katherena Vermette returns with The Circle, the final instalment of her Stranger trilogy. With twenty-one points of view, each in focus only once in the book, it’s easy to make a prediction: The Circle won’t achieve the commercial success of The Break, Vermette’s novel from 2016, or even that of The Strangers, from 2021. But for readers who love a text in a unique form, one that actively works to defy genre divides, this is Vermette’s most exciting novel to date.
A recap of the first two-thirds of the trilogy helps to explain where The Circle begins. In The Break, Phoenix Stranger, a young, unhoused Métis girl in Winnipeg’s North End, violently rapes Emily Traverse with a beer bottle, because she thinks Emily is romantically interested in the father of her unborn child. The Strangers sees Phoenix imprisoned for the assault and follows multiple generations of the Stranger family through her years in jail. These relatives use their present as a way to reflect on the hardships of their past. The Circle picks up at a pivotal moment for the Stranger and Traverse families: after six years, Phoenix is being released. And almost as quickly as she’s out, she disappears, setting off a sequence of events that results in Jake Traverse — a cousin of Emily, who now goes by M — being imprisoned for Phoenix’s presumed demise.
Described in this way, The Circle might sound like a murder mystery, though it is hardly a straightforward text. The challenge in reading the novel is piecing together the plot from the accounts of the many different narrators. Never are occurrences presented as facts; instead, each first-person speaker or narrator reflects only on one perception of events, which are not necessarily the same events considered in the preceding or following chapter. The structure, therefore, reflects a traditional healing circle: characters are able to comment only on what they know or what they have experienced directly. The narrative, fittingly, unfolds in a circular nature, revisiting scenes and details multiple times through different frames of reference.
It’s left unclear, for example, whether Phoenix actually visits her son’s school. We know that Lisa, Sparrow’s great-grandmother, thinks she sees Phoenix from a distance, but the police are concerned about her vision, as we learn in a chapter focused on Detective Tom Scott. We know that Jake thinks there’s something he needs to do for his family when Phoenix is released, but we learn what that is only when we finally hear from Phoenix near the end of the novel.
The structure is demanding on the reader, but it’s also one of The Circle’s strengths. It offers a penetrating look at contemporary trauma, as well as insightful commentary on how little we can ever truly know about a traumatic event. The most we can do is share the stories we have, be open to listening to the perspectives of others, and recognize that individual perceptions can be flawed — a truth made clear by Tom Scott and Phoenix’s Uncle Alex. Both are convinced that Jake is responsible for Phoenix’s disappearance. But then we hear from Kyle, Alex’s former roommate.
Kyle has a small role in The Break, appearing most frequently as someone from whom Phoenix steals drugs and money. He does not show up in The Strangers. Yet his viewpoint in The Circle is essential, as he is assumed to be the perpetrator of a new act of violence. Indeed, the Kyle chapter is the novel’s highlight. Here Vermette eschews prose and returns to her poetic roots (she won a Governor General’s Award in 2013, for North End Love Songs). The chapter begins and ends in similar ways: “Kyle was sorry / for all he’d done // for all he’d do” and “Kyle is sorry for what he’s done / sorry / for what he will do / sorry.” The bookended framing positions his actions as almost predetermined, underscoring the cumulative nature of intergenerational trauma experienced by the Traverse family and Vermette’s fictionalized Métis community as a whole.
As the character Ben reminds us, circle work is a form of “restorative justice,” in which “everyone who hurt, everyone who got hurt, all affected” can share their experiences. For some, circles “helped them heal.” For others, they “went in angry and left a different kind of angry. Learned how the blame belonged on the system, the history, the colonizer, the big things that were harder to change than one bad person.”
Structurally, circle work factored into The Strangers: Phoenix, Cedar, Elsie, and Margaret all speak several times, and in the process of reflecting on their past, they leave the reader with a different kind of anger. Phoenix emerges as a complicated villain. She is the product of rape, unwanted by her family, and sexually assaulted as a young child by her half-sister’s father. At no point does Vermette provide Phoenix with a redemption arc, but she makes it clear that her individual choices are difficult to separate from all that has been imposed on her family for generations.
As a stand-alone novel, in which characters all speak in silos and never respond to one another, The Circle doesn’t quite set itself the same reparative goal as the earlier texts. There’s no conversation going on, no transformation being shown. However challenging, this conclusion to Vermette’s trilogy is nonetheless a worthwhile read. Its combination of voices, perspectives, and even genres is inventive and often quite powerful.