The Taste of Ashes by Sheila Peters reads more like non-fiction about actual living, breathing individuals and literally true events, than well-researched fiction that’s “merely” emotionally true. By praising it or raving about how much I enjoyed it, I feel I’m making light of real people’s very difficult, hard circumstances. Likewise, if I criticize any part, I feel I’m somehow slamming real people—and how dare I do that?
But I did enjoy it. Identified with it. Laughed out loud in places. The story’s written in a braided narrative, with three main point-of-view characters: Isabel Lee, one-time wild child, now recovering alcoholic and fodder for the small town rumour mill, Father Álvaro Ruiz, a priest seeking respite in Canada after enduring mind, body and spirit breaking torture in Guatemala, and Janna—Isabel and Álvaro’s daughter, born out of an intense affair the first time Álvaro was in Canada as a young Oblate priest—a child Álvaro knows nothing about. Once their voices were established and I knew who was who, I could hardly put the book down—though at times, out of stress, outrage and empathy, I wanted to throw it across the room.
Peters is incredibly skilled at showing the many-layered ways we hurt the people we love unintentionally (through ignorance and indifference—or just misunderstanding what they actually need from us)—and worse, the ways some people intentionally set out to damage and destroy others. She’s equally adept, however, at showing that healing also exists (if at a price), that love (in the furthest thing from a mushy, romantic sense of the word) endures, and grace—in sharp splinters of pain and light—can eventually pierce and change even the bleakest reality. She also shows and celebrates the power of beauty and nature.
Disturbing, challenging content adds depth to the pure pleasure of a well told, absorbing story and provokes thought. Like Isabel, I have lived in northern BC my whole life (I was born in Smithers and actually lived on Railway Avenue for most of my early childhood—the same street Isabel lives on), and any pain and personal hardship I’ve experienced has been on a small town scale. I don’t fear authorities. I have the luxury of “rights.” Torture at the hands of the government (shameful for me to admit) is the stuff of movie plots or awful newscast footage. I am moved and horrified by it, but in the detached way of one who is safe from such things. To explore the darkness and seeming randomness of that type of evil was very difficult and, I think, beneficial (though even that word—beneficial—reeks of privilege). I was shamed by my insulated safety, and by my lack of knowledge about South America, particularly Guatemala.
As all the best novels do, the ones that are read for generations because of the glimpse they provide into specific times and histories, The Taste of Ashes broadened my view of our world, and opened my eyes to aspects of human experience that shouldn’t be ignored.
I was driving to work in May, listening to the radio, and CBC happened to be interviewing a Forensic investigator about the trial of Guatemalan general Efrain Rios Montt (found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, he was sentenced to 80 years in jail—a historic, and long overdue, achievement for the people of Guatemala), and I started to shake a bit. Not only did I recognize the name, I had personal reaction to the type of atrocities he was directly responsible for.
The Taste of Ashes can simply be read as an interesting story of a passionate, illicit love affair, its fallout and the subsequent lives of those involved, but for me it’s more—the type of tale that makes me consider the kind of person I am, the sort of life I am privileged to live—and what, if any, responsibilities come with that privilege.
Peters’ beautiful, strong writing and vivid, put-you-there descriptions made it easy to forgive the (very few) instances where I stumbled over a slightly awkward phrase or transition into a different point-of-view or time period that could have been smoother.
My only real “complaint” about the book is not about the story at all; it’s about its cover. While I know one can’t (or shouldn’t!) judge a book by the cover, I’m confused by its plain garb. I don’t see how the sedate, black and white photo of a babe in a blanket-sling on his faceless mother’s back fits specifically to the story or speaks to its themes. Nothing hints of the exposure (and exposé) the story provides of northern BC living. Nothing shows of the complexity of the cross-cultural, cross-generational relationships it delves into.
Don’t let the slightly boring cover put you off. The Taste of Ashes is well worth your investment of time and money. If you give it a go, let me know. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.