“Hurt people hurt people.”
The Circle is the last in Metis novelist Katherena Vermette’s trilogy, preceded by The Break in 2016 and The Strangers in 2021. Although it’s not necessary to have read the other two books, they’re worthwhile, and Vermette builds on the characters and relationships from the earlier stories. The title is confirmed on every page, as the plot unfolds in the pattern of a restorative justice healing circle, where the accused and the victimized are brought together and allowed to tell their stories, but can only comment on what they know or have experienced personally. Family ties and friendships suffer as a result of intergenerational trauma, colonial systems, and cycles of violence that threaten the seven unreliable narrators’ bonds with one another and their communities.
Phoenix Stranger, released from prison six years after a terrible crime that is alluded to but never fully described in this book, is at the centre of the interconnecting networks that bind all the voices into a community. The effects of her assault on a young woman radiate out into everyone’s lives and into their neighbourhoods, which are almost characters themselves.
M, the young girl Phoenix attacked, is devastated to know she’s coming back home to Winnipeg’s North End. M’s worried mother and protective cousins also feel threatened by the idea of Phoenix’s presence. She shows up at her young son’s daycare to catch a glimpse of him and someone calls the police. She disappears before they can do anything and soon, one of M’s cousins is accused of her presumed murder. There’s no shortage of people who are happy to see her gone, however, and the police are no match for a community that wants to heal and protect itself in its own way.
The Circle isn’t a crime novel in the conventional sense, although it is centred around a brutal act of violence. The overlapping, interconnected structure offers deep insight into the ongoing effects of trauma and the difficulties in understanding events when individual perspectives might be flawed. The best we can do is tell our own stories, listen to those of others, and recognize that none of us will ever have the complete picture on our own.