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What We All Long For by Dionne Brand
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What We All Long For (2005)

by Dionne Brand

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
An engrossing read with great characterization -- provides an interesting and intimate view of Toronto. I read this shortly after Brand's Bread Out of Stone and noticed a lot of similar threads emerging (like the discussion of the streetcar near the beginning of the novel). ( )
  climbingtree | Apr 6, 2011 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Some of the cultural references puzzled me, otherwise a respectable read and not much else. ( )
  rmckeown | Oct 5, 2009 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
It took a little while to get into this book, but once I did I enjoyed it. The story follows a group of friends trying to understand themselves, their families and each other while finding money to survive. It jumps from one perspective to another in a way which makes the story feel somewhat disjointed although not in an all-together negative way. Somewhat difficult to get through but a worthwhile read. ( )
  Candies64 | Sep 17, 2008 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I've spent quite a while trying to figure out how to start a review for What We All Long For, and each time I do I delete it and start anew. I feel like it's due to the fact that the novel is a tricky one to pin down: a work that is invested in multi-ethnicity but doesn't quite nail it; a work that features a mystery but isn't that mysterious; a work that wants to make a case for desire but also for a politics of morality. In the end, it tries but I'm not sure it succeeds on these counts.

The core issue with What We All Long For seems to stem from a plot that features numerous narrative perspectives and several main characters, but seems to meander rather than point in a certain direction. The main focus of our attention is on Tuyen, a second-generation Vietnamese-American lesbian who is struggling through both making a living as an artist and winning the affections of her neighbor and best friend Carla, who adamantly denies any homosexual tendencies. While Brand could have made a number of interesting interactions between the women, she instead stresses the silences and absences of discussion, perhaps to let the reader think there's a void to be filled, but coming off mostly as being indecisive about how to address the awkwardness.

Carla's silence, we learn, reflects her inability to deal with her brother, Jamal, who is constantly finding himself in trouble from which Carla must bail him out. While Jamal takes a secondary role in the novel, Carla's reactions to him and to how her family treats Jamal are some of the most poignant passages in the novel, a true domestic strife that comes off as authentic despite moments that threaten to descend into schmaltz. Sure, Jamal is played off to be a caricature, but at least he elicits genuineness from Carla, who reveals a deceptively hidden roundness at those moments.

This subplot, however, is underused, as are many other plots that tangle themselves throughout the novel. Tuyen's friend Oku, a black man who desires the love of Jackie, a clothing store owner already in a committed relationship, is the responsible foil to the somewhat immature Tuyen, but doesn't come off as being terribly influential to her, existing within his own story in too isolated a manner.

The same happens, most unfortunately, with the novel's most self-conscious attempt at a mysterious sub-plot: the disappearance and eventual return of Tuyen's long-lost brother Quy, who disappeared at the dock as her family left Vietnam for Toronto. Quy's first-person journey is intriguing but, again, underused -- he vanishes for long stretches of pages at a time and his tale, while fascinating, is simply not substantial enough to warrant the deviations. And while his potential return and the impact of that return on the dynamic of Tuyen's family (particularly on her long-suffering brother Binh) has incredible potential, it is hinted at but never truly mined to its fullest.

All of which leads to a finale that throws a huge wrench into the proceedings and threatens the very foundational relationships of the novel, but cops out from exploring them deeply. It's as if Brand wants us to decipher for ourselves what will happen to the people we've seen now that we have this event to consider, but it feels instead as if she simply didn't know what to make of it herself and simply cut the book off at that point. Like so many other elements of the novel, Brand has ambitious plans but falls short of executing them, leaving us wanting instead of deliberating, ironically longing for more but having nothing left to work with.

As an infusion, the novel struggles to piece everything together. From the awkward implementation of slang to the lack of development of the subplots, the novel comes off as an ambitious idea that the author couldn't quite pull off, a success in conception but a failure in execution. There's enough here to suggest that Brand has talent and ability, but What We All Long For is not necessarily the highest realization of either.
1 vote dczapka | Sep 13, 2008 |
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For Marlene, still.
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This city hovers above the forty-third parallel; that's illusory of course.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 067697693X, Paperback)

“They were born in the city from people born elsewhere.”

What We All Long For follows the overlapping stories of a close circle of second-generation twenty-somethings living in downtown Toronto. There’s Tuyen, a lesbian avant-garde artist and the daughter of Vietnamese parents who’ve never recovered from losing one of their children in the crush to board a boat out of Vietnam in the 1970s. Tuyen defines herself in opposition to just about everything her family believes in and strives for. She’s in love with her best friend Carla, a biracial bicycle courier, who’s still reeling from the loss of her mother to suicide eighteen years earlier and who must now deal with her brother Jamal’s latest acts of delinquency. Oku is a jazz-loving poet who, unbeknownst to his Jamaican-born parents, has dropped out of university. He is in constant conflict with his narrow-minded and verbally abusive father and tormented by his unrequited love for Jackie, a gorgeous black woman who runs a hip clothing shop on Queen Street West and dates only white men. Like each of her friends, Jackie feels alienated from her parents, former hipsters from Nova Scotia who never made it out of subsidized housing after their lives became entangled with desire and disappointment.

The four characters try to make a life for themselves in the city, supporting one another through their family struggles.

There’s a fifth main character, Quy, the child who Tuyen’s parents lost in Vietnam. In his first-person narrative, Quy describes how he survived in various refugee camps, then in the Thai underworld. After years of being hardened, he has finally made his way to Toronto and will soon be reunited with his family – whether to love them or hurt them, it’s not clear. His story builds to a breathless crescendo in an ending that will both shock and satisfy readers.

What We All Long For is a gripping and, at times, heart-rending story about identity, longing and loss in a cosmopolitan city. No other writer has presented such a powerful and richly textured portrait of present-day Toronto. Rinaldo Walcott writes in The Globe and Mail: “… every great city has its literary moments, and contemporary Toronto has been longing for one. We can now say with certainty that we no longer have to long for a novel that speaks this city’s uniqueness: Dionne Brand has given us exactly that.” Donna Bailey Nurse writes in the National Post: “What We All Long For is a watershed novel. From now on, Canadian writers will be pressed to portray contemporary Toronto in all its multiracial colour and polyphonic sound.”

But What We All Long For is not only about a particular city. It’s about the universal experience of being human. As Walcott puts it, “Brand makes us see ourselves differently and anew. She translates our desires and experiences into a language, an art that allows us to voice that which we live, but could not utter or bring to voice until she did so for us.”

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:51:27 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

This is a multi-cultural infusion that follows the stories of a close circle of second-generation 20-somethings living in downtown Toronto - and the secrets they hid from their families.

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