Saturday, March 12, 2011

Review: The Beggar's Garden, by Michael Christie

Published: January 2011

Finally got around to it: March 2011

Faces swing into our orbit and out again like comets, trajectories forever altered by Oppie’s generous crack policies and philosophical musings. He is electric and alive. His interest is insatiable. Lecturing as he walks, he relates mind-bending scientific concepts with ease and grace. We are a team. Although nobody recognizes him, I feel proud to be partying with such a distinguished man of science. Prostitutes approach him and he respectfully tells them he has no interest in “erotic labour” but gives them rocks and kind words. He is a gentleman.


Michael Christie’s debut collection, The Beggar’s Garden, takes the brightest light and shines it in the one place Vancouverites would most readily ignore: the downtown east side. The darkness, the homelessness, the rampant drug addiction and prostitution of the DTES are shown to their full effect, track-marked warts and all; but Christie also manages a minor miracle with the poverty-stricken setting of his nine linked short stories—the light he shines on the DTES also manages to pick up a great deal of beauty that one might never expect. Not beauty in the traditional sense, but beauty through tender moments of humanity—of history—that each of the characters in his stories manages to exhibit or unearth in the course of their all-too-short journeys.

Humans and locations are treated with equal reverence: whether it is a lonely woman who dials 911, convinced her soul mate is the paramedic that will come to save her life, or a man’s homeless grandson and the life he leads as a routine dumpster diver; be it the Woodwards building in its final, pre-abandonment/SFU makeover days, or the drastically reduced-in-availability of the Riverview institute in Coquitlam, the people and places depicted in Christie’s nine tales are tangible, full-bodied ghosts—remnants of the concentric ring of progress pushing them ever outward, away from Yaletown and the West End and everyone who’d prefer to pretend the DTES belonged to another province or another country altogether, one that mankind was free to forget.

The Beggar’s Garden is written from a place of experience and maturity. Christie, who has spent time working in a homeless shelter and with social outreach programs in the DTES, understands that the layers of complexity between each crust of the socially discarded and forgotten are no less terrible and wonderful than those that make up the rest of the lower mainland’s populace—or the populace of any major city, for that matter. This is a deftly executed collection, and hopefully the start of a long writing career for Michael Christie.

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