Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, by Sunil Yapa

Set in Seattle, U.S. during the 1999 World Trade Organization protests, this novel’s narrative flows through the viewpoints of seven central characters. All seven are involved in varying degrees, and all seven have their own different reasons for being there. Three are U.S. law enforcement officials stationed to keep peace; two are radicals leading the protests; one is a Sri Lankan delegate there to attend the very meeting that the protesters are trying to stall; and, finally, there is Victor, a young, mixed-race, homeless man who is reluctantly swept up in the wave of protesters. The other narratives hinge on Victor’s, and it is his viewpoint that opens and closes the story. To make things more interesting, the chief of the Seattle Police Department also happens to be Victor’s father. The two haven’t seen each other for years, and their reunion looms over the narrative, with both becoming increasingly involved in the two opposing sides of the protests.

The visceral imagery of the title firmly sets the tone for the narrative that follows. It is a gut-clenching and page-turning story that Yapa weaves for his readers. At times, it does feel as if a fist is closing around your heart. The narrative winds tighter and tighter the further you progress with the story, and there is an ever increasing sense of urgency. As such, alternating between the characters’ viewpoints was a little jarring. Handling multiple viewpoints is a tricky business, and with seven central characters Yapa has his work cut out for him. Switching during an important scene was like pulling up short at the edge of a precipice: a little frustrating and bewildering. Fortunately, it doesn’t detract from the story as a whole.

With this novel, Yapa addresses some complex and interesting questions, a lot of which are still relevant. The number of central characters means that readers are privy to wildly differing opinions and beliefs. There are several issues at play: race, gender, police brutality, human rights. All of these interweave into the novel’s main theme of compassion for your fellow human beings. This event is famous for the scenes of brutality and suffering, and the novel does not shy away from this. Yapa stays true to real life events. There are several graphic scenes, and some character monologues are almost horrifying in their reasoning. People who are so convinced of their own humanity, and the certainty of their beliefs, quickly transform into frenzied, blinded creatures with intent to do harm. Others twist and distort justice, in order to validate their horrific actions. And there are others who march with bravado and solidarity, but flee in the face of their companions’ suffering. Each character is multi-faceted, and as complex as the issues that the novel brings up.

This is a stunning and thought-provoking debut novel. Yapa’s prose is a mixture of minimalistic statements, and winding, lyrical prose, and it’s a combination that works well. The mundane, surface details of life are juxtaposed with the deeper questions of identity, compassion, and the willingness to embrace of all of humanity – even if that humanity doesn’t resemble you in looks or beliefs.

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TITLE: Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist
AUTHOR(S): Sunil Yapa
PUBLISHER: Hachette
RRP: $37.99
ISBN: 9781408707401

Faustina Paustin Faustina was reading when she popped out of the womb. Probably. Reading is her life, and she’ll read pretty much anything. After reading her way through primary, high school, and university, and finding she hasn’t gotten sick of it, she’s still reading now. Her favourite genres are YA, realist fiction, and magical realist fiction, with a strong focus on diversity. She believes that houses should have in-built bookshelves in all the rooms, and that ebooks and printed books can get along.

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