"Café Babanussa" by Karen Hill
In the 1980’s, a young mixed-race woman moves from Canada to Germany in search of a new life. Berlin is full of dreamers, artists, and travellers, and Ruby Edwards quickly finds her place amongst them. She is able to break free from her overbearing family and the claustrophobia of her all-white neighbourhood in Canada and discover the person that she was meant to be.
But just as Ruby is finding her place and building her life, she finds herself hospitalized for mental illness. As she leans on her family and her tight-knit community she is able to fight her way through it but for Ruby it is something that she will be fighting every day of her life.
Café Babanussa, by Karen Hill, is a moving and heartbreaking novel based on the authors own life experience of race, immigration, and mental illness. It is especially poignant knowing that Hill passed away a year before it was published and was never able to see the finished product hit the shelves.
This was an anticipated novel of 2016 for me. Hill comes from a very talented, artistic family and I was happy to see that what she had worked on for decades was to be shared with us. Knowing that this was a novel based on her own struggle with mental health, which I had read about prior to the book coming out, I had very high hopes for the book.
Here comes the “unfortunately.” Which doesn’t mean that the book isn’t a good read, just that it didn’t meet the expectations I had for it. Unfortunately, I found the dialogue to be very basic and lacking in emotion. I found it hard to believe that was how the characters would speak in those situations and because of this I found it hard to connect to them and the book.
I did feel that the book became stronger in the second half as the mental illness took over Ruby’s life. Here I was able to feel much more emotion and understand the character better because I could tell that it was written directly from Hill’s own experiences.
In the foreword of the book, written by Hill’s brother Lawrence, it is mentioned that when she passed away she was in the process of finding a publisher. Because this did not happen until after her death, it was a decision made by the publisher and her family that beyond a few basic edits, it would be left exactly as it is. Which is understandable and commendable. I think that within the editing process, the dialogue would have been worked on and with that it would have been a much stronger reading experience. Included at the end of the book is an essay written by Hill titled, On Being Crazy, and I had more emotional connection with the essay than I did the book.
Overall, I think this is a book worth reading. Hill’s story is heartbreaking, tragic, moving, and inspiring. Despite the issues I have with the dialogue, it puts a face and heart to the lifelong struggle of mental illness that many are facing and that makes it a good read.