The Agony of Bun O'Keefe - Heather Smith

Set in 1980s Newfoundland, The Agony of Bun O’Keefe is the story of a 14-year-old girl who runs away to the city and is taken in by a street musician who lives with an eclectic cast of characters: a pot smoking dishwasher with culinary dreams; a drag queen with a tragic past; a Catholic school girl desperately trying to reinvent herself; and a man who Bun is told to avoid at all cost.

This is a short book, but a book with a lot of heart and a lot of depth. Bun O'Keefe is fourteen, but her social education has been terribly stunted due to living along with her mother. Her mother is a hoarder who is hiding Bun from everyone and who is slowly eating herself to death. Eventually, in a heated moment, Bun's mother tells her to leave, and so she does, heading into the city to find a way of living on her own. After she meets the kind and helpful Busker Boy, who takes her to his place and lets her live with him and his roommates. Each of them help Bun develop socially and allow her the space to find herself in a world away from her mother.

Smith covers a lot of topics in this book, and the diverse cast allows for a myriad of perspectives on themes of death, hardship, and even sexual predators. Bun's awkwardness brings humour to the story, while also showing her vulnerability. The first-person narrative style gives readers a look inside her head as she becomes confused by colloquial phrases, certain jokes, and common social niceties. Busker Boy attempts to keep her out of harm's way, but the idea of someone being a predator goes over Bun's head until it's too late.

Smith's writing is quiet and in some ways hypnotic, which works exceptionally well for the narrative. Bun O'Keefe is a difficult book and yet it's a truly hopeful book. It doesn't pretend to have easy answers, and there are some sincerely heartbreaking moments throughout. But in the end, it's also a beautiful book, and one that I hope people will take the time to find and savour.

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