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book review

In true CanLit fashion, If I Fall, If I Die is ultimately fuelled by the pastFred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Michael Christie's first novel, If I Fall, If I Die, is rooted in geography. Specifically, a slumping Thunder Bay (where Christie was born, and wrote the novel), and even more specifically, the house that our adolescent protagonist Will shares with his agoraphobic mother. Neither of them has been outside for years – Will for as long as he can remember. They get all of their food, clothes and other essentials delivered, and have concocted a world-in-miniature within their four walls: Their kitchen is nicknamed Paris, the living room Cairo, the master bedroom San Francisco, the basement Toronto. This last nickname in particular, Will notes, "seemed to please" his mother.

Yet, much like his first book, the award-winning short-story collection The Beggar's Garden, this new book is really a story of education. No matter the specifics, the tales in his first book were really all stories about students and teachers, disciples and gurus, suckers and those who'd learned how to wise up. Those who adapt, survive. And those who can't wind up like the narrator of The Extra, mentally and physically depleted, waiting for his last sandwich to run out.

As the new novel begins, Will is precocious and naive at the same time, confident in how the world works – he's been informally home-schooled – without having experienced just about any of it. He trusts his mother on every issue, even when her overprotective anxieties are clearly damaging the duo's quality of life; she makes Will wear a full-body wetsuit, among other things, just to change a light bulb.

If I Fall, If I Die shows us the transition, then, from one omniscient authority at home to a fractured, overlapping world of teachers, peers and police, not to mention the laws of both the built and natural environments. Who can you trust? Who really knows how anything works, and who's just yanking your chain? In fact, Christie jumps the gun establishing this premise by sending Will outside in the novel's very first sentence (where, it is noted, "he did not die"). Yet this is perhaps for the best, since his mother's supposedly airtight rules prove inconsistent and hard to follow. It's easy to laugh at their shared fear of mayonnaise, "a forbidden substance because it went deadly poisonous after only a few minutes out of the fridge." But why, then, is his mother okay with watching movies while wearing 3-D glasses, both supplied by the local library, which "had been retaped a hundred times"? Suddenly her standards are lower than the grubbiest of modern cinemas, which at least do us the courtesy of incinerating those things after a single use.

Once out in the world, Will befriends Jonah, an aboriginal student in his class, and the two of them become interested in girls and obsessed with skateboarding. Even in a place as obviously conflicted as Thunder Bay, where neighbourhoods are divided by race and the heyday of the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool is long gone, Will comes to realize all that he's missed out on – that in life, no risk means no reward. All the makings of a sweet coming-of-age story, in other words, but Christie goes further, adding to the mix a Hardy Boys-style mystery about bootlegged alcohol, pet wolves that never forget a human scent, and generally shady goings-on in abandoned grain elevators. This makes for compelling reading, I suppose, but it also goes a long way toward undermining the novel's original tension and validating Will's mother's fears. The very first time Will goes outside, he's shot in the head with a slingshot and later has a homemade bomb nearly go off in his hands; while innocently playing at school, he gets mauled by a wolf. Every time a new, far-fetched calamity befalls him, I found myself thinking: Well, maybe his mom has a point.

Over the course of the novel we slowly learn his mother's back story and the origin of her anxiety. Simultaneously, the specifics of her family history begin to dovetail with what Will and Jonah discover down by the Thunder Bay harbour. In true CanLit fashion, If I Fall, If I Die is ultimately fuelled by the past: Solving a mystery in the present day requires nothing more than discovering and coming to terms with what has already happened, decades earlier. Despite some lovely moments, it's frustrating to realize that the entire world beyond Will's front door turns out to be nothing compared to what he's left behind. One step outside, two steps back in.

Michael Hingston is books columnist for The Edmonton Journal and author of The Dilettantes.