We may have to give Grace O'Connell the prize for aural evocation of a Toronto streetcar, in this case clanking along Queen Street, "in a baritone of metal complaints." This comes in the second sentence of a debut novel that, aside from its palpable urban jangle, seduces immediately by force of storytelling. That crotchety streetcar passes by twentysomething Maggie, standing outside her family's Queen West New Age shop. Only a month ago, Maggie's mother Carol drowned herself in the Don River, the pockets of her wool overcoat filled with raw zircon stones from the shop.
Today, Maggie is two hours late opening the shop and doesn't know why, nor can she make sense of the constricting canvas shoes she's wearing. Inside the store she faints, then comes to on the floor with her father kneeling over her. "I could see into the collar of his shirt. His chest was that of an old man."
It becomes clear that Maggie's presence outside the store that morning marked her awakening from a walking blackout. The hours from bedtime until her arrival at the shop door, near noon, are absent from her memory.
A few days later she has another episode of missing time while picnicking in a park with boyfriend Andrew. He reports that the missing 10 or 20 minutes were filled with a completely normal Maggie – yet she can recall none of it.
Stumped by the blackouts, Maggie's doctor refers her to psychiatric care. The sessions, ultimately at a residence for the troubled bereaved, form O'Connell's framework for delving into the riddle of this wounded family. Back-story dovetails with Maggie's grieving present. Carol was a moody and volatile mother, almost certainly bipolar, quick to slap her daughter for a petty annoyance then shift bewilderingly to abject apology. It was not easy for Maggie to feel loved, either by Carol or her emotionally disengaged father, an academic with little regard for crystals and chakras, or the dull demands of small-time retail.
O'Connell is spot-on about the isolating nature of grief, especially among family who have never delved beneath the daily surface patterns of contentment and conflict. Though Maggie still shares the family apartment with her father, and he is demonstrative in his concern for her health, the two remain solitudes. The gap between mother and daughter was even larger, still posthumously exists, and now can't be closed.
Grief is never easy to capture in fiction. O'Connell's choice, meshing with the nature of this family, is to keep the tears mostly offstage. There is no plucking of heartstrings; her goal is to understand.
Into the mix comes an insistent stranger, first through cryptic sympathy cards, then as a physical presence on Maggie's doorstep. Gil is an odd mix of glib and intimate. He calls Maggie "darling" and hints at knowledge of her mother's past in the U.S. South.
He proposes a deal: Maggie helps him with his research for a book, he cures her blackouts. We soon begin to sense that Gil is not what he seems. Gradually, it emerges that he and Maggie share a sort of psychical hall of mirrors.
In the psychiatric residence, Maggie finds herself among some whose grief has left them truly unhinged. As Maggie is forced to ponder where she fits in, we see how deeply her mind has altered. The strange journey that ensues feels often (at one point literally) like being lost in a carnival spook house. Everything, including the Toronto landscape, takes on an unnerving unreality. Is Maggie in her head or in the world? As unreliable narrators go, she remains an wonderfully grounding presence, even as the narrative ground she occupies constantly shifts.
O'Connell sometimes lingers too long on the ordinary wallpaper of life, things like grocery shopping, dealing with cabbies, the routes taken across town. Conversely, important information goes missing. Blacking out while driving the family car with two friends, Maggie crashes into a bus shelter. Though she could have badly injured herself or others, and she returns the crumpled car to her father, we never learn her dad's response.
Such lapses can't hobble the novel's gathering force. Maggie's every memory and dream-journey and spasm of soul-searching are about one question.
Could she have loved her mother better, maybe have saved her? Maggie considers: "Love obscures what is underneath it, what is being loved." As time's passage blurs the dead in memory, "You're stuck remembering the love instead … and what was underneath is just a vague person-shaped thing that could be almost anyone. Nice. Funny. Strong. Good. Who wasn't, at least some of the time?"
The full impact of the hurt in this family is revealed late. The story's real weight, its heart's heft, comes with a closing sleight-of hand. In retrospect, it connects with a wallop.
Jim Bartley reviews first fiction for The Globe and Mail.