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book review

Eliza Robertson.

Geminis of the cosmos! You might know that two of the stars in your natal constellation are Castor and Pollux, named for twins hatched by a human woman after Zeus, in swan form, had his way with her. Only they're not fully twins; Castor is mortal, and Pollux divine. Incidentally, Pollux means "very sweet," while Castor means "to shine" – but also "beaver," eh? Here lies the heart of Eliza Robertson's poetic first novel, Demi-Gods, where California dreaming and Canadian reality are black-mirror reflections, and nothing is quite as it seems.

Robertson's website notes that she's a Sagittarius, by the way, and she clearly knows her mythological stuff. Like Donna Tartt's The Secret History or Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies, her novel uses ancient tales as its blueprint. Castor and Pollux become Kenneth and Patrick, tanned, blue-eyed American stepbrothers to two Gulf Island girls, gorgeous Joan and observant Willa (Helen of Troy and Clytemnestra popped out of the same clutch of eggs as those twins). At their old summer cottage on Salt Spring Island, B.C., the blended family is as unstable as any pantheon, with constant shifts in power and allegiance, and a hearty dose of abuse. Kenneth and Joan eventually get together and head for the heaven south of the border, while Patrick gets hold of Willa from a very early age.

But one of these things is not like the others. Willa, "owlish" and "bookish," is referred to as a "changeling," and seems to be just about the only full human among the metaphorical divines. From the start, the girl wonders whether there is any love between her and Patrick, but she can't quit him in spite of his increasingly terrible acts, his apparent wish to take her apart, and his frequent disappearances from her life. What she never questions is the fact that their tie must exist. Although her calm passivity might sometimes bewilder readers, she's like most mortals in myth, accepting her role as the gods' plaything, at least at first.

Yet, these characters are real people in real places. Victoria and La Jolla, Calif., are "mirror towns … the images are flipped," hitting the dual note that resounds through the novel. British Columbia's islands and San Diego are rendered with equal care, in the sure and startling style that made Robertson's story collection, Wallflowers, such a hit. She juxtaposes grime and glory, from dirty underwear to ocean phosphorescence, to beautifully disturbing effect. Set in the 1950s and '60s, Demi-Gods is atmospheric without historical overload. The Orlon sweaters in ice-cream colours are just right, for instance, as are the birth-control pills in their brown glass bottle. The voice can get a little uneasy at times. For example, when Willa remembers early childhood, she takes on an ingenuous tone, but a lyrical phrase occasionally leaps out. Over all, though, the author steers away from nostalgia, giving her story a suitable timelessness.

She also takes on the challenge of a very episodic plot, having Willa note that she only sees Patrick six times in her life: "In the intervals between, we didn't exist. He didn't exist to me. I didn't exist to him." This structure makes the tension hard to keep up in places, and the subplot involving a young milk-delivery man feels a bit detached. But by the time we reach Willa's final meeting with Patrick, Robertson hits her stride again. Castor and Pollux were sailors, and it's on Kenneth's boat, in the nowhere world off the California coast, that Willa decides to try doing unto Patrick as he has done unto her.

In the end, another myth resonates: Echo, the nymph who can only repeat others, falling in love with Narcissus, who rejects her brutally for his own image in a pond. Patrick is a shining poster boy for narcissistic personality disorder, and is frequently seen in reflection – in windows and water. But he wants to see himself through Willa's eyes; when they're kids, he asks her, "Are you my wife?" and later wants to know, "You ever wonder if we're twins?" One of the novel's strengths is that it's able to show Patrick's confusion, in spite of his control. Patrick is as unsure about the power dynamic as Willa is. Power just is, binding pairs of people with ionic strength, no matter how destructively.

Like Echo, Willa's efforts don't work as she imagines they will. But like that nymph, too, she gets the last word. She goes to university to study classics. And she's the one telling the story.

Alix Hawley is the author of All True Not a Lie in It, which won the First Novel Award.

Funding for school libraries in Canada is woefully inadequate and children at high-needs elementary schools are paying the price. Read Between the Lines, a documentary produced by the Indigo Love of Reading Foundation, captures the importance of early literacy and the challenges we face in Canada by underfunding school libraries.