In the opening pages of Grace O'Connell's Be Ready for the Lightning, a young Canadian woman named Veda, who has come to New York to escape her increasingly complicated life back home, is riding a public bus down Fifth Avenue when an oddly dressed man climbs aboard and whips out a gun. As Veda watches helplessly from the back of the bus, the hijacker points the gun at the driver and blows his head off.
After this explosive start, O'Connell abruptly shifts gears, offering the reader a languorous look at Veda's childhood as one of five close-knit friends in Vancouver's beachy Kitsilano neighbourhood. Here, we meet Veda's older brother, Conrad, who can't curb his violent impulses, and her loyal best friend, Annie. We also meet Veda's first big love, Ted, who takes Veda's eagerly proffered virginity as an open permission slip to stomp all over her heart again and again.
For much of its length, Be Ready for the Lightning pinballs between the hostage scene on the bus, all jump-cuts and spattered blood, and Veda's life in Vancouver, rendered in rich, saturated colours and achingly slow dissolves. This narrative strategy can feel a touch manipulative, as though O'Connell were goosing a sometimes meandering coming-of-age tale with an HBO-ready crime drama to keep readers from reaching for the remote.
Fortunately, O'Connell writes too well for the reader to hold a grudge for long. With her razor wit and flawless ear for human speech, O'Connell turns the rare trick of writing a novel that reads as though an actual person was sitting next to you telling her story. "I'm a little bit pretty," Veda says of herself. "A little bit, not a lot. You're not supposed to say things like that, but you can't be a girl and not be aware at least roughly how pretty or how not pretty you are, because people are always talking about it. They always want to point it out to you, like it's a public service. You're actually kind of pretty, you know. Like it's some big favour, the concession."
More than the standoff on the bus, more even than the finely drawn portrait of Kitsilano in the 1990s, this is the deepest pleasure of Be Ready for the Lightning, watching Veda, the smart, sort-of-pretty girl who seems to have everyone else's number, begin to put her finger on her own. Why does she put up with feckless Ted's constant cheating? Why must she always cover for Conrad, patching his broken face and hiding his compulsion for violence from their worried parents? "I always thought," Veda tells us, "I was the sort of person who, if there was a war, would hide and see who won the fight. Gutless."
Veda isn't gutless, as she learns, much to her own surprise, in her showdown with the gunman on the bus, who, like her brother, turns out to be a troubled man-child with a baffling need to hurt people. "Wait," she tells the shooter. "I understand. I can hear."
This, the desire to be heard and the difficulty of listening well, is a running theme in the novel. And listening is clearly what O'Connell does best. She has a gift for the language of intimacy, the way Veda and Annie, on vacation in Mexico following the bruising collapse of a relationship, laugh at each other's jokes and sop up each other's pain. Nothing really happens in this small gem of a scene. No great revelations are unearthed, but the scene is moving because these women are friends, and when one of them is hurting, the other is there to hear her, to listen.
So it's unfortunate that Be Ready for the Lightning leans on a high-concept device such as a psycho on a bus to turbocharge its plot. The hostage scenes are as sharply observed as everything else O'Connell writes, but the shooter himself, with his fixation on the eternal boy-man Peter Pan, is the least interesting character in the book.
But the problem isn't that O'Connell's hostage drama is bad. The problem is that it's the sort of thing that television does better. What television and movies don't do as well is slow things down, take out the tick-tock and the body count, and give us long, talky scenes of women carrying each other through heartbreak. What screens can't do is let us in on the sad, funny, self-lacerating inner monologue of a thirtyish girl becoming, almost against her own will, a grown woman. Be Ready for the Lightning does these things extraordinarily well, when it isn't busy flipping the channel to must-watch TV.
Michael Bourne is a staff writer for The Millions and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers magazine. He lives in Vancouver.