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Book Reviews Review: Joey Comeau’s Malagash will delight you – and break your heart

Title
Malagash
Author
Joey Comeau
Genre
Fiction
Publisher
ECW
Pages
182
Price
$15.95

Alt-lit star Joey Comeau's latest novel, Malagash, is a surprisingly quiet, moody affair. There are no glittery pyrotechnics, no experimental rabbit holes to fall into. Reading it feels a bit like viewing a well-shot Maritimes indie film. Cue the wild, surging surf and bleak, hardscrabble town. Cue the tender family drama; the wellspring of unspoken grief.

The father of a young girl named Sunday is dying of cancer. With his death on the horizon, Sunday, her younger brother, Simon, and the parents have returned to Malagash to wait out the inevitable. A reliable narrator, Sunday is matter-of-fact about his impending death. "We won't be here forever," she says of Malagash. "Just for the rest of my father's life."

In Malagash – a small community on Nova Scotia's picturesque Northumberland Shore – they bunk with Sunday's grandmother, who plays the role of the Maritimes grandmother as if someone cut from an Alistair MacLeod short story – generous, dry, but a mostly invisible woman. While Sunday's dying father attends to his illness with plucky, wild-hearted humour, her mother is in deep denial and Simon is too young to fully comprehend what's set to unfold. In the perfect metaphor for how young children cope with ongoing trauma, Sunday retreats to her tiny bedroom closet to embark on a secret project.

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What her family doesn't know is that Sunday is covertly recording their daily conversations on her phone. Every night, she uploads the day's recordings onto her computer, determined to create a virus composed entirely of her father's voice that will infiltrate operating systems around the world. In this way, she believes, her father will live on forever. This central conceit of the novel – an attempt to control Sunday's unbearable feelings – forms the perfect emotional counterweight to collective daily scenes of family drama. These miniature domestic tableaus – the family gathering for one last raucous movie night, or organizing a surprise steak dinner for her father in his hospital room – are spare and quietly moving.

Comeau has a gift for such small propulsions, for exposing the invisible fissures in family life. In other hands, the tale might take on a claustrophobic, overbearing tone, but Comeau's wit and dark humour lift and pivot the drama at all the right moments. Consider one of Sunday's father's many jokes about dying, for example: "Oh good. We all lived another day. I mean, some of us had to work harder at it than others. I'm just saying."

Some characters and plot lines could be more deeply developed. Sunday's mother, for one, never fully comes to life. She's forever in the background, holding things together, but in contrast to her charismatic husband, her default stoicism often falls flat. Similarly, Sunday and Simon's gay uncle, Jonah, and his husband, Frank, arrive out of nowhere to say their final goodbyes and then disappear without a trace, trailing the scent of an ancient wrong that's never fully explained. This hinted-at rupture between brothers is symptomatic of how the past rarely feels present in this family. Where have they come from? What was life like before the father's illness? How are they supporting themselves now? These questions are never answered.

This may be because they are of no real concern to Sunday in the present moment. She's the narrator, after all. And she's a dynamite, enchanting narrator, full of woeful observation and a generous heart. Scenes of her half-asleep in the closet in the middle of the night, replaying family conversations ad nauseam, are pitch-perfect and emotionally devastating. Here and elsewhere, Comeau's skill and careful restraint provide just the right note for what might be maudlin and overdrawn in lesser hands.

"I have a recording where neither one of them talk at all until the very end. You can hear the sound of their breathing, and I think you can hear my mother crying, but I can't be sure. She sniffles, once. It could just be a sniffle. But then, after all that silence, my father clears his throat and it sounds like he's been crying, too. 'You've made me very happy,' he says."

Malagash is the sort of book that's best read in one sitting. Settle in and listen closely. Prepare to be amused, delighted, and to have your heart broken open just a little bit wider.

Trevor Corkum's novel, The Electric Boy, is forthcoming from Doubleday Canada.

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