When Michael Redhill's Bellevue Square opens in the spring of 2016, Jean Mason, its protagonist, has been operating a bookstore named Bookstore on Dundas Street West, Toronto, near Trinity Bellwoods Park, for two years. Jean's first-person narration seems lucid enough, offering exposition, observation and amiable wisecracks in measured sentences. From the first sentence, however, Jean alludes to having "doppelganger problems" and, by the end of the first page, she is already preoccupied with questions of identity and veiling: Jean wonders insistently at a regular client's undisclosed name; later, that same client will insist that just moments ago he spotted Jean elsewhere, with different hair and clothing, and the discrepancy will send him into a frenzy. Bellevue Square's first third or so is predominantly comic in tenor, with its inaugural, seamless slip into violence, anxiety and the uncanny playing out like Hitchcock at his most deadpan mischievous. Yet this sense of authorial control, marked by some sly teases and precisely timed reveals, will become a source of alienation as the narrative, in tandem with Jean's psyche, comes to splinter, fog up and tumble into metaphysical miasma.
Jean befriends "a woman I would later be accused of murdering," a Guatemalan pupusa vendor named Katerina who can do an impressive Bogart impersonation. Katerina suspects Jean of being either the cursed or the cursee in a Llorona story. Katerina claims to have encountered Jean's doppelganger at her kiosk in Kensington Market, and so Jean takes to holding vigil for hours at a time in the novel's titular park, "a clearing house for humanity." (In reality, the City of Toronto is currently giving Bellevue Square "a makeover.") Jean haunts Bellevue Square in search of her doubled self but instead discovers other people, every one of them residing somewhere on the spectrum from ostentatiously eccentric to seriously mentally ill, and she finds herself subsidizing a few of the more precariously marginalized out of her own pocket. In her narration, Jean declares a predilection for order, yet her tolerance for unpredictable individuals is high by any standard; she alleviates her discomfort by counting and classifying the park's 4,233 denizens into various types and subtypes with the same studiousness she applies to her inventory. She meets a woman who makes a not-insubstantial income from offering parking advice and a man who unleashes a captivating monologue on the relationship between face-to-face intercourse and our inevitable extinction. The duplicated Jean remains elusive until one day an awful crime is committed. From this point on, Redhill whisks us down the rabbit hole and we are never quite certain which side of the looking glass our heroine inhabits.
Longlisted for the Giller Prize, Bellevue Square is something of a performance. The novel, Redhill's third under his own name, is the first in a projected trilogy titled Modern Ghosts, named for a certain story by Guy de Maupassant that Bellevue Square is, in part, a response to. Redhill has also published four novels as Inger Ash Wolfe, and that pseudonym, along with the very notion of pseudonyms, will play a pivotal role in Bellevue Square. On the surface, Bellevue Square bears a number of striking similarities to Barbara Gowdy's recent Little Sister. There are also echoes of premises mined by the likes of Philip K. Dick, Kazuo Ishiguro and at least one Stephen King novel. There are a great many pleasing one-liners. Here's Jean on methods for coping with the mother-in-law: "I play a game where I am twice as polite as she is and see if I can make her burst into flame."
The novel also conveys a formidable understanding of the role of doppelgangers throughout literature and myth and the sundry psychological malaises that might summon up such visions of solipsistic doom. But once we pass through the seismic shift at the novel's exact midpoint, even those comfortable with bafflement and wild flights of subjectivity might find themselves feeling excluded from Redhill's intricate design, a sort of latticework of unreliable memories shrouding a variety of unreliable views of reality. In its taut span of 262 pages, Bellevue Square features several narrative and tonal hairpin turns. With each of these, our admiration for Redhill's storytelling dexterity burgeons, while our investment in Jean's story itself diminishes. Still, I'd rather be lost in Redhill's ghost story than grounded in your average slab of tasteful literary realism.
José Teodoro is a freelance critic and playwright.