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book review

Michelle WintersSara Heinonen photo

Agathe and Réjean Lapointe are very much in love.

After close to 20 years of marriage, they still blow each other kisses and make each other gifts. As teens, Chevy-truck-obsessed Réjean already had a chest "as big as a rain barrel" and hands "like a bunch of bananas," and Agathe was "pretty enough to be a newscaster or figure skater." Through a lifetime together their affection has evolved into something simultaneously tender and visceral – full of concern, affection, lust and even a touch of fiery jealousy. They are a team of two, largely secluded from the rest of the world by choice.

"Their physical relationship had flourished over the years, despite the normalcy and tedium innate in all couples," writes debut novelist Michelle Winters of her fictional pair. "For him, she would always be the girl who had awakened his soul that July day at the marché when they were teenagers."

Yet regardless of that rare and passionate solidity, in spite of that enduring love, something just feels wrong. There is a kind of groping desperation to their union, a need and a fear that becomes even more pronounced when the police show up at the door of their secluded cottage and inform Agathe that Réjean's prized Silverado has been abandoned and that her true love is nowhere to be found.

Agathe, Réjean and their offbeat brand of passion exist at the centre of I Am a Truck. Set in rural Acadia, and featuring both French and English dialogue, there is a chance you may have heard of this lean small-press book, given that it recently made the five-book shortlist for Canada's prestigious $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize. (The winner will be announced on Nov. 20.)

It could be argued that I Am a Truck is a bit of an unconventional pick for the esteemed list, in both style and subject matter, but it turns out it's no less deserving than its companions. Winters does a lot on the page and packs a great deal of charm into this trim, very human little book. In fact, it is Winters's economical knack for the short story that shines through; she's got a talent for beautifully vivid (and occasionally absurd) details, and sets a quick pace from scene to scene. And though there is a great deal of the mundane day to day here, somehow Winters makes magic with it.

While there is no obvious explanation for Réjean's disappearance, it doesn't look as if he's been kidnapped or harmed, but instead that he's left of his own free will. Consumed by grief, Agathe assumes her mountain of a man has deserted her, perhaps through some fault of her own, perhaps for another woman. From there the book evolves into a mystery of sorts, but not in any sort of traditional page-turner sense. We are treated to flashbacks to flesh out what exactly did happen to the devoted Réjean, but they are actually less interesting than the focus on Agathe and what happens when she finds herself alone without explanation.

In Réjean's absence, Agathe initially wallows – "it was hard to know whether to start moving on or continue loving him in his absence." She sits in his chair, chain-smokes cigarettes and is full of grief for her lost love. She does manage to pull herself together in part by getting a job at Stereoblast, a used-electronics store, and by befriending effervescent co-worker Debbie. Days and nights become full of distracting rock 'n' roll, drinks and driving lessons, and in turn, Agathe gains a sense of identity and solidity.

Add to the narrative mix Chevy dealer Martin Bureau, a man with some perhaps obsessive feelings for Réjean of his own, and the random appearance of a Stereoblast bat mascot, heavy with symbolism and the I Am a Truck ensemble transports our tale deep into the deliciously weird and wonderful.

"The Silverado was a living metaphor for Réjean, a physical manifestation of the man who wasn't coming home. Why wasn't he coming home?"

This book is a compressed yet somehow expansive read, its characters vivid and its drama racing. Quirky and fun, I Am a Truck feels like a departure from the typical Giller-nominated fare, and that's a very good thing. Totally at home despite its smaller stature – both in publishing house and page count – this pick lends something fresh and unexpected to the hallowed list.

Stacey May Fowles is the author of the novel Infidelity and Baseball Life Advice: Loving the Game That Saved Me.

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