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book review

Lee’s novel is about a culture and a character on the cusp of change.

It seems fitting, if sinister, to suggest that something in the air could be responsible for a strange tension emanating lately from the nation's western edge. The Age – the long-awaited first novel by Nancy Lee, who won acclaim with the short-story collection Dead Girls – joins terrific recent fiction by Zsuzsi Gartner and Caroline Adderson to form a subgenre of Vancouver literature that puts the "domestic" in domestic terrorism. These works explore female characters' relationships to extremism to complicate notions of home and family.

Lee's title refers to two pivotal ages, her plot born of their intersection. The first is the age in which her story takes place, 1984, which, thanks to Orwell, was always going to be a storied year, even if Soviet warships hadn't been gathering in the Atlantic with the Doomsday Clock ticking close to midnight. It would be a peculiar time in which – and here's the second title reference – to come of age, seemingly on the brink of annihilation, as is the case for Gerry, Lee's misfit protagonist.

We encounter Gerry as a blur, her hair tied up under her hat, whizzing through Stanley Park on her 10-speed. She's on her way to meet some friends, of sorts. Her best friend Ian has connected with a group of radical peace activists who have reluctantly let Gerry into their fold, mostly because she won't leave them alone. But she is attracted to their cause, as well as to Megan, one of their organizers. She has complicated feelings for Ian too, who is in a relationship with Megan. Mostly though, she's escaping her home, with an anxious mother and a father long-gone. She's also – ironically, in her involvement with the group's plans for bombing a government building – comforted by having perhaps found a way to help stave off the end of the world.

The novel takes place over a few days as Gerry and the others count down to their planned act of violence; this storyline alternates with another in which we're privy to Gerry's doomsday nightmares. In these visions, she imagines herself as a boy, scrambling for survival in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. This boy finds himself part of a community of survivors who are subsisting for the moment, not yet daring to imagine such thing as a future.

At first, the shift between these narratives is awkward, the doomsday story one of too many threads in a crowded plot. Another such thread is Gerry's new-found relationship with her estranged grandfather, a local newscaster. One gets the feeling that The Age was once a much larger project, edited down to a smaller book which, at first, stumbles in its attempts to lay out its considerable backstory. And yet.

Usually the effect of too many threads is felt at the end of a novel, but in The Age, those threads are bound into a mesmerizing tapestry woven not just of plot, but also sentences, which are often comma-spliced-poetic, packed with sensory detail and precise, perfect imagery. The tapestry metaphor is apt because the intensive imagery leads to such a visual reading experience. "The day goes down in fire," the book begins. "Sooty clouds crush the sun to a red stain on the horizon."

Curiously, though, in a novel with details so vividly seen, Gerry's blurriness is never resolved. Her gender and sexuality are ambiguous, and her own age isn't stated – a strange omission for a book with such a title. Gerry is the novel's eye, and therefore hard to see, which is, in a sense, a criticism, but in a broader context is also central to the novel's structure.

Because lack of definition is the point of Gerry's age, which I take to be about 15. She's neither one thing nor another, both immature and wise beyond her years. The world as she knows it is about to disappear, but the possibilities of what she'll make of what's left are endless.

Lee's historical details are well-researched, but sometimes conspicuous. Where the history really succeeds is not with detail, but atmosphere – she creates a palpable sense of being on the cusp of something huge. And if talk of mutually assured destruction makes this novel sound too heavy, you should know that The Age is gorgeously haunted by a Frankie Goes to Hollywood pop song lyric, so there is levity after all.

The Age is a tricky backwards book, which begins with sun going down and doesn't go where you imagine. Its ending is devastating and wonderful, a complex examination of family ties, maternal love, friendship and self-sacrifice. This is a daring, ambitious and original novel whose atmosphere lingers long after the story ends.

Kerry Clare is editor of The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood, which will be published in April.

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