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review: fiction

The Juliet Stories is a well-crafted and imaginative novel-in-stories that explores and reflects back on the impact of a few monumental years in the life of the book's namesake. It combines straight-ahead realism with fractured, dream-like prose, in a successful exploration of the merits and pitfalls of family life.

Section one takes place in 1984, when Juliet is 10 years old, and her peace-activist parents move their family to Nicaragua to fight against American involvement in the post-revolutionary war. She lives with her two younger brothers in a series of houses populated by a revolving door of Roots of Justice members.

Perhaps because it is the 1980s, a time when children weren't hyper-supervised, or the fact that real and obvious danger lurked around them at all times, but both older children have a kind of magical freedom in the chaos of their surroundings. Sometimes this freedom is terrifying – as when they are left waiting after school for their mother to pick them up and they imagine her having been kidnapped – and at other times it fuels their imaginative spirit.

While their parents embark on an adventure fuelled by indignation and a sense of purpose, the children are frequently left to create their own world in a city that looks nothing like they've ever seen before. A largely absent, and perhaps philandering, father often goes off with a group of activists on more dangerous missions, leaving Juliet's mother, Gloria, at the house to look after the kids on her own.

Gloria is an often-caustic, understandably stressed-out mother, who takes on most if not all of the practical responsibilities of family life. When they briefly lose track of Juliet's brother Keith at a rally celebrating Ortega's election, husband Bram tries to treat it lightly, and Gloria explodes. This moment illustrates the specific tensions in their marriage, and the differing value systems, that ultimately break them apart.

Snyder's tone and style is vivid and compelling, and Juliet is both courageous and fragile in a perfectly believable 10-year-old way. She is a voracious reader and dreamer, rolling with the punches that get thrown her way. We can see the flaws in her parents' marriage through her eyes, and the older and knowing voice never steps in and speaks to the reader.

The young Juliet is exactly her age and utterly interesting in a way that is difficult to master in prose meant for adults. The tensions among the group of overly entitled Western activists seen through Juliet's eyes are vivid and sometimes funny. Juliet writes a pleading letter to Ronald Reagan that offers a perfect snapshot of an intelligent child's hopes for a better world in the 1980s. Nicaragua is a raucous adventure for Juliet and her brother Keith, and the heart-stopping moments of real potential danger are a thrill ride for the reader.

When Keith is diagnosed with cancer, Gloria moves the family back to Canada and in with her grandmother in a Southern Ontario town. Bram stays away, eventually returning six months later. While section one is paced in the day-to-day, section two reads like a life in fast-forward, explaining the key monumental details that happen to Juliet after the Friesen's return to Canada. The switch is a bit jarring at first, because young Juliet is so well-paced.

The prose shifts as well, as Juliet becomes more of a distant third-person narrator, and we are let more closely into the minds of other characters. While the events happen more quickly – a death, a divorce, a wedding – the prose itself slows down, into weightier and more poetic rumination. While initially the shift feels awkward, the quality of the writing pulls us through, and gives the novel a texture that wouldn't be present had it simply been an account of the two-year sojourn, giving it a more meaningful narrative arc.

Zoe Whittall is the author of two novels, Bottle Rocket Hearts and Holding Still for as Long as Possible. Both are currently being adapted for film.