With Bellevue Square, the first panel of a projected triptych titled Modern Ghosts, Michael Redhill puts his protagonist, Jean Mason, through wringer after wringer. As witnesses and vicarious participants, readers can appreciate Jean’s otherworldly predicaments, though they might experience greater bafflement than she does.
The story opens intriguingly. Although there’s abundant foreboding in the narrator’s first utterance – “My doppelganger problems began one afternoon in early April” – the atmosphere is pleasant, comfortable, and almost lighthearted. At a glance, Jean’s anything but unhinged. She appears likeable, stable, and observant – a quirky someone you could meet at a party and keep finding ways to revisit for further conversation.
Jean has been residing for just two years in contemporary Toronto, where she’s still decoding the city’s “deep well of weirdness.” She owns a bookstore called Bookshop (“I do subtlety in other areas of my life”) in a gentrifying neighbourhood. She knows herself (“I can pass a whole day in front of bookshelves alphabetizing, categorizing, subcategorizing. I look forward to shelving”). And she’s not without opinions (for example, on people’s taste in books: “And what about the borderline garbage that people like to buy – tales of clairvoyance, conspiracy books, fake science? … Take a moment to rethink your life choices”).
Then her ordinary problems end and the apparently supernatural ones begin. A regular customer shows up and asks how she changed her clothes and hairstyle so quickly. He’d glimpsed her in another part of town just minutes previously. After assuring him he merely saw someone with a passing resemblance, the man goes berserk and grabs her, screaming, “Take off the wig!” A few days later, a stranger walks into Bookshop convinced that Jean is named Ingrid. The stranger concludes that Ingrid and Jean have some kind of supernatural relationship, in which one, a spirit, foretells the death of the other. She also speculates that Ingrid might be La Siguanaba, a Central American folkloric being associated with imminent danger.
Days later Jean’s two visitors are dead. Sensibly, she wonders, “Something was definitely wrong, but what?”
Unsettled, curious, and compelled by what she calls a “climate” (“Something I was in”), Jean begins closing the bookstore early and passing hours in the eponymous park – a playground for the “broken types” that Jean observes while on the prowl for her reputed double. For long fruitless hours Jean works out a general taxonomy of the park’s “collection of misfits.”
A willing – if somewhat mystified – reader might at this point wonder if Redhill is heading toward a wild black comedy in the Blue Velvet vein, in which a well-mannered, snowy white individual gets doused with a rainbow of motley urban archetypes. Evidently, he’s not. Instead, he appears intent on telling a modern ghost story, and drops signposts with notable thrift. As Jean’s descent into compulsion and possible paranoia increases, so does a reader’s puzzlement. Soon enough, not only is Jean’s mental health in question, the actual nature of her existence can no longer be taken for granted.
Institutionalized, Jean learns (or thinks she learns) that she’s suffering from a rare neurological disorder with symptoms that include an inability to distinguish between the imaginary and the actual. She’s informed she’s really a writing professor married to a policeman. After medical and pharmacological interventions, Jean is given a clean bill of health.
Inevitably, Jean returns to Bellevue Square. She hatches a plan to confront Ingrid, who’s gained notoriety for pseudonymously publishing a fictionalized memoir that recounts a debilitating mental illness with symptoms that echo Jean’s. While unexpected, the final carnage – which unfolds at a writers’ festival in the forest and in a hospital ICU – remains true to Redhill’s overall fondness for keeping both Jean and his reader fully off balance.
Strangely, Jean’s character – from voice and personality to observations and general wryness – registers as much more absorbing and interesting than the convulsions and conceits of the twisty plot. The author’s tracking of her helpless transformation from skeptical urbanite to zealous devotee of her own troubled logic is by turns harrowing and mesmerizing. Still, the core matter of “doppelgangerness” feels overwrought and hallucinogenic without being astounding or intellectually stimulating.
The more Jean is subsumed by the machinations of a plot that demands resolution, the less the novel engages. The story cites Goethe and de Maupassant as literary antecedents, and Bellevue Square aspires to embody an elevated ghost story. The subdued tale-within-a-tale of a woman lost in Toronto the Weird, however, would be captivating enough without the