The question at the heart of Toronto writer André Babyn’s debut novel seems fairly straightforward: just what is Evie of the Deepthorn? The answer, however, is not as simple as it might appear. The novel’s title, we come to realize, represents different things for different people.
For Kent, a teenager growing up in Durham, Ontario, and struggling with the death of his older brother, Evie of the Deepthorn is a low-budget Canadian film made during the era when such productions were used as tax dodges. The film is a fantasy that follows a young orphaned girl named Evie into a mysterious forest, where she will pursue “her destiny to kill Llor, the ice queen.” The film, virtually unknown to mass audiences, serves as a touchstone for Kent.
Readers follow Kent for more than 100 pages before the action shifts to Sarah, who also grew up in Durham. She returns in her mid-20s to house-sit while her mother is away. As an adult, Sarah is struggling, though Babyn also provides scenes from her youth, during which she finds comfort writing a novel entitled Evie of the Deepthorn. (There is no indication that Sarah was inspired by, or even aware of, the film.)
The paths in Babyn’s novel begin to converge when it becomes apparent that as a girl, Sarah knew of Kent, who was a couple of years older. In the narrative present, she encounters Kent, now also an adult, in the forest. But things are still not all that straightforward, because the focus shifts again, this time to Reza, who arrives in Durham on a pilgrimage to find information about deceased poet Kent Adler (whose given name can hardly be accidental). Adler’s collection, Alerts, contains a poem called – you guessed it – “Evie of the Deepthorn.”
While the reader is focused on the nature of Evie, something strange and wonderful is happening under the surface of Babyn’s novel. As interconnected as everything appears to be, it transpires that in fact nothing actually connects. Time frames don’t line up. Reza, for example, meets Sarah (or someone named Sarah) in Durham and assesses her to be “maybe in her late twenties.” But Reza has recently interviewed Adler’s only surviving relative, described as being “now in her seventh decade,” who is a few years younger than Kent (or someone named Kent). So, what’s going on?
The magic of Evie of the Deepthorn is that answering any of these questions ultimately feels unimportant. While readers might normally find a lack of narrative connectedness and consistency frustrating, in Babyn’s hands these aspects open the narrative up and remind the reader of the limitless possibilities of fiction. This is a novel of ghosts and time, of the anxiety of influence and the power of art. It’s about the connections between shattered people and the gift of art to sustain us, even as it mutates over time. It’s a puzzling, wonderfully strange book – a powerful and promising debut.