The latest novel by Rabindranath Maharaj – author of last year’s Adjacentland and 2010’s The Amazing Absorbing Boy, which won the Toronto Book Award and the Trillium Book Award – is about a man nicknamed Orbits who lives in an unnamed “slumberous cocoa village nestled within a valley’s crook.” Having studied meteorology, Orbits works various menial office jobs where he shows off his skill at predicting the weather (mostly gleaned by listening to the radio on his way to work).
As a child, Orbits faced bullying from schoolmates on account of his plump appearance. (The book’s title reflects remembered taunts from school bullies.) This, coupled with his belief that his mother always preferred his deceased brother, Starboy, results in Orbit’s adulthood being full of self-pity and an inability to connect with others – including his wife and daughter – on an interpersonal level. Unfortunately, this lack of connection extends to the reader: the character of Orbits reads as one-dimensional and detached. It would have been helpful, on one level, to have greater insight into his inner thoughts, although this narrative distance could be argued to be a purposeful choice on the part of the author – a way of mirroring Orbits’s unflappable character.
The story begins at the end, with Orbits preparing to retire from his job as a local politician. From there, the novel flashes back to his childhood and works its way forward. The structure – bringing the reader full circle back to the beginning – is a canny choice, reflecting as it does the name of the book’s protagonist and adding another layer of meaning to the narrative.
Despite this clever structural conceit, the affective nature of the story remains limited. It’s not until late in the book that the reader is rewarded with some semblance of growth on the part of Maharaj’s protagonist, and even then it is contingent: “A year earlier, Orbits had fallen into the habit of counting his footsteps to convince himself he was alive and everything was real; now, he saw all that he has missed and avoided.” The character’s emotional blossoming is short lived and quickly denuded. Instead of a circle, a more accurate visual representation of the book’s trajectory might be a medical flatline that suddenly spikes up, giving the reader hope, before going flat again.