The first thing that strikes you about Arthur Slade’s writing is that the Saskatchewan author doesn’t “write down” to children. Flickers, Slade’s latest middle-grade novel, treats readers as intelligent beings, capable of complex thought and the ability to follow a plot that veers from historical fiction to sci-fi-tinged horror.
The book tells the story of twin sisters Isabelle and Beatrice Thorn. Born to a curmudgeonly farmer named Ernest and his beautiful younger wife, Abigail, on a farm near Lethbridge, Alberta, during a snowstorm in 1913, the girls could not be more different. Isabelle, born first, is exquisite from the moment she takes her first breath. Beatrice, however, makes Ernest think of malformed calves he’s delivered. “She was as wretched as those calves, her skull misshapen, perhaps from the force he’d applied when he’d pulled her. Her naked body was covered with brown spots – dozens of birthmarks on her arms, legs, chest and face.” As Ernest turns to inform Abigail that she’s delivered another girl, he realizes his wife is dead.
Refreshingly, and counter to so many portrayals of loving but inept single fathers, Slade stays true to Ernest’s character, presenting him as perfectly capable of tending to his infant daughters while running a small farm single-handedly. And Ernest loves his girls, developing a fierce protectiveness of Beatrice that is quite touching.
Just as we begin to settle into what appears to be a narrative of hardship and finding strength in the bonds of family, the story jumps forward to Santa Monica, California, in 1926. Beatrice and Isabelle – orphaned after Ernest is killed in a fire a few months after their birth – are living in the mansion of Mr. Cecil, a powerful film producer and director. It’s the early days of talkies, and Mr. Cecil is determined to make a film starring Isabelle, already a bankable movie star, which will be unlike anything that has come before – and which serves a nefarious purpose.
Slade ably injects old Hollywood into his horror-filled, metaphysical tale. The mansion the girls occupy is pure extravagance, complete with its own zoo. Mr. Cecil’s chauffeur/bodyguard is a huge man named Mungo, whose tongue was cut out at some point, though we’re never told when or why (it’s easy to figure out, as the story goes along). The actors who surround Isabelle, including the girls’ guardians, Uncle Wayne (really their older cousin) and Aunt Betty, are over-the-top personalities who sound like they’ve been ripped from a black-and-white movie. Mr. Cecil himself is a familiar character: feared, powerful, but generally calm and kind to the girls, at least until Beatrice oversteps her bounds and begins to ask questions about some of the strange occurrences around the estate.
Slade packs a lot of information into his fast-moving plot, slipping readers relevant tidbits about history, the development of the movie industry, and science – from insects to chemistry to parallel universes – while also portraying true-to-life (if toned down) representations of the attitudes held at the time regarding race, class, and gender. Beatrice, despite her friendship (and possible budding romance) with Raul, the Mexican gardener’s son, sees nothing wrong with being waited on by the house staff, while the kitchen workers are referred to simply as “the Chinese.” And when Beatrice tries to convince Raul to break into Mr. Cecil’s cottage, he reminds her that getting caught will result in much more serious consequences for him than for her: “People like me just disappear in this country,” he says to her. “No one notices.”
While Slade’s novel seems designed to frighten, titillate, and sometimes even disgust (it succeeds, on all counts), its real value lies in its ability to open readers’ eyes to times, places, and concepts outside of their own experience.