In our attention-span-devoid, smartphone-optimized era, it seems rare – nostalgic even – for an author to prioritize meticulous craft over an action-packed storyline. Though University of British Columbia
lecturer in English (and Q&Q reviewer) Brett Josef Grubisic’s latest is being promoted as a novel about a new wave band, the book’s key seduction lies less in the musical minutiae than in its four teenaged protagonists and, most especially, in the author’s painstaking technique. Rich in language and metaphor, From Up River and for One Night Only tells a very specific coming-of-age story, highlighting how the characters’ small-town adolescence is representative of human life and dreams.
As the title suggests, the storyline leads up to the foursome’s first (and last) gig as an amateur rock group, although the majority of the semi-autobiographical text concerns itself with subject matter extraneous to the band’s development. The gang comprises two sets of siblings: on the one hand, strong-willed Dee and less sure, picked-upon Gordyn, and on the other, Em and Jay, who are forced to humour their immature, philandering father. Collectively, the quartet harbours lofty aspirations far beyond the limits of their tiny riverside town, which boasts little more than a large population of Jehovah’s Witnesses and deteriorating industrial mills.
A wordsmith by nature and profession, Grubisic spends pages on lengthy and complex passages that appear as digressions, yet are written with intention: every word is fitting, deliberate, and laden with meaning. Though sometimes rendering the narrative hard to follow, these departures provide the story with eloquent context and relatable observations.
Aside, perhaps, from not devoting sufficient time to the band itself, one of the novel’s weaknesses is its occasional switch from omniscient narration to first-person. Grubisic’s intention, presumably, is to afford a glimpse into each character’s individual psyche, but this approach unnecessarily complicates an already descriptive narrative that requires a fair bit of attentiveness to really savour, and provides little additional insight in return.