Set in 1978, the debut novel from Toronto writer and teacher Adam Lindsay Honsinger begins with perhaps the most poorly planned caper in recent literary memory. Armed with only bolt cutters, bananas, and a typewriter, high school student Kepler Pressler breaks into a local zoo and attempts to free a family of chimpanzees. Things do not go as planned, and Kepler wakes up in a mental institution. The novel chronicles his time in hospital, his treatment, and the small rebellions he enacts as he reluctantly pieces together the events that led to the ill-fated break-in. It’s a novel of familial turmoil and dissolution, of adolescent angst and struggle.
The broad-strokes familiarity of the overarching narrative allows Kepler’s personal peculiarities – and Honsinger’s skills as a writer – to shine through. Rather than unravelling in a pedestrian manner, Kepler’s family life is given a surreal majesty. His father, obsessed with Elvis Presley, is a consummate fabulist, weaving tall tales of highly classified work at the Canadian Space Agency. Or is he actually a cab driver, given to fits of temper that lead to lengthy disappearances and eventual unemployment? Kepler’s mother is prone to over-the-top outbursts and locking herself away in her room for days at a time, where she devours Shakespeare’s plays, eventually emerging in a wig and fancy dress to take a job to support the family. Is she having an affair? What is the nature of her job?
Honsinger writes with a sly wit (the name of Kepler’s doctor at the institution – Atwood – never fails to elicit a smile from the reader). This both undercuts and is undercut by the psychic damage Kepler suffers, providing a keen emotional acuity that wends through gaps in Kepler’s memory and mysteries the novel will, eventually, resolve. When those answers finally come, the narrative snaps into focus with surprising emotional force. Any sense of lingering familiarity is ultimately dispelled in a novel that feels fresh, rich, and heavy with the thrum of life.