The grim industrial waterfront of Thunder Bay, Ontario, is the setting for the debut novel by B.C.-based author Michael Christie. This atmospheric work of gritty realism explores themes of class mobility, self-determination, and the impact of mental illness, but the complex plot hinges upon extraordinary coincidences that strain credulity.
For as long as he can remember, Will Cardiel has not set foot outside his own house. “Everyone is always in danger” is a lesson he learns from his mother, Diane, whose agoraphobia and anxiety disorder render her – and, in turn, Will – housebound. Diane, having experienced tragic losses growing up in a troubled working-class family, seems afraid of life itself. When Will finally steps outside, he triggers a chain of events that place him and his new First Nations friend, Jonah, in the deadly crosshairs of a nefarious crime ring.
The dangers of urban decay and people in trouble are familiar territory to Christie, author of the well-received 2011 book The Beggar’s Garden, a short-fiction collection set in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Christie is particularly strong in handling the complexities of character, carefully exploring the psyches of two trapped individuals in a manner that recalls Emma Donoghue’s Room.
Potent descriptions transport the reader from the imagined safety of the Cardiel home into the shadowy outside world Christie has constructed – an abandoned moccasin “yellow and stiff as stale bread” conveys neglect and uncertainty; a danger sign reveals an electrocuted figure “twisted in rapture.”
The book’s characters feel very real – but not so the things that happen to them. A long-lost family member defies death several times; criminals hijack abandoned gas tanks in Thunder Bay; and when Will and Jonah’s lives are in danger, there is a dramatic, unexpected rescue. Not one of these developments feels even remotely plausible. The book also suffers in a couple of key sequences because unnatural stretches of dialogue serve to overtly explain aspects of plot or character development.
Still, Christie does an effective, moving job of illuminating how his novel’s unusual events leave his characters changed.