A relentless fixation on human misery propels Lemon, the eponymous adolescent protagonist of Toronto author Cordelia Strube’s eighth novel. Despite an ending that feels inauthentic, Strube’s humour-laden prose and uncompromising commitment to her narrator’s bleak worldview add depth and complexity to what might otherwise have been a predictable coming-of-age narrative about yet another brittle, nonconformist teen.
Lemon is surrounded by “butt-scratchers,” from her moronic and malevolent peers to a broken family that includes a deadbeat dad and three different mothers, each one more dysfunctional than the next. Her only high-school friends are a namby-pamby classmate and the reviled school slut, and her one seemingly meaningful relationship is with a sick young girl in the oncology ward at the hospital where she volunteers. To escape her unhappy existence, Lemon retreats into the worlds of literature and history, honing in especially on Holocaust memoirs.
Strube elaborates on Lemon’s literary obsessions more than many readers may be willing to tolerate. Her protagonist is well-formed from the outset, but there comes a point when hearing her perspective on Jane Eyre, for example, acts less as a means of character revelation or mood development than as a mere digression.
For the most part, Lemon demonstrates Strube’s skilful handling of the mechanics of plot. Every bad thing you can think of happens to Lemon and those around her. Drama and suspense are ratcheted up with each successive chapter, and Strube does not shy away from brutal and unsettling violence, as well as frank and brave depictions of intergenerational sexuality.
Many of the novel’s developments are disturbing and unexpected but make sense within the unsettling universe Strube has created. However, the story’s climactic moment – and the denouement that follows from it – is unearned. The concluding sentence of the novel is poetic and revelatory, but the two chapters that precede it undermine the reader’s confidence in the story and its lead character.