It’s never easy for a kid to start at a new school. It’s especially difficult for Felix, the 12-year-old protagonist of No Fixed Address, the winning new novel from Vancouver writer Susin Nielsen. At first glance, all seems well. Felix has a place in the prestigious French immersion program at Blenheim Public School in Vancouver’s tony Kitsilano neighbourhood. On the first day of school he runs into Dylan Brinkerhoff, his “old best friend” from a previous school. And he’s just met the high-octane Winnie, who quickly forms the third element in this tween triumvirate.
But appearances are deceptive. Felix can’t talk much about how he got into the program: his mother, Astrid, lied and committed fraud to get him his spot. He can’t have his friends over to his place because he and Astrid are living in a Volkswagen Westfalia (which may or may not be stolen, depending on who you ask). And food is becoming scarce, dependent upon Astrid’s (very) occasional paycheques and some perilous shoplifting.
Felix is not happy about his circumstances, but he loves and supports his mother, and takes comfort in his gerbil, Horatio, named after the host of Felix’s favourite TV game show, Who, What, Where, When – “which is like Jeopardy on steroids.”
Felix has got a head for trivia, and when a junior edition of the show is announced – complete with a cash prize – he sees his chance to change his life, save his mother, and pay back all the places she has stolen from (he maintains a ledger of her thefts). All he has to do is keep their living situation a secret, dodge the Ministry of Children and Family Development, and win the game.
That’s a lot of pressure for anyone, let alone a 12-year-old boy.
No Fixed Address is a charming wonder of a book, a breezy read that’s far more significant – and skilled – than it might appear from the surface. Nielsen demonstrates a powerful command in developing her young characters, lifting even secondary players (like high-achiever Winnie) well away from any hint of cliché. Felix balances on the thin edge between childhood and adolescence with an open-hearted sense of right and wrong, struggling not only against circumstances well beyond his control but well above what should be his responsibility. And you have to love a kid who describes himself as “diarrhea-nervous” on the first day of school, adding that this “really isn’t good when you’re living in a van.”
Nielsen handles the relationship between Felix and Astrid with grace and genuine empathy. As Astrid suffers from depressive episodes and begins to slip through the societal cracks of poverty, unemployment, and homelessness, Felix aches to be able to do something – anything – to help her, all the while not really able to understand just what is going on.
As the novel progresses – and their situation worsens – Felix’s helplessness grows. He’s betting everything on winning the game show. The suspense increases to almost unbearable levels, and the book’s resolution is unexpectedly thrilling and affecting. While the novel is aimed at 10- to 12-year-olds, No Fixed Address is a book that adult readers will find engaging, reminiscent of Nick Hornby’s About a Boy but with an emotional acuity and force all its own.