The characters in Nadia Bozak’s first novel are bashed up and beaten down, disappointed and disenfranchised. The story follows a runaway punker named Bozak – who is presumably not the author but a character with the same name – as she navigates the brutal terrain of Northern Ontario. Along the way she meets Dave, a native Canadian who’d prefer to be “Mexican in L.A.” rather than “Indian in Ontario,” and together they paddle the St. Lawrence River, desperate to get out of Canada and into the U.S.
Both characters are tormented by secrets and self-loathing, but there is a more immediate danger: Dave’s father is trailing them. And this is where the bulk of the novel takes place: in the lonely bush, steps ahead of their stalker, surviving on rations and whatever else they can find to keep them from starving to death.
The hostile landscape of the bush is more a character than a backdrop. The people in the book are often abusive and unkind, strangers and friends alike. Bozak is a cutter, inflicting such violence upon herself as to make a reader wince. So the language of the novel, which seems to delight in profanity, is fitting. And though the book suffers from some repetition, the pace and action are lively and engaging. Orphan Love is like a punk song: gritty and coarse on the surface, but with an agenda intended to shake up social mores.
At its heart, this is a novel about the search for identity and redemption, but ultimately both come too easily. Bozak and Dave’s relationship is a complex one, to be sure, and by finding each other they find protection and a sense of home, but the latter third of the novel is wrapped up as neatly as a fairy tale, with about as much believability. Which is odd for a book that is otherwise so explicitly and ambitiously realistic.