Traditionally, the main engine of narrative, especially in commercial and genre fiction, can be boiled down to a simple question: what happens next? Everything else is subservient to that overarching concern, which, at its best, lends the fiction its propulsive force. Increasingly, however, commercial fiction seems to be building on a question that has historically been the province of the mystery genre: what really happened? It’s an altogether different perspective, and one which requires a different set of approaches to succeed.
With her debut novel, Our Little Secret, B.C. writer Roz Nay seems to take her cue from the unreliability of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train, while leaning heavily on the trope of a police interrogation. As the novel opens, readers are informed – in the voice of Angela, the novel’s focal character – that “I’ve been in the police station all morning while they ask me questions about Saskia.” Something, clearly, has happened. A homicide detective enters the interview room.
The mysteries around Saskia’s disappearance require a thorough immersion in Angela’s memories. After a long childhood consisting of frequent moves – “career-related for my father” – Angela begins Grade 10 at Lakeside High in Cove, Vermont, and is quickly taken under the wing of one of the school’s most popular boys, HP. Their friendship deepens over time, and gradually turns to love. Angela, though, leaves town after graduation to spend a year at Oxford, where everything changes, and where the seeds of the novel’s present situation are sown.
While Angela’s story is fascinating and involving (the scenes at Oxford, where Nay studied, are particularly effective), the novel as a whole feels somewhat off-centre, halting in its fictional manipulations. Angela’s testimony, while deliberately self-involved and consciously constructed, too often veers into the writerly, losing the crucial connection to the novel’s overall conceit (the verbal interview).
As a result, the story’s other manipulations become apparent. Without saying too much, the structure and approach paint the narrative into a corner, effectively ruling out the majority of fictional possibilities. Our Little Secret really couldn’t have ended any other way (and the brief final chapter, which seems intended to open the narrative to hanging questions, lands with a thud). The novel, ultimately, feels inconsequential. There’s never any real concern with what happens next, and the reader is left with something akin to a puzzle comprising only a handful of pieces.
The new book from Vancouver writer and filmmaker Robyn Harding, by contrast, seems to take its inspiration from Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas’s 2010 novel The Slap, which followed the reverberations and repercussions of a single action – the slapping of a child – through, ultimately, an entire community.
The Party is an altogether smaller and simpler novel, focused mostly on a family rather than a society, with less sweeping concerns. When a girl is injured at Hannah Sanders’s 16th birthday party sleepover, the life her parents Kim and Jeff have carefully constructed begins to crumble. As the question of what happened at the party hovers over the novel, the reader witnesses high school power plays, lawsuits, parental drug use, intimations of infidelity, recriminations and spite, all the stuff of middle-class desperation.
Harding nicely balances the questions of what happened and what happens next: the threats to the Sanders’ lifestyle maintain a keen edge of uncertainty, while the secrecy around the events of the party feels natural (rather than an act of deliberate withholding by the author). The characters are largely well-developed, although they never seem to veer far from type: Kim, in particular, seems overly familiar, as a mother whose life and resentments revolve around her family, whose sense of propriety and caution doesn’t seem to extend to her online flirtation with a co-worker.
Unfortunately, we’re never given much reason to identify with the Sanders family aside from the fact that the story focuses on them; it’s difficult to much care about what happens next. The Sanders are deliberately unsympathetic, so it’s heartening when some of the characters begin to rise above their level of self-centred callousness.
The resolution, however – for one character in particular – seems to undercut much of that hard-won character development. It’s an off-putting note of cynicism that not only betrays much of the book, but calls into question the novel’s perspective on its female characters and its worldview. It’s a bit like the pink champagne that plays a critical role in the events of the sleepover: fine in the moment, but leaving an unpleasant aftertaste.