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by Will Aitken

Realia, the third novel from Montreal-based writer and broadcaster Will Aitken, defies easy description. It is part straightforward quest for self-knowledge and part surrealist fantasy, an unusual merging of waking and dreamlike worlds that draws on literary antecedents as diverse as Ovid and Jonathan Swift and on modern cultural icons from Hitchcock to Marguerite Duras.

Briefly, it tells the story of Louise Painchaud, a lusty, Rubenesque Albertan who goes to Japan to teach English and escape her past. Unexpectedly, she finds herself caught in the middle of a nationwide, almost Kafkaesque scandal when she begins a torrid affair with Oro, the country’s most beloved pop star. Aitken uses this unconventional love story to explore notions of foreignness, exclusion, the simultaneous push and pull of the unknown, and even our 20th-century fascination with celebrity. But at its heart, Realia is a modern retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, right down to the swooping maenads and the journey into a labyrinthine underworld.

All this is quite ambitious for a relatively short novel. And unfortunately, Realia gets off to a slow start; Oro – Orpheus to Louise’s Eurydice – doesn’t put in an appearance until halfway through the book. Though Louise is a well-crafted, complex character (whose sharp tongue and physical bulk act as only moderately successful barriers against the slings and arrows of the outside world), the novel is a little plodding and formless until her relationship with Oro commences. The love story and its underlying mythical elements give Realia more energy and structure, but the affair is allowed not much more than 50 pages to ignite, intensify, and explode in a mess of self-destruction. It all seems to happen too fast.

Aitken’s greatest challenge probably still lies ahead: Realia is sure to be compared to last year’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie. Rushdie casts a long shadow that Aitken may find difficult to escape.