In 2002, Nancy Lee’s Dead Girls, a collection of dark, chilling stories exploring the lives of murdered teens and lost women in Vancouver, thrilled critics here and abroad. Twelve years later, Lee returns with a similarly gripping story about a different type of dread. In The Age, adolescent protagonist Gerry spends her spring break in 1984 dreaming about nuclear holocausts and, along with an adopted family of older activists, planning an act of public protest that will completely alter her life, but not in the ways she hopes.
The prose, which moves along at a crisp, rhythmic clip, has the quality of a screenplay. Gerry spars with Randy, her mother’s latest boyfriend, in funny, caustic jibes. When not anxiously scanning the news for the latest developments in the nuclear arms race, she imagines a horrifyingly detailed post-bomb scenario in which she stars as a young man.
Lee brings urban Vancouver to life with great lucidity. Thick fogs and mists carry tinny tastes and anxiety, while “rain-filled potholes that hold the moon” light solitary moments of happiness in dark alleyways. In dreams, the water of Gerry’s post-apocalyptic hometown becomes a cancerous sludge. She imagines herself slowly being poisoned by the circumstances of a new, unforgiving life that, in some ways, is not all that different from the realities of a teen who is deeply lonely, attracted to other girls, and unable to talk about any of this.
There is one weak link in The Age. While Gerry’s absent father looms like a ghost throughout the book, the import of his presence early on isn’t explored. Gerry rarely brings up memories of her time with him; the few she does recall aren’t particularly flattering. Her drive to push herself into uncomfortable, even dangerous, situations often has a lick of revenge to it, but over what injustice is unclear. Otherwise, Lee creates a complex interior life for her protagonist, a character whose anxieties straddle the global and deeply personal.