Here we go: another Canadian novel about the immigrant experience – set in present-day Toronto, but with Toronto meant to stand for Canada as a whole. In the hands of Rabindranath Maharaj, we are led through familiar, well-worn terrain: feelings of alienation and an ache for community in this cold country, this smug metropolis.
Nine months after the death of his mother, Maharaj’s protagonist, Samuel, moves to Toronto from his native Trinidad to live with his estranged father. The gimmick is that 17-year-old Sam sees everything through the prism of comic books: he makes countless references to the X-Men and the Silver Surfer as he drifts through his days. This is curious, since we’re about two-thirds of the way through the book before we see Sam actually look at a comic. And he doesn’t betray any of the genuine obsessions of a hardcore reader – the giddy anticipation for the next big issue, the collector’s meticulousness, the nerd’s esoteric fixations. Instead, Sam’s comic-book references feel tacked on. For the most part, he merely leads us around the city, meeting people who spend their days ruminating on – you guessed it – being an immigrant in Toronto.
But the biggest problem with this novel is that it’s too episodic and never gains any real narrative traction. Too often, Maharaj will introduce potentially interesting characters then drop them – more than once with the character making a seemingly innocuous exit, only to have Sam say, “But I never saw [that person] again.” At one point, Sam’s aunt visits from Trinidad. A religious nut, she’s fascinating, yet her visit is of no real consequence, and then she just leaves.
Despite these weaknesses, there are some good payoffs here. In one scene, Sam allows his father, who spends his nights watching MacGyver, to read a school essay he’s written about his mother’s illness and his father’s departure from Trinidad. Maharaj perfectly captures a child’s emotional state when a disapproving parent reads something he’s written – wondering which section he’s on now, wondering what his reaction will be when he finishes. It’s a gut-wrenching scene.
Line for line, Maharaj is a superb stylist, but on the whole this book lacks evidence of planning or a strong vision.