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The Gift Child

by Elaine McCluskey

Elaine McCluskey (Andrew Vaughan)

To explain the plot of Elaine McCluskey’s The Gift Child is both to give everything away and to reveal nothing important. Although the novel does, in the words of its narrator Harriett Swim, take us “down a rabbit hole of lies and family secrets,” it is above all a novel of voice and of place, or more accurately places – specifically, the small fishing village of Pollock Passage, Nova Scotia, and the contrasting urban setting of Dartmouth, in what is now (not to everyone’s satisfaction, as Harriett observes) the Halifax Regional Municipality.

The central plot of The Gift Child is straightforward, though McCluskey’s telling is anything but. One day, Harriett’s cousin Graham rides away from the wharf in Pollock Passage with a massive tuna head in the basket of his Schwinn bicycle; he is never seen again. Harriett’s quest to find out what happened to Graham provides what linear structure the novel has, but it is mostly a pretext for Harriett’s real mission, which is self-understanding. “Who am I?” she wonders; “It sounded like it might work – the parallel search for Graham and the search for my family story.” The result is the memoir we are reading.

Like the yarns spun by her charismatic, larger-than-life father, Stan, Harriett’s narrative is digressive, unpredictable, and not entirely reliable. It encompasses a disorienting variety of people and subjects: pawn shops and petty thieves, fisheries and UFOs, photography and paddling, hockey players and Russian spies. Even as the truth about Graham’s fate remains elusive, more mysteries arise: What is so bad about the neighbouring Crowell family? Why does Harriett’s new friend Vincent have a handgun stashed under the steering wheel of his car? What did Harriett’s mother mean when she told her, “Your father’s childhood was different?” To Harriett, who believes herself “genetically doomed,” this last question proves the most significant one of all.

McCluskey’s gamble in The Gift Child is that Harriett’s voice – wry, sardonic, self-conscious –  will be engaging enough to transmute the novel’s miscellany into a satisfying whole. Does it? I wasn’t entirely convinced, perhaps because, as a “come from away,” I found the novel’s intense focus on regional details, including its acid but affectionate enumerations of Dartmouth life (“you know someone who is friends with musicians Joel Plaskett or Matt Mays. You know someone who claims … that they went to junior prom with Sidney Crosby. … And you know someone who competes in paddling”), a bit wearing. The risk of so much local colour is that it can feel insular rather than illuminating.

But McCluskey is a delightfully deft stylist; her sentences are replete with striking images, as with her description of the old Swim house in Pollock Passage, where the shirts on the clothesline “flapped and fluttered like hope.” Overall, Harriett is enjoyable company as she struggles, as we all do, to make sense of the many scattered elements of her own experience in service of what she aptly sums up as “a forensic self-audit to figure out Me.”


Reviewer: Rohan Maitzen

Publisher: Goose Lane Editions


Price: $24.95

Page Count: 340 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 978-1-77310-324-2

Released: March

Issue Date: March 2024

Categories: Fiction: Novels, Reviews