In S.M. Beiko’s florid debut, 16-year-old Ashleigh’s fantasy to escape her “bitter, broken” small town is finally about to come true: her chain-smoking nurse mother has announced they’ll leave at summer’s end. An incurable romantic, Ash spends her time painting, reading, and dreaming of a love that will feed her “Coleridge soul and Neruda-spurned pulse,” one she knows she’ll never find in Treade, Manitoba.
With summer drawing to a close, Ash resolves to break into a derelict building on the outskirts of town. As luck would have it, a storm causes a tree to fall and pierce a body-sized hole in the side of the building. Inside, Ash finds an enormous library presided over by a ghostly, mute young man named Li.
Every day, Ash steals away to visit Li, who teaches her to fly like the paper birds that flutter around the endless stacks, and to make the stories on the shelves come alive. As Ash is drawn further into Li’s fantasy book world, the ghost’s backstory emerges. A dreamer like Ash, he was forced to take over the family grain business on the eve of the Depression after the death of his alcoholic, workaholic father. Shortly thereafter, Li and his sickly mother met their own tragic ends.
Beiko seeks to blur the line between fantasy and reality, but her mixed metaphors, malapropisms, and excessively purple prose will likely overwhelm most readers. Her imagery, too, often confounds: “Li was my Hook, I his Wendy; he the Priam to my Paris, Minstrel to my Genevieve.”
Incongruities are a problem in the novel’s physical world. We’re told Treade has fewer than 3,000 people and never recovered from the Depression, yet it has a transit system, a major hospital, suburbs, and an ethanol plant. From the outside, the library is described as “too small to be a house,” despite being “at least three storeys tall” with a giant rose window and heavy, ornate wooden doors. And though the setting is contemporary, Ash’s cultural references – John Hughes movies, Indiana Jones, Elvis – all hearken from earlier eras.
That some of these issues will slip by young readers is beside the point. Sloppy writing is something nobody, regardless of age, should have to endure.