In her first YA novel, Archibald Lampman Award–winning poet Nina Berkhout builds on the promise of her adult fiction debut, The Gallery of Lost Species, trimming away the extraneous language in that novel to deliver fresh prose tinged with evocative poetry. Her main characters are fully formed and – while not necessarily unpredictable – at least interesting in their choices and intricacies.
Eighteen-year-old Twyla Jane Lee is an aspiring photographer trapped in the small community of Halo, Montana. Twyla and her boyfriend, Billy, plan to take off for California after high school and set up a catering business. But first she has to get through the 40 hours of community service mandatory for graduation – that’s where Gabriel Finch comes in.
Barely older than Twyla, Gabriel is a former high school hero who joined the military shortly after graduation, following the death of his kid sister from leukemia. Their paths converge when Twyla is assigned to help Gabriel, who is suffering from the mental and physical aftereffects of two tours as a Marine in the Middle East. His parents have decided to move to Peru to work on an alpaca ranch and Gabriel refuses to accompany them. It’s never really made clear what Twyla (and Billy, who insists on tagging along, at least at first) is supposed to be doing to help Gabriel, other than making sure the fridge is stocked, the dishes are done, and the bills are paid, but the vagueness surrounding these details becomes less important as the story develops.
Twyla – a pacifist living in a farm town full of decommissioned (and a few active) nuclear missile silos – immediately jumps to conclusions about Gabriel, at one point referring to him as a “jarhead” and assuming that he’s a “Doomsday prepper” because of the hours he spends underground in the silo on his family’s property. Not surprisingly, Gabriel turns out to be much more complex, a young man with a passion for the classics and a deeply troubled soul. It’s not Doomsday preparations he’s undertaking in the domed silo, it’s art: he is creating a mosaic made of bullet casings hammered into the walls and ceiling, the images depicting the pre-war landscape of Iraq that lives in his imagination.
Berkhout does some interesting things with her character development. Twyla is a bit bratty and insolent, but as her backstory comes to light and her relationships expand it becomes clear much of this is self-protective posturing. Her narrative voice, despite some well-timed bitchiness, draws the reader in with surprising warmth and relatability. She’s a likeable character, flawed though she might be. Gabriel is a bit harder to crack. It seems at first strange that Twyla would fall for the taciturn former Marine intent on keeping everyone at bay emotionally, but as she draws him out Berkhout reveals glimpses of the man he was and might be again, given the opportunity to heal.
Not every character shines equally – the meathead bully and the trashy girl who wears too much makeup and gets pregnant before graduation feel like they were plucked from central casting – but Halo itself is depicted vividly in its dusty, pro-military, small-town glory. Twyla’s frustration and anger toward the townsfolk’s overriding small-mindedness and misogyny are palpable.
Berkhout creates a cinematic feel with her evocative language and scene setting. The scope of the story’s themes of love, honour, bravery, and forgiveness are reflected in the vastness of the blue sky over the town, and it’s impossible not to envision the action as it unfolds. Berkhout’s book, with its simpler language and plotting, may be aimed at a younger audience but it demonstrates the author’s growing confidence as she hits her novel-writing stride