South African–Canadian author Lisa de Nikolits is no stranger to the industry – four of her five books have been recognized with Independent Publishing Awards, and she’s contributed to multiple short-fiction anthologies. Yet her latest novel, The Nearly Girl, may disappoint readers expecting more than surprisingly novice prose from an established author.
The story’s concept is enticing: a collection of self-proclaimed head cases are brought together under the direction of an eccentric (though lauded) psychiatrist for group therapy. Amelia, an absentee poet’s daughter very much at odds with the conventions of the world, serves as the titular protagonist. But, though the premise and character types are undeniably captivating and humour abounds, de Nikolits squanders the first third of the book with Amelia’s parents’ backstory, told almost exclusively in painfully simplistic dialogue reminiscent of the work of a student in a master’s fiction workshop.
The narrative improves greatly as the therapy sessions commence and the cast of oddball characters is introduced, but the same superficial prose rears its head throughout: scenes make explicit actions, movement, and entire conversations that could go unsaid, yet the characters seem underdeveloped. Things fall into place too neatly, are over-simplified or explained away in a matter of lines (a gun-wielding patient is subdued by a lawyer and fellow group member who happens to have a black belt; the return of Amelia’s father after more than a decade’s absence, glossed over in half a page, feels unrealistically amicable and devoid of feeling). Characters and their interactions have potential, but often feel like one-dimensional tropes.
We are given glimpses of how strong de Nikolits’s writing can be in a few beautifully descriptive paragraphs full of stunning narration sans dialogue, but these instances are too rare, and we are left with a palpable lack of description elsewhere in the book. The novel’s concept could have benefitted from first-person narration (or even truly omniscient narration that divulged the characters’ inner lives and motivations) and stronger description to establish richer setting, emotion, and a cast of characters that is less stiff.