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The Other Valley

by Scott Alexander Howard

Scott Alexander Howard (Veronica Bonderud)

At first glance, the valley is inviting, deeply so. Verdant with orchards and vineyards that overlook a lake, and situated in a leisurely era before cellphones, Instagram Stories, and overtourism, the unnamed region appears idyllic, a riff on Provence right down to the street names.

Like chemin des Pins, for instance. That’s the quaint neighbourhood Odile Ozanne, the teenage narrator of Vancouver-based Scott Alexander Howard’s novel, calls home.

Thought to be too reserved for politics, Odile nevertheless has politics on her mind. As her fellow students ponder careers while on tours of farms, wineries, and a book bindery, she is considering the Conseil. Odile’s embittered mother toils there in an archive and dreams of a much higher position for her only daughter.

A conseiller, Odile explains, “mostly tells people where they can’t go.” You see, well-guarded wire fencing runs through the lake and up the mountain ridges that form natural borders on both sides of the valley. If a local desires to visit a valley to the west or east, they must apply to the Conseil.

In one valley to the west, Odile knows, her deceased father is in his early twenties; he’s a toddler in the next valley west. In the valley one east of her own, Odile herself could be in her early thirties (assuming she’s alive), and middle-aged in the valley immediately after that.

If granted permission, a visitor (always masked) is escorted by a member of the gendarmerie, who ensures that they view, but do not engage with, the past or present. Interference with or alteration of the timeline is a capital offence; ditto for unauthorized visits.

While a scriptwriter might see an opportunity for Quantum Leap–style adventures, Howard’s take, which shares a sombre tone with the TV series Counterpart, is refreshingly free of action tropes. The science fiction conceit offers him space for a considered and exhilarating thought experiment about morality, agency, and fate.

As for world-building: in Howard’s hands, the valley’s social organization springs vividly to life.

Given the novel’s conceit, passages from one valley to the next – illicit and otherwise – play an inevitable role, such as when Odile makes a wrong turn and both spots and recognizes a visitor from her future. That knowledge alters her trajectory over and over again.

Two decades later, when Odile, after a promising start, has become a disgraced member of the gendarmerie, additional visitors and a former school chum give Howard’s appealing protagonist – an underdog, a woman in a man’s world, a schemer wearing the guise of a write-off – the unexpected chance to redress a past/present/future so that, on this throw of the temporal dice, there are favourable outcomes for herself and others.

Complications ensue, naturally.

In this debut novel, Howard shows himself to be accomplished and adept at plotting; he’s also fully conversant in time-travel lore, particularly when it overlaps with Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”

As imaginary places go, Howard’s time-bending region of conjoined valleys is a keeper. And definitely worthy of a sequel.


Reviewer: Brett Josef Grubisic

Publisher: Scribner Canada/Simon & Schuster Canada


Price: $24.999

Page Count: 304 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 978-1-66802-356-3

Released: Feb.

Categories: Fiction: Novels, Reviews