Riel Nason’s All the Things We Leave Behind is a novel of hauntings: characters are haunted, variously, by people, nature, memory, and the way things were. Evoking nostalgic reverie – bolstered by its summer 1977 setting – the story speaks to the latent recollections that eat away at us, whether they manifest in pangs of longing or waves of painful distress and regret.
The novel is Nason’s follow-up to her Commonwealth Book Prize–winning debut, The Town That Drowned. Set on the same land as the flooded town in rural New Brunswick that served as the setting for the previous book, the new novel follows teenaged Violet as she spends a season managing her parents’ antique shop, referred to by locals as the Purple Barn.
Though Violet is by no means an outcast, she is introverted; she floats on the periphery of conventional society and remains entranced by something deeper than surface interactions or small talk. Her parents have departed for a so-called vacation – they are following the trail of Violet’s missing older brother, Bliss, whose depression-fuelled disappearance the year before left the family with a glaring, agonizing void.
Violet’s stream of consciousness is pervaded so strongly with thoughts and memories of Bliss that, though physically absent, he stands as one of the book’s strongest characters. As the story moves forward, it lingers in places that aren’t always comfortable; with each episode and reminiscence, the reader is able to piece together more of Bliss’s – and the town’s – story.
The setting itself morphs into a ubiquitous character, as the secrets contained by the looming forest – familiar and foreign in equal measure – encroach. It is never entirely clear, for example, whether Violet’s encounters with an ethereal “ghost deer” are real or a product of imagination compounded with local legend. The corpses of fauna killed on the highway and tossed into a surreptitious boneyard, meanwhile, are a source of anxiety for Violet – as, we learn, they were for Bliss.
A trip to disinter furniture from a long-shuttered mansion extends Violet’s contemplations about history and things buried, and the story progresses to an unexpected and tragic end that ties everthing together neatly. Nason’s book, while not action-packed, offers a slow, powerful rumination on the universal aches of loss, existential dread, and adolescence