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We Contain Multitudes

by Sarah Henstra

Jonathan Hopkirk and Adam Kurlansky couldn’t be more different. Jonathan likes Walt Whitman and Prince; Adam likes football. Jonathan likes vintage clothes; Adam, apparently, likes fist fights. Paired up for a letter-writing assignment in English, they don’t expect to have much to talk about. But, as boy awkwardly corresponds with boy, they begin to find some mutual interests. And then friendship. And then, of course, they fall in love.

Opposites attract: a powerful yet familiar story. Governor General’s Literary Award—winner Sarah Henstra uses the premise well, sweeping us up in the giddy joy of fulfilled narrative expectations. She leverages another potent story too: the difficulty and importance of coming out. As Jonathan and Adam fall in love, Henstra teases out a tension between Jonathan’s internal comfort with his own sexuality, and the greater outward confidence with which Adam navigates high-school life. The opening of We Contain Multitudes explores the tentative and tender interactions of this unlikely couple as they progress through a litany of trials and self-discoveries in class and at home.

But the novel also presents some tired tropes. There are the overly convenient, rather adult cultural touchstones like Whitman and Prince that may not resonate with the younger audience. Or that old standby of writing for young people: the school assignment. Told entirely through Jonathan’s and Adam’s letters, Henstra must constantly invent reasons for her characters to transcribe their own conversations, demanding a surprising suspension of disbelief from the reader. And while the familiar pattern of budding romance sweeps us up at the beginning, the climax lets us down by reinforcing the pervasive cultural connection between gay relationships, parental absence and abuse, and violent retribution. Yes, the world is dangerous – for queer teens in particular. But for a book that so effectively tempts us with Happily Ever After – one that is clearly unconcerned with verisimilitude – to suddenly become violently real in a way that reinforces the cliché that no gay relationship goes unpunished, is a deeply unfortunate flaw in an otherwise rich and moving novel.

Stories are complicated, and a book that fails in one aspect can succeed in another. Henstra’s latest is certainly multitudinous: worth reading, enjoying, interrogating. –Andrew Woodrow-Butcher