The kids aren’t alright in What Comes Echoing Back, the long-gestating third novel of Nova Scotia’s Leo McKay Jr., the author of the Giller Prize–shortlisted Twenty-Six. On the cusp of adult responsibilities and quandaries, they’re already burdened by the aftermath of events in their young lives. They teach themselves how to recover – to manage shame and guilt, sidestep despair and anger – and discern how the past informs but does not define them. They also come to understand that care arrives in various guises.
In the novel’s brief, Sydney-set prologue, middle-aged Ray answers a panicked phone call. He tells his girlfriend it’s “Family. Family thing,” before a four-hour drive southwest to the Annapolis Valley. Vividly portrayed and affectingly dramatized, family things propel McKay’s tremendous novel.
As What Comes Echoing Back opens, Robot (called Robert by teachers and other adults) inhales familiar scents of his home – “the raw sour scent of feed silos … motor oil and petrochemicals from some factory-looking building … the burnt and rotting smell of boiled animals from the rendering plant”– after having spent a year at a youth criminal detention centre for manslaughter. “‘Hubtown.’ … ‘Come for the stink, stay for the stink,’” he intones.
Robot returns to a “shitty rental flat” – tellingly, cognates of “shit” appear more than 50 times in the novel – in the dreary, impoverished neighbourhood his mother calls home. “[I]rresponsible, uncaring, selfish, pathetic, out of control,” and defeated by life, she’s “at the far end of alcoholic decline.” The things that Robot cares for, his music, and most especially his guitar, have been sold in his absence to pay for her addiction.
Robot’s music classmate at school, Sam – formerly Patricia – has recently come to live with her Uncle Ray in Hubtown. Newly renamed – and freshly marked by an image tattooed inside an oval palm scar made by her own teeth marks – Sam has unrooted herself from her hometown following sexual assaults, online harassment, and the suicide of one of her closest friends, with whom Sam attended a traumatic house party.
For Sam and Robot, the school year offers minuscule possibilities. With recent events washed from her public profile, Sam is hoping for anonymity in a new, large school. A notorious figure for having caused a death – that was caught on video and went viral – Robot is a “huge gravitational mass of personal and social agony,” and is, unsurprisingly, in a foreboding mood as he returns to the familiar hallways and classrooms.
Over the course of chapters that shuffle between past and present, McKay’s prose is masterful; it captures volatile adolescent culture and fretful adult oversight with equal aplomb.
Attentive to what Robot calls “dingy reality,” McKay delineates the oppressive forces faced by the characters: antagonists, both teenage and adult; social media videos and toxic commentary; and assorted human and communal failings.
And though the young people are haunted by violent histories, McKay shows them as both resilient and inventive. Musical elements – a ukulele, a quirky rock band of high-schoolers run by a high-achiever nicknamed No (a.k.a. Noh, he of the Shut Up T-shirts), the discovery of a pure singing voice – coalesce into real opportunities that Sam and Robot had only recently imagined as being unavailable to them.
The novel concludes just two months into the school term, after Robot is violently attacked in his home. Moving beyond her self-protective shell, Sam visits a battered Robot in hospital. Tenderness, empathy, and warm humour abound. In the author’s capable telling, Hubtown becomes more than dingy reality and stink. As they start to see beyond their pain, Sam and Robot dare to envision a life with fulfillment.