Location: Kensington Market District, Toronto
I ask you, what better way to write a fictional book about paranoia, delusion, the shape-shifting nature of memory and, well, fiction, than to make the reader doubt the reliability of the first-person narrator within a few pages of the beginning of the story?
Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square does just that. The winner of the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize takes the reader on a fast-paced journey with Jean Mason, as she embarks on her quest to discover the identity of the doppelganger (body double) she’s been told has been seen in and around Toronto’s Kensington Market district. She eventually comes to focus her search on Bellevue Square, a small park at the south end of Kensington Market.
A slightly tired urban park frequented by both by families and lunch-eating workers as well as drug dealers and those with mental health challenges (several centres for addiction and mental health are within a few blocks of the park), the green space itself can be a metaphor for what lurks below so-called “normal” life.
The central character of Jean Mason is absolutely lovable as she struggles to make her way through the reality in which she finds herself. She is vulnerable, pugnacious, and tenacious, a complex heroine worthy of the subject matter Redhill tackles in this layered narrative.
Equal parts murder mystery, psychological suspense, family relationship story, and picaresque journey of discovery, Bellevue Square is a tremendously readable novel. I read it twice, once for an overall impression and then a second time to look more closely at the characters, plot points and style of this very accomplished writer. Both times, I easily made it through the book in two days. But this is not to say the novel is in any way facile, light on character, setting and themes, or formulaic. While maintaining a strongly plotted, forward-moving narrative, Redhill also manages to include laugh-out-loud comic moments, a lot of useful information about mental health and cognitive science, and many shimmering jewels of poetic language. Given that Redhill is also a poet, a mystery writer (under the name Inger Ash Wolfe), and a much-lauded literary fiction writer, this texturing is perhaps no surprise.
The novel opens with a bang. A customer enters Jean Mason’s bookshop, and claims to have seen her just a short time before in different clothes and a different haircut. The pace of the novel is established immediately, as the situation rapidly escalates to the point where the customer attempts to pull Jean’s “wig” off her head. She fights him off, and he leaves, but she is left to grapple with the aftermath of what amounts to an assault. Not many days later, a woman (Katerina) turns up to tell her that she (Jean) is possessed by the “Llorona,” a mythical ghost who wanders the world looking for her dead children. Katerina becomes the second person to talk to Jean about her double, a woman named Ingrid Fox.
These two incidents catapult Jean into an obsessive search for the woman called Ingrid, who looks just like Jean except for superficial differences like clothes and hair. The reader is intrigued . . . who is Ingrid? Why can Jean never seem to catch a glimpse of her, despite hours spent walking the neighbourhood and sitting in Bellevue Square park? But even as the reader continues, cracks begin to show in this narrative. How can Jean afford to close up her bookshop so often, and for hours at a time? She claims to make a very healthy profit from the store, whereas anyone with any knowledge of independent bookstores knows how precarious that living can be. And then there are other clues . . . after a Skype conversation with her “sister” Paula, for instance, she tells her husband that she was talking to her mother and a friend, and does not mention Paula at all. What is she trying to hide?
The reader continues to be presented with these odd lapses in narrative logic, until it becomes clear that we are faced with a character whose brain is fabricating stories to fit the evidence she believes she has discovered. Jean says at one point, “This seems significant now, if only because the set of things that could be significant grows by the moment.” As someone who has had recent experience with a family member’s dementia, I could recognize the phenomenon, one which also shows itself in dreams, disorders such as schizophrenia, and conspiracy theorizing.
Our brains are story-making organs, even when the facts at hand are disparate and ostensibly unconnected. In Bellevue Square, Jean, and the reader, too, is faced with a series of events and behaviours which, by the end of the book, must all be made sense of. We don’t know when we have been told “the truth” (within the context of a fictional worldview). This is disorienting and disquieting, but at the same time, oddly freeing. We readers are given a choice in what to believe and what not to believe, and our choices not only alter our relationships with the characters, but also tell us something about ourselves.
Without revealing too much about the plot (I really want you to read this one for yourselves!) Bellevue Square breaks down into roughly three parts. The first part reveals the existence of Ingrid, and Jean’s quest to find her. In the second part, the reader is given what seems to be a believable explanation of Jean’s experiences. The third part of the book calls into question this reasonable explanation as we continue to accompany Jean on her quest.
As has already been noted, Bellevue Square comes to life through the character of the first-person narrator, Jean Mason, a complex, articulate, competent lover of order who finds herself navigating a most disorderly world. From the beginning, the reader sees Jean trying her level best to take control over the peculiar phenomena impinging on her world. She is focused, systematic, and proactive; the fact that the world may or may not be as she experiences it does not diminish her method of dealing with it.
Not least of her many appealing characteristics is her sense of humour. Here is her description of the man who enters her shop only to try pulling her hair off: “He’s a late-middle-aged ex-academic or ex-accountant or someone who spent his life at a desk, who once might have been a real fireplug, like Mickey Rooney, but, who, at sixty-plus years, looks like a hound in a sweater.” When Ingrid, her doppelganger, advises her that “(w)e look good in long simple print dresses and solid colours,” her response is “I don’t take fashion advice from phenomena.” A conversation with her husband about luck and destiny yields this wonderful comment, “I accuse him of toxic positive thinking, he says he’s making his own reality to counteract the odds.” And of her mother-in-law she says, “I play a game where I am twice as polite as she is and see if I can make her burst into flame.”
I could talk about Jean and her quirky ways for pages, but I’ll move on to some of the other characters. There is Ingrid, of course, who is a slightly warped or out-of-phase version of Jean. Jean’s husband, Ian, is a police officer trying to hold it together in the face of his wife’s unusual experiences. Jean’s pre-teen sons, Nick and Reid, are boisterous and mostly oblivious to anything but their own pastimes, though Redhill gives us glimpses of their uneasiness over their mom’s condition. Many of the novel’s most poignant moments occur when Jean interacts with her family as they attempt to understand and help her. Certain aspects of Bellevue Square reminded me of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, which features a young narrator on the autism spectrum, in which the author somewhat compensates for the limited capacity of the narrator to reflect reality by showing the way other characters respond to him/her.
Some of the most intriguing characters are the ones offstage, so to speak. These include Jean’s “sister” Paula, a shut-in tied to her California apartment by the debilitating effects of a vestibular shwannoma, with whom Jean Skypes. Jean’s mother, who despite being mentioned frequently in the context of Jean’s memories, and who supposedly comes to see her in the hospital, registers a bare needle-width in terms of the book’s action. Mr. Ronan and Katerina, who initially reveal Ingrid’s existence to Jean, are fully-fleshed characters who may not exist except in Jean’s imagination.
Most of the other memorable characters in Bellevue Square are the fragile, marginal, vulnerable denizens of the park itself. Jean remarks at one point that “(i)t’s surprising how much of a, you know, what you’d call a real person is there, under his symptoms.” She says also, “I haven’t seen a dull person in Bellevue Park this whole time. I just look and there’s an entire person, with her own clothes, his own hairstyle, her creaky laughter, his filthy blue shirt.” Jimmy, Cullen, Ritt, Miriam, all register as individuals with highly personal histories, life philosophies, behaviours, preoccupations, and kinds of psychiatric disorder.
Michael Redhill’s themes in Bellevue Square are wide-ranging, but first and foremost is his exploration of the nature of reality. The author introduces this theme within three sentences of the beginning of the book, when his narrator says of her store customer, “I watched him from my perspective in Fiction as he chose an aisle and went down it.” Intricately weaving motifs of fact, perception, delusion, and subterfuge, he caps it all by impishly indulging in a little metafiction: Ingrid Fox is the nom-de-plume of Inger Ash Wolfe, which happens to be Redhill’s own mystery-writer pseudonym. A fictional and possibly imaginary character has a “real” name which is her creator’s pen-name. (I know, it’s all a liitle dizzying, but well worth the effort to figure it out!)
Perhaps logically, a parallel theme to that of reality is order/chaos. We identify things in the world and then we name and categorize and organize them. For some of us this taxonomical work is critical to our mental well-being. When those ordering systems break down, it can be disastrous.
Jean herself is quite flexible in her categories, when talking about her bookshop she says at one point, “I’m not a library, so I don’t have to go full-Dewey ...in the same way that curators decide what order you see art in, I’m allowed to meddle with the browser’s logic, or even to please myself.” But then she goes further and demonstrates how this ordering process can produce anxiety, as she reflects that there are really countless ways that things can be ordered: morally, aesthetically, ethically, psychologically, scientifically.
Along with concepts of order come rationality and logic, and later, as things are deteriorating, Jean reflects that “(r)ational is rules and structure. Everything in it can be made to work with any other part, even if only in opposition, but outside of its math, there’s nothing. There’s the rest of it.”
If this book were merely a speculative intellectual playground, it would be entertaining enough, but Redhill includes a number of more emotionally weighty themes. One such theme is that of loss, more specifically, the loss of a child. Jean has been devastated in the past by a miscarriage, and Redhill delicately shows us how this experience continues to inform her outlook on the world. There is also loss as is implied in the concept of “getting lost,” of wandering in an unfamiliar landscape, circumstance, or mental space. This is most concretely metaphorized towards the end of the novel, as Jean wanders alone in a snowy, northern Ontario landscape, the primeval forest being an archetypal location for stories about quests, temptation, resilience, problem-solving and personal growth.
A third theme is that of community – the community of a family or eople with common experiences, a medical or literary community. Community, Redhill seems to say, can support and sustain in times of trouble or need, but it can also reinforce and validate erroneous or harmful ideas, or harbour toxic elements like abuse. In a nice blending of the themes of reality and community, Jean says at one point, “Sometimes . . . you realize how many layers you look through every day to connect with others. Through a window, see a show in which a character is seen in a mirror watching a television show. Navigate a world where nearly half of everything you know is a reflection, a refraction, or a memory.”
Medicine is also, given the book’s subject matter, a primary theme. There are many references to illness and wellness, bodily sensation and fragility. Again, in a satisfying helix of intertwining themes, Redhill merges those of medicine and reality with Jean’s musings about the nature of self, identity, autonomy. Motifs of mirror and glass permeate the book amid references to “self-storage,” “self-help (health),” out-of-body experiences, and the reflective, refractive properties of water.
For the last few weeks, I’ve reflected on the plot, characters and themes of Bellevue Square. Within those categories, I’ve inserted a few thoughts about setting, as well. But I would also like to talk a bit about language and style, so I’m going to steal a couple of paragraphs from my Conclusion to do so.
I’ve already touched on Redhill’s competence when it comes to comic moments and the novel’s fast pace. In my Introduction, though, I also noted that his skills as a poet emerge. Redhill’s poetry elements include not just lyrical imagery, but the playful use of language and the capacity to create tension or menace with unconventional phrasing. Examples abound: “...since I’ve been awake I’ve begun to wonder if those long nights were so dark because my dreams had already escaped into the world.” “It’s like a fuse is burning just steps behind me, reducing my lived life to ash.” “My heart makes a sound like an ax on wood.” In referring to the puzzle of how much Jean and Ingrid look alike, Redhill invents a new noun: looklikery. Jean doesn’t dodge pedestrians, she “slalom(s) through humanity.” Her description of what she experiences when she is ostensibly inside Ingrid’s house is chilling: “My back teeth send bolts of electricity directly into my eyes, and there are venetian blinds on the back of my neck, opening and closing, scraping me with their cold edges.” The book teems with evocative turns of phrase which help to establish character, setting, and mood.
At last, to conclude my report: the fiction I most love to read contains literary elements of equal merit. Character, plot, themes, setting and language should weave among each other to create a fully realized, believable world, even if that world is not one we readily recognize or trust. Bellevue Square is just such an exceptionally integrated and atmospheric novel, one which grabs the reader’s hand from the first page and doesn’t let go until the final sentence – and even then lingers in the mind afterwards.
The fact that Bellevue Square won the Scotiabank Giller Prize may deter some readers who nervously associate this award with writing that is elite, off-puttingly literary, and inaccessible. Don’t be fooled: like actors who inhabit a role so thoroughly they seem not to be acting at all, Redhill has produced a book which is so well-written that his skills as a writer barely register – until one goes looking for them. When all is said and done, it’s simply a cracking good read, and I heartily recommend this book to readers in Grey County and beyond.
Grey County Reads is a county-wide reading program involving seven local libraries, including Grey Highlands, Hanover, Meaford, Owen Sound, Southgate, Town of Blue Mountains and West Grey. Five local celebrities advocate for five Canadian books.
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