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.
More on Bellevue Square to come soon!
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