Close en­coun­ters of the de­ferred kind

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Hugo Bowne-An­der­son

If I Fall, If I Die By Michael Christie Wil­liam Heine­mann, 323pp, $29.99 The Beg­gar’s Gar­den, Michael Christie’s de­but col­lec­tion of short sto­ries set among the marginalised and dis­ad­van­taged in Van­cou­ver, was pub­lished in 2011, re­ceived favourable re­views, won the City of Van­cou­ver Book Award and was longlisted, along­side Michael On­daatje’s Cat’s Ta­ble, for the Sco­tia­bank Giller Prize, Canada’s most cov­eted English-lan­guage lit­er­ary award. (The even­tual win­ner was Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues.)

Four years later, Christie’s de­but novel, If I Fall, If I Die, is also set among the dis­ad­van­taged and marginalised, white and in­dige­nous, in Thun­der Bay, On­tario, where the au­thor was born and raised. It is os­ten­si­bly a tale about a young boy, Will, nearly of age to en­ter high school yet never hav­ing left the con­fines of his own home, and his first for­ays out­side those familiar walls, mem­branes con­structed and main­tained by his ago­ra­pho­bic mother Diane.

Christie’s sense of Thun­der Bay is pal­pa­ble in terms of knowl­edge and feel­ing: the lo­ca­tion not only drives the nar­ra­tive, it is as much a cen­tral char­ac­ter as any of the hu­man be­ings pop­u­lat­ing the novel.

Thun­der Bay was once an im­por­tant trans­porta­tion hub for ship­ping west Canadian prod­ucts, mainly grain, east­wards. Will’s un­cle and grand­fa­ther as well as his mother’s first love all worked the grain el­e­va­tors. But in Will’s gen­er­a­tion, so­cial, eco­nomic and tech­no­log­i­cal changes have led to a col­lapse in the grain trans­port in­dus­try. Jobs have been lost, less money is in cir­cu­la­tion. In If I Fall, If I Die, we see the con­se­quences first­hand.

The story is told in the third per­son, through the al­ter­nat­ing per­spec­tives of Will and Diane. As the novel opens, they have turned their house, which nei­ther of them has left for many years, into the world: “They’d al­ways called the kitchen Paris, his stu­dio New York, their bed­room San Fran­cisco, the living room Cairo.”

In this world, pro­tected from the wider one, they spend their time in acts of cre­ation: paint­ing, sculpt­ing, sto­ry­telling. Their lives have all the ap­pear­ances of hav­ing sucked the Out­side In (the ti­tle of the novel’s last part). How­ever, this is il­lu­sory. It is only af­ter Will takes the In­side Out (the ti­tle of the first part) that the out­side world is al­lowed to in­trude.

As Will, hel­meted, en­ters the out­side world, Christie’s prose is cu­ri­ous, ur­gent and dy­namic. Af­ter Will has his first taste of the strange de­struc­tive­ness of the out­side world, what his mother feared be­gins: a se­ries of what he terms de­struc­tiv­ity ex­per­i­ments. What ini­tially seems to be her ago­ra­pho­bia, pure and sim­ple and with­out cause, is slowly re­vealed to be rooted in her per­sonal his­tory and that of Thun­der Bay. This is also why she has kept her son in­side for so long: so that the world will not kill him, as it has killed every­body else.

Will even­tu­ally finds all the dan­gers Diane fears, partly be­cause of the friends he makes, in­clud­ing two Na­tive Amer­i­can boys, although on first sight all we know of their eth­nic­ity is what Will knows: “his brown skin was the tint of the milky tea his mother of­ten drank”.

Will’s tale of ex­plo­ration is a vari­a­tion on the bil­dungsro­man: part adventure story, part de­tec­tive fic­tion and part Trea­sure Is­land. Diane’s story is, for the most part, one of a recluse and of seclu­sion.

In Will’s story, Christie’s prose pos­sesses an alacrity that surges for­ward, while in Diane’s the sen­tences are shorter, some­times stilted, with a firm fo­cus on the past. Both fall into the trap of oc­ca­sional melo­drama and sen­ti­men­tal­ity, but ap­pro­pri­ately for a com­ing-of-age novel, and for Diane’s world, there is a con­stant source of drama and anx­i­ety.

This is an adult book, con­cerned with what hap­pens to a so­ci­ety when in­dus­tries wane, and with post-colo­nial in­ter­ac­tions with in­dige­nous groups. Christie does not pre­scribe con­crete so­lu­tions but he does show us the ab­sur­dity of the sta­tus quo by con­vey­ing it through the eyes of a child too in­ex­pe­ri­enced to hate oth­ers be­cause of cos­metic dif­fer­ences such as skin colour.

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