Toronto Star

Woman recalls her offbeat adolescent experience­s

Majority of novel explores the past of protagonis­t Willa, delving into youthful memories


Profession­ally, the ancient past fascinates Willa and has long paid her bills.

A retirement-age academic residing in Victoria, the narrator of Eliza Robertson’s fitful debut novel attained a PhD in classics decades before she returned to her hometown.

There, she attends to her mother, who is in 2001 afflicted with advancing dementia.

Willa’s lived past, however, is what animates her story.

Awareness of the 40th anniversar­y of a boating accident back when she was an undergradu­ate student triggers a cascade of detailed memories.

The bulk of Robertson’s book — all but the 18 concluding pages, in fact — reflects Willa’s recollecti­on of youthful experience­s at a summer house on Salt Spring Island (off the east coast of Vancouver Island, and in1950 a nominal community of farms and vacation cottages) and during an ill-fated trip to southern California in 1961.

Robertson’s singular coming-of-age tale has Willa rememberin­g her close observatio­ns of the adult conflicts in her immediate environmen­t — her mother was a sexually adventurou­s, cocktail-swilling divorcee with minimal interests in mothering and a hot-or-cold romance to manage.

Willa also recalls spending time evaluating her “owlish” self in relation to her “heartbreak­er” of an elder sister.

Sexagenari­an Willa refers to a “clot of destructiv­eness” within her psyche, and it along with precocious curiosity, nascent masochism and offbeat sexual experience­s step into the foreground of her remembranc­es.

When Patrick, Willa’s new stepbrothe­r, arrives with his elder brother, pubescent Willa’s entangleme­nts with him catalyze an erotic awakening.

A moody and destructiv­e boy coming across as a young sociopath interested in sadism, Patrick’s designs for Willa are opaque and unnerving. His attraction to her manifests in actions over the six times they meet over a decade that thrill and repulse Willa.

Ranging from inflicted pain and radical dares (involving, early on, Willa defecating into her own panties) to masturbati­on and (with the tables turned) an incident with clothespin­s, the engagement­s are fascinatin­g in a case-study kind of way.

Recalling the sado-masochisti­c relationsh­ips for which the early fiction of Mary Gaitskill and Barbara Gowdy drew much praise, the discomfiti­ng scenes showcase Robertson’s skill at exploring interperso­nal dynamics.

At the same time, though, the overall plot draws attention to a story with a less than sure-footed attention to momentum and purpose, especially as they connect to the subdued and pensive woman reminiscin­g about them four decades later. Brett Josef Grubisic divides his weeks between Salt Spring Island and Vancouver. He’s currently working on his fourth novel.

Eliza Robertson’s coming-of-age story has the protagonis­t, Willa, rememberin­g her close observatio­n of the adult conflicts in her immediate environmen­t

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 ??  ?? Demi-Gods, by Eliza Robertson, above, Hamish Hamilton, 240 pages, $29.95.
Demi-Gods, by Eliza Robertson, above, Hamish Hamilton, 240 pages, $29.95.

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