I came to C.J. Lavigne’s debut novel through the recommendation of a friend, with expectations I would find this tale one into which I could immerse and engage. But, alas, it was not to be.
Certainly this is an ambitious novel in that Lavigne chooses to tell this story from a foreign and difficult point of view, that of a young woman who experiences her world through the lens of synesthesia. While Lavigne certainly achieves that experience for the reader, it also works against the narrative of the story to the point someone who is not a synesthete finds themselves lost. What is known is in fact unknown in this story. The fact a car horn tastes like chocolate mint is irrelevant, unrelatable. Does the fact the horn tastes like chocolate mint mean that chocolate mint is a warning? A threat? Or just background, um, flavour? But, then, how do you find the voice for such a story with such a character? I’m not sure. I just know that for me, this voice didn’t work. It was too much. Too foreign. Unrelatable.
And because of that alien experience, Verity, whose voice commands the story, remains a foreign character, one for whom it is difficult to feel pathos, even though you are aware she is worthy of your empathy. Yet even while she is this unknown, unknowable person, she is also one who lies despite the assertion Lavigne makes in the novel that Verity does not lie. But she does. In the beginning it’s lies of omission. In the end it’s outright falsehood. And she’s a thief.
So, that’s all strike one for me.
The second problem for me was the lack of world building. In this story (spoiler alert), people who are gifted with abilities often deemed mental illness by society, are somehow physically and mortally threatened by the world. Just how that is a fact is never really quite made clear. Is it like having an allergy to electricity? Again, who knows? It just becomes a tale of of US against THEM. Apparently Them (who would be people like me) are killing Us (people like Verity). Their lives are in danger. So much that there are secret, magical retreats these gifted people have created between walls, places of sanctuary, however shabby and reminiscent of ghettos.
And that’s where the whole story really falls apart for me, and we come to a big fat third strike. There are scores of people in this story who open a door that isn’t there, step into the between, and live there in the walls. But how is that achieved? How do they live? There is never any mention of kitchens, or plumbing, or bathrooms. While there is a pseudo angel of healing, who cannot fly and is lame, there is never any mention of how those beds and mattresses and couches come to exist in the between where this angel performs his miracles in his miserable misericordia. Who set up this hospice? Who set up these dormitories?
And while food arrives in plastic bags, there is never mention of how meals are prepared, things like ranges for cooking, or ovens, kettles or microwaves, toasters or can openers, or how to wash dishes. Let alone bodies. Do people eat at tables? On the floor? Is this canned food slurped with spoons from the tin? And where does the garbage go? How do they relieve themselves? What about menstruating women? How are clothes cleaned? Or are there no problems in this magical between regarding lice or bed bugs, rats or cockroaches?
Again, how do they live? There are lights, but from where does the power come? Or are these places between lit by candles or gas, or some other? This world of Lavigne’s has never been fully realized. It simply exists between the walls (how much space is there between walls, or is this alternate reality something like a Time Lord’s tardis?) How do you get a bed between walls?
I won’t even begin to touch upon Lavigne’s apparent tacit support of anti-medication for mental illness. That’s another whole issue which left me twitching with anger and outrage. And my fourth problem with the novel.
The fifth problem is short passages in which Lavigne completely breaks the tension of the narrative for an intrusive character soliloquy, written in first person, present tense, typeset in a different colour (at least in the ebook version) and different typeface. It’s such a bad formatting gimmick, like someone new to layout and agog with all the thousands of choices of typefaces. I remember editing one such book in which the author had chosen no fewer than six different typefaces to denote different characteristics. Just no. And there is no identifiable reason for these character intrusions. It all just completely arrests the tension. In my opinion, the novel would have been stronger without these flashy, pretentious attempts at the avant garde.
Then we come to the great denouement, the sixth problem, which is so utterly predictable: the big battle between the Big Bad and the Great Good and the Pathetic Good (sounds like a D&D game), or put another way: the power-hungry and angry disenfranchised gifted people, the meek and suffering other gifted people, and society at large. It’s a three way war. The Great Good are going to bring it all down: the gifted meek, the ignorant and maliciously oppressive society. All of it. Wipe it into — what? That’s never made clear. We just have people standing around invoking magical energy that threatens to bring everything down. Snowstorms. Ice everywhere. I was minded of a novel by Charles de Lint. Maybe it has something to do with Ottawa snowstorms? Who knows?
It’s all just so silly. So predictable.
Yet I have friends and colleagues who quite liked the story, some of whom thought it was brilliant, others as simply entertaining. Which is why art is so very subjective. Lavigne’s story worked for them. For me it didn’t.
But, I suppose, if you’ve read enough of my reviews, you’ll know that I’m not easily pleased, a critical and grumpy reader always looking for the flaw.
Still, seriously, how did that society work?