Drilling Down

Reviewed by Dorothy F. Lane

These two novels explore the ambivalent emotions and motivations that underlie communal and familial relationships. They also emphasize the reverberating aftershock of pivotal incidents on both individuals and Canadian communities, metropolitan and rural. Marianne Apostolides’ latest book, I Can’t Get You Out of My Mind, interlaces an intellectually engaging discourse on attachment and desire with an intimate picture of the primary character, Ariadne. The almost-cliché phrase in the title becomes a tool to probe the very concept of “mind” through its inclusion of a quirky relationship that is part of a study on artificial intelligence. The narrative is both agonizing and darkly humorous, exploring the fabric of Ariadne’s dissertation research on desire, her addiction to an unsatisfying relationship with a married man, relationships with young adult children and aging parents, and philosophical exploration of attachment and commitment itself. The narrative is most engaging when it delves into psychoanalytical theory and raises questions that have driven both scholarly and creative meditations on the impulse to connect with others. It becomes less successful—though still fascinating—when it takes the reader into the arena of AI and its appropriation for both constructive and harmful purposes. The author’s extensive bibliography at the end of the novel underscores her thorough and incisive research into studies of brain mapping. It does not present any definite position but leaves the reader to ponder the limits of scientific study, the mysteries of love, and the painful yet compelling repercussions of being in relationship. Intriguingly, most of the exploration takes place within Ariadne’s own “mind,” so that its effect demonstrates both our isolation and our need for connection with others.

While Apostolides delves into the mystery of mind and human connection, Josephine Boxwell’s Unravelling drills deep into the motivations—both personal and political—that result in tragic public events, and the consequences of these events on individual and communal lives. Alternating between two characters’ perspectives, and multiple time periods, a child and an elderly woman become inextricably connected through a catastrophic disaster at a sawmill in the fictional Stapleton, British Columbia. More extraordinary is the way this tragedy and its catalysts are rooted in multiple layers of buried history—displacement of Indigenous peoples, the disappeared casualties of BC’s growing economy, the use of areas for nuclear testing, Japanese internment camps, and Chinese contributors to the building of BC’s economy—hidden beneath the town’s placid surface of coffee shops and local gossip. Elena Reid loses her father during the explosion, but unknowingly uncovers the shocking underbelly of her community’s past and present. Caught in an increasing mental fog of dementia, the elderly Vivian Lennox—pillar of the Stapleton community—is haunted by the disaster and her own complicity in it. While these two characters are central in the narrative, the novel simultaneously unravels the roles and motivations of multiple family and community members. From the “old Chinese cemetery” and its ghosts, to the living ghosts that are the consequence of the explosion at the sawmill, Elena inadvertently slips into a whirlpool of shame and human suffering, represented in the river that runs through the town. The narrative is most powerful when exploring these perspectives—and the reader learns much about the “ghost towns” that are one of Boxwell’s personal fascinations. It loses intensity when it dips into the genre of mystery or crime story, closer to the end of the book. While we are compelled to learn the truth about the disaster and what happened to Elena’s father in the explosion, the story becomes less personally engaging; it pulls the reader back with its final exploration of Vivian’s increasingly solipsistic thought patterns, but resists identification of heroes and villains in the tragedy. The reader is drawn to empathize even with Vivian as she is caught in the desire for vengeance by the family of the victims.

The novels I Can’t Get You Out of My Head and Unravelling are evocative of the Prince’s final rebuke to the adults in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate, / That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love . . . all are punish’d.” While these two novels both address the tangled nexus of love and hate, familial bonds, sorrow and longing, they have distinct approaches, audiences, and settings in their attempts to drill down into human experience, motivation, and history. Both explore the collateral damage of contemporary inquiries and initiatives in psychology and history, ultimately underscoring the power of narrative to draw us into the lives and minds of others. While I read Unravelling as an engrossing study of character, I serendipitously learned much about the individual lives caught in the building of BC and Canada in general. Similarly, the superficially titled I Can’t Get You Out of My Mind probes the psychological depths of obsessive attachment, the implications of AI, and the neuroscience of intimacy. Both novels ultimately invite intellectually challenging reflections on old questions, and on the uses and abuses of scientific enquiry in contemporary Canada.

This review “Drilling Down” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 2 Dec. 2020. Web.

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