Visitations and Visitors

Reviewed by Shazia Hafiz Ramji

How can outsiders bring us home? This question reverberates and surfaces in Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square and Jesse Ruddock’s Shot-Blue. Both novels illustrate the disruption of the local and familiar with the arrival of visitations and visitors, respectively.

Redhill’s novel is set in and around Bellevue Square, a well-loved park in Toronto’s Kensington Market neighbourhood. The book is split into four sections told from the first-person perspective of Jean, a bookseller, wife, and mother of two, whose reality becomes questionable after she sees her doppelgänger, Ingrid/Inger, and develops routines to follow her obsessively. Bellevue Square’s exploration of the doppelgänger, said to presage death in many cultures, results in a sprawling and humorous story of the contemporary self under siege. Blending realist and speculative modes with ease, Redhill offers grounding storylines for Jean’s unravelling as she experiences episodes of depression and psychosis while trying to fulfill her roles and stay happy. Peppering the novel with entertaining digressions on concepts in quantum physics such as the parallel universe theory, which posits that self-contained realities coexist with one’s own reality, Redhill introduces reflexivity while retaining narrative linearity, breaking through the postmodern baggage of metafiction that is sometimes acrobatic and self-absorbed. Instead, the novel is extratextual; the doppelgänger shares a name and profession with Redhill’s pseudonym, Inger Ash Wolfe, under which he has written a series of crime novels. The extratextual gesture moves us not only toward the construction of life as art and vice versa, but also along the arc of mortality toward a final homecoming.

Ruddock’s debut novel offers a more literal version of the outsider who ushers in a homecoming. Split in two, Shot-Blue begins with the story of Rachel and Tristan, a mother and adolescent son who choose to live on a remote northern island. In Book Two, Tristan must fend for himself. This turn recasts the novel as a coming-of-age tale about a boy’s initiation into himself by means of encounters with guests from far away who come to live and work on Tristan’s homeland for the summer. Told by a third-person omniscient narrator, the intimate trials of a cast of characters garner an epic scope while simultaneously being humbled by the all-sensing omniscience, the presence of which masterfully hints at the agency of the land more than that of a higher power, for which it has traditionally been used. Despite a freshness of metaphor and image to convey the landscape, the characters’ experiences are often relegated to serve a romanticized attitude of toughness in the face of the North. For example, when Tristan’s nose breaks after a boy fights him, there are almost no descriptions of his pain or the reality of dealing with the injury. The overall effect is a glimpse of the characters’ two-dimensionality, when otherwise they show depth and promise.

Both novels are driven by a curiosity about the outsider’s role in ushering forms of knowledge that are difficult to simplify. Through defamiliarization, we are urged further into the heart of what matters, where there is a growing awareness of all our relations and a stirring love of life.

This review “Visitations and Visitors” originally appeared in Lost and Found Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 236 (2018): 166-167.

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