Jared Martin lives in Kitimat, British Columbia, in a dysfunctional home. His parents are divorced; his father is recovering from drug addiction and is financially strapped, while his mother, with whom Jared lives, has anger-management issues and keeps making poor relationship choices. To financially support his father, Jared sells marijuana-laced cookies. His life can only be described as dismal; the arrival of his neighbours’ granddaughter brings Jared some joy, but she has issues of her own. Then things become downright weird when he starts having strange nightmares, seeing ghosts, and hearing talking animals.
There is little structure to the novel. Just as Jared drifts through life, the novel feels adrift. It seems to meander aimlessly through Jared’s days and nights of drinking, drug usage, being bullied, and having sex. The endless partying and verbal and physical violence get tiresome. After focusing on hyper realism, the novel changes shape and veers into magic realism where fireflies philosophize and conjugate French verbs and where river otters want to devour him.
The message of the novel seems to be that “The world is hard . . . [so] You have to be harder.” This advice is mentioned at least four times. It is certainly a message that Jared takes to heart. Despite his difficult circumstances, he never gives up. He is, in fact, a person the reader will come to like. Jared is caring, compassionate, and forgiving. He takes responsibility for paying bills when his mother leaves without explanation; he helps his elderly neighbours; he helps his father catch up on late rent payments; and he makes time for people who once bullied him. He is so kind and generous that people take advantage of him. Of course he is not a perfect person; his sarcasm often gets him into trouble, and his substance abuse is certainly not admirable.
Besides having a realistic protagonist, the novel is realistic in other ways as well. The dialogue, especially that used in texting, is definitely that of contemporary teenagers. Though his life may be more difficult than that of most teenagers, Jared’s concerns and interests are those of a typical adolescent: social acceptance, school, partying, sex.
Magic realism with its supernatural elements is not a genre I enjoy so the last third of the book had little interest for me. What bothered me in particular is that it comes out of nowhere. For example, there has been no indication that a character has supernatural powers but then she is identified as a witch: “’She’s got this whole imaginary world going where she’s a big powerful witch and she’s being chased by mythical creatures.’”
This book appears on the shortlist for the 2017 Giller Prize and has received many positive reviews, but I was not overly impressed with it, other than that it is brutally realistic. I think it would appeal to young people because it does address issues they face, though some school libraries might reject it because of its offensive language, graphic violence, and explicit scenes of sex and drug/alcohol abuse.
I read that this book is the first of a trilogy, but I don’t think I’ll be reading any sequels.