Antiques, drownings, and the ghostly pull of memory: these are the themes that seem to fascinate Riel Nason.
Nason’s acclaimed debut novel, The Town That Drowned—which won the 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize for Canada—was a coming-of-age story that called attention to actual historical events in her hometown of Hawkshaw, New Brunswick. The Mactaquac dam was built there in 1967, displacing the residents of several small communities. The Town That Drowned follows the struggles of a young girl and her unusual younger brother as they lose their home to the dam.
Nason’s second novel, All the Things We Leave Behind, returns to the same setting about a decade later. The town of her first novel is submerged in water, and a new town called Riverbend has been set up in its place.
Nason’s Riverbend calls to mind another memorable small Canadian community: the little farming town of graphic novelist Jeff Lemire’s Essex County trilogy. Nason has a gift for bringing small communities to life in a way that is more empathetic than nostalgic. Riverbend, New Brunswick, is certainly distinct from Lemire’s small Ontario community, but both towns are haunted by past griefs and untold secrets.
All the Things We Leave Behind is not a traditional sequel with recurring characters. It does, however, make thematic sense for this novel to follow a book about drowning, because All the Things We Leave Behind deals with submerged feelings, buried pain and memories that become ghosts. Much like her first novel, this is a book that could be marketed as a young adult novel, but will appeal to a wider age group than that.
The opening lines of the novel set a haunting, near-otherworldly tone: “There is a boneyard deep in the woods. The deer and the moose could show you where. They know the place where the trees stop and the carcasses begin.”
Just as in Nason’s first novel, the narrator in All the Things We Leave Behind is an introspective young woman with a difficult brother. Seventeen-year-old Violet is left to run the family’s massive antique shop, The Purple Barn, for a summer while her parents search for her missing older brother Bliss. Nason brings small-town New Brunswick to life through shameless village gossips, reclusive backwoods hermits and mysterious cottages filled with treasure. Violet is mature but emotionally distant given her brother’s disappearance, and despite the best efforts of her friend Jill and her boyfriend Dean, she often avoids the people who care about her, preferring to dwell in a world of memories.
There are really two plotlines in this novel: the story of present-day Violet working at the shop, and the retrospective account of Violet and Bliss as children.
Early on in the novel, Violet remembers her and her brother stumbling upon the boneyard of the novel’s opening lines while playing in the forest. It’s an open pit filled with the corpses of road-killed deer. The discovery is traumatic for both children, especially Bliss, who feels a kinship with the deer.
As she did in her first novel, Nason demonstrates her skill at capturing both the beauty and cruelty of the natural world. She imagines a ghost herd of “bucks and does, bulls and cows, fawns, calves, glowing translucent white, sometimes suddenly charging, surging like a snow-squall.” The boneyard becomes the most prevalent visual symbol in the book, a physical manifestation of the depression and grief the characters feel.
Bliss is at the centre of this novel, but he only appears through the filter of Violet’s childhood memories. In framing the story this way Nason tackles a challenging task: creating a narrative around an absence. Through a series of flashbacks, Nason gradually reveals that something is wrong with Bliss beyond the familiar emotional pangs of childhood. He often falls into the grips of regret and sadness for no discernible reason. Readers might recognize symptoms of clinical depression.
Nason, however, does not seek to diagnose her character or define his experience in clinical terms. She simply presents his experience through the eyes of his concerned sister. Violet remembers a particularly difficult Christmas day when she and Bliss were children. “It was like his brain made a mistake and gave him the wrong emotion on a happy day,” she remembers. She tells herself Bliss must be exaggerating. “He obviously hadn’t figured out the right way to control it yet,” she insists to herself. “He wasn’t crazy. Surely he’d get better as he got older, stronger, smarter.”
This is small-town New Brunswick in 1977 after all, and Nason excels at establishing both the comforts and the cruelties of a closely knit community. Everyone knows everyone and gossip is a way of life in this tiny corner of the world. Through rendering this particular community in such detail, Nason makes it clear without ever explicitly saying so that knowledge about mental illness isn’t commonplace.
Nason also succeeds at juxtaposing extraordinary paranormal elements with the mundane. After her brother’s disappearance Violet begins to see a ghostly white deer in the forest. In one harrowing trip to the forest she sees a whole herd of ghost deer. The spareness and simple poetry of Nason’s writing works in contrast to the extraordinary scenes Violet describes.
Are these spectral visions real or Violet’s own unique coping mechanism when faced with the disappearance of her brother? Nason doesn’t clarify, much to her credit. “Maybe this is what sadness does to you,” Violet says. “It makes your mind work in new ways to attempt to overcome the fact that so much of it is taken up with despair. Is it your mind that creates ghosts, needs ghosts?”
Perhaps. Just as she doesn’t ever put a name to Bliss’s condition beyond calling it an “illness,” Nason never tries to either validate or invalidate her protagonist’s experiences. The vision is simply a part of Violet’s journey through loss to acceptance and healing.
The novel only falters during the overly convenient reveal of a twist in the third act. Despite this flaw, All the Things We Leave Behind is overall a more mature effort than her first novel. It’s a psychologically complex, carefully crafted piece of work that kept me consistently engaged and left me haunted.
Goose Lane | 240 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN# 978-0864920416