‘The Substitute’ by Nicole Lundrigan

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Carlyn Schellenberg

Seasoned Canadian writer Nicole Lundrigan’s latest novel The Substitute has a creepiness factor that stays with you. Told through both the chilling first person perspective of an anonymous narrator and measured third person narration of Warren Botts, a quirky middle school science teacher, the novel centres on a police investigation following Botts’ discovery of his student Amanda hanging dead from a tree in his backyard.

Botts is peculiar—think Fargo’s Lester Nygaard without the sociopathic tendencies. His odd behaviour, along with the fact that the mechanism by which Amanda was hanged is a dead ringer for subject matter in his physics lesson plan, makes Botts the police’s prime suspect. As pressure mounts for the police to solve the case, Botts unravels, even at times “forgetting” about the “ribbons of yellow plastic” marking the crime scene in his backyard, and the community condemns and attacks him. Haunting flashbacks of Botts’ childhood—mostly memories of his father before his traumatic death—and a visit from his addict sister add stress and contribute to his undoing.

Every second paragraph features the unnamed narrator’s coming of age, with their thoughts and actions becoming increasingly disturbing as we watch them grow up. I found this narration much more compelling than Botts’. The narrator’s story is captivating and the character surprisingly endearing. When something bad happens to the narrator, they get their revenge in one way or another. Lundrigan’s adept at character building: at times the narrator’s despicable behaviour feels vindicated rather than repulsive.

And his smart storytelling is exemplified in the pointed language in these passages. No word is wasted: “Though I could not articulate it, I knew from a very early age that my aunt was a useless slut.” This leads into the story of a tragic childhood: the narrator’s father dies when they are young, their mother is fairly useless as a parent, and we know early on their sister dies as well, we just don’t know when or how. The aunt uses the narrator, who she calls “Kiddle,” and their sister, who they call Button, as “props,” bringing them along when she wants to pick up men; when she has landed a man, she continues to bring them around. The narrator, incredibly intelligent while emotionally vacant, fails to convince their younger, innocent and loving sister not to trust everyone and to hate the world as much as they do—even when everyone around her is rude and demeaning.

When Button is born, the narrator has an aversion to the baby, calling her “it.” This disturbing scene is only the beginning of many hold-your-breath moments in the novel: “My hand crept over the blanket and came to rest just on its mouth. Slightest shift, and my hand moved up over the nub of its nose. Puffs of warm air moved through my mittens, steam between my fingers. I held my hand there, just the weight of my arm, my shoulder relaxed, limp, nothing more.”

Early on, the narrator displays immense, unceasing anger and boredom: “It is not important whose birthday it was, or why I was forced to attend, but the backyard was full of sunshine, shrill noise, and the reek of human frenzy. Clusters of over-inflated balloons hung from leafy branches, and I stabbed as many as I could.” As you may guess, at a young age, their energy is spent on harming objects such as holiday yard displays, insects and animals.

While the narrator seems averse to human contact, they do feel close to their sister. And, later, to a neighbour who respects their intelligence and doesn’t treat them as “less than.” The only constant adult in the narrator’s life is their mother, who spends most of the time passed out after taking pink pills. “I stood beside my mother until my interest waned. Once my mother was silent, I grew practically numb with boredom. She had brought me into this world, yes, but she was a stranger to me. An unwanted shadow wavering in the doorframe. And by the time I turned my back to her, I felt very little. Perhaps even nothing at all.”

Possibly the only time the narrator exhibits feelings of sadness is when their favourite tree is demolished: “When I peered out my window, I saw a row of pickup trucks, men in orange suits and helmets, chainsaws raised and coming down. They had crawled up into my Mighty Oak and with each bite of metal, branches crashed to the ground. Like carpenter ants, those men were dismantling my tree, dragging it away, loading parts into trucks, shoving smaller branches through a mulching feeder … I witnessed the entire death. Bit by bit, my tree came down. Down to its stump, a weeping yellow round on the ground. I pushed my face into my pillowcase, and cried.”

The narrative is marked by constant smells and grotesque imagery, as in this passage when Botts’ sister cleans herself up after feeling sickly: “She smelled different now. Less like a rodent, and more like something dried and smoked. A strip of brown meat hanging in a darkened room, air full of chemical pollutants.”

In present-day, Botts’ interactions with students, parents, and neighbours cast suspicion on numerous characters: the student who got the best mark on the physics test, the student rumoured to have abused his sister, and Botts himself, who seems reluctant to give the police the information they need. Who killed Amanda, and how does the nameless narrator connect to her death?

After a shocking final reveal, I finished the book satisfied–but also had the feeling that someone was watching me. Though The Substitute mostly reads more like a drama than a thriller and I found it less suspenseful than expected, it’s still enjoyably dark, creepy and unsettling.

Anansi | 336 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN# 9781487002350


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Carlyn Schellenberg

Carlyn Schellenberg is a writer and associate editor for the Winnipeg Review.