I first read about Bellevue Square on Naomi’s Consumed by Ink blog where I often find Canadian novels I’d be eager to get my hands on were they to be published in the UK. It went on to win the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize giving it a sporting chance of making an appearance here. Naomi’s review was intriguing, not least because she said she couldn’t say much about the plot and now I know why. It begins with a regular customer telling a bookseller that she must have a twin then proceeds to leads its readers through a maze of discombobulating twists and turns.
When Mr Ronan seizes Jean’s hair, convinced she’s wearing a wig after he’s seen her fifteen minutes ago dressed in an entirely different outfit, she’s both annoyed and intrigued. He’s just come from Bellevue Square, a park visited by patients from the local mental hospital, its fringes populated by artisan cafes and the like. Jean is taken for her doppelgänger by Katarina who knows Ingrid well, telling Jean that she’s often to be found in the Square. Jean decides to stake out the park, spending hours chatting to its denizens – some of whom seem to know Ingrid – neglecting her bookshop and her family but sometimes skyping her sister who has a brain tumour. Then she spots her double, pushing an empty buggy. When Jean finally spills the beans to her husband, he decides it’s time to get help. There’s very much more to this clever, tightly constructed novel than that but I’m wary of ruining it for readers.
You’ll need to keep your wits about you as you read Jean’s narrative. Clues and hints as to what might be happening are quietly slipped in. She’s the quintessentially unreliable narrator – things are rarely quite what they seem in her accounts of events but somehow she makes them add up. There’s a reveal about half-way through which may not come as a surprise to attentive readers but the puzzle doesn’t stop there. All of this is leavened with a good deal of humour:
I like pretending to be someone else. Although you probably think I’m overdoing it says Ingrid to Jean when they first meet.
There’s so much more that I could say about this utterly engrossing book but I’m keen for readers to explore it for themselves. I gather from the acknowledgements that Bellevue Square is to be followed by two other novels forming a triptych called Modern Ghosts. Fingers firmly crossed that they will be published in the UK too.
If you like the sound of Redhill’s novel, you might like to have your appetite further whetted by Marcie’s review at Buried in Print or Kim’s at Reading Matters.
I was attracted to David Bergen’s Stranger for two reasons: firstly, its premise and secondly by the author’s previous winning of the Scotiabank Giller Prize which I’ve found to be a very reliable indicator, much more so than the Man Booker. Bergen’s novel explores themes of entitlement and deprivation through a young Guatemalan woman left pregnant by her American lover who returns to the States after a devastating accident.
İso works as a ‘keeper’ at a fertility clinic, tending rich but desperate women who come to take the waters credited with helping the founder’s wife conceive. She listens to their confidences, their hopes and fears, often forming an intimate bond with them which dissolves once they leave. She’s in love with Eric, one of the clinic’s wealthy but apparently liberal doctors, who cuts a glamorous figure astride his motorbike. When Eric’s wife arrives for treatment, the carefully cultivated ambiguity of his marital status falls into question. Their affair resumes after Susan leaves, coming to an abrupt end when Eric returns to the States after an accident leaving İso alone with her pregnancy. Shortly after İso gives birth, her daughter is abducted and taken to the States. What ensues is the story of İso’s determined journey to retrieve her stolen child, a quest fraught with danger and difficulty.
In less capable hands İso’s story might have become a little trite, perhaps over sentimentalised, but Bergen deftly avoids that. It’s a novel with a sharp political sensibility, an exploration of Northern entitlement and Southern deprivation delivered simply, never with a heavy hand. İso’s character is sharply drawn and believable. Bergen unfolds her story in clear, direct language, heightening the tension and constant danger of her journey with short, unadorned sentences. The kindness of strangers balances the malevolence she faces both north and south of the US border but her wariness is rarely put to rest. Stranger is an easy, absorbing read – I finished it in an afternoon – but it has some serious points to make about entitlement, wealth and poverty, and makes them well. It put me in mind of Maile Meloy’s Do Not Become Alarmed which explored similar North/South territory but of the two, Bergen’s is much the better book.