Fiction – hardcover; Doubleday Canada; 262 pages; 2017.
When I found out that Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square was billed as a thriller, I wondered how it had slipped onto this year’s Giller Prize shortlist, which is primarily for literary fiction. But when I picked up this book — ordered on import from Canada (there doesn’t even seem to be a UK publication date) — I discovered that it’s so-called billing wasn’t entirely correct.
Bellevue Square is one of those novels that starts off as one thing before it morphs into another. The opening chapters have all the hallmarks of a mystery thriller, but mid-way through it takes a dramatic turn and becomes a wonderful examination of mental illness, consciousness, identity and the blurring of lines between truth, reality and imagination.
In search of a doppelgänger
When the book opens we meet first person narrator Jean Mason, who is married with two children and runs a bookstore in downtown Toronto. One day one of her regular customers, Mr Ronan, questions her ability to change clothing and hairstyles in a matter of minutes. Jean, confused, wants to know what he’s talking about.
“You were in the market. Fifteen minutes ago. I saw you.”
“No. That wasn’t me. I wasn’t in any market.”
“Huh,” he said. He had a disagreeable expression on his face, a look halfway between fear and anger. He smiled with his teeth. “You were wearing grey slacks and a black top with little gold lines on it. I said hello. You said hello. Your hair was up to here!” He chopped at the base of his skull. “So, you have a twin, then.”
“I have a sister, but she’s older than me and we look nothing alike. […] And I’ve been here all morning.”
Jean’s continued denials make Mr Ronan angry and he becomes violent towards her. Later, he’s found dead in his apartment having hanged himself.
This sets a disturbing and somewhat puzzling chain of events into motion. More people claim to have seen Jean’s doppelgänger around Kensington Market. She learns from those people that her lookalike is named Ingrid Fox and that she is a crime writer.
Jean becomes obsessed with meeting Ingrid and spends an enormous amount of time hanging out in Bellevue Square, where Ingrid has often been spotted, to see if she can run into her. She befriends lots of the square’s regulars, a cohort of misfits and homeless people, to help her track down her quarry — with alarming results.
Impossible to pigeon-hole
Bellevue Square isn’t your run-of-the-mill thriller. In fact, it’s impossible to pigeon-hole, because it’s also part literary fiction, part medical fiction, part horror and there may even be elements of science fiction in it, too. That’s not to say its message or its contents are garbled — far from it.
It’s a totally compelling read, one that makes you question the narrator’s sanity (and perhaps even your own) as the storyline becomes increasingly more twisty and bent in on itself the further you get into the book. It’s fast-paced too, which can occasionally leave you feeling slightly disoriented, as if you’ve got lost in the market and can’t find an exit out.
The prose has an effortless but very immediate feel to it and Redhill brings many scenes alive with sentences that dazzle and delight, so that “electric lights make colour bouquets of fireworks in the wet road” or “the half-dozen machines connected to her chatter and sigh like ladies at a book club”.
This totally isn’t the type of book I expected when I picked it up. It turned out to be such a surprising read, so immersive and unsettling, that it has lingered in my mind more than two weeks after finishing it. Redhill has crafted a zinger of a novel, one that is well structured and well plotted, the kind of book you need to read again if only to try to understand how he’s done it. The good news is that it is the first in a trilogy. I can’t wait to read the next instalment.
This is my 2nd book for the 2017 Shadow Giller Prize.