It's about an affair, which isn't giving anything away since the dust jacket is full of detail about that. It's also based in Victoria, in two time periods: around 2000 somewhere, and March 1964. Both times, Fergus Goodlake suffers an existential crisis with accompanying physical injury. There are so few characters, barely a half-dozen who recur meaningfully, that I was impressed throughout with the richness of relationships Young manages to invoke.
The next post I'll get into the meat of it all, but let me say now just that I had trouble with the end of the novel at first, because it felt far too abrupt. Three hundred pages of build-up, then fifty of utter irresolution in the narrative and in the characters' lives: I felt a bit ripped off. Since then, though, it's been making more and more sense to me. Of course their 25 years together get more space than the first months after the end of their marriage as they know it. Of course they would have to start anew, with new locales and people and lives. Victoria is a city of history, in that no one seems ever to leave, and you never seem to meet anyone entirely unconnected with other parts of your life, so it's a thoroughly local solution to depart, at least for a time.
But it's not that Fergus and Annie simply leave. They revert to a pre-adult condition, which I suppose is one reason for the parallel time periods. In 1964 Fergus is a 12-year-old being bullied, terrified all the time, so he flees the city when there's word of a tsunami coming after an Alaskan earthquake. He runs, foolishly, hoping that the water will save him by destroying all sources of unhappiness. Older and not happy (if not exactly unhappy either), he starts an affair, foolishly, hoping ... what? He says he wouldn't change his life, wouldn't want to, that's not what the affair is about. But an affair changes things. Changes everything. We know this, and it doesn't matter whether he would have recognized it, because it's our reading, not his, through which we understand him.
When his life gets washed away in and by this metaphysical wave he's created, we're not surprised. The instant decay afterward surprised me, though, especially the thoroughness of the destruction, and I kept thinking "Really? This is what would happen?", but it's not my novel or life, so who am I to say? The reader, I suppose, but on reflection I think the writer got it mostly right, in spite of my first reaction to closing the covers.
There's some very good writing here, as anyone would expect who'd read his poetry (deservedly nominated for the Governor-General's award in 1999) or his short stories. My favourite passage, when the tsunami doesn't come and Fergus knows he has to go back to the city he thought he'd fled:
"In the same way that he was once forced to acknowledge that his house contains no secret passages and no hidden rooms, he now understands that there is only one method of time travel, the one he is using at this very moment, and that in its slow and predictable fashion, it will take him all the way to the end of the century where he will be just as unhappy as he is now" (209).Forced to acknowledge by whom? Life as time travel, not just slow but also predictable, "just as unhappy" -- good stuff. At first I wanted a comma after "century" ("why no comma, the pause, the pause!"), but he's right: a comma would make the clause non-restrictive, and it's essential to recognize that he'll be unhappy. (Grammar weenie. - ed.)
I'll keep thinking about this one, and I'd recommend it pretty widely.