I didn’t have any idea what to expect from this latest of my Canada Reads reads. Nikolski is a French-language novel which won awards both for the original French, and for the English translation (which of course is what I read). And I can sort of see why it was an award-winner, but at the same time I know it’s never going to be a favourite of mine or a book I’ll want to reread.
Nikolski is very well-written, and not just in that “language is so pretty I can’t pick out the storyline” pretentious literary way. It’s clear, lucid and sparse — at least in English translation. It sketches the storylines of three young adults in Montreal in the late 80s and 90s. These three people have some significant things in common — far more than they know — but they never discover this, because their lives never come in contact except through brief casual contact.
Noah is an archeology student who wants to study garbage; Joyce works in a fish store by day but, obsessed with tales of her pirate ancestors, becomes a computer pirate after dark, while the unnamed narrator works in a second-hand bookstore. They all live in the same neighbourhood — though that’s not the most important thing they have in common — but their lives barely intersect. One of the objects that keeps turning up as a recurring motif in the novel is a “three headed book” — a book that is actually three separate works bound into a single copy — and that’s a good metaphor for Nikolski itself. Three separate stories that should come together, but never do.
I realize that’s part of the point, or maybe the whole point — the way our lives intersect but fail to connect, the elaborate setting-up of puzzles that will never be resolved — but I couldn’t help finding it frustrating. When I read a novel, I don’t mind being challenged, but in return for a challenge I want to lose myself, immerse myself in fictional characters and their stories. In Nikolski, while each character and storyline intrigued me, I felt like I was being jerked around from one to the other (like a fish abruptly pulled out of water, anothe good metaphor for this book which has a lot of fish in it) without sufficient payoff. In fact, it’s sort of like my complaint about the three separate narrators in The Jade Peony, but multiplied times a zillion.
I guess I’m a modern enough reader (that’s modern as opposed to postmodern, of course) to want the storylines to converge, connections to be explored, puzzle pieces to fit together. So my lack of enthrallment with Nikolski says, in the end, more about me as a reader than about the book as book, or Dickner as a writer. It’s beautifully written, but in the end, just not the book I wanted it to be.
I’d hoped to review all the Canada Reads books in order, one after another, but we’re nearing year-end and I haven’t read Generation X yet, I have read several other books and I do need to get those reviews posted and my year-end book giveaway contest on the go, so we’ll have to wait a bit for the final Canada Reads selection.