I’ve read most of the fiction published in Newfoundland over the last two years, and of all the books I’ve read, whether by “big name” writers or relative unknowns, whether considered “literary” or “commercial” fiction, Chad Pelley’s Every Little Thing was by far the book that kept me turning the pages most quickly, eager to find out what happened to his characters. His main character and first-person narrator, Cohen Davis, is in prison as the novel opens, and tells the story of how he got there in a series of flashbacks. Even moreso than Lisa Moore’s antihero David Slaney in Caught, Cohen Davis is an unlikely prisoner, a highly educated and thoughtful young man, and the reader is naturally interested to find out about the crime that landed him in jail. His story goes back several years to a tragic death in his family, and indeed there’s tragedy piled on tragedy in this story — disease and disability, multiple assaults, deaths both accidental and violent, love and betrayal. There’s a woman at the centre of it all, of course, Cohen’s ex-girlfriend Allie Crosbie, who comes into his life on the heels of one tragedy and is driven out of his life by another. And guiding us through his story is Cohen, a nebbishy everyman with a keen intellect but frequently poor judgement.
I really liked Cohen and I liked the way the story unfolded. I liked the way Pelley avoids the easy and too-obvious resolution at a few points in the story, even though that left me with an ending bleaker than I was happy with. I was caught up enough in the story that I was only able to judge its flaws only on reflection, after finishing the story. One major gap in the story is the lack of any strong sense of place: it’s set somewhere in Atlantic Canada, but the details are vague enough that it could be anywhere in Newfoundland (though the geography doesn’t fit easily with that of this island), or in New Brunswick or Nova Scotia. Only a few scenes set on a trip to Halifax feel genuinely grounded in a real landscape, as specific and recognizable places in Halifax play a role in that part of the story. Another weakness is that Allie, while fun to read about in her scenes with Cohen, is very much an “alluring woman” as filtered through a male gaze (whether that of Cohen the narrator or Pelley the writer, I’m not entirely sure); if you look at her as a separate character it’s hard to understand what motivates Allie at certain crucial points in the book, and her characterization doesn’t always seem consistent. That said, though the book has its flaws, I found it highly readable and far more compelling than Pelley’s debut novel, Away from Everywhere. I finished it in less than a day and was never bored, which to be honest is more than I can say for a lot of literary fiction.