A Review Of Michael Redhill's, "Bellevue Square" - Deliciously Confusing
In late August of this year, I decided that I should, as a Canadian author, be more of a literary steward and indulge in great Canadian fiction. I googled “magical realism Canadian books 2019” and found a list of books to read, including Michael Redhill’s book, Bellevue Square, which was third on my list.
The first two books shall remain nameless, but neither resonated with me and both were a struggle to finish. One in particular had about 80 pages of exposition and background on characters who didn’t seem to do anything.
That’s why, when I read the first line of Bellevue Square, I was hooked.
“My doppelganger problems began one afternoon in early April,” it began.
Now that’s how you start a novel, I thought, and eagerly read on.
The essential premise is that Jean Mason, a Toronto bookstore owner, is told that there’s another person walking around the eponymous Bellevue Square who looks exactly like her—except her doppelganger has shorter hair. Jean’s interest in her doppelganger is moderate at first, but very soon consumes just about every waking moment of her life, threatening her relationship with her family and ostensibly her sanity.
The story is told in first person and Michael Redhill’s voice really comes through in the character of Jean Mason.
Immediately, we get a sense of who Jean Mason is as a person when in the third paragraph she tells the reader, “I have a bookshop called Bookshop. I do subtlety in other areas of my life.” You get a sense that the character is witty, self-deprecating, and self-aware.
When we’re introduced to Jean’s step mother, we get another example of great characterization: “Beatrice’s tongue is pinned to the floor of her mouth owing to some childhood incident involving a pencil, so you only ever see the pristine pink tip of it.”
This is the kind of seemingly innocuous but vivid detail that John Gardner talks about in his book, “The Art of Fiction.” It makes the step-mother jump off the page as a person who exists in the real world, because otherwise why would this innocuous detail exist?
In the second chapter, just like the first, Redhill lets out another nugget of information which is just enough to titillate your imagination of things to come.
“... a woman I would later be accused of murdering walked into my shop.”
This would be a theme of things to come, as Redhill does an excellent job of revealing just enough information to keep you questioning while simultaneously hooked on his every word.
Another great example of this casual reveal happens about a fifth of the way through—and if you’re adverse to spoilers, this is where I’d stop reading.
Jean has what could be interpreted as a panic attack, where “something came out of me” and a page later, Ian, her husband, worries that it could be postpartum depression “again.”
This was the first time in the novel that I thought Jean may be crazy. Up until that point, I thought I was reading a magical realism book, and was reminded of a creative writing teacher of mine who once told me that you can’t do magical realism in first person. I thought this book would prove him wrong, but in some ways, it proves him right. Magical realism in first person isn’t magical realism, it’s an unreliable narrator who is either crazy, lying, or set in a fantasy world.
And slowly we start to realize, over the next 60 pages or so, that she has a history of mental illness as a teenager, as an adult, and, most likely, is having a bout of mental illness in the present (sidenote: the tense changes from past to present about a third of the way through and I’m not sure what that means, but I’ve always played with the idea of a tense shift to let the reader know that *something* has changed).
There’s a particular scene that sticks out, where she’s washing her face and she looks up in the mirror and sees herself, but does not recognize it as herself. She believes it’s someone else, in another bathroom that looks exactly like her bathroom. It’s an unsettling scene which I swear I could hear an eerie soundtrack playing to.
Soon after that scene she wakes up in a hospital bed with an explanation: she was experiencing what is called “A Fugue State” brought on by localized seizures in her brain.
The reader has a short reprieve to pick up the pieces and decide what was real or what was not during the majority of the novel, while Jean’s life normalizes. However, Jean’s inevitable curiosity to answer the very same question (i.e., what was real) leads her back to Bellevue Square, where she hatches a plan to storm a writers’ festival in a forest in Brigham, Quebec with another mental patient, Jimmy. In Brigham, Ingrid Fox, her doppleganger, is giving a talk on a recently published book of hers on the very same condition Jean has.
Jimmy ends up burning the festival down, Jean ends up in the ICU, and the reader is left wondering what the hell just happened.
My immediate impression, however, is twofold: first, there is no mystery. Jean’s grasp on reality is tenuous at best and the confusion comes from the fact that this is a first person story coming from someone with a very bad case of “asymmetric autoscopy” or a fugue state.
My second impression is what we’re witnessing is a character realize they’re the product of an author’s imagination, which is why Inger Ash Wolf, Michael Redhill’s pseudonym, is the name that Ingrid Fox, Jean Mason’s doppelganger, writes under.
Whatever the case may be, this is a novel that is deliciously confusing and deserves a second or third read to unwrap the clues to the mystery that I missed the first time. The writing is beautiful, the characters layered and complex, and the story is one worth unraveling.