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Joan Sullivan: Nicola Davison building an Atlantic mystery ‘In the Wake’

Book cover
Book cover - Contributed

In the Wake
By Nicola Davison
Vagrant Press
280 pages  $22.95

When Emily and her husband and son move to rural Nova Scotia from Calgary its meant as a homecoming of sorts. They both grew up there, and Emily spent so much time on or in the water she was nicknamed “Duck.” Daniel’s work has enabled the relocation; Emily’s been a

It’s 2003, with George W. Bush in the White House, and it’s winter, an unpromising time to be driving to their new house, about an hour outside of Halifax. There’s fog and squalls. But the house itself is quite something. Their new neighbour, Linda, had “watched the skeleton of the house appear from her kitchen window years ago, an anomaly amidst the traditional homes nearby. The people, she was told, were come-from-aways, their architect, too, sketching out a house better suited for a warmer place.

Ryan, though, appears a lively, engaged child. He’s imaginative, with a make-believe friend. So Emily doesn’t immediately pick up on his references to “Rocket Man” and “Sad Man.” But Ryan is drawing pictures for entities only he can see, and claiming they give him candy — a treat his parents carefully ration.

 “She still has the magazine article that featured the house. It was staged with sparse furniture, a pair of wine glasses resting on a patio table with a stunning sunset beyond, a blanket draped just so over the arm of a chair, a book face-down on the table as if the reader had just stepped away to answer the phone. But there were no people in the shots, even with the fireplace blazing away.”

The house is all glass, with an interior flow-shaped by walls, not separate rooms with doors. At night, with the lights on, you can’t see outside. It’s not for everyone. Not really for a young family. But it had been on the market for some time, so Emily and Daniel got it for a song.

Emily and Linda meet on arrival — Linda has a key, she’s been keeping an eye on the property —  and are soon on their way to being friends. They appear to be ordinary busy women — Linda was widowed three years before, and has an adult son, Tom; Emily spends her days with Ryan and considers part-time work at the library — but there is much churning beneath the surface. Linda actually worries constantly about Tom, who is struggling against his mental illness to try and keep a foot in the world; semi-employed, in his own apartment, functioning fairly well until he has an episode with his ghosts.

And Emily missed much of Ryan’s first months, slammed by post-partum depression. It’s still a deep concern for Daniel, and, to Emily’s shame, a topic of conversation between him and his mother, Maggie. It was his mother he called “when he realized she wasn’t coping. The word unfit was used, something he’d never been able to take back.”

Stones skip across their surfaces. And catch and drop.

Ryan, though, appears a lively, engaged child. He’s imaginative, with a make-believe friend. So Emily doesn’t immediately pick up on his references to “Rocket Man” and “Sad Man.” But Ryan is drawing pictures for entities only he can see, and claiming they give him candy — a treat his parents carefully ration.

 “’Ryan, tell Dad what happened when I was in the shower. You were watching TV and …’

 “’Rocket Man came in and gave me a red lollipop.’ He grins.

 “’While Mummy was in the shower?’ Daniel looks at her.

 “’Tell him what he said to you.’ Maybe it will be a different version this time.

 “’His hair was like this.’ He puts his fingers on top of his head to demonstrate. ‘Um, he said, you like candy and he likes rocket too and then he went away.’”

It seems their house, which is all visibility, might enclose secrets.

Nicola Davison nicely matches the quotidian of chores and outings and errands with slowly breaching crisis. Tom has a relapse and is back with Linda. He enjoys playing with Ryan, which is one thing, and spending time with Emily, which is another.

At the same time, restructuring at Daniel’s firm means he travels away from home more and more. Then, in a rare family outing, they borrow a friend’s boat, with near tragic results. Silently, Emily and Daniel blame each other for what happened. And the space between them widens, allowing lots of room for resentment.

Structurally, Davison switches quickly and continuously between Emily and Linda — sometimes page by page. Longer periods in one voice would prevent slight narrative whiplash. But the rapidly changing point-of-view does allow for steadily building tension within and around scenes. Their voices chime off against each other nicely, and build to a crescendo of Atlantic storm.

Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.

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