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JOAN SULLIVAN: Debut novel hits all the right notes

“Even Weirder Than Before,” by Susie Taylor; Breakwater Books; $22.95; 272 pages
“Even Weirder Than Before,” by Susie Taylor; Breakwater Books; $22.95; 272 pages - Contributed

Susie Taylor’s coming-of-age story will resonate

“Even Weirder Than Before” follows teenaged Daisy Radcliffe as she moves from junior high through high school and to the cusp of university. It’s set in the early 1990s, pre-social media — kids still talk for hours on the phone, cords stretched under bedroom doors. Black leather, The Cure and cigarettes are all things.

Daisy lives in a Toronto suburb with her parents, Sheila and Donald. Her older sister, Elizabeth, is away at university. Donald, a biology professor, could be voted the most boring man on Earth — except he’s just shattered his family by leaving Sheila for Pat, one of his grad students. Sheila is shocked and stunned, and almost by reflex decides if she can wait it out (and still iron his shirts), he will come back. Daisy retreats to her room, “listening to my Walkman and taking occasional breaks to make cups of tea and remove cold ones from Mum’s bedside.”

Outside her bedroom, Daisy’s life revolves around school, where she joins friends Cathy, a pal since childhood she is slowly outgrowing; Jude, a dedicated cadet; and Wanda, whose family is from Newfoundland, and is introduced “on the first day of classes. She’s taller than half the boys, and she swears more.” Another new student is Damon Jones, slouchy and spike-haired, “full of attitude … There has never been a boy like this in my class before.”

Between lessons, “Cathy draws a bunch of M.A.S.H. boards on a piece of paper. It’s a fortune-telling game everyone at school is playing. The letters stand for Mansion, Apartment, Shack, or House.” Wanda draws her own “and puts Axl Rose down four times as her husband.”

This playing with chance is a metaphor for the choices they are making; even so young as they are, there are consequences. There are bad trips, missed busses and fights in bathrooms. There is also adventure, loyalty and new horizons.

Author Susie Taylor.
Author Susie Taylor.

The atmosphere and tone resonate. Like that first miserable Christmas. The sight of a box of panettone makes Sheila flee from a supermarket. Playing records of Christmas music or The Beatles makes her miserable. On Christmas Day, Donald pays a brief visit. “It is awful having him here. He gives each of us a card with a cheque inside. It’s like receiving a Christmas bonus. Mum gives him a Gordon Lightfoot CD and looks meaningfully at him when she hands it over.”

Or tracking how the girls navigate parties, intense fusions of adolescent longings and ill-gotten alcohol. “Nathan and his band argue over whether the Doors suck or not, in the way that boys seem to need to do at every party. Damon pulls a beer from his bag and drinks it warm. He joins the Doors conversation. Wanda raids Nathan’s freezer for ice, takes a lemon out of the fridge, and cuts three thin slices, which she puts in tall glasses. I pass her the vodka and she pours. Jude, Wanda, and I each have a glass containing one third of the vodka bottle.”

The steady propulsion of time is deftly handled. Sometimes a page can move through a full hour or even a whole season, but it’s not confusing. Same with the way plotlines are taken up, set aside and returned to. All characters have their own arcs, often unexpected but always spot-on. Elizabeth, for example, comes and goes, now from her studies, now to Europe. She’s dealing with something. “She’s even skinnier than when she came back from tree planting. She looks really tired. Mom and I both hug her ferociously; she just stands there and lets us, but keeps her arms by her sides. She doesn’t even put down her bag.”

Without shifting Daisy from centre stage, Elizabeth, like everyone else, has a real curve of growth. Events are detailed and visual. As when, just before starting high school, Daisy decides to dye her hair black. “My hands are turning grey, and drips are spraying up onto the mirror and splattering the white paint above the sink. I feel desperate, and the wind coming in the open window is now making me cold. I take off my clothes and get in the shower, trying to keep the black run-off from my hair away from my body. I regret skipping the allergy test.”

This attention extends even to the kinds of non-events, like a poorly thought out school field trip: “The driver is oblivious and now telling Mr. Jackman about his preference for women who already have children.

“’That way they just want some company. Not looking for commitment or wanting to get married. That costs a fortune. I have a buddy spent two thousand bucks on an engagement ring, and the girl dumped him the night before the wedding. Never gave the ring back either. You married?’”

“Even Weirder Than Before” is authentic and satisfying and a really enjoyable read.

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


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