Last Night in Montreal, by Emily St. John Mandel

Last Night in Montreal was my Kindle pick for the gym, and I just have to say, I’m glad I read the end in the privacy of my own bedroom and not on the elliptical in front of 40 strangers. It was an oddly beautiful, almost haunting book.  Its narrative isn’t exactly chronological, and is told from the perspective of several characters in different chapters.  Neither of those things is a criticism, by the way.  The author manages to pull off the changes in time, place, and character beautifully.  It reminded me somewhat of the flow of The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver. 

The central character is a woman named Lilia who is abducted by her father when she is 7 years old and spends the rest of her life running, so much so that even as an adult she finds she doesn’t know how to stay.  We meet her current boyfriend, Eli who follows her on her leaving, her father who teaches her how to stay hidden, the private investigator who chases her, the private investigator’s daughter who resents her, her mother, brother, Eli’s friends, a previous girlfriend, all these little snapshots of people as we slowly piece together Lilia’s story.

Although I’m not sure that I find the characters in total particularly likeable – they often frustrated me or acted in ways I didn’t understand, their experiences were also strangely evocative of my own.  Eli’s frustration with his life of thinking and not doing, Lilia’s nightmares, Michaela’s disappointment, Christopher’s consuming quest.  I revisited my tragedies as I read about theirs.  I revisited my hope and my hopelessness.  And I was especially reminded of that feeling that life is moving forward like one of those moving sidewalks at the airport; once you’ve got on you’re compelled to keep moving in that direction and any attempt to change directions is a battle against the current, a battle against fate.  I didn’t understand their choices, and yet their complexity made the characters even more real.  More human and less caricature.

I guess this book is like those movie scenes where the whole world is annihilated by some sort of apocalypse, and then, as the camera pans, you see the field of wild flowers that has sprung up from the decay.  In fact, I’m finding it hard to describe.  I’ll plagiarize someone else’s amazon review: “It defies simplicity in characters not rounded like apples and oranges, but rather shaped like elegant models made to pirouette on the page, weaving into one chapter, veiling themselves in the next, then flourishing again.”

Beautiful, sad, poignant.  There are many philosophies that have tried to express the beauty that lies in suffering.  That life is sadness and monotony broken by moments of astounding clarity and joy.  That life only comes from death, and that acceptance of our weaknesses can free us.  That is what this book is to me.

It’s definitely not one everyone will enjoy, but if you are willing to give it a chance you may find yourself drawn in by the characters and their stories.  You may even find a little bit of yourself.

K’s rating of Last Night in Montreal: 8/10 mangoes

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