I’ve had this book for a while; picked it up a few times, put it back down for something else. But, when the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize Long-list came out, and this book was on it, I finally decided to dive in.
If I Fall, If I Die is about an agoraphobic mother and her son who live in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Although Will’s mother never demanded that he stay inside with her, he always has. Partly because he’s grown up with a mother who is fearful of the Outside, partly because that’s just the life he’s always known and he’s been content, and partly because he feels protective of her and wants to help keep the ‘Black Lagoon’ at bay. At 12, he has a pretty good idea of what will soothe his mother and what will set her off.
Part of the reason I was drawn to this book was to read about the experience of a mother with agoraphobia. It would be incredibly difficult and frustrating not to be able to be a part of your child’s outside life, not to mention one of your own. We get a good sense of what got Diane to this point in her life, and what it feels like for her, but I would like to have seen Diane’s present day progress explored more fully to get a better sense of where she will be with her life in the near future. Instead, Will’s story takes the spotlight. Which is okay, except…
The way Will’s character makes the adjustment from Inside to Outside, and then to school and trying to make friends, after having zero experience with any of it made sense to me; the ways he embarrasses himself, the fact that he found it easiest to hook up with the kids who were on the fringes like himself. I also liked reading about Will’s relationship with his mother, and his thoughts and feelings about having a mother who is afraid of everything. Once he gets Outside, he starts to realize how limited their life was/is, and begins to feel much more conflicted about his mother and their life.
Where I start to wonder about the story is when Will and his friend get in over their heads with the mystery they are trying to solve. Once we get near the end and the boys are confronted with the ‘bad guys’, I feel like the story shifts from literary fiction to teen mystery. It reminded me of old Batman episodes where the villains talk to their victims long enough for help to come along at the last minute; a bit silly and far-fetched. Another reviewer, Michael Hingston at the Globe and Mail, likened it to a Hardy Boys mystery.
But… at least these things didn’t also happen.
Things I was worried were going to happen but didn’t:
- A love interest for Will’s mother, Diane. You know, a man coming to the door and falling in love with her on the spot, falling for her beauty and mysteriousness. But, that didn’t happen, which is a good thing.
- A cure for Diane. Near the end, and at the climax of the boys’ mystery, I was getting afraid that Diane would be suddenly cured when she realized she cared more about helping her son stay safe than her own fears. This would have fit in nicely with the teen mystery type book, but just wouldn’t have been realistic at all.
The fact that I was worried these things were going to happen tells me that I didn’t feel confident in the hands of Michael Christie and his book. The first half had my full trust, but the second half let me down.
Is this book Giller Prize calibre? I am certainly not qualified to be the judge of this, but I will say that I don’t think this one is quite good enough for the shortlist. Recommended for a good read, though, especially if you’re interested in anxiety issues/agoraphobia. Christie also does a stellar job of depicting the town of Thunder Bay; how it once was, and what it is like today; it’s industries, economics, and on-going racial tensions.
Michael Christie, who used to be a professional skateboarder, talks to The Quill and Quire about If I Fall, If I Die. He talks about how his mother’s mental health issues shaped his life, and how the story in the book is based very much on his own. (Getting to know a little about the author and the origins of the book always helps me see the book in a different light.)
The Beggar’s Garden, a collection of linked stories, is Michael Christie’s first book and one which I would also like to read.