Giller Shortlist: Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill

What I love so much about readng the Giller books is that there are always surprises. I’m often reading books I hadn’t heard of before, books from authors I’ve never read before, and books I know very little about. Add the fact that the books have been carefully chosen by a handful of smart and interesting judges, and you can be in for some unexpected treats.

Bellevue Square was one of the books I knew very little about when I went into it. What I found was a clever, complex story that took me on endless twists and turns.

Bellevue Square tells the story of a woman (Jean) who hears from two different people that she has a doppelganager out there. She becomes obsessed with finding this woman who supposedly looks just like her, and starts hanging out at the park near Kensington Market. Here she meets several colourful characters, and starts canvassing them for their help in spotting her double.

You can look at yourself in pictures or even on video, but you still don’t have the experience others do of you in the world.

I really can’t say much more about the plot without giving things away, other than to say the story includes disappearing people, mental illness, parenting, a bookstore, and a literary festival in the woods.

I thought the writing was whip-smart, including the banter and dialogue between Jean and her children, giving us moments of normality amidst all the confusion. One small bone to pick would be that I wanted more from the husband; for someone so close to the protagonist, I found that he seemed too distant. But this could also be a symptom of how distracted Jean had become by her obsession with the doppelganger.

I remember standing in the mirror as a child, staring into my own eyeball. I lined one eye up against its reflection and shut the other. I saw a slippery black void but that’s where I was: in that void. My face was wrapped around muscle and bone. Before Ingrid, it was my face alone. Now I exist as myself only inside my own dark eye.

Torontonians should enjoy the setting of the story. Even I could picture myself sitting in the park watching the foot traffic go by in Kensington Market. I feel as though if I went there now, I might bump into Jimmy or Miriam handing out the milk.

Kensington Market’s energy was hustle too, plus bustle, a lot of movement right in front of your eyes, and a shudder or rattle behind it. Countercultural, but bloody and raw. The organic butcher beside a row of dry-goods shops offered, in one window, white-and-red animal skulls with bulbous dead eyes, and in the other, closely trimmed racks of lamb and venison filets, displayed overlapping each other like roofing tiles. Then some stranger rustles past with blood on his cheeks.

Torontonians wanted to get on with it, but they were generally courteous. if someone let you into a car lane, for instance, you were expected to wave with casual gratitude, like you expected it, but thank you anyway. Toronto’s panhandlers thank you when you give money, and also when you say “Sorry.” In fact, “Sorry, thank you,” may be the most common exchange between citizens. Toronto’s reputation when I lived outside it was that it was a steely, arrogant place without a heart, but now I see it likes outsiders and it draws on a deep spring of weirdness.

I found Bellevue Square to be a page-turner; interesting, complicated, stimulating, creepy, and unique. At times I was confused, at other times I thought I knew exactly what was going on… only to find out I was wrong… probably. But really it’s hard to know for sure because this book is only the first of a trilogy.

There are certain problems that cannot be solved and one of these is the liar. Whether for strategic or emotional reasons, the liar who is convinced of the necessity of his lie will adapt the defence that he never lies. And a person who is trying to convice you that they are not lying could be lying about never lying…

 

Further Reading:

Review at Reading Matters: “Bellevue Square is one of those novels that starts off as one thing before it morphs into another. The opening chapters have all the hallmarks of a mystery thriller, but mid-way through it takes a dramatic turn and becomes a wonderful examination of mental illness, consciousness, identity and the blurring of lines between truth, reality and imagination.”

Review at Buried In Print: “Mr. Ronan is thrown off and, hence, throws Jean off her feet too. This is what happens when someone questions our reality. When impossible things occur and people around us insist that they are not only possible but real.”

Review at The Star: “Playing with themes of madness, consciousness, personhood, the supernatural, folklore and science fiction, the swirling mash-up of narrative makes it difficult to get one’s bearings. Offsetting this dizzying discomfort are the stirring descriptions of the market and the feelings (at least for Torontonians) of deep familiarity.

Review at The Globe and Mail: “The novel also conveys a formidable understanding of the role of doppelgangers throughout literature and myth and the sundry psychological malaises that might summon up such visions of solipsistic doom.”

Interview with Michael Redhill at 49th Shelf: “The doppelganger theme is one that has appealed to storytellers since antiquity and I’ve thought about it on and off over the years. Something gelled for me one morning when I was in Bellevue Square and realized that the park was like a character generator and had this endless power of creativity. Then I imagined seeing myself walk into the park …

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39 thoughts on “Giller Shortlist: Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill

  1. Café Society says:

    I’ve read several excellent reviews of this but the only copies available in the U.K. are extremely expensive and have a delivery date of at least a month. I shall have to put it on my want to read list and hope that it soon becomes more accessible.

  2. TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

    Like Café Society, I’ll have to wait until more copies make their way south. too bad, I’m imagining all kinds of wild scenarios that combine “mental illness, parenting, a bookstore, and a literary festival.”

    • Naomi says:

      I felt really confused at times… but in a good way. (Can there be a good way of feeling confused? Well, there is now.) It makes me wonder what it was like for him to write it.

  3. FictionFan says:

    Glad you enjoyed it but I must admit it doesn’t appeal to me as much as the Giller books you review usually do. I’m not good with books that confuse me, and I do like a proper ending…

  4. kimbofo says:

    I really loved this book. I think it has been very cleverly written / plotted / structured but, as you say, it’s difficult to review without giving things away.

  5. carolebesharah says:

    Gotta grab this one after reading your review and comments, Naomi. Didn’t realize it was the first in a trilogy! 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      There are 2 shortlisted books that are first in a trilogy – kind of a dirty trick to get me hooked! 😉 (The other being Son of a Trickster.)

  6. DoingDewey says:

    I don’t think I’ve heard of any of the books you’ve been reading for the Giller shortlist before seeing them on your blog, so I’m enjoying learning about them. This one sounds particularly good to me, both because of your review and because the cover and general idea are fascinating to me.

    • Naomi says:

      If you’re interested in the idea, then I don’t think you’d be disappointed. Unless you don’t like to feel confused while reading. For this book, you just have to let yourself feel confused – it’s part of the fun!

  7. buriedinprint says:

    You did a great job of avoiding any spoilers and also in choosing your words carefully to avoid even hinting at some things. And of reminding me how much I loved this book! I agree with your feeling of wanting more from the husband figure and I felt the same way, but I think it comes down to the same kind of feeling with Mona Awad’s novel, that we want something from another perspective/position which would offer us a clue to the main character and help us feel like we understand her better….but if we had that, it would change the whole story. (After all, I’m not sure he….oh, never mind. You know.)

    • Naomi says:

      Good question. I wonder that every time I see a trilogy coming out. I guess the answer kind of depends on what the next two books are like. Will there be some kind of shift or gap between books? The Maddaddam trilogy is a good example of a trilogy with three distinct books. Or will the story just continue, with the only benefit being to avoid one great big book?

  8. susan says:

    This one sounds a bit like a fun read. I heard the author read from it and it seems attention-grabbing and different. And congrats to him for taking the Giller. Wow

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