In the Wake by Nicola Davison

“Memory plays tricks. Memory is another word for story, and nothing is more unreliable.” — Ann-Marie MacDonald, Fall on Your Knees

Emily and Daniel have moved back home to Nova Scotia, with their 3-year-old son Ryan, after living in Alberta for ten years. Emily is excited to be back by the ocean, but it also stirs up distressing memories from her past.

Linda, their next door neighbour, is haunted by stories of her own – her deceased husband’s troubled last years, and their grown son’s struggle with mental illness. With Daniel traveling a lot for work, Emily quickly gets close to Linda and Tom, entangling herself in their lives.

The story alternates between the two women. While Emily navigates marital problems with Daniel and Linda worries herself to the bone over Tom, both women must “confront long-unanswered questions”.

What I loved:

1) The tension. Tension builds up slowly in this book. There’s a sense of unease, but you’re not sure why. It starts the first night Daniel is gone, when Emily thinks she hears his heavy footsteps coming up the stairs. And that time she was in the shower…

Relaxing in the shower is not possible with a small child in the house. Even with the help of cartoons, she is always listening for telling noises or dubious silences. . The running water deadens the sound from the next room. She cocks her head in the direction of the door and hears a commercial on TV along with the small sound of Ryan’s voice. She lets out a breath and then catches a deeper voice speaking. It’s probably the TV. She puts down the razor and strains to make out the sounds. Too many horror movies as a teenager. It’s easy to imagine terrible things happening while naked, wet, and blinded with soap. Or, more likely, this would be the time Ryan would fling open the front door and run into the street, suddenly filled with speeding cars, or turn on all of the burners on the stovetop piled with stuffed animals. No, it’s just the TV.

Tension is also present in the characters’ relationships: Emily and Daniel are experiencing a difference of opinion about their new home, as well as about whether to have Tom around their son. Between work and parenting, there’s not much time left to talk. Tom’s situation causes tension all around. And there have long been things left unsaid between Emily and her mother.

2) Authenticity. There is a lot of dialogue in this book, and it is well done – it has a natural feel to it, as do all of the relationships and conflicts.

3) Ryan. I love it when the children in a book are present. Not only is Ryan present, he plays a big part in one of the central conflicts.

“Look.” He holds up a crumple of paper. “I made it.” / “Ah. For me?” / “No, for the man.” / “Daddy?” / “Nope, the man.” He gestures at the backyard.

Emily’s parenting is detailed and familiar (“Ryan wears swim goggles as he attempts to peel an orange.“), while often adding humour to the book. Like the time her childcare plans fell through and she had to take Ryan with her to a job interview…

She pulls into the parking lot at five past ten. It would be easier to pull off a robbery at the Louvre than to get Ryan anywhere early. Her carefully applied makeup is now shining with sweat despite the winter wind.

Even the family basset hound is a part of the action, a consideration in anything they do. (Just like real life!)

“Can your dog fly?” / “No. He’s a ‘basket’ hound, he just poops a lot.”

4) I love the way Tom and his illness is portrayed. His character also lends an unpredictability to the story.

“Sometimes it’s like rustling leaves. Like whispers. A bunch of them at first and then one takes over. It’ll sound like someone I know, like they are right there.” He holds a palm up to his ear. “What if someone walked in here right now – like Daniel – and told you I’m not here at all, that you’d been sitting here talking to a ghost? And what if you didn’t know which one of them was real?”

5) Bert the cat. How can I not love Bert? Despite the fact that he’s a bit of a scallywag, and Emily seems to find him distasteful. He’s always around… almost as if he knows something.

6) The Maritime touches the author adds to her story. Like the proper apparel for a morning at the beach…

In the mornings, Emily likes to drive Ryan the short distance down to the beach, the two of them layered for winter on top, rubber boots on the bottom. It’s a look she calls ‘Maritime chic’.

And a trip to Frenchy’s with the neighbour…

“I’ve been here before and gotten in trouble for heaping in the wrong direction. I believe that the correct etiquette is to pick up things on your left and pile them to your right. I’m more of a colour hunter, I tend to just scan for the shades I want and snatch them. People can be remarkably protective of clothes that they don’t even own yet.”

Davison also puts the Maritime weather to good use, creating atmosphere and tension…

Rain drums the roof. The house is in darkness except for the light over the stairs. The motion of the trees has changed, the house has begun its inhale and exhale, the blind slaps the sill in the kitchen.

A few good lines…

Here, the water seems hungry, it roars with the sound of a million stones clattering against one another as the ocean drags them away.

Money can’t buy happiness, but it seems quite capable of killing it.

Sometimes, moments pass and you just leave them there in the murky wake.


Further Reading: 

In the Wake is Nicola Davison‘s debut novel. She was chosen for the Alistair MacLeod Mentorship Program – which is a program that pairs emerging writers with established authors – and was paired with Carol Bruneau, author of A Circle on the Surface. You can read about their mentorship pairing in this article in Atlantic Books Today.

Nicola Davison is also a photographer.

Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia, Author Spotlight:Nothing is more comforting to me than getting wrapped up in a good novel. So, I knew I wanted to write fiction. Ideas were brewing, I just didn’t know where to start. It wasn’t until my forties that I took a creative writing workshop and it’s as if a dam burst. In the past five years I’ve written loads of short stories, a children’s story and three novels (including the one coming out this fall, In the Wake, with Vagrant Press).”

The Miramichi Reader: “In the Wake is a novel that contains a mild, but ever-present strain of suspense and an undertone of distrust amongst its protagonists, which makes for the type of novel that keeps you reading until the final page.”

Joan Sullivan, The Telegram: “Nicola Davison nicely matches the quotidian of chores and outings and errands with slowly breaching crisis.


36 thoughts on “In the Wake by Nicola Davison

  1. Lauren B. Davis says:

    Thanks for this great review. I met Nicola recently at the Festival of Writers in Toronto and can’t wait to read her book.

  2. Alexandra says:

    The problem with reading your reviews is that I love all your pull quotes so much that I find myself nodding, and grabbing for my little black book … the one I list all the books I want to buy. And yes, this one just made it to the list. I’m not going to live long enough to get through all these.

  3. The Cue Card says:

    It sounds like some good tension & suspense in this novel. How good is the ending? I find endings have a lot of sway over the overall satisfaction of a story. thc

  4. buriedinprint says:

    I, too, like that scene with the straining-to-hear and also the swim goggles. It seems like a perfect pairing, her work with Carol Bruneau’s (from the little of Bruneau I’ve read – only some of her stories). It’s lovely to discover an author with their debut, so you can read along as they hone their craft. Thanks for adding this one to so many people’s TBRs!

    • Naomi says:

      I loved the fun little details she added in about her son! The swim goggles detail was too perfect not to share. It reminded me of when my daughter discovered that she could peel her own clementines. For several days she ate nothing but clementines and wouldn’t let anyone else peel them for her. She was only 2. 🙂

      It did seem perfect that Davison and Bruneau were paired up. Both of their books came out at the same time (both set in NS – one in the past and one in the present), and they’ve been doing a lot of touring and literary events together.

      • buriedinprint says:

        I was clearly a clementine-challenged child then. I do vividly recall what a thrill that was (I hated always having to wait to have an actual orange peeled) but I was much older. I probably shouldn’t say HOW much.

        The fact that children are often less concerned about trying things which literally change their perspective on the world reminds me what a terrific quality that is. Looking through swim goggles becomes an annoyance at a certain age, whereas it’s really still more of a miracle than we tend to think.

      • Naomi says:

        It did take her a very long time to peel one clementine… but that was okay… I got more stuff done around the kitchen!

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