Created by Emily St. John Mandel
“Memory’s a strange thing.”
“My name is Christopher Graydon. I’m a private investigator. I’d like to ask you a few questions.”
Montreal private eye CHRISTOPHER GRAYDON is but one of the people caught up in the wreckage of Lilia Albert’s mysterious and peripatetic life in the dark, swirling Last Night in Montreal (2009).
As the author herself puts it:
“Last Night in Montreal tells the interlinked stories of several people, including Lilia, who was abducted as a child by her father, and the private detective who becomes obsessed with her case. After the abduction Lilia and her father travel constantly to avoid detection, and Lilia develops a habit of leaving anonymous messages in motel room bibles across the United States. At the age of eight, she writes a message across the 22nd psalm of a Gideon bible in a motel room in Toledo: “Stop looking for me. I’m not missing; I do not want to be found. I wish to remain vanishing. I don’t want to go home.”
Not that that stops Montreal detective CHRISTOPHER GRAYDON, who’s urged by his friend, Peter, the head of a local detective agency, to take a leave of absence from the police and come work for him. Seems there’s a woman from a small town in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, south of Montreal near the American border, whose daughter, Lilia, has gone missing, presumably abducted by her father, and now somewhere in the United States.
Something was bothering him; he put the book down on the bedside table and picked up the Bible again. The child’s handwriting obscured part of the Twenty-second Psalm. He read the psalm aloud once, and then recited the first two stanzas by memory to the plaster ceiling: “Why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring? O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent.”
He heard his wife turn the volume of the radio up somewhere far away in the house, as if she was hoping to drown him out, but realized that she couldn’t possibly have heard him. The radio was abstract from this distance, soft static and inaudible voices. He glanced at the bedside clock; it was three-forty-five in the morning.
“If you don’t want to be rescued,” Christopher said aloud to the ceiling, “then why the Twenty-second Psalm?”
So, not a private eye novel, per se, perhaps, or the sort of private eye novel I was expecting, or even a mystery really (unless you consider love and identity memory and life itself a mystery), but by the time you realize that Christopher is (according to The Globe and Mail) “an essential cog in the expanding machinery of Mandel’s plot,” you’ll probably be so drawn into this compelling tangle it won’t be easy to pull back.
The novel follows the ever-restless Lilia, now an adult in her early twenties, as she roams from city to city, shucking relationships and identities along the way, haunted by her inability to remember her early childhood. When the novel begins, she’s about to jettison her Brooklyn life (and her linguist boyfriend Eli, who studies dead languages), and heads to Montreal (“a city with a doomed language”). Lilia’s most recent lover, Eli, a Brooklyn grad student, is still trying to make sense out of her disappearance. Seems she went out for the paper and never came back.
Lilia’s been on the run since she was seven, and maybe she’s finally intent on coming to terms with her own half-remembered childhood. But it’s not that easy. And Eli is coming…
It’s a strange, elastic book, jumping from character to character, bouncing back in forth in time, rolling around in various mysteries, not all of which will be answered; a “long story about cars and motel rooms and driving away.”
Still, even as a cog that flits in and out of the narrative, Christopher is compelling enough in his own right. A forty-something detective for the Montreal police, he’s going through one hell of a midlife crisis. Married but emotionally cut off from both his wife and his daughter Michaela (who is almost exactly Lilia’s age), and bored with his job, he jumps at Peter’s offer to track down the missing girl, presumably abducted by her father, at that point in the wind for “a little over four years.” Meanwhile, the client has her own secrets.
When we meet him, Christopher is a quiet, withdrawn man who favours Guinness, du Maurier cigarettes, jazz and reading Shakespeare late at night. His one flair may be the fedora his wife gave him for his birthday, possibly the last gift she gave him before she left him. Like Lilia, both he and his wife had restless, nomadic childhoods, growing up in a traveling circus. His father was a lion tamer, her parents were tightrope walkers. Perhaps that’s why he’s drawn to the case (or perhaps not). Even Christopher doesn’t know why anymore.
Still, it’s that obsession, stretching out over a decade and taking him all over the States in pursuit of Lilia and her father, and the emotional and psychological flashpoints between hunter and hunted (and between fathers and daughters) that kept the story going for me.
That quest takes its toll on the detective, and by the book’s conclusion, even his once-new fedora is as battered as he is. And maybe even the reader.
And yet, and yet…
Ultimately, this being a post-modern, noir-tinged literary kinda novel, the loose threads of plot are knotted together by a few jaw-dropping coincidences and a bit of unexplained phenomena, leaving those seeking some sort of wholly satisfying narrative or even simple emotional closure disappointed. The book doesn’t end with a whimper, exactly, but the concluding bang is an odd, hollow and perhaps unsettling one. Things happen, and things end, but too many questions linger unanswered; as though a traveler had come to an unexpected and premature cul-de-sac, left to wonder what may have happened just a little further down the road…
I’m not sure if I “liked” it, but I’m glad I read it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
According to her bio, Emily St. John Mandel was “born on the west coast of British Columbia, studied dance at The School of Toronto Dance Theatre and lived briefly (emphasis mine) in Montreal before relocating to New York.” My guess is that her stay wasn’t a particularly happy one. In Last Night in Montreal, my beloved hometown comes off as a bleak and charmless chunk of ice where the Anglos Michaela and Eli are mostly shunned by cold, unfriendly Francophones, and the only other English speakers seem to be oblivious American tourists (in November?).
Since her debut, Mandel has bounced from genre to genre (although she’s never far from crime fiction tropes), with her fourth novel, Station Eleven (2014), reaching the bestseller lists, winning the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2015 for best science fiction novel, and becoming a big deal HBO TV series.
- “No one stays forever. On the morning of her disappearance Lila woke early, and lay still for a moment in the bed. It was the last day of October. She slept naked.”
— the opening lines
- “Mandel tells an utterly absorbing story, pulling readers down the rabbit hole and keeping them racing through its long, strange warrens. The writing is vibrant, and Lilia is a vivid and haunting character. … Last Night in Montreal is an exciting debut: a thriller, a love story, and a quiet ballad about life’s fleeting connections.”
— Quill & Quire
- “What carries the tale are the finely wrought characterizations of Eli and Lilia and, unexpectedly, Christopher, the detective, who becomes an essential cog in the expanding machinery of Mandel’s plot – yet the book remains far from a whodunit. What we’re made to ponder is the mystery of human connection: how it is born, how it fades and dies and revives, how love defines us or leaves us undone.”
–The Globe and Mail
- “A cocktail of neurotic travel, obsession, and misunderstandings…The characters in … Mandel’s book are people who don’t understand one another, but more importantly, they don’t understand themselves… a very good, fast read…it was refreshing to read about people that are normal yet dysfunctional, intelligent yet confused in other words, they’re just like most of us out there.”
- “You will inhale this book and will probably find yourself wishing that there was a little more left… Borrowing plotting and an episodic nature from crime fiction or thrillers, Last Night In Montreal is yet essentially a love story. The combination is interesting and makes for good reading. The moments of tension and mystery melt seamlessly into the passages of quiet bliss and because of the tension and mystery exists, the calm moments are always colored by violent potential.”
- “A stunning debut by a young Canadian author. An existential thriller with deep resonance about the way people’s past influences their lives despite their best effort to subvert it. Fathers on the run, lovers on the run, a crisscrossing waltz, past and present, across North America’s desolate roads, with souls on fire and sadness prevailing. To cap it all, a heartbreaking ending which might not have been allowed had the novel not been initially issued by a small press.”
— Maxim Jakubowski
- My Scrapbook: “By Heart” by Emily St. John Mandel
Guess who one of her inspirations is?
- C’est ma ville, aussi…
A listing of some other Montreal eyes…
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.