Review: Last Night in Montreal

Without resorting to too much hyperbole, let me say that Emily St. John Mandel’s debut novel Last Night in Montreal is a fairly rare achievement, a gripping, mysterious and original literary novel about family secrets and the unbearable weight they place on young shoulders. Lilia is a rootless twenty-something who has been running from her past since she was a small child, leaving a trail of broken relationships, abandoned apartments and false identities behind her. When her naive, hopelessly idealistic boyfriend follows her to Montreal after her latest disappearing act, the details of her past begin to come to light.

There are so many unexpected and memorable images in this novel that they keep coming to mind weeks after I finished reading it:

– A girl strings a rope between two apartment buildings to make a tightrope, which she walks across alone, in the night, in the middle of winter, just because it’s how she centers herself.

– A lonely, confused young man stands in the middle of a crowded dance floor and holds a white shirt aloft so a mysterious correspondent will find him. Everyone dances on oblivious, lost in their own worlds.

– A young girl, arm bandaged heavily, happily walks out of her house at night into the snow. She runs to her father, who has lost custody. He hugs her and they walk away. Her young brother watches from the window as they disappear into the snow.

I can’t do the complexities of the plot justice without giving something away, so let’s just say that Emily Mandel is a wonderful and refreshingly unorthodox writer, with a deep compassion for the misfits of society. I hope this is the start of a brilliant career.

Read chapter one at the author’s website.

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