Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Icelander/Last Night in Montreal

I'd come across a reference to Last Night in Montreal somewhere online and when the name came up again later, I decided to check it out. The story revolves around Lilia, who has spent her life as a child abductee on the run with her father until she ventures out on her own as a young adult. She still has trouble settling in one place for too long, and when the novel opens, she has just disappeared from her boyfriend's apartment.

Emily St. John Mandel writes in a comfortably lyrical style, handily conjuring the American Southwest or a noirish frozen Montreal, where the boyfriend has gone to search for Lilia. He's led to Montreal by the daughter of the private detective who has spent much of his professional career tracking Lilia. The daughter, Michaela, has watched her parents' marriage crumble as her father spends weeks and months on the road and she eventually develops her own obsession with Lilia. This is where the novel ran into trouble--the private detective and his daughter never felt like they had much depth. Their back stories felt contrived and their dialogue never rang true. I never believed that the man would abandon his own daughter to continue his search.

St. John Mandel's flashback scenes between Lilia and her father, however, do an excellent job of evoking a growing relationship between a young girl and a father she doesn't know (he abducts her from his estranged wife's home). St. John Mandel also deftly handles the secret behind Lilia's abduction to keep me reading even though the frustration of the private detective scenes nearly drove me to bail out on the book.

Icelander is billed as an Agatha Christie mystery novel as written by Nabokov. A better comparison, I thought, was to John Barth. Dustin Long uses some of the same metafictional trickery to adorn a conventional plot line. I always felt that Barth's strength was his ability to play games with the reader and the narrative structure, yet put it within a plot dynamic enough to be a page turner. Long's approach involves a nameless heroine pulled into solving a murder mystery she has no interest in, a secret kingdom beneath the surface of Iceland (as well as its incestuous royal family), masters of disguise, anagrammatic names, doppelgangers, and even a character named Connie Lingus. Long is very good at creating a whole fabricated world of culture, complete with footnotes and asides. At times, the jokey names and winkwinknudge tricks grew tiresome, but some of the characters were intriguing enough (e.g. the dimwitted actor recounting his visit to the secret kingdom of Vinlandia) to keep the plot interesting. Long handles a variety of styles with a skilled touch--I look forward to reading something else from him.

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