Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill


The winner of this year's Giller Prize for Canadian literature was a big puzzle for me:  near the end I realized I was not going to get all the pieces to fit together. It is the first in a trilogy, so perhaps all will become clear after two more books.

It begins with a woman who describes her bookshop in Toronto. All seemed pretty straight-forward, though I was alerted to her weirdness when she said she regularly changed her shelving of biographies (sometimes they are shelved by the subject's name, sometimes by the author's name). Whoa!

One of her regular customers was undone when he saw her in the bookshop as he thought he had seen her with different clothes and hair a few minutes earlier in another place in the city. He was especially distraught when he pulled her hair assuming it was a wig; his look is one of anger and fear. When another person alludes to her twin, she begins spending time in Bellevue Square hoping to spot her doppelgänger. It turns out this concept is used in very different ways in mythology and literature, ranging from a ghostly double who performs a person's actions in advance, to Byron's use to think about the duality of nature, to Dostoyevsky's opposition figure who exploits the weakness of a person to gain control of their life (thanks to Wikipedia for this). Malevolence is certainly involved in Bellevue Square as there are two deaths early on. 

Meanwhile the journey itself tracked around a number of interesting issues, chiefly, mental health, a rare medical condition, what consciousness and selfhood mean. I liked Jean's time in the Square, getting to know various mentally unhealthy people. There was Miriam who collected money for warning people not to park in front of the recessed fire hydrant and used the money to buy milk to distribute to others. And Jimmy whose beard was so dense that a mouse could have lived in it. Jean, the narrator, respects her new friends and enjoys their company. She becomes obsessed with finding her doppelgänger and spends more and more time in the park.

Throughout the book you occasionally think you are finally getting an accurate picture, but an unreliable narrator, well, you just can't trust them. I checked to see if the book is in the public library and now I'm getting weirded out. When I looked up the author's name, there was a "see also" listing for Inger Wolfe, one of the names the doppelgänger used. And the doppelgänger was an author.

Michael Redhill, Bellevue Square, Doubleday Canada, 2017, 272 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Only available from Amazon.

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