The title of Grace O’Connell’s debut novel is pulled from a poem by Helen Humphreys, “Blurring”.*

Random House Canada, 2012

It’s ironic that the closer you examine something, the harder it is to focus, and this is a truth which Maggie Pierce inhabits when Magnified World opens.

She is reeling from her mother’s suicide, struggling to find her footing in this “oddly disappointing” magnified world.

Maggie is not alone; she is coping with the help of her father, her boyfriend, her best friend, and someone she did not know before her mother’s death, Gil.

But the novel is Maggie’s story alone, magnified on the page for readers as a single voice, immersed in a reality which is crumbling.

What secures the story is the sense of place, not only the city of Toronto and the landmarks therein, but the store she has inherited upon her mother’s death, Pierce Gifts and Oddities.

The city settles on the page with scenes immediately recognizable to residents, from its edges (Port Credit) to its centre.

Some scenes are transitory: the Royal York hotel, the City Hall library, St. Mike’s Hospital, the revolving restaurant atop the CN Tower, Kensington Market, and the corporate logos along the expressway with their white rocks spelling out company names against green grass.

Others are more solidly sketched: Nathan Phillips Square, CAMH (where she seeks the help of doctors who specialize in mental health) the CNE, Trinity Bellwoods Park (its insides and the limestone gates which mark the outside), the Queen streetcar route, and, most importantly, the metal bridge on Queen Street which crosses the Don River and the river itself.

“If the city were a body, this was where you would draw blood.”

It’s very specific, in Maggie’s story, because her mother drowned herself in this river. She can retrace her mother’s route, walk in her footsteps along Queen, down the stairs, along the path. She can see the spot at which she would have entered the water. She has a view of all of this.

But it’s also a more expansive truth. “There is always a river, sooner or later, if you’re looking.”

This image is echoed in the scars on her mother’s arms. Those scars are echoed on the arms of another woman who is also under a doctor’s care following a significant loss.

They are like “a tangled net”, like veins drawn on the outside, hidden by long sleeves and a closed casket, but permanent. “Those marks were still there, underneath everything.”

Whether describing external or internal landscapes, much of the language used in Grace O’Connell’s debut is poetic and directly engages the reader’s senses.

An old woman’s hand feels like drinking straws wrapped in silk. Someone speaks in a high voice, thin, like the upstrokes of a hastily written notes. Chopin sounds like glass. Black olives taste like bitten tongue, pennies.

But most often the narrative is frank and expository.

“The problem with dead people is that you can’t get any new information out of them.”

And this, in short, is what preoccupies Maggie in Magnified World. She cannot get the answers from her mother that she needs so desperately.

And that desperation? It drives her and pursues her simultaneously.

From the moment that the reader meets Maggie, she “felt like someone was chasing me and I could stay just ahead of them if the store was tidy enough”.

She alphabetizes the incense and turns the bottles so that their labels are perfectly aligned on the store shelves; but keeping the store tidy is not enough to fulfill Maggie’s need.

(And because Maggie is unsatisfied, the reader shares this sense of desperation; depending on the degree of attachment to Maggie’s character, the reader may feel too fragmented and disoriented to connect with Maggie’s story.)

Whereas the novel begins with a very specific landscape, from the store to the specific geographic locations, its focus widens.

This magnified world affords the reader the opportunity to look closely at Maggie’s loss, to climb into the river, to inhabit the inner and outer territories which define the reader’s understanding of the inexplicable.

* Humphreys’ poem serves as an epigraph along with two lines of Steven Heighton’s “Gravesong”.