Within the first few pages of Watching You Without Me, I was reminded of why I enjoy Lynn Coady’s work so much, her capacity to inhabit characters so thoroughly.

Here, we have Karen, who’s returned to Nova Scotia to settle matters with her developmentally disabled older sister, following their mother’s death. As Karen picks up the pieces, she observes the uniform respect and admiration the community had for her mother, Irene:

Everyone always experienced my mother as a rare exotic, an antique, somewhere between a concertina and a California condor.

When I didn’t reply, Trevor nodded his head, as if agreeing with himself. ‘One nice fuckin lady.’

This peek into Coady’s use of language not only reaffirms her mother’s potential saint-hood, but also showcases how differently residents express their opinions about her. Also significant: out of the entire town, out of “everyone”, it’s Trevor whom readers are meant to observe particularly.

It’s unclear exactly what we are meant to observe, but we’re directed to pay attention to him. Even before readers understand why, it’s clear that there is an unknown reason, that significant events will unfold later. “What was wrong with you, friends always ask when I get to this part of the story.” Karen has told this story before, enough times to be able to modify it in response, to suit her audience’s needs and desires.

Other characters are watching Trevor too: “…I wondered if the ladies of Bestlife were all versions of one another, an assembly line of short, squarish-yet-pillowy-middle-aged women who, despite their soft exteriors and the occasional dear, were tough enough to step to the guy like Trevor and look him up and down.”

Trevor introduces an element of conflict to the narrative, not only through these tangential statements and observations, but also directly; he inserts himself into the household, ostensibly to alleviate the pressure that Karen is feeling, as she grieves for her mother and cares for her sister. As a part-time caregiver, Trevor walks with Kelli twice a week, but his presence soon swells in the sisters’ lives.

Karen welcomes, even encourages his involvement, marvelling at his capacity to overcome some of her sister’s traditional boundaries. Nobody else can get close enough to Kelli to hug her—but Trevor can. Soon, however, Karen’s position changes, and her response is complex: “It was as if he had reached out and pressed a button on my body—or a bruise. It made me wince but it didn’t exactly make me feel defensive.”

Coady has explored emotional volatility in her fiction previously (in some of her short stories, including her Giller-Prize winning collection Hellgoing, and in The Antagonist, a novel told from the perspective of a hockey enforcer). But in Watching You Without Me, Karen appears to be representing vulnerability, even while her own anger and frustration frequently erupt.

Her care-giving duties are threatening to overwhelm, and she has lingering resentment about past relationships. (Her reacquaintance with her childhood friend, Jessie, also exposes layers of processing childhood trauma and its legacy.) And, yet, life goes on: “This was the lesson at the end of the day. For morning to come, for the future to take place, there always had to be someone scuttling around in the background with a broom and dustpan. Someone had to suck it up.”

Shortlisted in 2011 for The Antagonist, winner in 2013 for Hellgoing, and jury member in 2017 Lynn Coady is practically Giller royalty. Craft-wise, she’s got a vase ready and waiting for a Giller Prize rose. But the complicated relationships in Thomas King’s Indians on Vacation and Shani Mootoo’s Polar Vortex share some thematic similarities and might better suit this year’s jury members. [Edited to add that Lynn Coady’s novel did not progress to the shortlist–neither did King’s, but Mootoo’s did.]

Inner workings
Karen’s story is important, but the way she’s telling it is even more important. She notes: “People always stop me, when I get to this part of the story, to ask that question, because I can never quite articulate what it is I had in mind. I was just mad, is what I usually tell them.” How do we construct stories about our agency, our responsibility, our victimhood and power? How does our anger influence our capacity to recognize our own vulnerabilities and strengths?

Designed to propel readers through the story, the syntax is mostly straightforward and the short chapters include dialogue and internal monologues. Only occasionally does a figurative phrase slip in, quietly underscoring significant themes and character development. For instance, reflecting Karen’s growing discomfort with care-giving responsibilities—“it felt like the house had grown teeth”—and encapsulating Trevor’s anger, “like buried cables, humming with information”.

Its East-Coast setting is significant but only occasionally broadcast: “Toronto, as every easy coast Canadian is raised to understand, is where the nation’s arseholes congregate. It is a pace for people who care only about work—but not even real work.” (This belief proliferates in small-town Ontario too.) The town’s size is evident by the neighbours’ engagement with one another and by the fact that a tour of the facilities equipped to house Kelli (should Karen opt for institutionalization) is readily completed.

Readers’ growing discomfort with Trevor’s presence in the narrative (a direct result of Karen’s growing discomfort, which she structures as a steady escalation in her narrative, stemming from her initial welcoming and encouraging response to his attentions) creates a sense of tension throughout the novel. But it’s more like that hum of the buried cables (in the quotation above) than a series of crescendos; if readers aren’t invested in Karen’s character, this conflict alone won’t ratchet up readers’ investment in the outcome.

Readers Wanted
You’d rather a dinner description focus on post-consumption detritus than brimming serving-bowls and platters.
You love a good epigraph, ‘good’ meaning that there’s a mud doll with hollow eye sockets. (Thanks, Alice Munro.)
Cracked wallpaper and plaster on the covers of your CanLit suits you better than broken dinnerplates.

This book is a nominee for the 2020 Giller Prize. This post follows a format I first used in 2012. Prizelists invite readers to peer more closely at current publications; they can spark conversation, draw attention to hard-working writers, and encourage readers to look beyond these lists to the many, many other works of quality that are not included on longlists. Reading the longlisted books represents less than 5% of my year’s reading. Read widely and share your favourites!