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.”