The title of her second novel might well have been a discarded option for her debut; Riel Nason is back in familiar territory: the intersection between memory and identity, the line between mysticism and madness, and sibling bonds in a coming-of-age tale.
Now it is 1977 and readers are introduced to Violet, who offers a convenient summary of the events of The Town that Drowned as well as a hint of the recurring themes in All the Things We Leave Behind.
“As beautiful as the river is, it’s hiding something. The Saint John River is a lot bigger than it used to be. It was once a skinnier, twisted strip, really just a stream in some places. Then the government build a dam at Mactaquac, about fifteen miles downriver from here, and the entire landscape changed. There was a giant permanent flood. The water swallowed a whole town called Haventon. It happened ten years ago when I was still a kid. We lived in Fredericton then.”
Secrets and transformations, shape-shifting and the enduring presence of significant events in the past. Violet is perfectly situated to comment on this because her family owns an antique business and quite literally she is minding the store while her parents are away, in search of a resolution.
Readers don’t understand everything at the outset, but soon it is explained that Violet’s brother, Bliss, left a note on the afternoon of his high-school graduation;he explained that he was going exploring, and nobody has seen or heard from him since. Her parents are looking for answers.
From the beginning, there is a sense of trepidation in the situation. The novel opens with Violet’s description of the Ministry of Transportation’s boneyard, where the animals killed on the road are dumped to rot. A sense of loss haunts the book from the start.
As in her debut novel, change can be large and small. The Ministry manages large quantities of losses, but the Davis family is alone with their questions about where Bliss has gone and why he chose to leave. (In The Town that Drowned, the government mandated the moves, and transformed the lives of families into single lines on a page: statistics to be managed. Meanwhile, entire families and identities were uprooted. There are so many interesting connections and parallels between these stories.)
Nonetheless, the darkness is not relentless. There are night scenes in the forest, traumatic emotional scenes and quiet disappointments; there are also moments of brilliance, warmth and hope.
One consistently bright spot in the narrative is Violet’s best friend Jill. This passage, in which Violet observes and describes her, displays a clever aspect of Riel Nason’s style. For what Violet says about Jill is important, certainly; but, even more important, is what is not said, what these observations and remarks say about Violet.
“Jill is so sure she can make everything turn out the way she wants. I imagine she sees her life as a path lined with flowers – her favourite honeysuckle and phlox, cosmos and lupines all in bloom. She is sure the sun will shine more than it will rain. The flowers will grow strong and tall and lush, season after season. No one else will pick them. No deer will come and eat them or trample them down. Those flowers will surround her with beautiful colour and sweet fragrance as she skips along joyfully into the future.”
Leaving some things unsaid is where the power of this novel rests. Were Riel Nason to take the easy path – to simply enumerate the contrasting qualities which Violet possesses or exhibits, rather than allow Violet to admire these aspects of her best friend’s way of being – the novel would be only half as satisfying.
This is much more difficult from a crafting perspective than it appears. The ways in which information is released and shared is crucial to the novel’s success. The matter-of-fact language, the simple sentence and paragraph structure, and the seemingly uncomplicated characterization of secondary characters (who also add substantially to the story plot-wise and mood-wise)? All this might make it look easy, but it requires patience and skill.
In The Town that Drowned, there is a mystery which readers expect to be solved – also a disappearance – but as the novel nears its close, another mystery surfaces, one which hadn’t even been recognised to exist.
In an effort to avoid discussing the story arc in All the Things We Leave Behind (and risk spoiling the discovery), it’s safe to say that readers will not realise what they do not know until it’s too late to check and see how substantially the surprise will strike them.
These are quiet novels. The swell of emotion rises slowly, steadily. They pull you under the surface hard and fast.