Hunt of the Unicorn Tapestry

Suzette Mayr’s Monoceros
Coach House Books, 2011

Nowadays, it’s been Disney-fied, but once-upon-a-time the unicorn wasn’t about pink glitter and rainbows, but about raw passions, about what cannot be tamed.

In one of Da Vinci’s notebooks is this note: “The unicorn, through its intemperance and not knowing how to control itself, for the love it bears to fair maidens forgets its ferocity and wildness; and laying aside all fear it will go up to a seated damsel and go to sleep in her lap, and thus the hunters take it.”

The creature came to be associated with purity, and, so, with healing, and it was highly sought after, by poets and dreamers and scientists and rulers alike. This was not some flight-of-fancy: people believed in unicorns.

Readers looking for a unicorn story in Monoceros will be disappointed, but these ideas permeate the novel: raw passion, purity, the need to heal, the hunt, conviction and faith.

It’s also possible to see the faintest echo of the famous Hunt tapestry in the opening pages of the novel, in which readers are introduced to reasons why Patrick Furey killed himself on a Monday.

Patrick forgot his ferocity and fearlessly laid his head in the lap of a boy that he loved. And it ended badly.

Readers only glimpse Patrick for a few pages, but it’s enough to pull him close.

And the layered perspectives which follow (from that boy who did love Patrick back — but not fearlessly, from Patrick’s mother, from other students and also staff at the high school, among others) build the reader’s understanding of this seventeen-year-old boy.

And, even though he is not Patrick for many of these people — for many of them he is simply “the dead boy” — his death has a far-reaching effect.

Monoceros charts this without crossing into empty sentimentalism, and the novel manages to explore the variety of responses (some more immediately sympathetic than others) to the young boy’s death with compassion, without overlooking the inherent tragedy of his belief that what he could not tame made him unworthy, his life un-live-able.

Yes, it’s a constellation: look up!

“Walter’s Monday should have been the tedious photocopy of every other Monday, but Max the principal tents his pale fingers and breaks open the rotting egg of Patrick Furey’s suicide to him and the two vice-principals, turning this Monday into a Monday of unique suffering.”

Readers follow the characters through each day of the week which follows that Monday, and then across the Mondays that follow that first Monday.

On the fifth Monday in particular, each of the characters included in this segment is feeling dramatically dislocated in the high school; each segment is brief, and each circumstance is quite different, but each character’s helplessness and loneliness is overwhelming. It’s not that different from the way that Patrick himself felt as readers have understood that from the novel’s opening pages.

[In one of my favourite scenes — which is actually quite heart-rending, but beautifully drawn — there are several interconnecting images and emotions, which combine to take the reader into the heart of grief. A mother has made something out of the locks of her son’s baby hair that she has saved. The object she makes recalls a passionate scene between her son and his lover. One character breathes in the smell of this, which recalls another character’s breathing in the smell of something else. Oh, it’s so sad. It’s so complex. It’s all about the tiny things and the grand things, and all of it all at once.]

Green drinks on the screen of a particular TV show echo the green drinks served by the grief counsellors who attend the school for the benefit of staff and students. One character’s blouse snags; another character’s sweater unravels. Two men carry a granite countertop to install it in one character’s kitchen; another character lies in a graveyard with one hand on a headstone.

Yet, as finely crafted as this novel is, it would be easy to overlook this layering and focus on the characters who narrate Monoceros.

Not only Patrick’s voice, but that of another character who has concealed his own love affair (also fearful of the repercussions, though professionally in that case), that of another character who is freshly coping with a divorce (another sort of grieving there, but there is a connection to Patrick’s death as well), and that of a schoolgirl who feels marginalized for different reasons: these stories develop their own momentum.

If these stories take hold, particularly in light of what the school administration highlights as a risk for those surrounding an event like Patrick’s suicide — the copycat phenomenon, the novel becomes a character-driven page-turner.

(I read it in a single day, had to give myself a stern talking to about how blue skies shouldn’t be wasted in autumn to set it aside for a spell before settling back into it as I soon as I got home again.)

Only five books into my Giller longlist reading, I’m sure that Suzette Mayr’s Monoceros is on my shortlist.


Shortlists have liked animals  — bees, monkeys, tigers, crows, elephants, alligators — but they haven’t loved them…none actually won. And Coach House Press doesn’t command the kind of publicity budgets that big-name publishers have at their disposal. Perhaps a narwhal to the rescue?


Inner workings

Sophisticated, subtle layering creates a quiet, powerful emotional intensity. Interconnecting details remind the reader that although some of these characters are dealing with a very personal grief, others are grappling with an overarching sense of loss and a struggle to find meaning.



Adapts for each character’s perspective. Mostly quite literal. But occasionally a brilliantly unsettling bit.  “The other bus riders hang from their straps, hang on the metal bus poles,and sit bunched in the blue plastic seats like cuts of meat arranged in a butcher’s freezer.



The “semi-arid city” of Calgary, Alberta. Mainly in St. Alonysius Senior High School. But also in a cardboard cut-out apartment. On-stage with Crepe Suzette, in drag, impersonating Wonder Woman. A cemetery. A secret love-nest. A teenage girl’s bedroom. Public transit. Everywhere, basically.



The voices of the characters themselves are so well-drawn that there is a heightened degree of interest in their individual lives as the pages turn; it would be easy to overlook the work’s delicate crafting, and get caught up in the events of these peripheral characters’ lives as they deal with the/their loss.


Readers wanted:

You accept the fact that teenage-hood can be ugly, that kids don’t tell their parents everything. You can appreciate a story that starts with “The End”. You’ve fostered unicorns for your local animal shelter. You’ve had your own problems with Mondays.

Companion Reads:
Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye (1988) (Coming of age. The best of times. The cruellest of times.)
Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach (1999) (Different angle on grieving and identity.)
Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007) (Teenagehood=Ugly)

Are you reading/Have you read this one? Are you thinking about reading it now?