If I Fall, If I Die by Michael Christie
|If I Fall, If I Die by Michael Christie|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: Growing up in the midst of madness on the shore of the Great Lakes makes a tremendous back-drop for a modern day Huck Finn boys-own adventure against the backdrop of a much more dangerous world. Insights into changes in society and what it might be like to be truly terrified all of the time provide a background weave to this coming of age story.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 324||Date: February 2015|
|Publisher: William Heinemann|
|External links: Author's website|
It probably tells you a lot about the atmosphere of this book that for the whole time I was reading it, I thought the title was If I Fall, I Die. That missing second If is probably at the crux of the whole tale.
The significance of the title is only made explicit at the very end, but the whole of the story leads towards it.
If I Fall is one of those utterly engrossing novels that will nevertheless have you answering the question will you read it again? with probably not. Not because it doesn't deserve to be read and re-read, but because, like a first love, or a truly perfect summer, you will never be able to go back to that experience of the first reading.
Thereby hangs a conundrum for the author. It's a fabulous salute to the art, but maybe doesn't do quite so much for sales. Sorry about that.
That said, I was half-way through East of Eden before being convinced I had actually read it before, so you never know I might stumble across this one again in a few years' time and having forgotten whole chunks, be just as entranced as I was this time around.
Like many of the best books, it makes you pay attention for the get-go and doesn't let you stop doing so. Even the bits that are somewhat expected or predictable, you have to be absolutely sure of every line you read just to be sure of the directions and misdirections which criss-cross each other like the rail tracks down by the harbour.
So to the tale itself:
Will cannot remember having been Outside. He lives in a rambling house, with rooms called Venice and London and Toronto and San Francisco, in a place he's scarcely ever hear of other than as an address called Thunder Bay. We're introduced to the world through his eyes, and it takes a while before we realise that this isn't some future-world, post-apocalypse existence, this is just a kid, living with an agoraphobic mother, fiercely protective of her child after the madness inducing deaths of her father and her brother, hiding away from a world she cannot control.
Diane had a period as a successful avant-garde film-maker, a temporary, unsuccessful common law marriage and a kind of a life. Now she has her sanctuary and her son.
Will paints masterpieces. His mother convinces him he is a genius. Though he wears a hockey helmet a lot of the time and a full rubber wetsuit to change a lightbulb. Knowing no better he buys into her view of the terrors of the Black Lagoon and whatever might lie in wait outside.
Until one day, he is tempted out by a strange sequence of events, and meets another boy, who imparts a truly seditious idea nothing can really hurt you.
If ever a tale is going to be told that updated Huck Finn for the 21st century and set it on dry land, this is as close as it is likely to get.
For the rolling Mississippi and Injun Joe, substitute the derelict grain silos of Thunder Bay on the great lakes and the outlaw known as the Butler. Native Americans are now as likely to want to be amid the concrete as they are out on the plain and there is a wonderful line where Will hopes that they haven't been 'forced off the reservation the way they were forced on to it' which if not exactly summing up anything, certainly points to the complexity of societal challenges.
Back in Huck and Tom territory however, once Will has made it outside, he meets first Marcus – who doesn't stay around long enough to become a friend, but remains a driving force, and then Jonah – a studious and knowing child with usefully powerful older kin, with a none-too-good reputation…
…and of course they spend half of their time skateboarding and half childish fun and the other half getting into really serious trouble.
There are characters straight out of Mark Twain, possibly filtered through George Orwell by way of Charles Dickens. All of which is better than it sounds.
Threaded through the story by way of Diane's personal 'relaxation therapy' sessions and later an interjected tale from a ne'er-do-well stowaway, is the history that brought Diane and Will to where they are. It's a story of average tragedy, elevated only through the lens of impact.
Like Twain and Orwell and Dickens, Christie has the skill of creating a lost world out the relics of landscape and memory: the scents and smells and illnesses of bygone times, which linger in the towering grain elevators dominating the skyline that weren't worth the cost of the explosive to demolish them. In part it's an elegy for a lost way of life, tinted in the rosy glow of comradeship and hard work and decent livings. In part a good-riddance to life of cheating overseers and lack of duty of care, accidental deaths, industrial disease and the struggle for any adventurous young mind wanting above all to get out.
If parts of the denouémont are predictable, it doesn't stop the tension from mounting and the clear feeling that the final outcome could go either way.
The publishers describe it as a 'poignant and heartfelt depiction of coming of age' – its all of that and so much more.
One to savour.
If you like this then we'd also recommend The Son by Philipp Meyer.
You can read more book reviews or buy If I Fall, If I Die by Michael Christie at Amazon.co.uk.
You can read more book reviews or buy If I Fall, If I Die by Michael Christie at Amazon.com.
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