Monoceros, by Suzette Mayr — a guest post from Alison Gzowski

Welcome to Alison Gzowski’s first-ever blog book review. While the blog may be a first for her, she is no book amateur. Alison worked for several years in The Globe and Mail’s book section (Canada’s best) and produced the CBC radio series, Talking Books — she is now an editor in the Globe’s Features department. And she has been a Shadow Giller juror for the last nine years. Over to you, Alison:

Published by Coach House Books

One of the many great pleasures of serving on the Shadow Giller jury (aside from writing my first book blog review, of course) is being delighted by a book that otherwise wouldn’t have crossed my path. Two years ago, the surprise was Martha Baillie’s clever book set inside a library, The Incident Report (KfC’s review is here).

From this fall’s long list, I was surprised by Suzette Mayr’s Monoceros.

I hadn’t heard of Mayr before I bought the novel, the fourth by this Calgary-based writer whose previous books have been shortlisted for significant prizes (including a Commonwealth), I learned. As I seem to have done with my introduction here, I backed into the book: I read her bio notes and, I have to say, winced a little at the plot’s description that starts with a teen suicide and ends with the promise of a drag queen named Crepe Suzette “changing everything.” I opened the book expecting a kitschy over-the-top romp of sorts. Was I ever wrong.

Here’s how it opens:

Because u r a fag is scrawled in black Jiffy marker across his locker. Because after school last Thursday, the girlfriend of the guy he loves hurled frozen dog shit at him, and her friends frisbeed his skateboard into the river. Even though he stomped and cracked through the ice shelving the banks, waded in to rescue it — after the shouting and shoving, they’re stronger than they look, all those girls with their cello-and violin-playing fingers, yanking him back by handfuls of coat, handfuls of hair, hooking with their elbows and digging with their fingernails as he scrambled after his skateboard — the banks too slippery and shattered with the ice, the current too swift, the water too cold and deep and brown…

This first chapter (called The End) builds tension by continually starting sections with “because…” until the final…

Because he can’t bear it.

He can’t bear any of it. It will never get better.

Because he wants to be in charge of his own ending.

With these haunting pages, the scene is set. Seventeen-year-old Patrick Furey has decided to kill himself. He had fallen in love with a boy nicknamed Ginger who, while having trysts with Patrick in the cemetery, has officially been seeing another student, Petra. After Petra figures out this deception, she starts threatening and publicly bullying Patrick and Ginger ceases all communication. Heartbroken and isolated, Patrick hangs himself.

While I’ve just given the flat plotline description, Mayr grabs the reader with a powerful opening chapter that takes a difficult topic, allows it to unfold dramatically but without sentimentality. Throughout the book I found her convincingly good at rendering vernacular with a writer’s eye and intelligent wordplay.

Monoceros, as the cover depicts, is a constellation (KfC note: Sorry, I can’t find a large enough image to show the cover depiction clearly — it does show up on the actual cover.) That seems appropriate to Mayr’s approach as she tackles the ripple effect of suicide beyond Patrick’s immediate family to include those who should have protected him, and even those who use his tragedy to emote.

Among those in Patrick’s constellation are Max, the school principal in a longterm yet secret relationship with the affable guidance counsellor Walter, Mrs. Mochinski, Patrick’s homeroom teacher, and assorted students — the aforementioned Ginger and Petra — and Faraday, a lost classmate who is obsessed with unicorns.

(There are others including Patrick’s parents, and Crepe Suzette, a drag queen by night, waiter by day. I can’t mention all characters and themes, so have stuck with those in the Catholic Calgary high school Patrick attended.)

Monoceros is not a plot-driven novel. Instead, the story unfolds as we are given snippets of the past (Ginger and Patrick’s romance) and current dilemmas (the tension for Max and Walter in hiding their live-in relationship from colleagues). Each chapter is told from a different character’s point of view and Mayr wisely doesn’t give equal time to each voice, a technique I sometimes find frustrating in some books as I skim one voice to return to the characters I find more interesting. Instead, she brings in a character’s monologue to move the story along and add context.

What most impressed me with this novel was the direct, edgy, almost playful voices of the characters. Mayr is gifted at capturing the teenage voice with all its high drama and nakedly assured observations. There was an immediacy in all her characters that kept the book moving and a raging use of words that I often loved. Although the premise of the story is tragic, there was a comic element developed by these characters raging at the world and perceived injustices.

My criticisms came as I got well into the book. As much as I found the characters fresh, I started to feel that the word buildup and even sometimes a standout phrase was used in a way that the voices were becoming less distinct from each other and so at times I felt a sameness that dragged the book down.

As well, the ending invoked a magic realism which didn’t work for me after being engaged by inner turmoils and hard-hitting realism. It felt to me as if Mayr had painted herself into a corner and opted for a deus ex magica.

Despite those flaws, I am glad this novel was longlisted; there was much to enjoy in this book and its sadly topical tragicomedy.

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7 Responses to “Monoceros, by Suzette Mayr — a guest post from Alison Gzowski”

  1. Sheila O'Brien Says:

    Alison:
    Thank you for this excellent post. This novel would not have landed on my TBR pile without your very interesting review. While it sounds like there were some parts that stretched credulity, on balance it sounds like a good read, and I will certainly give it a go.

  2. David Says:

    Very interesting review, Alison. I am part way through reading this at the moment and am enjoying it immensely. The “magic realism” ending you mention would certainly be at odds with the style of the novel so far, so I shall be interested to see how that works for me.

  3. alison Says:

    Sheila: Thank you for your generous comments. I’d say the Giller deserves the credit for bringing this book more publicity.

    David: Thanks for your note, nice to hear from someone reading it. Keep on reading and enjoying it, I think that what you like about it will carry you right through. The magic realism is only a the last chapter and so while it may be what immediately lingers (or slightly jars) it isn’t a huge element. I hope you’ll report back when you finish, I’m curious what you will say.

  4. BuriedInPrint Says:

    I’ve found each of the Giller longlisted books that I’ve read so far to be worthwhile reads, but this one is the first that made my personal shortlist. I’d read her Venous Hum before, so I had already picked up a copy of this one before the longlisting, but I’m very pleased this reading project nudged it up my reading list. It’s going to be one of my favourites for this reading year. (Thoughts here, if you’re curious.)

  5. Dr. D Says:

    While I have never been interested in magical unicorn stories and I much prefer a consistent narrator from chapter to chapter, you have inexplicably piqued my interest in this novel. Based on your post I am willing to give the story my 50-page survival test. Thanks for your dedicated work with the Shadow Jury!

  6. alison Says:

    Buriedin print: I enjoyed your review. I am still pondering what might be on my shortlist (though I’ve read about 4 or 5 of the longlist so far) and Monoceros stays with me more than I thought it would.
    Dr D. Thanks. 50 pages will do it – by then you will know whether her approach and style work for you. I’ll be curious to hear

  7. David Says:

    I finished reading this last night and, though I enjoyed it a good deal, find myself slightly disappointed. By far the strongest aspect of the novel for me were the different voices, which I thought Mayr nailed perfectly, especially the teenage characters. So often books with multiple narrators fall into the trap of them all sounding the same, or – in striving to make them different – sounding one-dimensional, but Mayr succeeds in writing distinct and rounded characters.
    But I felt once the story progressed beyond the initial week the book tended to meander, and I wasn’t keen on the shift of focus so heavily onto Max. And that last two or three pages, although quite interesting in themselves, seemed to belong to a different book entirely.
    And on a nit-picking note, her made up tv programme “Sector Six” bugged me for some reason – in a book that mentions Star Trek several times, to also have a fictional series that seems to directly spoof it seemed odd. It seems to me that Max would really be a Trekkie, but Mayr had to invent another show in order to shoehorn in a fantasy character (Colonel Shakira) for Crepe Suzette to dress up as.
    Don’t get me wrong: I liked this book and I thought the way Mayr approached the topic was excellent; characters like Ginger and Faraday and Mrs Mochinski are likely to linger in my mind for a while yet, and I’m glad this was longlisted otherwise it would have probably disappeared from my TBR pile to the back of a shelf to be read “one day”. But (for me) the book fizzled out a bit in the last third which is a shame, because up until that point I thought it was pretty faultless.

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