Bellevue Square. Michael Redhill.

Redhill, Michael. Bellevue Square. Doubleday Canada, Toronto, 2017. F;11/17.

This was the winner of the 2017 Giller Prize, and I think it deserved it. It was certainly in a different league than the other two short-listed I read, Minds of Winter and I Am a Truck. I find transgender writing impressive, and Redhill makes his lady narrator Jean Mason smart and intuitive. A mirror-maze of identity and philosophy of mind grafted onto the basic psychological thriller kept me guessing, but Redhill endows his character with such charm and originality that she’s a joy even without the metaphysics and plot.

Jean experiences a look-alike or doppelgänger, and the story is of her struggle with her perception of that. Is she crazy (at times it felt like A Beautiful Mind)? In the early going she says, “…my two top hypotheses: that (the look-alike) didn’t exist at all and (my friend who saw her) needed a shrink, or she did exist but she looked nothing like me. The third possibility, that I was crazy, I deemed distant but possible.” As time goes by we wonder if Jean really has a neurologic illness as she seems to in the middle third of the story, or whether what’s finally coming at us is something more fundamental than conventional reality. We are pretty sure that a writer as good as Redhill hasn’t made his character a silly metaphor, and that the dénouement will be ambiguous, but do we ever want to find out how that’s going to happen.

It’s hard not to be impressed by Jean’s endearing wackiness. She describes the end of winter in Toronto: “what (winter) likes to do is go away for a week in April and then return for three days and finish grandpa off.” A woman in the park wore “white sunglasses, a layer of lipstick red as a car crash. Also, I had to presume, no underwear: the front of her shorts looked like someone had painted over a tarantula.” On raising kids she thinks “God, getting an adult in return for a child is a bum deal.” I’m happy to go down unlikely rabbit holes with somebody like that.

And Jean is in a difficult and scary dilemma. She treats her friend Katerina’s Spanish superstition with benign irony, but there’s a sinister feel and later that is dramatically confirmed. The seriousness and weirdness of Jean’s situation raised for me echoes of several intriguing ideas I’ve run across elsewhere.

Jean wonders whether she could be her look-alike’s hallucination. This kind of thing amounted to a fugue on creativity and reality and reminded me of J L Borges’s story The Circular Ruins which refers to Alice in Wonderland where the sleeping Red King is said to be dreaming Alice, and it’s asked what would happen if he stopped dreaming. This trick has been around for awhile. Bishop Berkeley’s early 18th century idealism had it that reality is an idea in the mind of God, a metaphysical view that nearly everybody today would consider crazy.

I seem to keep sensing that the territory colloquially understood as women’s intuition puts most women in a completely different world from most men, and part of me seems to understand that world. Jean says, “There’s a cluelessness to boys and men that must be very pleasant, an ignorance of the peripheral that women are aware of every waking hour. Maybe not all women have a sense of hints and shadows, but I gather there is some biological, evolutionary role for it.” Hm. Like they’re supposed to sniff out dangerous males from the way they talk, walk, etc.? Wonderful to hear such things from a male author.

Jean’s reflection:

Sometimes when you see an actual TV screen through a window, from a sidewalk or as you pass in a car, you realize how many layers you look through every day to connect with others. Through a window, see a show in which a character is seen in a mirror watching a television show. Navigate a world where half of everything you know is a reflection, a refraction, or a memory. Working theories are almost always incomplete or dead incorrect, including all the important ones you’re operating under. No brakes, no map, off you go.

This reminds me of waking up to representation in mythology studying English in university, reading The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light by William Thompson:

Take a photograph of a reflection in a mirror and think of that piece of film which will in turn reflect an image to the curving surfaces of the eye and the folding surfaces of the brain. Study the events of history as Thucydides did, and the work itself becomes an event of history.

… again the fugue on creativity and the ambiguity it leads to. The media are the message. If everything we imagine becomes an event of history and we are working with multiply-represented uncertainty, world is suddener than we fancy. No brakes, no map…

Trying to figure out what’s happening to her and explain it to her husband, Jean says, “… trust me, you’re not making me up as you go along. I’d probably be a lot more interesting if you were. But I’m making me up as I go along.” Consciousness neurologist Antonio Damasio would say she’s got that right. In The Feeling of What Happens he describes consciousness like this: “you exist as a mental being when primordial stories are being told, and only then; as long as primordial stories are being told, and only then. You are the music while the music lasts.” We do according to current medical science make ourselves up as we go along. But so does a novelist, and so does a schizophrenic suffering from delusions.

This book explores superstition, spirituality, imagination, the mind, and the brain. It includes some brain science and a chorus of mental patients and cranks. But it does it with intrigue and charm.

Reading fiction I’m not really looking for much beyond that. Ideas can be narrated as dry technical exposition. But I think most people respond to good writing the same way we do to music or pictures in an art gallery. When some internal switch is thrown the result is willing, delighted suspension of disbelief. Redhill’s Jean Mason did the trick for me.

There were diminishing implausibilities in the plot events in section 4, but not enough to throw me off the track. Lots of intellectual and aesthetic fun in this one. Very highly recommended. 9.2/9.4.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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