A few pages into the reading of this book I had to pause to Google “Whatever happened to the speech mark?” This ever-increasing trend seems difficult to avoid, and Bloomsbury are right on it throughout this latest offering from the publishing giant. (Incidentally, Google came up with the answer that forfeiting inverted commas makes the speech more immediate and direct. Whatever, I’m just going to make this sentence more direct by leaving out the full stop)
Aside from the punctuation, Eliza Robertson’s debut novel Demi-Gods (the follow-up to her short story collection Wallflowers) is beautifully atmospheric, perfectly describing summer by the seaside. But it’s no light-hearted beach read; it is essentially a story of abuse. In 1950s British Columbia, nine-year-old Willa holidays with the family of her mother’s new partner and is drawn to his rather strange son Patrick. Starting with an unsanitary game of dares, the story follows Willa and Patrick’s increasingly perverted relationship through their teen years and into adulthood. They only meet a handful of times however, and we observe only these few exchanges. We learn little of the characters other than Willa, who is the narrator, so what makes them tick in this odd set-up is up to the reader.
Willa is a character who fades into the background, like the girl at school always hovering at the edge of the friendship groups and never in the centre. She is an almost passive character, an observer. And she knows it, proclaiming that “another woman would have slapped him” when she is at the receiving end of yet another disturbing intimacy. Willa isn’t vengeful – she attempts revenge in the final act, but kindness disrupts her during a pending disaster. Nor does she play the victim, though she undoubtedly has been harmed. Only in one fleeting moment does she acknowledge her insecurities:
Then she said her cruellest thing. – You don’t see the glass as half-empty or half-full. You see a glass and you fill it with whatever’s in front of you.
In that comment, she confirmed all my fears: I was an empty glass. A mirror. My existence depended on who looked back.
What Demi-Gods lacks in terms of plot and character-building, it certainly makes up for when it comes to strength of description. This is a visual story, one which would cross easily to the screen, where images are painted with equal beauty and crudeness: “The women were thin. Their gemstones appeared bulky by contrast, like insects preying on their throats or licking the sweat between their fingers.”
Robertson’s writing is ambitious, and her imagination fearless. Weird, disturbing and oddly bewitching, this book is certainly unlike anything I’ve read before, and that sort of wild reading adventure is never a bad thing.
Demi-Gods by Eliza Robertson is published by Bloomsbury on 7th November 2017.