Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square, which just won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, is a bizarre funhouse mirror of a book. It is strange and funny, deeply involving and endlessly surprising. It is also a virtuoso act of storytelling. I was mesmerized by it even when I wasn’t exactly sure what was going on.
It starts out like a cozy mystery. (Redhill writes mystery novels under the pen name Inger Ash Wolfe.) Jean Mason, the narrator, owns a small used bookstore in Toronto’s gentrifying Trinity-Bellwoods neighbourhood. One day one of her customers swears he just saw Jean in Kensington Market, but dressed differently and with shorter hair. It seems Jean has a doppelgänger.
Next, Jean tells us that “a woman I would later be accused of murdering walked into my shop.” She is Katerina, a Guatemalan immigrant who sells South American food in nearby Kensington Market. Katerina claims to know the doppelgänger, a woman she says is called Ingrid Fox. wants to warn Jean of some sort of supernatural evil.
So, Jean becomes intrigued and then obsessed, spending her days not in the bookshop but in Bellevue Square, a ratty park populated by drug addicts, oddballs and the mentally ill, hoping to catch a glimpse of Ingrid.
Redhill has great fun with the companions Jean meets in the park. He shows great respect and compassion for the outcasts of society. Jean’s husband on the other hand is not quite so generous. A retired policeman, he can’t understand Jean’s obsession and is suspicious of her new friends in the park.
The reason for his concern becomes clear when we start to learn more about Jean’s history of mental illness and Katerina is murdered, perhaps by Ingrid Fox, perhaps by Jean.
Jean is a very unreliable narrator. She tends to withhold important details and isn’t always clear about her own motives. About half way into the novel the tone begins to change and things get very weird. Jean’s views of reality become even more murky. We start to wonder if anything she has said is true at all.
Jean loves order. Her favourite thing about the bookshop is organizing the books in sections. But we soon learn that she is prey to wild, disorderly delusions.
Redhill explores some esoteric psychiatric ailments relating to a disjointed or ruptured sense of self. He plays with ideas about fantasies, hallucinations, paranoia and depression.
Even though Jean is the sole narrator, Redhill manages to inject sudden shifts in perspective and repeatedly pulls the rug of expectations out from under the reader.
In some ways Bellevue Square is a hard book to review, because the surprises of the second half are best left unspoken. Potential readers should come to them unprepared as I did.
One of the many pleasurable things for me about the book is its use of Toronto almost as a character itself. I lived in Toronto for many years and I’m very familiar with most of the locations in the novel. Redhill clearly loves his city and its colourful neighbourhoods.
Redhill tells us in the acknowledgements that Bellevue Square is the first book of a trilogy (he calls it a “triptych”) called Modern Ghosts. I look forward to reading the next two installments.
Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill, Doubleday