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Problem child

Volatile teen in 1980s Vancouver grows on the reader

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Author Nancy Lee.


Author Nancy Lee.

Gerry is in her mid-teens, says horribly cruel things to everyone who (bewilderingly) cares about her, and makes a concerted effort to destroy lives. She's completely unlikable, but if we can stomach sticking with her, we come to understand how broken she is and feel her pain. We even begin pulling for her.

The Age, Vancouver author Nancy Lee's debut novel, is a tough but ultimately fascinating story. It's a followup to her acclaimed collection of short stories, 2003's Dead Girls, described by Quill & Quire as "stories of young women, of the emotional peril and brutalities of sex and intimate relationships, and of loss and despair."

This, too, is the story of a young woman, curious but also aggressive toward sex and intimate relationships, perhaps not yet comfortable in her own skin and orientation. Set in Vancouver in 1984 -- a time when world headlines threaten an inevitable and significant nuclear event -- Gerry is understandably fearful and jaded about the future.

She's also bitter about her past, catastrophically wounded by her father abandoning her and her mother eight years previous. A misfit assortment of anarchists has inexplicably allowed her to hang around despite her unpredictable and juvenile behaviour. She'd come to know them through longtime best friend Ian who, a few years older than her, is now out of high school and actively involved in a plot to turn a peaceful protest march violent.

Why they are best friends is a mystery, given Gerry's penchant for hurling insults at Ian and sabotaging his relationships. It is hinted that their continued friendship is based primarily on habit, that he cares for her now because he has always cared. She sees the truth of it: "For the first time, she thinks she will not know him for the rest of her life." But instead of adapting, allowing their friendship to change, she punishes him for it.

Gerry has had no communication with her father since he left, but has created a faux closeness to him in getting to know her grandfather. Henry is also estranged from his son, though Gerry doesn't at first know this -- she hopes he will be the bridge to their reunion. In spite of her ulterior motive, her connection with Henry is sweet, and feels genuine as she accompanies him on jaunts to spy on his soon-to-be ex-wife No. 3.

Her bond with her mother is not as easy. She disdains her mother's efforts to both love her and another, conniving against her mother's boyfriend, Randy, manipulating him at every opportunity.

Eventually, in spite of her, Gerry burrows under our skin. We find ourselves, like Ian, sticking with her. We understand the root of her wound, and we care -- or are at least curious enough to see her story through to its conclusion, for better or worse.

Lee's prose is magnetic from first gasp, often visceral. She has skilfully woven a story within a story, which begins as Gerry's dream. In it, Gerry is a boy who, in the aftermath of nuclear destruction, forms a bond with a young woman and develops a tender and healthy relationship with her despite the death, violence and illness surrounding them. A dark moment in which, metaphorically, it appears hope will be destroyed, is entwined with tragedy in Gerry's "real" life.

However, in this we see a glimmer that broadcasts: through ashes, change.

The Age is a messy, brutal, desperate story about fear and loss. In the end, it's also a hopeful tale of family and of moving forward.


Anita Daher, also a teen in the '80s, was confident that the world would carry on, and now writes hopeful stories for children and teens.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 22, 2014 G6


Updated on Saturday, March 22, 2014 at 8:06 AM CDT: Tweaks formatting.

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