It's a well-worn expression, but true: this novel will take your breath away. Rebecca Silver Slayter, a Nova Scotia-based editor of the literary journal Brick, has written a tightly crafted first novel that's both compelling and unsettling.
In the Land of Birdfishes envelopes the reader in its heavy atmosphere of secrecy, guilt, delusion and obsession. Though much of it takes place in the endless sunshine of a northern summer, its dark, constricted feel gives it a strong resemblance to Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë's 1847 Gothic classic.
Aileen and Mara are twin sisters in rural Nova Scotia. When they witness their mother's death, their father, in his shock and grief, blindfolds them so they won't experience the despair she knew.
After three years of this Mara is left completely blind, Aileen with impaired sight. It's only when neighbours intervene that the girls are released from their isolation and given treatment. They are adopted by relatives, separated for the next 30 years.
All this occurs in the first chapter. Then the narration shifts to Aileen, now 40 years old, who, after the breakup of her marriage, is finally on her way to find Mara, having heard that she was in Dawson City, Yukon.
Aileen's hardly been there a day when she's spotted by two women, Minnie and Angel, who knew her sister. Through them she meets Jason, Mara's son, a sullen and volatile young man, and is told that Mara is dead.
These three, especially the women, are more troubled than pleased at her sudden appearance in town, and not inclined to trust her. But earning Jason's trust is her goal, because she wants to be forgiven for waiting so long to find her sister. The remaining three-quarters of the novel unfolds Aileen's efforts to get to know him and to understand what happened to Mara.
Throughout, Mara's voice alternates with other narrators, first Aileen, then Minnie, Angel and Jason. Mara's episodes move chronologically through her adolescence and adulthood until her narrative converges with that of Aileen and the others.
These multiple voices both reinforce and contradict each other. Aileen's account of herself is undercut by the voice of Minnie, who thinks her presence spells trouble for Jason. Conflicting stories about Jason's childhood are confusing, but also offer subtle hints to his character.
"You had to listen so careful to Jason," says Angel. Jason constantly speaks in stories, and knowing this is essential to comprehending the novel.
Like his mother before him, he tells stories until they take on a life of their own and ultimately function as myths. His stories could be truths or lies, or a way of saying how he wished things could be.
Jason's real longing is for the mother he no longer has. That, intensified by Angel's leaving town, and Aileen's decision to return to her husband, eventually brings events to a head and leads through the gripping final chapters to a startling conclusion.
Even at the end, though, the reader may be forgiven for wondering exactly what happened. The answers are all there, but conveyed obliquely through the interplay of the characters' voices.
That lingering uncertainty is what makes this such a haunting story -- that, and its relentless probing of the ways people hurt the ones they love.
Joanne Epp is a Winnipeg writer and president of the Manitoba Writers' Guild.