Every character in this light comedy-satire seems to be fishing for something, although not necessarily fish or even in water. Yet, most places where the action takes place are somehow located on islands: Montreal Island, Stevenson Island, and an island off the Venezuelan coast. Finally, and not to be overlooked the "magnetic north" and the title of the novel, Nikolski, a village one of the small Aleutian islands off Alaska. Sounds a bit like a mystery story? In a way, yes, as first time Quebec novelist Nicolas Dickner spins a delightful yarn around his three primary characters, either moving to or through and/or living in Montreal until...
Noah, who, until he was eighteen, lived with his mother a nomadic life in a trailer, crisscrossing the western regions of Canada, arrives in Montreal to study archaeology and discovers the "archaeology of trash" as an intriguing topic, "trash being the artifacts of civilization" and much "fishing" is involved. Joyce, from a long line of Doucettes of dubious reputation in Atlantic Canada, pursues her ambitions to live up to the family's tradition and to become a modern-day pirate. She also goes on fishing expeditions, but of a different kind: she scrounges through industry trash to find all the bits needed to get a workable computer built and much more... Finally, a first person narrator of a kind, who runs a second-hand bookshop also has some fishing to do...
Do these characters link together in some way? Are the connections stronger than strangers meeting in the night? It is for the reader to find out. The author introduces some secondary characters, charming in their own way, who may have to offer some clues or provide connections. Along the way, Dickner's easy-going, ironic style hits a few punches at Canadian multicultural society and the modern way of life. His descriptions are off-beat yet apt, whether he describes certain areas of Montreal or of one of the other islands in the novel. The novel won the 2010 Canada Reads competition, and the sensitive and lively English translation won a major Canadian award. [Friederike Knabe]
Pirates. Trash. Fish. Destiny. Maps. A village, 'inhabited by thirty-six people, five thousand sheep and an indeterminate number of dogs.' What Nikolski lacks in plot, it certainly makes up for in uniqueness of theme and setting. Throughout the novel, the three protagonists remain ignorant of their biological connection but are inexorably linked by nomadism and idiosyncratic obsessions. Noah, an archaeology student, Joyce, a fish-store clerk and an unnamed used bookstore employee all emerge from far-fetched, dysfunctional childhoods as rootless adults living in Montreal. Dickner's characters lack depth and develop little; his saving grace is a whimsical, quirky style that ultimately produces a mostly enjoyable read.
I was initially drawn into this novel - in the beginning, the characters were developed as quirky, compelling people and I was very interested to see what would happen to them, and what their connections all meant. However, it felt as though the author, at the end, either lost interest or could not decide himself what should happen or what it all meant, or perhaps he felt that the "loose ends" could simply be left and still provide meaning to a reader. Unfortunately, they do not. As a reader, the "loose ends" provided neither meaning or "nuance" but only disappointing flatness and disengagement.
What we are left with in the end is just meaninglessness [SPOILERS BELOW]- all of the characters are left in unclear, unresolved situations less interesting than the ones they started in, there are significant gaps and unanswered questions, and absolutely no ties between the characters are explained or drawn out. The novel does not end on a note that creates wonder or imagination - it ends almost on a note of boredom. For example, why create such an interesting, complex character in Joyce and then fail to tell us anything about her motivations for her actions in the last half of the book, what she's done, and why she is going where she is? She starts out as a beautiful, complex young person but ends up being treated as a flat blank. Also, why would Joyce not report the body she found? If she did not, it's incredibly disturbing and bizarre, and distracts from everything we know or could wonder about her. Similarly, Noah starts out as a complex, confused but engaged character and ends up being portrayed oddly dispassionate. What happened to Arizna, her business and why does she demonstrate no love or affection for her son or son's father? And, the Nikolski compass just falls down a vent - and that's it?
It honestly just felt like I had wasted my time caring or bothering with the story.
The book begins with a nameless character who begins a solo journey to Montreal, and begins working at a highly unusual bookstore. His prose is lyrical and intoxicating, the detail captures the heart. The two additional characters (Joyce and Noah) are added to the mix, starting from very different locations and upbringings in Canada, somehow end up with in a few blocks of eachother in downtown Montreal. At a few points in the story these three individuals do interact and affect eachothers lives, but briefly, and never to the extent you would expect or hope, which adds to the intrigue. All three stories are intriguing, slightly surreal and truely captivating. Definately worth the read!,
The first 100 pages of this novel were fantastic. The middle section was enjoyable but seemed to lack the momentum of the beginning. The end was terribly disappointing, to me almost uninspired. I'm kind of amazed that this novel managed to win Canada Reads 2010, mind you this year's selection was a little uninspired so maybe it was appropriate.
Maybe this book will grow on me. It may just be quirky enough to win Canada Reads but I can't say I'll put it as one of my favourites. The following comments contain spoilers so read no further if you haven't read the book.
The title refers to a small town (village or hamlet may be more appropriate) on an island in the Aleutian peninsula. It was the site of one of the Distance Early Warning (DEW) line outposts established during the Cold War. It's the place where Noah's father, Jonas Doucet, ended his travels. Jonas is also the father of the part-time narrator of the story. And Jonas is probably Joyce Doucet's uncle or cousin. Noah, Joyce and the narrator come together in Montreal in the 1990's. The narrator has always lived in Montreal but Noah was raised on the prairies with his peripatetic mother driving an old car and trailer from place to place. Joyce grew up on the island of Tete-a-la-Baleine but ran away from the island to discover what happened to her mother. She wants to be a pirate like her ancestors but she settles for working in a fish shop in Montreal to pay her rent until she gets the pirate gig going. Noah has come to attend university (never mind that he has never gone to school -- that's just an insignificant detail I guess) and he intends to study archeology. He ends up sharing rooms above the fish shop with one of the owners. The narrator is a clerk in a used book store in the same neighbourhood. Their paths cross all the time but the three never seem to discover their shared origins.
Noah is the first of the trio to leave Montreal. He goes to live with his lover, Arizna, on a small island off Venezuela and help care for their son, Simon. Abruptly he has to take Simon and leave the island when it appears Arizna's grandfather may be bringing the law down on them. He returns to Montreal with Simon after spending some time in the Newark airport. There his path crosses Joyce's who is also fleeing from the law. When he gets to Montreal one of the first places he goes is to the book store to buy dinosaur books for Simon. The narrator serves him, perhaps one of his last customers because he has decided it is time to leave Montreal. The narrator has been cleaning out his apartment and has brought to the store some of his books. One of them is the curious book that is an amalgam of three books with no cover. Noah sees the book and instantly recognizes it as the one that his father left behind and which he brought to Montreal with him. In a more predictable novel this would be the time the half brothers discover their relationship but not in Nikolski. Noah just fishes out the map that was originally part of the book and gives it to the narrator. THE END
The mysterious book is a metaphor or perhaps a guide for the three main characters. The first book portion is a study on treasure hunting which could be likened to archeologists digs and is perhaps why Noah chose archeology as his field of study. The second portion is a historical treatise on pirates of the Caribbean. That is certainly meant for Joyce who read that section in the narrator's apartment the night before she left Montreal. The final portion is from a biography of Alexander Selkirk who was shipwrecked on a Pacific island and whose exploits inspired Daniel Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe. The unnamed narrator could be likened to Alexander perhaps since he has been stuck in one spot with very little human interaction.
There is a recurring theme of garbage in Nicolas. In the prologue the narrator is cleaning out his mother's bungalow and has thrown out 30 garbage bags. Joyce goes dumpster diving to find computers and computer parts to patch together a working computer so that she can commit her twentieth century piracy. Noah's thesis advisor is an acknowledged expert on the archeology of garbage and Noah himself would like to do his thesis in this field. What gets thrown out by people is sometimes all we have to go on to figure out how they lived. There is also the saying "One person's junk is another person's treasure." Probably most people would have looked at the Book with No Name and called it junk but for Noah, Joyce and the narrator it was a treasure map.