A generation-spanning debut novel of unintended pregnancies and imperfect chosen families, winner of the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize, by a black Canadian writer.
In the late 1970s, two people meet in a Toronto hospital, where their dying mothers share the same room. That seems to be as far as their similarities extend: Edgar Gross is a wealthy, early-middle-aged white German man who works for his family’s company, while Felicia Shaw is a 19-year-old black high school student originally from a “small unrecognized island.” Felicia’s mother dies and Edgar’s is eventually discharged, but the two strike up a romance that is by turns affectionately teasing and rancorous. But soon Felicia finds out Edgar is married and then that she’s pregnant; Edgar tries to force her to have an abortion, and Felicia moves out. A decade and a half later, Felicia and her 15-year-old son, Army, live in part of a house shared by their landlord, Oliver, and his two children. In alternating sections, Williams (Personals, 2012, etc.) roves among the perspectives of the people living at 55 Newcourt— Felicia, drawn in yet again by Edgar, who’s facing allegations of sexual harassment at his company; Army, who lusts after Oliver’s 16-year-old daughter, Heather, and concocts various get-rich-quick schemes that rely mostly on his peers’ money; Oliver, who can’t stop thinking about his recent, acrimonious divorce; and Heather, who flirts with Army and a skinny shelf stocker at the local mall. But when Heather is raped and becomes pregnant, the residents of 55 Newcourt band together to take care of her. The novel contains a sly but sharp critique of power, in which women are forced to shoulder the failings, large and small, of white men—“[Edgar] stood in the doorway of the living room, calling for Felicia, whining the last syllable, waiting, as if he had forgotten how to take off his coat”—whose internal monologues are self-absorbed and un-self-consciously racist: “Her people killed each other as punctuation,” Edgar thinks of Felicia. But what pulls the reader along are Williams’ playful, brilliant formal innovations: song lyrics annotated from Heather’s point of view, a bravura section organized in the form of a numbered list that cycles through each character’s stream-of-consciousness and humanizes everyone involved. The last section, by contrast, drags as it attempts to tie together the novel’s themes into a neat yet unsatisfying bow.
A witty, formally thrilling family saga that feels about 100 pages too long.