Saturday, May 10, 2014

Review: The Age, by Nancy Lee

Much has been made of Nancy Lee’s 12 years of radio silence. She published a colossally successful collection of short fiction called Dead Girls back in 2002, and then nothing else until this past winter. I was a grad student when Dead Girls came out and read it in a white heat when it first appeared, having already seen several of its brilliant stories in journals. Even then, I could tell Lee had the chops to handle the expansiveness of a novel, and like so many other Canadian readers I waited – and waited, and waited – until she published one.

Unfortunately, what emerged from this long hiatus has left me a bit underwhelmed. The Age is no doubt well-written and imaginative in certain sections, but overall I found myself not nearly as captivated by its characters as I was by those in Dead Girls. The Age is set in 1984 and tells the story of Gerry, a 14-year-old girl who falls in with a group of anti-nuclear war activists looking to use a bomb to commit an act of violent vandalism during a peace march. In the build-up to this event, we get a tour of Gerry’s troubled family situation: the absent father, the eccentric grandfather, the neglectful mother and her difficult new boyfriend. We also learn of Gerry’s obsessions with nuclear holocaust, and much of the novel details an imagined post-apocalyptic world of her own creation.

These various threads don’t really fit well enough together and makes much of the reading a slog. Lee is capable to producing some lovely lyrical writing, but I felt that it was used here to mask some of the more straightforward teenage angst that Gerry is dealing with. Also, the book is riddled with typos (mostly in the form of closing dialogue tags that have gone missing) and other errors. Lee, for example, confuses the movie Alien (with only one monster) with its sequel Aliens, which wasn’t released until 1986. It’s a shame such issues of sloppiness appear in a book that took well over a decade to emerge.

To be fair, The Age does redeem itself in its final act or so. The scene involving a bomb blast at the peace march – and its subsequent fallout (if you forgive the pun) – is genuinely gripping and emotionally devastating. Gerry comes to realize that her abstract obsessions about nuclear war have a genuine consequence on those closest to her. Unfortunately, the (literally) explosive ending isn’t quite enough to make up for what felt like a thin and unengaging read up until then.

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