by Mikella Nicol
translated by Lesley Trites
Esplanade Books, 2019
It’s May in Montreal, and the city is in the throes of an unrelenting and unseasonable heatwave. As much as the characters themselves, the oppressive heat and humidity play a central role in Mikella Nicol’s brief but intense novel, igniting passions, shining a glaring light on regret, and inciting to rash behaviour and bad decisions.
Aphelia is dating boyfriend Julien, a successful and upwardly mobile advertising professional. To all appearances, she’s living a cozy existence ensconced in Julien’s immaculate condo: pure, white walls, luxurious sheets, fancy espresso machine (“Louis joked that I’d changed social class”). All that changes one sultry Friday night, when Mia walks into the hole-in-the-wall bar where Aphelia is drinking with best friend Louis:
“Conversations were floating all around us, but I was incapable of focusing on any of them. They didn’t interest me. Everyone else was only distracting me from Mia. I wanted to talk to her until the night disappeared.”
That encounter sets off a chain reaction that Aphelia is at once powerless to resist and terrified will be her undoing. Drawn to Mia like a June bug to a porch light, she begins a slow but steady drift away from Julien and their easy life, but one that she’s never felt at ease inhabiting:
“The blood was flowing, reminding me that each month I had to reinvent myself, become a brand-new person, a stranger to myself.”
Blood, along with alcohol and sweat, is a recurring theme in this compact novel, which jumps back and forth between Aphelia’s comfortable but rapidly unravelling present and her not‑too-distant past: the boozing and bed-hopping in an effort to find herself and fill a void (“I would have much preferred to find another way to paint my own portrait than through my lovers, but I didn’t know how”), the spectre of an abusive ex-boyfriend who still has an inexplicable hold over her, and the morally questionable genesis of her relationship with Julien.
That same scorching summer, a young woman goes missing in Montreal. The highly mediatized case becomes the backdrop for the thrilling obsession between Aphelia and Mia that threatens to upend Aphelia’s life, setting her on a course of destruction and self-sabotage.
This book was a pleasure to read, at times stark and haunting and at others wonderfully descriptive as to almost feel the sweat trickling down your back. The translation by Lesley Trites is on point and flows easily and naturally. This novel can be read in one great gulp, but that doesn’t take away from the punch that it packs. In just over a hundred pages, the author plunges us into the psyche of a vulnerable young woman desperate for love and acceptance whose relationship modus operandi (“The mystery followed by the chase, the impetus, taking, stealing, pilfering from the other what I needed to live, and doing it all over again if it wasn’t enough for me anymore. Starting again with sex, love, oblivion.”) has trapped her in a vicious cycle of her own making.
Without giving anything away, I’m still not quite sure what to make of the ending. Let’s just say the heatwave finally breaks and a sense of relief falls over the city and Aphelia. But, as with the weather, it’s always the worst wallops that you never see coming.
Review by Ann Marie Boulanger