Weekly Reads: Kalila by Rosemary Nixon

Welcome back to Weekly Reads! And if I’m less playful than usual today, well, it’s because I’m reviewing a book about a deathly ill newborn baby. You are forewarned.

What I read this week reminds me that I should be talking about style. The Selection series pulls a lot from The Hunger Games trilogy, so the first person present point of view was easy to gloss over (though, let’s point out, much less necessary: present tense is justified in THG by Collins’ spot-on action sequences, whereas The Selection series loses all sense of immediacy by having anything abrupt become routine).

But some people have love or hate relationships with certain stylistic aspects, so if I’m the kind of reviewer who can actually help you decide whether you’d want to read something, I’m probably better off mentioning those things, right?

Full disclosure: I am somewhat acquainted with the author of Kalila from one of her writer-in-residence stints—she’s a kind lady and an awesome editor and I should’ve read this book five years ago but here we are.

Second full disclosure: I love all the perspectives and tenses, I think, so at least in that way, I have an open book palette. (I’d be terrible as a judge on competitive cooking shows because I loathe onions and they’re in everything. In terms of books, I can’t think of a style or form, at least, that I wouldn’t eat. Read. Whatever.)

In any case: on to Kalila.

Plot: Our first-person narrator, Maggie, has her baby Kalila prematurely, and a harrowing journey follows as her entire world becomes the neonatal hospital room. Brodie, the second-person narrator, is her husband, trying to carry on day-to-day with his job as a physics teacher and uncertainly a father. The third-person narrator, much less frequent, is a doctor attending to Kalila’s case; he tries to come up with a prognosis while he struggles with his personal life. I’m not honestly sure the doctor adds that much to this book; there’s a level of interest in seeing this from an outside and more medical perspective, but this particular guy doesn’t give us a very unique voice, though he hands us a few metaphors about hunting/death. All in all, I might have preferred a nurse perspective from the neonatal unit. Anyway. I was more or less satisfied with the pacing and ups and downs in this book and how they resolved, with some few exceptions.

Style: So yeah, this books shifts from first person (I) to second person (you) to third person (in this case, he). It follows this conceit pretty steadily until after the climax of the book, when it zooms out to third person for everyone. I understand the function of that but I’m not sure how I feel about it or the rapid pace of the novel as it quickly ties up (or deliberately leaves unravelled) loose ends, because I feel like it runs a little too far and too fast with that. But up until then, the changing perspective dovetails beautifully with the level of distance each perspective character has from Kalila. The mother, home with no child, with nothing to do but ruminate over the situation; the father, on the outside looking in at other people continuing to live and be happy but also dwelling halfway in a world with his almost-lost daughter; the doctor, dealing with a case—not without sympathy, but without much personal involvement. I like when the form supports the content organically and this is a great case for that. Aside from this, the sentences are sharp and poignant and would often be worth reading even if they weren’t arranged into this tense, absorbing kind of story.

Setting: Calgary is incorporated beautifully into this novel if you’re into pathetic fallacy and the completely ridiculous climate of that city. (I’ve lived there, so admittedly I’m biased in my ability to appreciate it. Literally, anyway.) The period of time is somewhat confusingly indeterminate—I was guessing based on the distractions of the teens in the classroom not being electronic and the references to people calling each other on landlines that it was pre-cellular, but somewhere in the later part of the book, Brodie uses one. Details like this tend to bother me because I like situating people in a time, but it’s possible there’s some cue I missed.

Characters: Kalila feels both like a character study and like a book that tells us nothing about the characters at all at once. Mostly it spends time with Maggie and Brodie, and mostly Maggie struggles with her feelings about Kalila and her frustration in giving voice to them. Brodie deals largely by channeling his energy into talking around or indirectly about his fears and hopes, through science or fairy tales or other familiar languages. So I got the sense of how these two deal with a crisis—usually quite separately—but not necessarily a sense of who they were before, who they are outside of that and how they came to be in this relationship (I think this is particularly the case with Maggie). This immersion makes sense for the novel, but does sometimes feel odd—a reader can invest in their struggle before really meeting them because it’s so clearly painful, but then it can become difficult to imagine these characters outside of the situation.

All in all, though there are aspects of this book that didn’t agree with me, it was pretty gorgeously crafted in terms of the tightly controlled sentences, the integration of various metaphors into the narrative to show us what characters wouldn’t say (physics was a through-thread that was surprisingly lovely), and the organic and fitting movement between perspectives. As an artifact of writing, I quite liked this. As a novel, I think it had a few rougher edges, but it’s still a moving telling of a not-often-told story.

This book is, on my vague system of rating, worth a spot on the shelf. (The next order of business is coming up with a rating system, apparently.) See you again this Thursday!

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