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by Michael Redhill
Doubleday Canada, September 2017
288 pages
$32.00 CAD
ISBN: 0385684835

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

As the novel opens, the protagonist, Jean Mason, seems as plain and uncomplicated as her name. She is a wife, mother, and proprietor of a bookshop in Toronto's Kensington Market. The only slight oddity is the name she's chosen for the store - it's called Bookshop - which might strike the reader as excessively non-committal. But then, one spring morning, her doppelganger problem, as Jean would put it, begins.

A regular customer bursts into the shop, screaming at Jean for not telling the truth about being elsewhere a few minutes ago. Before she knows it, he has leapt on her, trying to tear off her hair, which he thinks is a wig. He seems both perfectly sincere and terribly shaken by the entire incident. But when Jean tries to get in touch with him later to see if he's all right, he will not return her calls.

Nor is he the only person to accuse Jean of being someone else. A woman vendor of Guatemalan pupusas bursts into the shop and accuses her of being a Llorona - a spirit that tries to abduct children. Like her previous customer, this woman says Jean has a twin, identical except that her hair is shorter, named Ingrid.

Jean is intrigued or perhaps obsessed and determined to encounter her doppelganger, Ingrid. Increasingly she deserts her business and sometimes even her home to hang out in Bellevue Square, that Toronto refuge for the stoned, desperate, disturbed, or simply bemused that I understand is now being tidied by the city. Jean is fascinated by the people she observes and becomes increasingly involved in some of their lives. She hands out sums of money in the hopes of finding Ingrid, but to no avail. (She appears to have rather a lot of money for a bookshop proprietor, by the way.)

As might be expected for anyone who encounters her doppelganger, things deteriorate very rapidly somewhere about the middle of the book. Jean falls apart, especially after finding herself suspected of murder, a murder that she thinks was committed by Ingrid. But the book also turns into an intriguing, if ultimately unresolved play on the notion of identity, further complicated when Ingrid Fox becomes conflated with Inger Ash Wolfe. As some of you will know, this is the name Michael Redhill uses for the series of mysteries he writes starring Hazel Micallef, the post-menopausal police detective from Port Dundas, Ontario.

BELLEVUE SQUARE shares with the Hazel Micallef series a peculiarly divided quality. Hazel is a sensible, down to earth type, not given to flights of fancy and a determined investigator. The plot lines she must pursue, the crimes she investigates, are altogether baroque, thoroughly improbable among the rows of corn of Hazel's fictional Ontario county.

If Redhill hoped to narrow this breach by springing his authorial alter ego loose in what is decidedly a non-genre fiction, it doesn't seem to have worked. The book is still split and a resolution remains elusive. On the other hand, it is a fascinating exercise, one written with style and verve. And Redhill has certainly researched his doppelgangers and the neural afflictions that might account for their appearance. As is also true of the detective series, we will grant Redhill a considerable degree of tolerance because he delights and intrigues, even if he sometimes leaves us a few feet short of solid ground.

Even before it was officially published, BELLEVUE SQUARE was long-listed for the very prestigious Canadian Giller Prize and now appears on the short list. It will be interesting to see what the judges make of it.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, September 2017

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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