Culture & Conversation

Of Sweet Loves and Sadnesses

The flutter of butterfly wings upsetting the air can eventually cause a hurricane. The flutter of thoughts, desires, and impressions, peer dynamics and adolescent insecurities upsetting the norm of the everyday can eventually cause disasters, in a way that scars us for life. Set in a prestigious Ottawa boarding school, Colin McAdam’s second novel delves into the lives of two roommates: Noel, son of Canadian diplomats living in Australia, and Julius, son of the American ambassador to Canada (living in Ottawa).

Both love the belle of the school, Fall; Julius, however, is her boyfriend, and Noel but a secret worshipper.

Julius is at the center of the story, even though Noel’s perspective is more frequently presented. Julius is the loved one: by Fall, by the school, by throngs of friends. Noel, on the other hand, is marginalized, away from parents since grade eight, unpopular, hiding his lazy eye and burying his loneliness under loads of books and weight training. Noel’s love for Fall is the axis of the first half of the book, but in the second part it starts to seem like a side effect. When Fall disappears about halfway through the story, Noel’s reaction is surprisingly mild. That’s because Julius is still there. It turns out that Noel loves Fall in order to approach his true object, Julius—to be with him, to be like him, to be him. Sensing this development, we remember Noel’s habits of wearing Julius’s clothing, polishing his shoes. At a café, we hear the server announce “Hot chocolate for Julius!” when it is Noel who ordered the drink for himself.

But why? To be Julius is to be loved, something Noel has been denied. His parents are aloof, preoccupied with themselves; his lazy eye and serious air turn his peers off. Noel is not really in love with Julius; Noel is in love with love.

Noel doesn’t understand any of this, and lets events unfold spontaneously, led by impulses of the moment. He isn’t conscious of the effect his actions are having, unintentionally setting the stage for a disaster.

McAdam’s storytelling is talented, brisk, with an edge; sometimes dreary in its thought-following approach, but with undeniable purpose, fine language, and skill. He wields an amazing gift for observing and imagining things and situations. Places and people seem close, familiar. Emotions are real, very human. He embraces sadness, an emotion often shunned as inappropriate in our culture (or wrongly euphemized as “depression”); he even mentions the word frequently, weaves the feeling into the narrative, into the characters, reintroducing its beauty—and humanity—to the reader. Expect to be left with a touch of sweet sadness every time you close the book.

The boarding school atmosphere is captured well and the characters are well developed. There’s a prince, a beauty, and a beast, a classical twist, but the resolution and the explicit content are no fairy-tale material; the ending is logical, real, but not what many will hope for. It lets kids become grownups—with little of grownups’ guidance, love, and comfort—and leaves them with inevitable scars.

Danijel Matijević is a member of the editorial board of The Panoptique, a multi-disciplinary journal based in Montreal. He received his MA from McGill University and is currently working on a project focusing on memories of the Holocaust.

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