Culture & Conversation

Learning to love the bomb

Nuclear weapon test Romeo on Bikini Atoll.

Nuclear weapon test Romeo on Bikini Atoll.

The Age, by Nancy Lee, McClelland and Stewart

Ronald Reagan is the U.S. president, and Cold War tensions are running high, with Soviet warships sailing the Atlantic. Gerry is a Vancouver teenager, wounded on the inside and pissed off on the outside. Abandoned by her father, bullied at school, bored at home, she suffers from nuclear anxiety that she soothes with weed and beer when she can get them. She is spending spring break with a variety of inappropriate acquaintances.

Nancy Lee puts the reader right inside Gerry’s experience, evoking that time in a teenager’s life when there’s no one you’re really sure you like or who you’re sure really likes you. You’re not even sure who you really are, making every moment a painful struggle to fit in, even though you don’t know where you want to fit or how to do it. Nebulous erotic energy drives you, but you don’t know how to steer it. No one understands you.

The Age starts out tense and gets tenser. Gerry hangs out with a handful of people planning to set off a bomb at a peace march (what could go wrong?). Gerry is just a kid, a hanger-on, but she keeps showing up, inserting herself into their plans and into their dysfunctional personal relationships. Inexplicably, they let her do this. She has nerve to spare, and dogged persistence.

Lee is a deft wordsmith and a keen observer of people. (“Gerry knows not to expect an apology, her mom’s makeup tactic has always been effervescent amnesia.”) The portrait she draws of a teenager emerging into herself and into the wider world, betrayed by every adult around her, absorbed in their own battles even when well-meaning, is realistically unforgiving. The brutality Gerry takes in – and dishes out – is only intensified by her sharp wit.

But for all its effective and sensually detailed realism, The Age takes the reader by surprise with its baffling second plotline of post-nuclear disaster. Interspersed with scenes from Gerry’s life, and featuring an unnamed boy and girl, this dystopian fantasy (or is it alternative history?) is clearly related to Gerry’s nuclear anxiety, but it is hard to see how the two stories are supposed to inform each other. Although the post-nuclear story is highly engaging, with a little writerly sleight-of-hand to draw the two plots together by making us briefly unsure of which story we are in, this secondary story ends up feeling rather like one of those half-formed miniatures you sometimes find inside a ripe pepper.

There is too much left unexplained in this book. Lee is so good at describing things from up close that sometimes she forgets the bigger picture. Aside from the dystopian storyline, we are never told exactly how old Gerry is or what her relationships are to the plotters. (The cover flap tells us the character Ian is her best friend, but I didn’t know that from reading the book.) Why she isn’t in school is also kept a mystery (her mother mentions that it’s spring break, but only near the end.)

All in all, The Age offers a sharply observed and sensitive portrayal of a smart, complex teenaged girl and the problematic world around her.

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Elise Moser’s YA novel Lily and Taylor was published by Groundwood Books. She is the editor of the forthcoming anthology of Quebec Writing Competition-winning stories Salut King Kong: New English Stories from Quebec, from Véhicule Press.

– photo:  United States Department of Energy, Wikimedia Commons


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