Kate Story's debut novel Blasted is simply sensational—
The protagonist, Ruby, grows up in St. John's, Newfoundland, in the shadow of the Southside Hill. Her mom's fretful, her dad's a little strange, her grandparents, who live next door, are stern and disapproving. She's an outcast amongst her peers, or just feels like one. She deals with these, so far not overly threatening circumstances, by joining the neighborhood juvenile delinquent club—
The Southside milieu is faithfully described. We feel we are in the kitchen with Ruby and her family, the tea kettle always screeching, while storm clouds roll across the Hill outside the back window. The little patch of backyard garden, with its walls constantly falling down and constantly being repaired, serves as a kind of metaphor for the Things Out There which can be appeased but never truly held at bay. There are times we feel we might be reading a Victorian novel; the descriptions are detailed and the plot advances slowly. However, this in some way suits what Story is describing: the endlessly tainted relationships of a loving yet complicated family with its feet firmly rooted in the past.
A blasted family.
There is another side to Ruby. Sometimes on her walks she sees things: a circle of women dressed in white. They're there, and then they're not. She obsesses over Shanawdithit, the last of the Beothuks, an indigenous Newfoundland tribe. We begin to understand that Ruby's later violence and promiscuity are a kind of overcompensation. That and the fact that in the winter her father seems almost another person entirely. He eats a great deal and hides in the bedroom. He becomes moody. His eyes get a flat cast to them, a kind of I'm-not-here look. This causes a lot of tension and whispering in the family.
These Newfoundland chapters are intercut with those in which, after her move to Toronto, Ruby spends several more years drinking and having casual sex, supporting herself as a diner waitress while she does so. She hangs out with a downtown arty crowd including Cree multi-media artist Blue and the older Irish painter Brendan. Both are quite successful. We are not entirely sure why they include Ruby, who is prone to long melancholic navel-gazing binges, interspersed with occasionally violent navel-gazing binges.
Then we find out her parents died in a car crash when Ruby was ten. This helps to explain. Ruby's grandmother dies and she flies home to Newfoundland, where she cooks for her taciturn grandfather and finally gets to know his sister, Aunt Queenie, heretofore ostracized. Queenie hints at the family secrets; the bad blood Ruby has been conscious of all her life. Ruby remembers strange moments, finds peculiar photographs, and can't get full answers from anyone.
She goes back to Toronto, to her so-called life.
And here it is, almost as if Blasted turns into a different book. It stops being a well-crafted first novel about family secrets, alcoholism, the Toronto Queen Street crowd and Newfoundland fairy lore and becomes instead a strange, shining, souring thing brimming with beauty and terror, pain and love, insight and redemption, even its language transforming. Story begins to take real risks with her prose, fledging big, sparkly, poetic wings. The pace picks up, and how.
On the surface, Blasted is about a fairy-led family; a curse which usually skips generations. The fantastical elements, including a flock of terrifying fairy pigeons that break and enter into Blue's Toronto loft where Ruby has been hiding out, are seamlessly done. The switch from realism to fantasy is always believable; the poetic imagery of the fantastic is created in brushstrokes which are lush, dangerous, seductive and tragic.
Kind of like Them.
There is, however, a third book here. While the supernatural lore is both thoroughly researched and wonderfully described, Blasted is also a metaphorical story about intergenerational family problems. The fact that there are secrets can cause trauma in and of itself. The young person sees herself as the family victim, but as she grows older, learns compassion. Her friends help. What do you do with your pain? In this second half there are paragraphs almost transcendent in their beauty and insight. We are left with multiple possible interpretations, much as in Shirley Jackson's beautiful novella We Have Always Lived in The Castle.
Hence, Blasted is neither quite a mainstream nor a genre novel—
The first chapters, describing her childhood and her drinking adventures as a young adult in Toronto, could have been further edited. We don't really need to know quite as much as we are told. It slows the pace and Ruby occasionally strikes us as a little self-involved. We no longer feel that way at the end, by which time Ruby is heroic in her survival and her triumph. I wish we had seen this side of her a little sooner, to keep us interested. However, this kind of thematic and stylistic weaving is challenging, and given the complexity and ambition of this beautiful first novel, it is a pretty minor quibble.
Lovers of literary fantasy or magic realist fiction including The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, John Crowley's Little, Big, Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Tomson Highway's Kiss of The Fur Queen are sure to love this book.