Last Night In Montreal is Emily St. John Mandel’s debut novel, but you’d never know it. From pretty much the first page, it had me completely under its spell.
I went into this not really knowing what it was about. Just a vague idea that it would be your basic relationship story, but a bit better because, you know, Emily St. John Mandel. It quickly became apparent that this book was going to be so much more.
Our main characters are Lilia and Eli. The book is mainly about Lilia, but we see things more from Eli’s perspective as he tries to solve the mystery that is Lilia. Her unknown past, her obsessive habits, her strange midnight disappearances and the odd lists Eli finds among her belongings. She is there, but in a way also not there, as if she exists in two spaces simultaneously but belongs to neither.
The book slowly introduces threads of Lilia’s life story, carefully unspooling her past a little bit at a time. At first I was a bit skeptical about Lilia. I worried that she would become a manic pixie dream girl, or that she would turn out not to be worth the drama that surrounded her. But as it turns out, she was a more complex character than I expected – but more to the point, in trying to learn about her, I learned about the people who surrounded her. Each contributed something to the search for Lilia’s past, but they also brought their own stories to the page, and in learning about Lilia through their eyes, we also learned something of each of them.
This book was quite different from the majority of books I’ve read before that are centered around a mystery. The thing about this book is that it’s neither thriller nor literary fiction. It defies both genres, but belongs equally in both. Just when it seems to stray further into one, it is pulled back. The balance in this book is incredibly maintained, and the plotting is so skillfully done that it didn’t lag at any point, but it also progressed deliberately, never rushing, never giving away more than it needed to. This careful pacing is, I think, what made Lilia work as much as the story itself.
The writing deserves to be discussed further, because it is absolutely stunning. So many lines and paragraphs had me stop reading to go back and savour every word. The characters are beautifully developed – we are given enough back story and flaws to believe them, but not so much as to make them feel unsympathetic. But the real star of the show was how the setting was created. Mandel took us on an epic journey (literally) and perfectly balanced her scenery to reflect the emotional state of the characters, the sense of menace and danger, and the loneliness and desolation of searching and not finding. Her landscapes meant I could feel my way into the characters and really see the story unfolding as if I were standing slightly off to the side, in it but not part of it.
One of the things I absolutely loved about this book is that it focused on how our childhoods shape us, for better or for worse (or, more often, both). It looks at how everything echoes down through our lives, and how we must all struggle to come to terms with the legacy left to us by our parents and our parents’ parents. It also explores the adaptability of children and how the love of a devoted parent means a willingness to sacrifice everything to keep their child safe.
In short, this book is very difficult to review but absolutely wonderful. I have very little to criticize here, and was stunned that this is a debut. It’s every bit as good as Station Eleven – even better in some ways – which is high praise since Station Eleven was one of my favourite books of 2014. I found the same attention to detail, internal consistency, careful structure and chillingly realistic worldbuilding here. It is a rare book that can be read by those searching for different things, and fully satisfy them all. This is such a book. I highly recommend it, and I cannot wait to get to the other two St. John Mandel books on my shelves.
Lilia Albert has been leaving people behind for her entire life. She spends her childhood and adolescence traveling constantly and changing identities. In adulthood, she finds it impossible to stop. Haunted by an inability to remember her early childhood, she moves restlessly from city to city, abandoning lovers along with way, possibly still followed by a private detective who has pursued her for years. Then her latest lover follows her from New York to Montreal, determined to learn her secrets and make sure she’s safe. Last Night in Montreal is a story of love, amnesia, compulsive travel, the depths and the limits of family bonds, and the nature of obsession.
In this extraordinary debut, Emily St. John Mandel casts a powerful spell that captures the reader in a gritty, youthful world—charged with an atmosphere of mystery, promise and foreboding—where small revelations continuously change our understanding of the truth and lead to desperate consequences. Mandel’s characters will resonate with you long after the final page is turned. – Goodreads
Book Title: Last Night In Montreal
Author: Emily St. John Mandel
Published By: Unbridled Books
Released: June 7, 2010 (first released January 1, 2009)
Genre: Fiction, Literary Thriller
Date Read: August 28-September 2, 2017