There is an entire genre of fiction specializing in unreachable women: women who dissemble, lie, keep terrible secrets of pains inflicted upon them and the pains they, in turn, have inflicted on others, often men. Joyce Carol Oates has made a career of such women; Joan Didion’s fiction centers nearly exclusively on the truly hard cases. Kathryn Harrison writes obsessively of her cruelly remote mother, and her own unreachable tendencies, which she fights valiantly. New Zealander Emily Perkins, a writer deserving greater renown, contributed the stunning Novel about My Wife to the genre. Lesser writers like Josephine Hart and even Sidney Sheldon (ever read The Other side of Midnight?) made stock characters of lovely, destructive creatures.
Emily St. John Mandel’s addition to the unreachables, Last Night in Montreal has all the hallmarks of an extremely irritating novel: it’s set in überhip Brooklyn, amidst the would-be artists and writers who spend most of their time drinking coffee and trying too hard to be unconventional; Lilia, the truly unconventional and unreachable heroine, is pretty, inexplicable, and prone to unusual behaviors, like staying out all night in the rain, taking photographs with a waterproof camera.
She does nothing with these photos except take them; unlike the people surrounding her—her boyfriend, Eli, his friends Geneviève and Thomas—Lilia professes no grand intentions. She works nights as a dishwasher in a Thai restaurant; she spends her days wandering parks, riding trains, and reading books in one of the four languages she is fluent in. She is fond of long showers and even longer baths, where she painstakingly tweezes her body hair.
Eli, a frustrated graduate student of lost languages, adores Lilia, even as he probes her mysterious character. And this is where Last Night in Montreal distinguishes itself from the unreachable ladies genre: Lilia tells Eli everything. The story, which unfolds over the course of the novel, is bizarre enough to be nothing but true. And Emily St. John Mandel is a terrific writer, so good that even the furthest reaches of her tale make perfect sense. The totality is a novel far transcending the potential to irritate.
When Lilia Albert was seven-years-old, her father abducted her. He did this by tossing glass at her bedroom window in the middle of the night, waking her. He found the glass on the lawn of the home where Lilia lived with her mother and half-brother, Simon. The glass came from a shattered kitchen window, left open to Canada’s searing cold.
Lilia, wakened, looked out her bedroom window, and wearing nothing but her pajamas, tiptoed down the steps and out the front door, where her father picked her up and carried her to his waiting car. The two dashed across the border, into the States, where they traveled nonstop for the next nine years.
When the Canadian police chase goes cold, Lilia’s mother hires a private investigator, who in turn taps the best detective he knows, a man named Christopher Graydon. Graydon’s initial interest in the case blooms into obsession.
Graydon is a talented investigator, the rare sort who locates patterns where others see only hopeless tangles, but his connection to Lilia is utterly other: he immediately and ever after knows her location. n the colored lines of an unfolded map he can spot her: in Utah or New Mexico or an Arizona motel. He follows her around the country for years, the two weirdly aware of each other. Yet he never turns her father in, for reason explained at the novel’s conclusion.
Though Lilia is unreachable, she does not glory in her otherness. Rather, she is powerless over it. A childhood spent in cars, in diners and nowhere motels, at times hiding in the backseat or, in the early days of her abduction, sneaking out hotel windows, embeds in her an unbearable restlessness.
When she turns 16, her father meets Clara, waitress in Stillspell, New Mexico, and moves in with her. Lilia adores Clara, who happily accepts this odd pair into her formerly lonely life. After years of staring out car windows, of a scattershot education picked up by days spent in libraries and vocabulary drills on the highway, Lilia is finally in that thing she always wondered about: a real home. Her father, visibly relieved, settles in.
But Lilia cannot stay. Later, trying to explain to Eli, she asks him to “try to imagine… I don’t know how to stay.”
So it is she resumes her wandering, leaving her father in Stillspell, moving across the country alone, leaving a string of low-level jobs and lovers behind. San Diego, St. Louis, Minneapolis. Denver, New Orleans, Savannah, Miami. Portland. Chicago, where she meets Erica. Lilia loves Erica, but love isn’t enough. Erica is the last person she will ever tell she is leaving.
By the time she asks Eli to imagine her plight, she has already decided to leave him. When she does, telling him she is going to get the paper, he is deep in his thesis:
“He was hunting just then, hot on the trail of something obscure, tracking a rare butterfly-like quotation as it fluttered through thickets of dense tropical paragraphs…” by now it is afternoon, and worry is worming its way in Eli’s consciousness. But he dismisses it:
“He told himself to stay calm… With this in mind, he returned reluctantly to the chase; a particular sentence has gotten all coiled up on him, and he spent an uneasy half hour trying to untangle the writing…while several academic points he was trying to clarify got bored and wandered off into the middle distance…But by the time the paragraph arrived at the station it was five o’clock…and it seemed unreasonable to think that something wasn’t horribly wrong.’
Lilia has vanished, just as his lost languages are vanishing. Bereft, maddened, Eli begins hunting for Lilia. Thomas and Geneviève find his behavior ridiculous until a note from Montreal arrives. Enclosed is a fragment from Lilia, clearly written many years earlier, in a child’s hand: I wish to remain vanishing.
Scrawled across the envelope’s flap is a name, Michaela, an address and a phone number. And so Eli is off to a place where a language is, depending on your point of view, either thriving or dying a slow death by isolation.
Quebec’s language wars—and they are indeed wars—are so fraught that there are actual laws against speaking English in Montreal. There are phone lines where one may report English speaking in commercial establishments. The language itself, thousands of miles from its homeland, has grown far from its mother country’s tongue.
To watch a hockey game broadcast from Montreal (I am married to a Canadian) is to see the national anthem, “O Canada”, sung entirely in defiant French. For years many of the Province’s denizens were outraged that the Montreal Canadiens Team Captain, the Finnish Saku Koivu, spoke English (which he’d learned in Finland) but no French. Every year French Canadian hockey players enter the league unable to speak a word of English. Nobody finds this any more unusual than the arrival of a Russian or Czech player lacking English skills.
Eli’s arrival in Montreal sets past and present spinning into collision. Lilia has no recall of her life before age seven; Michaela, Christopher Graydon’s daughter, has made Lilia’s file her business, for it was Lilia’s case that finally shattered the Graydon marriage: Michaela’s mother abandoned the family, while Christopher spent months at a time traveling the United States, leaving the teenaged Michaela alone in the house, wiring money into her bank account.
Now an adult, Michaela’s life is grim. A pill addict and exotic dancer, she lives in the filthy club where she works, rarely sleeping. She promises Eli knowledge of Lilia’s location, but at a great price: a truth about Christopher that will betray Lilia. After two weeks of freezing, sleepless nights drinking tea with the rambling, strung-out Michaela, Eli finally capitulates, telling her what she longs to know. Michaela, in turn, tells both Eli and Lilia what they wish to know—separately.
Both Eli and Lilia will emerge changed people from the experience, though perhaps only Eli truly survives, finally becoming what he most longs to be: a person who acts, who truly lives in the world, rather than a morose, over-caffeinated graduate student pursuing a dead-end thesis. As for Lilia, one of fiction’s great unreachable ladies, she, too, survives—unreachables often do—but at a price, for true love is impossible at great distances.