All the Things We Leave Behind / Riel Nason
Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, c2016.
It's the summer of 1977, and seventeen-year-old Violet has been left in charge of The Purple Barn, her family's antique shop in tiny Hawkshaw, New Brunswick. Her parents are "on vacation" -- actually, they are on the trail of her older brother Bliss, who disappeared a few days after his high school graduation.
Violet has to navigate running the antique store, keeping an older employee within the limits of her role, negotiating for the purchase of a local and much coveted estate, hanging out with her boyfriend Dean, sharing a cottage with her best friend Jill, and managing her memories of Bliss and her guilt at letting him disappear without a word.
She figures out a lot about herself and her close relationship with her beloved brother in the few weeks that she is left to manage on her own. But she's never really on her own; part of the story is centred in the relationships that she has, those that help her continue on despite her guilt and uncertainty about her part in Bliss' leaving. Her friends and some of the people she knows through their store, including the staff and a local hermit who makes twig furniture for them to sell, are all part of her wider support system, whether she recognized that at first or not.
The antique shop serves as both a marvellous, realistic setting (Nason was once an antiques dealer herself) and a perfect metaphor. Violet notes that many customers simply love buying antiques because they desire something that has a history, that holds the past in tangible form. For herself, though:
Having a reminder, a souvenir, to help you remember is great, but I
think the best memories are through a special door in your mind that you
can open without a key.
Through the process of opening this mental door and accessing the memories, Violet gives us the history of her family's past, in a warm, thoughtful way, full of sensory and emotional detail. She is a strong character, able to carry the weight of this entire narrative. Their family is drawn clearly, and each of them is shown as a believable and complex individual. Bliss' struggles with a darkness that sweeps over him are explained, and connected to the image of the boneyard, the repulsive burying pit deep in the forest in which the Department of Transportation dumps roadkill -- the boneyard which Bliss and Violet stumble across when they are 9 & 10, an experience which never leaves them.
There are multiple threads woven through this story, from Bliss to Violet to others in the community, including the Vaughns who disappeared a decade ago after a family tragedy, and whose estate Violet is now hoping to buy. There is also a strong thread linking Violet's story to that of the drowned town of Haventon, flooded out by a dam project a decade previously -- the story of which is the focus of Nason's first book, The Town That Drowned.
There is a lot more in this book, but you'll have to read it to get the full immersive experience. It is redolent of the 70s, so if you like the idea of summer, the 70s, a coming of age story, family dynamics and lots and lots of quilts and antiques, pick this one up. It's full of vibrant images, both horrible and beautiful, that stick with a reader.
This kind of reminds me of Vicky Grant's Small Bones, another Canadian novel (set in 1964 however) which features a strong young woman living at a resort-like place (this one in Ontario), dealing with her boyfriend and family secrets over the length of a summer. It is less haunting than Nason's but also an enjoyable read.