The Winnipeg Review
The Substitute’ By Nicole Lundrigan
Reviewed by Carlyn Schellenberg
Seasoned Canadian writer Nicole Lundrigan’s latest novel The Substitute has a creepiness factor that stays with you. Told through both the chilling first person perspective of an anonymous narrator and measured third person narration of Warren Botts, a quirky middle school science teacher, the novel centres on a police investigation following Botts’ discovery of his student Amanda hanging dead from a tree in his backyard.
Botts is peculiar—think Fargo’s Lester Nygaard without the sociopathic tendencies. His odd behaviour, along with the fact that the mechanism by which Amanda was hanged is a dead ringer for subject matter in his physics lesson plan, makes Botts the police’s prime suspect. As pressure mounts for the police to solve the case, Botts unravels, even at times “forgetting” about the “ribbons of yellow plastic” marking the crime scene in his backyard, and the community condemns and attacks him. Haunting flashbacks of Botts’ childhood—mostly memories of his father before his traumatic death—and a visit from his addict sister add stress and contribute to his undoing.
Every second paragraph features the unnamed narrator’s coming of age, with their thoughts and actions becoming increasingly disturbing as we watch them grow up. I found this narration much more compelling than Botts’. The narrator’s story is captivating and the character surprisingly endearing. When something bad happens to the narrator, they get their revenge in one way or another. Lundrigans adept at character building: at times the narrator’s despicable behaviour feels vindicated rather than repulsive.
And his smart storytelling is exemplified in the pointed language in these passages. No word is wasted: “Though I could not articulate it, I knew from a very early age that my aunt was a useless slut.” This leads into the story of a tragic childhood: the narrator’s father dies when they are young, their mother is fairly useless as a parent, and we know early on their sister dies as well, we just don’t know when or how. The aunt uses the narrator, who she calls “Kiddle,” and their sister, who they call Button, as “props,” bringing them along when she wants to pick up men; when she has landed a man, she continues to bring them around. The narrator, incredibly intelligent while emotionally vacant, fails to convince their younger, innocent and loving sister not to trust everyone and to hate the world as much as they do—even when everyone around her is rude and demeaning.
When Button is born, the narrator has an aversion to the baby, calling her “it.” This disturbing scene is only the beginning of many hold-your-breath moments in the novel: “My hand crept over the blanket and came to rest just on its mouth. Slightest shift, and my hand moved up over the nub of its nose. Puffs of warm air moved through my mittens, steam between my fingers. I held my hand there, just the weight of my arm, my shoulder relaxed, limp, nothing more.”
Early on, the narrator displays immense, unceasing anger and boredom: “It is not important whose birthday it was, or why I was forced to attend, but the backyard was full of sunshine, shrill noise, and the reek of human frenzy. Clusters of over-inflated balloons hung from leafy branches, and I stabbed as many as I could.” As you may guess, at a young age, their energy is spent on harming objects such as holiday yard displays, insects and animals.
While the narrator seems averse to human contact, they do feel close to their sister. And, later, to a neighbour who respects their intelligence and doesn’t treat them as “less than.” The only constant adult in the narrator’s life is their mother, who spends most of the time passed out after taking pink pills. “I stood beside my mother until my interest waned. Once my mother was silent, I grew practically numb with boredom. She had brought me into this world, yes, but she was a stranger to me. An unwanted shadow wavering in the doorframe. And by the time I turned my back to her, I felt very little. Perhaps even nothing at all.”
Possibly the only time the narrator exhibits feelings of sadness is when their favourite tree is demolished: “When I peered out my window, I saw a row of pickup trucks, men in orange suits and helmets, chainsaws raised and coming down. They had crawled up into my Mighty Oak and with each bite of metal, branches crashed to the ground. Like carpenter ants, those men were dismantling my tree, dragging it away, loading parts into trucks, shoving smaller branches through a mulching feeder … I witnessed the entire death. Bit by bit, my tree came down. Down to its stump, a weeping yellow round on the ground....
On Writing With Love
By Seyward Goodhand
Last May, former Write magazine editor Hal Niedzvieki wrote his now infamous piece “Winning the Appropriation Prize,” as the editorial of an issue of the Writers’ Union of Canada membership quarterly that was intended to highlight Indigenous authors. MORE >
“Make the Circle Bigger”: An Interview with Angie Abdou
By Mason Hanrahan
Angie Abdou is an acclaimed Canadian writer whose first nove
l, The Bone Cage, was a finalist for Canada Reads. MORE >
'Language is my home': An Interview with Camilla Grudova
By Shawn Syms
First-time author Camilla Grudova’s debut short-story collection The Doll’s Alphabet is one of the most fascinating and compelling books of 2017. MORE >
Excerpt from 'Outcast'
By Darren Greer
We got evicted from our apartment in February, because Randy had one too many parties and the downstairs neighbors complained one too many times to the landlord.
Excerpt from 'Blood Fable'
By Oisín Curran
‘The Original Face’ by Guillaume Morissette
Reviewed by Ben Wood
A quick Google search for “koan” yields as the top result a Wiki page in the series on Zen Buddhism. This is a good starting point for Guillaume Morissette’s second novel, The Original Face, about an Internet artist named Daniel whose problems of love, work and art resemble the kind of deferred adulthood that is symptomatic of his generation (yes, this is a novel for millennials).
Things Not to Do’ by Jessica Westhead
Reviewed by Erica Lenti
There are little things we are all guilty of doing though we know we shouldn’t have. They are humanizing and show humility; they build character. But they simultaneously cause discomfort, a sense of second-hand embarrassment from the outside looking in.
Once More with Feeling’ by Méira Cook
Reviewed by Charlene Van Buekenhout
Méira Cook’s new novel follows one family, and an impressive number of minor characters, through the seasons of a city and the minutiae and maxima of life.
The Third Person’ by Emily Anglin
Reviewed by Andrew Woodrow-Butcher
Toronto writer Emily Anglin’s short-fiction debut showcases a strong and distinctive voice in nine quiet, perfectly strange stories. Straddling the line between realism and uncanny dreamscape, The Third Person has a tone that is singular, consistent, and very involving
‘If Clara’ by Martha Baillie
Reviewed by Domenica Martinello
The first time we meet Clara, she begins with an if: “If you want to have any kind of relationship with me, never mention the following subjects: politics, movies, or eyes.” When we meet her well-intentioned sister Julia, the first of four alternating narrators in Martha Baillie’s If Clara, she has already trespassed, ruminating on Clara’s “astute eye” drawn to “the overlooked.”
‘Brother’ by David Chariandy
Reviewed by Derek Eidse
I’ve heard that the best place to begin with a new book is with its physicality: how it sits in space, how it feels in your hands, how its cover art and typeface draw you in. Contrary to a popular idiom regarding books and covers, many a novel does not make it past this critical stage. For me, this one did.
From The Editor's Desk
By Maurice Mierau
As a serial procrastinator, I have procrastinated more than usual over the writing of this column, because its subject matter marks the end of something I care about very much: the end of this enterprise, The Winnipeg Review. The difficult decision to terminate publication was entirely mine. Six years of running on a shoestring made me long for thicker string and a better shoe, but those longings remain unfulfilled.
Offshore Drilling: Reviews In Translation
By Jeff Bursey
At the beginning of the end of summer I spent pleasurable time reading reminiscences written by an unnamed narrator we are encouraged to think of as Anne Garréta, often referring to herself as “you,” that were composed according to a guideline (one of many) confidently outlined in the “Ante Scriptum” to Not One Day:
By Anita Daher
Whether Narnia, a small Swedish village, or something else entirely, we’ve all read novels set in a world we’d love to hang out in for a while. For me, such a place is the one the seaside property author Polly Horvath created in The Night Garden (Farrar Strauss, Puffin Canada), her recently launched 16th novel. It is, according to the back cover, a story about a magical garden that grants wishes.