1324 A pencil & sticky note thriller

This Eden
by Ed O’Loughlin

Toronto: House of Anansi, 2021
$24.95 / 9781487005696

Reviewed by Zoe McKenna

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This Eden cover.jpg

As Ed O’Loughlin’s fourth novel, This Eden, closes, the still-unnamed narrator declares, “I like not knowing what’s going to happen next.” As becomes apparent within the first pages of the novel, an affection for the unknown and unexpected propels This Eden to the very end.

Irish-Canadian author Ed O’Loughlin is the author of three previous novels, including Giller Prize finalist Minds of Winter. O’Loughlin’s first two books — Not Untrue & Not Unkind and Toploader — are grim war novels, utilizing details and knowledge from O’Loughlin’s own life as a journalist working in locations ranging from Africa to the Middle East.

This Eden opens during a rare Vancouver snowstorm, as Michael and Alice meet on the University of British Columbia’s campus. Within 20 pages, Michael and Alice “had fallen in love with each other, in the way that young people do.” Together in Alice’s family home, Michael struggles through a degree in engineering, while Alice excels in the same field, often busying herself with freelance work for tech startups.

The serenity of these first few pages quickly evaporates. There is a short argument between the couple one day — by the next, Alice is dead. Michael leaves behind their shared home in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood and travels to Silicon Valley, having been recruited by Campbell Fess, the leader of the major tech company, Inscape Technologies, that Alice had spent much of her final months working against. Michael, with poor grades and little technological skill, is an exceedingly poor fit for the fast-paced lifestyle at Inscape — a workplace complete with nap pods, a gym, and Michael’s very own house — but Fess is adamant.

View of downtown Vancouver from Kitsilano. Photo by Josie from A Walk and A Lark

Just as this new setting begins to take root, Aoife arrives. Compared to Michael — who quickly becomes tiresome with his middling personality — Aoife brings a history of outlandish action and intrigue that renews the novel’s momentum. An Irish spy, Aoife informs Michael that his work at Inscape is over. Instead, Michael is to work alongside Aoife, and her peculiar boss, Towse, in a mission to save the world from the ill-influence of mega-corporations such as Inscape, and those behind them, like Campbell Fess.

Somehow, this is the most straightforward section of the novel. After Aoife, Michael, and Towse form an unlikely trio, any sense of stability readers might have had dissipates as the plot progresses into a globe-trotting adventure, featuring locations ranging from Uganda to Paris.

The unpredictability of the plot works to produce two conflicting results. The first is a novel that masterfully defies genre. While This Eden could be marketed as a crypto-thriller, a techno-thriller, or a spy novel, it refuses to sit comfortably in these categories. The intrusion of the technological landscape into the day-to-day activities of the characters results in an almost magical realist slant to elements of the novel; it becomes unclear what is real, what is computer-generated, and what is the product of human deceit (and even then, parsing the duplicitous from the trustworthy is a significant task). While O’Loughlin’s writing has been compared to notable spy fiction authors including William Gibson and Ian Fleming — and O’Loughlin even goes so far as to acknowledge this connection by including an epigraph from Fleming’s GoldfingerThis Eden avoids falling into the pitfalls of trope-y genre fiction (despite the sometimes-stereotypical Towse). While avid spy fiction readers may be well versed in sussing out the “bad guys” within the first few chapters, they would be hard-pressed to do so with O’Loughlin’s labyrinthine plot.

Irish Canadian writer and journalist Ed O’Loughlin, now of Dublin. Photo by Fergal Phillips courtesy Business Post

An innovative approach to the genre presents its own risks, however. The fast-paced and geographically disparate plot has a dizzying effect. This Eden is not a novel one could sit down and comfortably read in an afternoon, yet it can’t easily be picked up and put down again. While Michael and Aoife’s travels are vertiginous in span and pace, the plot develops very slowly. Too long a reading session starts to feel exhausting, yet too long away leads to confusion. Rather, this is a novel that requires a pencil and notepad, perhaps a stack of sticky notes and page flags. O’Loughlin doesn’t provide an itinerary for this multi-continental adventure, and as such, it becomes imperative that readers are willing to jot out their own.

O’Loughlin isn’t concerned with addressing loose ends or ensuring every character’s motivation is revealed; far from it. As the novel closes, Aoife asks Michael to “tell [her] everything.” Whether he does or doesn’t is unclear, as the strange voyeur narrating the novel pans away, and the final overview of events is peppered with words such as “possibly” and “uncertain.” While the narrator is adamant that “the truth is a weapon: anyone who tells you that it doesn’t exist is trying to disarm you,” O’Loughlin is uninterested in ensuring that readers can identify fact from fiction within the pages of This Eden. While genre fanatics may be challenged, others — those with a fondness for the erratic and a willingness to remain breathless — will have the time of their lives.

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Zoe McKenna

Zoe McKenna recently completed her Master of Arts from the University of Victoria and also holds a Bachelor of Arts from Vancouver Island University. Her thesis, as well as a great deal of her other reading and writing, focuses on horror writing in Canada, especially that by BIPOC authors. Her previous work has appeared in VIU’s Portal Magazine and the Quill & Quire. When not reading, writing, or reviewing, Zoe can be found hiking a local mountain or in front of a movie with her two cats, Florence and Delilah. She is always covered in cat hair and wears almost exclusively dark clothing to prove it. Find her on Twitter @zoevmckenna. Editor’s note: Zoe McKenna has also reviewed books by Meghan Bell, Genni GunnPenny ChamberlainBrooke Carter, and Donalda Reid for The Ormsby Review.

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Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of BC books and authors in all fields and genres. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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