1424 Till death do us join

Disappearing in Reverse
by Allie McFarland

Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2020
$24.99 / 9781773851433

Reviewed by Zoe McKenna

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The unnamed protagonist of Allie McFarland’s debut novel, Disappearing in Reverse, is no stranger to death. In fact, as the novel opens on bustling Saanich Road, on the northern edge of Victoria, she is in a drive-thru waiting for an ice cream cone, a recently-deceased corpse occupying her passenger seat. Be that as it may, when she encounters a photo of her dead cousin, Devin, on her social media timeline with the caption “she is not dead,” the protagonist isn’t just unnerved, but propelled into a manic journey across the Western provinces.

Allie McFarland lives in Victoria, on the unceded territories of the Lekwungen people of Vancouver Island. While Disappearing in Reverse is her first full-length work — on the cusp between novel and novella — McFarland previously published a chapbook, Marianne’s Daughters, in 2018. In addition to her own writing, McFarland is also a co-founding editor of The Anti-Languorous Project, which publishes antilang. magazine, soundbite, Good Short Reviews, and the On Editing blog series.

Allie McFarland

Within the first pages of Disappearing in Reverse, it is made clear that Devin has been dead for years — an unfortunate staphylococcus leading first to the loss of her limbs and finally to the collapse of her lungs. Unable to reckon with this loss, and the responsibility she feels for it, the narrator of the novel is rocked by the suggestion — or, as she sees it, the proof — that Devin isn’t dead after all. Fuelled by this belief, the protagonist begins a road trip across British Columbia and Alberta to Devin’s hometown, stopping at any and every location she thinks Devin might be hiding along the way.

Disappearing in Reverse is incredibly precise in terms of geographic location. Down to the specific street name or room in a house, the location of each scene is strikingly clear. As the protagonist moves across the provinces, locations arise that will be familiar to anyone who has made a similar journey — Fernie, Crowsnest Pass, Nelson, and Kelowna, to name a few. The novel proudly flags itself as a product of British Columbia (and to a lesser extent, Alberta) in a way that firmly plants it as an icon of Western Canadian fiction.

Unlike other coming-of-age road trip novels punctuated by pop tunes, however, Disappearing in Reverse is deeply sorrowful. Told in short vignettes, the narrative continuously moves between two timelines: the present, wherein Devin is (most likely) dead, and the past, wherein she is very much alive in the protagonist’s memories. Far from confusing the story, the non-linear approach works to bring the narrator into focus; grief and guilt blur the lines between memory and wishful thinking. No matter how dire the protagonist’s current situation — arrest for car theft included — Devin is never far from her mind, nor from the page.

The narrator’s professor describes her as “juvenile” towards the beginning of the novel, but it soon becomes apparent that this is just another level to her trauma and inability to come to terms with her grief. At the time of Devin’s death, both she and the protagonist are in their teens, and even as a very young adult, the protagonist remembers this stage of their lives as childhood: “Devin tells me she wants to escape. Her hand cupped to my ear like we’re children. And maybe we are.”

The earnestness and frequency with which the protagonist recalls Devin creates a persuasive delusion for the reader. Multiple other characters throughout the novel reassure the protagonist that Devin is dead and many even deny that the photo from the “she isn’t dead” social media post resembles Devin. More than that, the protagonist herself recalls Devin’s decline and eventual death with chilling clarity. Yet, the protagonist’s constant recollections of her cousin, paired with the certainty that this picture from social media proves that Devin’s death was an elaborate ruse, goes so far as to begin to seed doubt as to whether or not Devin truly is dead. That this fantasy is tempting is all the more incredible when considered against its source: the narrator of the novel is at best, unreliable, and at worst, a compulsive liar and petty criminal. Often callous and frequently selfish, the protagonist is far from likeable, but she is unique and sympathetic — relatable against all odds.

Allie McFarland at the Causeway, Victoria

In many ways, the novel itself reflects its protagonist. It’s grim throughout with moments of devastating sadness. Yet, there are snippets of humour and absurdity — not least of which ice cream with a corpse — that give the novel life and allow a brief moment of relief from the heavy themes. These moments feel almost hallucinatory, adding to the ambiguity between what is and is not real within the novel. While more of these moments would have made the novel more dynamic and emphasized the author’s capacity to capture the unusual, this would have come at a sacrifice of the intimacy we feel with the protagonist in her trauma, and the novel would be fundamentally different as a result.

As the novel accelerates towards the ending in a whirlwind, there is a brief period where the pacing begins to sag — the tone of these vignettes is different and the protagonist’s reactions to people and events around her don’t quite align with the temperament we’ve come to expect. Just as quickly as this creeps in, it disappears and is forgotten thanks to the dizzying and heartbreaking conclusion to the novel.

Those expecting the usual careful steps of the coming-of-age novel — an epiphany on behalf of the protagonist and a clear route into adulthood — will be surprised. McFarland pointedly offers no solutions, no answers, and no comforts. Her protagonist is left suspended in a new stage of her grief and as the novel skids to a halt, so are the readers alongside her.

*

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 here on Twitter. Editor’s note: Zoe McKenna has also reviewed books by Chevy Stevens, Carmella Gray-CosgroveEd O’LoughlinMeghan BellGenni GunnPenny Chamberlain, Brooke Carter, and Donalda Reid for The British Columbia Review.

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The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for in-depth coverage of BC books and writers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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