By Nancy Lee
McClelland & Stewart (March 2014)
281 pages, $22.95 (Paperback)
REVIEWED BY BRYCE TARLING
Nancy Lee, in her new novel The Age, takes us through a relentless exploration of adolescence and uncertainty. It begins with the image of a disappearing sun, crushed into a “red stain” by “sooty clouds,” a perfect set up for a bleak 1984-era Vancouver—a city tainted by “scummy stenches” and long shadows that hide greasy-haired boys who “stab at picnic tables with pocket knives”—set against the threat of nuclear war between the United States and Russia.
Gerry, or “Gerry Mouse” as she hates to be called, is an outsider, teased at school, and often the victim of pornographic locker graffiti and crass slurs of promiscuity. She’s at an age where she’s uncomfortable with her body, comparing her breasts with those of older women. Despite being surrounded by images of sex, she’s unsure of how to approach what seems an important rite: losing her virginity. As it weighs heavily through the story, we see how a young teen’s sexuality carries a personal weight akin to the threat of looming mass destruction.
Pushed to the dark corners of society, Gerry spies in windows and listens to conversations in next-door rooms. Her only friends are a group of older anarchist plotters who have a plan that they try to keep secret from Gerry (and us). She’s the baby of the group, too young for responsibility and too naive to understand why. Her frustrations mount as she watches her best friend, Ian, helplessly navigate through a life of bad decisions, clouded by manipulative women and a head full of pot smoke.
Isolated and dangerously captivated by the group’s seditious views, we see Gerry appropriate their fears of nuclear war and the collapse of civilization. She secretly collects clippings of stories about weapons testing, armament statistics, and chemical contamination. Her fixation creeps into her dreams, which Lee presents to us through a series of lucid nightmares woven through the primary narrative. As these visions fester beneath Gerry’s often sarcastically hostile character, they illustrate her worst fears, set high stakes, and lend significant emotional weight to the story as a whole.
Throughout The Age, we’re encouraged to look back—both on adolescence and on the experience of an era. Lee blends feelings of nostalgia with that uncomfortable sensation you get when seeing old photos of a bad haircut. The story offers a stark reminder that we’re all just figuring things out as we go along—and that at no age do we ever truly have it all together.
This review was featured in issue 19.2
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