Initially I was apprehensive about Nikolski, written by Nicholas Dickner, because it was translated from French. Translations can go one of two ways and I was worried that a lot would be lost in translation. However, I was pleasantly surprised as the translator, Lazer Lederhendler, transformed the French writing into eloquent English. This was very impressive because there are several plays on words as well as witty banter.
The story itself is more of a character journey than a standard plot-based story (as many of these Canada Reads books seem to be). I loved all the little details that would crop up later as well as the decisions of these unique and surprising young characters.
In the spring of 1989, three young people, born thousands of miles apart, each cut themselves adrift from their birthplaces and set out to discover what — or who — might anchor them in their lives. They each leave almost everything behind, carrying with them only a few artefacts of their lives so far — possessions that have proven so formative that they can’t imagine surviving without them — but also the accumulated memories of their own lives and family histories.
Noah, who was taught to read using road maps during a life of nomadic travels with his mother — their home being a 1966 Bonneville station wagon with a silver trailer — decides to leave the prairies for university in Montreal. But putting down roots there turns out to be a more transitory experience than he expected. Joyce, stifled by life in a remote village on Quebec’s Lower North Shore, and her overbearing relatives, hitches a ride into Montreal, spurred on by a news story about a modern-day cyber-pirate and the spirit of her own buccaneer ancestors. While her daily existence remains surprisingly routine —working at a fish shop in Jean-Talon market, dumpster-diving at night for necessities — it’s her Internet piracy career that takes off. And then there’s the unnamed narrator, who we first meet clearing out his deceased mother’s house on Montreal’s South Shore, and who decides to move into the city to start a new life. There he finds his true home among books, content to spend his days working in a used bookstore and journeying though the many worlds books open up for him.
Over the course of the next ten years, Noah, Joyce and the unnamed bookseller will sometimes cross paths, and sometimes narrowly miss each other, as they all pass through one vibrant neighbourhood on Montreal’s Plateau. Their journeys seem remarkably unformed, more often guided by the prevailing winds than personal will, yet their stories weave in and out of other wondrous tales — stories about such things as fearsome female pirates, urban archaeologists, unexpected floods, fish of all kinds, a mysterious book without a cover and a dysfunctional compass whose needle obstinately points to the remote Aleutian village of Nikolski. And it is in the magical accumulation of those details around the edges of their lives that we begin to know these individuals as part of a greater whole, and ultimately realize that anchors aren’t at all permanent, really; rather, they’re made to be hoisted up and held in reserve until their strength is needed again.
[from the publisher, Random House Canada]
**SPOILER ALERT** I’m not going to go into details but some might consider me discussing Point Of View (POV) to spoil the plot.
Nikolski had such a charm that it often made me wish I could read French well enough to read the original. The characters were unique and engaging, and all of them were interconnected. The only thing I didn’t care for was the switch in narrative. The first character we meet (whose name we never learn) tells his story in First Person. The other two characters, Noah and Joyce, are both told in Third Person Omniscient. The issue I have is that the narrators are obviously different; the Unnamed Man obviously isn’t the second narrator. (According to Wikipedia, this is a rare POV called First Person Omniscient.) The main reason this bothered me is because the characters never fully discover the connections between them, Unnamed Man would never have had the chance to learn Noah and Joyce’s stories.
We met yesterday to discuss Nikolski as part of our Canada Reads book club. Beentsy and MrsQuimby both loved the book and expressed a desire to reread (which made yarnpiggy want to finish it all the more quickly). All of us agreed that being a translation would have initially been off-putting for us. Some people mentioned that having fish on the cover was also not something that would initially entice us. I mentioned that the Governor General’s sticker would have been a pro for me (although not always entirely reliable). My main issue was that I had trouble finding the book in the bookstore (checked my local independents) and ended up going to Chapters/Indigo. Beentsy ordered hers online and both MrsQuimby and Janellum ordered the Canada Reads Book Bag Pack.
To be honest, I don’t think I’d reread it. 1. I already have enough books I haven’t read, and 2. I didn’t care for the open-ended finish. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great book, the characters were fantastic, and the writing was beautifully crafted. However it left me wanting more — to know the details, to learn what actually happened to the minor characters. If you don’t mind open endings, this is a fantastic book and a brilliant translation by Lazer Lederhendler.