Genre: Literary Fiction,Contemporary,Adult,YA Adventure
The boy stepped Outside and did not die.
After living in the Inside with his mother all his life,when eleven year old Will Cardiel cautiously ventures out to the Outside to investigate ‘the odd bang’ near their house,he meets Marcus or Other Will,and is elated to make a friend for the first time.This becomes the turning point of his life because Will,despite sharing the fear of the Outside with his chronically agoraphobic mother,Diane, by osmosis,becomes compelled to expand his horizon for the first time and see the Outside for himself.Until then Will had been happily existing in the Inside ,painting his ‘masterpieces’ in his studio in New York,eating his meals in Paris,sleeping in San Francisco,doing laundry in Toronto and watching TV in Cairo.
Now wait a second.Didn’t you just say Will has never been to the Outside?So,how had he been globetrotting around the world? Well,that’s Will for you and as we go deeper into the story we learn more about Will’s world in the Inside and his adventures in the Outside in this stunningly beautiful debut novel by Michael Christie. If I fall,If I Die is a kind of Bildungsroman which explores the meaning of freedom,friendship,the correlation between love and fear,while at the same time serving as a social commentary on the marginalisation of the indigenous people of Canada and drawing an empathetic picture of mental illness and parenting woes.
As Will ventures out from his house in Thunder Bay,Canada,we get to see the world through his eyes,who with his inherent curiosity and innocent childlike wonderment forces the reader to take notice of things which are often taken for granted.The novel is narrated from the perspectives of Will and Diane and the author does a great job of giving a distinct voice to both the protagonists. While Will starts out as the adorable kid,unaccustomed with the ways of the world, looking at everything with childlike wonder in the beginning,he develops a kind of maturity with his time spent Outside in the later part of the book.His mother Diane in her ‘Relaxation Time’s tells us about her past and how she came to be a house ridden agoraphobic person.
Marcus’ remark,“Nothing can really hurt you Will”, has a deep impact on Will which gives him the courage and determination to go Outside,and soon after he learns that though terrible things might happen there,he could no longer be satisfied with just a life Inside painting ‘masterpieces’,eating slow-cooked non-chock inducing food ,with only the delivery men,delivering their necessities,as his only connection to the Outside.So,despite learning about Marcus’ disappearance soon after their meeting and having a less than favourable experience on his first outing Outside,he becomes determined more than ever to save his friend,and enrolls himself to the local school inorder to gather information.In the process he befriends Angela and Jonah. Jonah introduces him to the whole new world of skateboarding which gives him a new lease of life with the inherent danger and freedom attached to the sport.But with all the time spent Outside skateboarding and trying to find Marcus, he grows more and more disenchanted to come home.Coupled with it when he learns that his paintings are not masterpieces as his mother had told him,learns about a dead uncle who was her twin,and most importantly that the Outside is not as dangerous as his mother had made him believe, he begins to lose fate in her and resents her for living in perpetual fear of the unknown ‘Black Lagoon’.
Diane is more than aware of her situation and is in fact ashamed of her inability to get over her Agoraphobia,but with no solution in sight for her condition,the result of years of losing her near and dear ones to tragic accidents,she has to helplessly watch her beloved son putting himself at risk with his adventures Outside.Though she is imprisoned inside her house because of her fear,she consoles herself with the belief that ‘it’s no prison if you built it yourself’.
We learn further that her unplanned pregnancy, which led to the dissolution of her relationship with Will’s father,had exacerbated her condition and forced her to leave her film making career in Toronto and instead take refuge in her hometown of Thunder Bay with her infant son. But even though ‘wordlessly she’d taught him that the Outside was built of danger’ (as Will asserts),she has profound love for her son and does her best to raise him right by reading him stories from different books (which reflects in his creative thought process) and encouraging him to be creative by archiving his paintings which she lovingly referred to as masterpieces.She is unapologetic of her ways of trying to save her son from ever coming into any harm ,even if she had had to lie to him about his heart condition so that he didn’t exert himself .’Her chief responsibility being to ensure he didn’t taste any abandonment as she had’, and one cannot help but agree with her reasoning to some extent.
What is raising a child except lying?It begins with the first shhhh…everything is going to be… and only gets worse from there.
Though Diane’s story is sad with her pessimistic outlook on life,her narrative is matter of fact even when she talks about her depression and personal tragedies.For the large part Will’s narrative is buoyant and his choice of similes to express himself -amusing, which charmingly captivates the reader’s attention making them forget the gloomier aspects of the novel.He adorably accepts each spoken word by its literal meaning .For example,when he asks Marcus whether they were friends and Marcus replies with a ‘whatever,sure’ , he takes it to literally mean ’no matter what’ after looking it up in the dictionary.
Will looked up this word whatever in their dictionary,and found that it meant “no matter what”. At the permanence of this beautiful sentiment Will wept,tears tapping the dictionary’s oniony pages.
The thing that first draws the reader’s attention is the use of the words inside and outside as proper nouns. Because according to Will the world was divided into two kingdoms,viz., the Inside where he and his mother ‘reigned over their private kingdom with the Black Lagoon as its border’ ,and the Outside being the other part which was the big fearful unknown which he saw through his window.Being raised on a diet of different stories read to him by his mother and movies,he develops an over imaginative mind which in a way helped him to adapt to any situation,even on the Outside because he always came up with some kind of answer for everything.It’s in the same way that he came up with the name ‘Black Lagoon’ (from a horror movie) for his mother’s fear.
The relationship between mother and son as it evolved throughout the story is one of the vital elements of the story.Also,as Will spends more time on the Outside and comes into contact with new people,he begins to understand the meaning of friendship,gets the taste of his first kiss,learns that everyone has their own Black Lagoon and finally concludes that even if bad things did happen Outside,’it was not all that dangerous.It was worth leaving for,if only to see it up close and to make a friend for a short while’.
Apart from their relationship and Will’s acclimatisation Outside,the reason behind Marcus’ disappearance, its relation to Diane’s brother’s death and what goes behind the now defunct grain elevators of Pool 6 in the town of Thunder Bay,provide the element of mystery to the plot which becomes the prime focus in the second half of the book,akin to a YA plotline.
Will’s friend Jonah,an Indian(native of Canada) serves as the link to the plight of the indigenous population of Thunder Bay and the prevalent racism against them.Will,however, not being exposed to the societal norms remains ‘colour blind’.It is heart rending to see how the Jonahs of Thunder Bay feared to utter a word in public for fear of being rebuked by the society or finding themselves in the wrong side of the law.
Michael Christie has cleverly woven a plot with elements he is familiar with. Having been raised in Thunder Bay he is able to create a realistic picture of life in and around one of the former grain transportation hubs of Canada.As an ex-professional skateboarder,he accurately captures the essence of what it means to skateboard.Even though there were some minor hiccups in the narrative,such as Will’s ready acceptance into the school without any parental presence during the enrollment,and even though the author overambitiously tries to pack a whole lot of things in a single book,Christie for the large part has managed to create a believable and emotionally moving sketch of a eleven year old’s life with a chronically agoraphobic and depressed mother ,and his subsequent adjustment in the world outside his home.
Since the main theme of the novel is to learn to live life to the fullest even when there is the fear of failure and danger,Christie has appropriately named it If I Fall,If I Die .
Review copy was generously provided by Random House UK in exchange for an honest review.Disclaimer: All opinions here are drawn from my own conclusions no part of which bears any external influence.