Navigating family, history, and the outside: If I Fall, If I Die by Michael Christie

if-i-fall-if-i-dieI picked up If I Fall, If I Die for two reasons: its great title, and its Giller longlist nomination in 2015. Considering its dark cover and title, it turned out to be a lot “cuter” than I expected – which is both a good and bad thing.

The plot: Will and his mother live in a house in Thunder Bay, and it’s been a decade since they’ve stepped outside.

Diane is agoraphobic, debilitated by her fear of death and injury which Will terms “The Black Lagoon.” But that said, they lead a comfortable life indoors: everything they could ever need is delivered to the front door, and they read, or paint, or play games to pass the time. This has been the way of things since Will was four, and he’s never known – or wanted to know – anything else.

That is, until Will steps outside for the first time. As you might expect, everything changes.

He finds himself caught up not only in the trials of public school, girls, and skateboarding [insert typical pre-teen awkward and heartwarming coming-of-age story here] but also finds himself smack in the middle of a bigger drama – involving  ring of bootleggers, missing boys, and a strange homeless man who babbles in Shakespearean tongues.

It’s a cute premise. And like I said, the novel has a great title. The unfortunate thing is that the title might be the best thing about it. It’s not that I hated the book, or even disliked it all that much – and it’s not that it’s badly written, or even badly structured. The problem with If I Fall, If I Die is that it’s heavy-handed in so many ways: in what it has to say about mental illness, poverty, racism, child-parent bonds, love, sacrifice… the list goes on. Christie sits down too many times to painstakingly spell out the philosophical connotations of the events in the novel. Take, for instance, the last lines of the novel, which basically sum up everything Christie is trying to say with this premise in the first place:

if-i-fall-if-i-die-excerpt_bookrock

My dissatisfaction with the book also stems from the fact that I found myself stuck with an unreliable child narrator. I’m not dead set against either unreliable narrators or kids as narrators, but I was expecting something in the vein of Emma Donoghue’s Room – which I’ll admit is an unfair expectation, since she does both so well. All the same, Will was simultaneously too naive about the world and too knowing about his mother’s condition to be entirely convincing.

I think my complaints, at their root, stem from the fact that If I Fall reads a lot like YA, which wasn’t how it was packaged or marketed or sold. I have a feeling I would have liked it a lot more if I read it at age 14 instead of in my mid-twenties. If YA is your jam, then maybe this book is for you. It just wasn’t for me. (Nor, apparently, for the Giller Prize judges of 2015, since it failed to make the shortlist.)

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