Book Review: Nikolski

by Nicolas Dickner, translated by Lazer Lederhendler)
Knopf Canada (2008), 290 pp.

Nicolas Dickner’s remarkable debut novel doesn’t come right out and blame parents for the existential crisis facing its three young protagonists, but largely unexplained choices made by their begetters contribute greatly to the desperate sense of drift that fuels Nikolski. An unnamed narrator sorts through his late mother’s belongings, finds an out-of-whack compass left by his vagabond father, Jonas Doucet, and notebooks she kept during their brief time together. Painfully opaque clues hardly feed his lonely soul, but the threads are picked up by Noah, the son Doucet fathered by an itinerant Chipewyan woman in Manitoba, and motherless Joyce, who flees a village on Quebec’s lower north shore in search of her pirate forebears, including Doucet, her uncle, who disappeared at age fourteen.

Chock full of arcane detail about the sea, fish lore, antique books, travel, and archaeology, Nikolski is the product of an eccentric mind propelled by an exuberant spirit. With the breathless rhythm of a fairy tale, the story covers an eventful decade, at one point dropping onto a remote island near Venezuela before returning to the narrator’s Montreal bookstore and a family reunion — of sorts. The rendezvous serves the novel’s themes more completely than it does any of the characters, but their search for meaning and connection is compelling. In a world that, like the Nikolski compass, is decidedly off kilter, Dickner’s Quebec is no small pond cut off from the tides by history. It’s part of a vast American ocean, and Montreal is a port of call for various strange, roaming spirits.

Lazer Lederhendler’s translation from the French proceeds faithfully, but doesn’t quite recreate the original’s feeling of a great yarn whose raconteur cackles as he types. Yet once the narrative picks up speed, that almost doesn’t matter.

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