‘Aphelia’ by Mikella Nicol (Review)

With national borders closed, the closest most of us get to travelling these days is vicariously through literature, so it’s a good job my bulging bookcases ensure I have a free ticket to many parts of the world.  This week, without leaving the comfort of my armchair, I’ve actually spent much of my free time in Quebec, thanks to two novels by female francophone writers.  That means we’re Canada-bound today, for a night on the town and a few deep and meaningfuls on what life’s all about, even if it might take a while for everything to come into focus…

It’s Friday night, and once again the unnamed narrator of Mikella Nicol’s Aphelia (translated by Lesley Trites, review copy courtesy of Véhicule Press) is hanging out with her old friend Louis at their favourite bar.  It’s the old routine of flirting with the bartender, exchanging waves with other regulars and checking out any newcomers that might enter the bar, and her evening rolls drunkenly on like any other – until, that is, she sees Mia, and suddenly everything changes.

Unable to keep her eyes off the newcomer, our friend eventually instigates contact, and it’s not just Louis who can see that this is more than a fleeting, random encounter.  However, as we follow the two women, and their friends, through a sweltering Montreal summer, their relationship turns out to be something different.  The main character certainly seems to be looking for something, but is it really Mia?  Perhaps, in truth, it’s what she’s running away from that is the real motivation behind her actions.

Aphelia is a short, atmospheric novel, a story showcasing the existential angst of a younger generation.  In its taut depiction of a young woman who’s lost her path, it has its young protagonist desperately looking for a way back to a ‘normal’ life.  Unfortunately, at times it seems that she’s perhaps looking in the wrong places, unaware that where she actually is isn’t all that bad.

The first half is dominated by the feelings the young woman has for Mia.  From the first glances in the bar, she feels a magnetic attraction towards the stranger, desperate to get to know her any way she can.  Once initial contact is made, and after days of text-message flirting, a subsequent meeting is finally arranged, a date by any other name:

Girls passed through my life even faster than men.  Sometimes I sympathized with some of them.  I liked to laugh in their company, talk with them at the dinners I was invited to, but none of these relationships succeeded.  I never knew how to act with them, how to climb over the wall that kept us from one another.  Mia, though, wasn’t putting up any resistance to who I was.  I felt I could join her on the other side of the wall.
p.39 (Esplanade Books, 2019)

It seems inevitable that their relationship will develop further, and it comes as no surprise when the two women become even closer.

And yet, what appears to be a book about desire, and a wish to explore something new, gradually develops into something darker.  For one thing, the narrator is already in a relationship, with the handsome, successful (and rich) Julien, but the description of their life in a luxury apartment seems more like that of a tomb than of a happy home with all the mod-cons.  She should be happy, but she definitely doesn’t seem that way:

Julien pulled me against him to kiss me on the temple.  I responded to his kiss with a vague smile, prisoner of my thoughts.  He no doubt believed he could calm the agitation he felt in me but couldn’t locate.  But of course he didn’t succeed. (p.42)

Another sign of her issues is the job she has fallen into, working the graveyard shift at a call centre.  She’s obviously hiding from something – we’re just not quite sure what.

As the story develops, information about her past is slowly revealed, with mentions of a former partner, B., and a woman, Florence, her double, who crosses the narrator’s path too often for it to be a coincidence.  Perhaps more intriguing, and revealing, is her obsession with true crime TV shows, and the morbid interest she and Mia take in the fate of a young woman who has gone missing – and whom the narrator may have seen from her office window high above the street…

Aphelia is an interesting story, but it’s how it’s told that impresses most, with the protagonist’s imbalance reflected in the writing.  She often appears stunned by noise or lights, and in the long, hot summer, sharp lines blur and the humidity obscures our vision (although there are occasions where everything suddenly comes into too sharp a focus, with the narrator disturbed by the stark, bright light).  There’s more than a suspicion that this is all how she sees it, not how it is, and this sensation is enhanced by David Drummond’s cover design.  It reflects the idea of the book nicely with its bright colours and the image of a woman out of focus.

If I’m honest, the story does lose a little of its zip towards the end, and I’m not convinced the rushed ending quite works (despite the satisfying final pages), but Aphelia still makes for an entertaining short novel showing a woman unable to find her place in the world.  As for an explanation of the title, well, that comes at the very start, and perhaps provides a clue as to what Nicol wants to say:

For a celestial body, aphelion (or the plural, aphelia) represents the point of its orbit that is furthest from the sun.

Which is all rather apt.  While it would be tempting to describe the woman’s experience as a momentary low, in fact, it could just be that events in her life have flung her far away from her centre.  In that sense, Aphelia might well be the story of someone lost in an unknown place, trying desperately to find their way back home.

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