Malarky

Pumped up prose captures the essence of being 15

Every now and then, a novel that is as solid as steel lands in readers’ hands. A novel needs the right proportion of its own hardening agents to deliver on the page. The Mitochondrial Curiosities of Marcels 1-19 is such a book.

As is appropriate for a book with a biological title, Jocelyn Brown’s young-adult novel and its characters possess a firm cell structure, hip-swinging hilarity and the full range of emotional rotation. The story crescendos with grief and crocheting, yet despite the cavorting high notes, manages to suffuse sufficient low notes so that sadness nests beside a pain in the reader’s left lung from laughing so hard.

The heart of the novel is grief, teenage grief wrapped up with the betwixt and between of teenage life — the drumming anxiety and wonder, along with the grinding sense of isolation and self-centredness that are the pillars of being 15. The universe has only one axis when you’re 15, and it’s you.

Dree, an obsessive crafter, finds her 15th-birthday plan to attend Toronto Renegade Craft Fair in ribbons upset when her father, Leonard, suddenly dies. Instead, she’s throwing up at his wake and navigating the bewildering aftermath of death and the bouncy bus to Grandma Giles’ house beside her sneering goody-goody sister, Paige.

The main weave of the story is Dree’s trying to relieve smug sis of her savings and convene with dead dad to figure out what his role was in the death of her friend Jessie’s father. Dree’s father worked in a psychiatric hospital where Jessie’s father was a patient.

The girls bond over wool and biology projects before Dree realizes this coincidence.

Plenty of dads and daughters. Plenty of slipstitch and buttons. Wee bit of a Sapphic undertone detectable between the young women but, their being 15, the evidence presents via Dree’s red face, the spout that’s first love and one quivering thigh. The only orgasm is searing excitement over mohair wool.

This is a novel where even the secondary characters rebound off the page with the immediacy of a just-pumped ball. One of my favourites is Joan, Dree’s mum and Leonard’s first wife. She’s described as The Terminator because of her ability to get people fired from their jobs.

At one point, in the car, while driving Dree and Paige, Joan confesses to being implicated in a “gay marriage type” being sacked at work for a time-sheet infraction and now all at work hate her.

‘I am not homophobic.’ Again, Paige and I go blank. ‘Gay people have to be accurate too. I could care less who sleeps with who. I don’t sleep with anybody, does that give me special rights?’

Dree hugs her intelligence tight while she thumps with teen anxiety. This lively voice and her endearing crafty sock creatures — the Marcels — lead us through the story.

Brown’s prose is astonishing. The Edmonton writer has a dynamic curve with words, yet their placement is precise and as disciplined as a tightrope walker. Her witty extrapolation captures the stultifying experience of having your parent, flawed or otherwise, ripped from your life just as you’re launching toward independence.

Launch this book at your teen, young adult or an adult reader — it’s easily a crossover book — and be very excited about the arrival of a major Canadian writer.