________________ CM . . . . Volume XXII Number 13 . . . . November 27, 2015

cover

Julian.

William Bell.
Toronto, ON: Doubleday Canada, 2015.
281 pp., trade pbk. & epub, $14.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-0-385-68207-7 (pbk.), ISBN 978-0-385-68206-0 (epub).

Grades 9-12 / Ages 14-17.

Review by Joan Marshall.

***½ /4

   

excerpt:

A few minutes later, Mrs. Zhu shuffled to the table and took a chair. "Eat," she commanded, pointing to the soup.

I was hungry from running, still too heated to eat, but I picked up the porcelain spoon. The spicy liquid seemed to explode in my mouth, a brew of unfamiliar flavours laced with fire. I coughed and spluttered, but the trickle I managed to swallow was delicious.

"Hah!" the triumphant Mrs. Zhu proclaimed. "Not used to good food."

"I think Iíll just wait till it cools a little," I wheezed.

"Now you give money."

I handed over the envelope and zipped up my pack. Mrs. Zhu counted through the bills, then stuffed the envelope into her pocket as if it was a used tissue. From the other pocket she took a cellphone.

"From Chang. It safe. You eat here any time. Not pay. Eat good Chinese food. Westerners no good at cooking. Ruin everything. Now I go back."

And with that she made her way to her stool and newspaper. I tried the soup again, sipping carefully from the spoon. It had cooled, but the peppery, blowtorch intensity of the spices hadn't. I finished it, then got up and left. Mrs. Zhu didnít look up as I passed her, but when I pulled the door open I heard her parting words behind my back.

"You be careful, Julian. Many shark in water."

Wondering what she meant, I walked through the darkened alley to Spadina, then began to jog toward Grange Park. It was on my way home. Sort of.

The girl was there.


Foster teen Aiden prevents the kidnapping of a young Asian boy and is rewarded by the boy's grandfather, Mr. Bai, who helps Aiden to disappear, to become Julian Paladin, small store employee, small apartment building superintendent, and errand boy for a very small time private detective, A.T. Curtis. Julian meets and falls in love with Ninon, a transient girl from Quebec who, at first, conceals her sad background, her parents' deaths and her uncleís sexual advances. Julian becomes uneasy as he suspects Mr. Bai of criminal gang organizing when he sees obvious illegal aliens coming and going from the apartment's basement suite and shady characters watching the house from their cars. In his job for Curtis, Julian is beaten up when he delivers money in a dark alley. And then Ninon develops double pneumonia. At the hospital, tests reveal a fast acting cancer from which she quickly dies despite Julian's best care. At a meeting with Mr. Bai, Julian finds out that Mr. Bai is illegally smuggling Chinese nationals from the area around his former village where they are in danger due to their political views. Julian takes Ninonís ashes to Provence where she had enjoyed an idyllic childhood.

      Julian's time with multiple foster families has honed his observation skills and taught him how to adapt and get along, but no one has really loved him, and so loneliness permeates his soul. Connecting with Ninon and his fellow apartment dwellers, Fiona, the single parent nurse, and Rawlins, the musician, enlarges Julian's sense of community, while observing Marika and Plath's relationship for Curtis both troubles and angers him. As Julian connects with more people and as he walks into death with Ninon, he releases his inner bitterness and loneliness, becoming a good friend and neighbour.

      Secondary characters are also very well-drawn, from the enigmatic Mr. Bai to the cheerful, competent Fiona, the sleek professional Chang, the forthright Mrs. Zhu and the sleazy Curtis. Ninon's brutal slip into homelessness and Marika's bruises speak volumes about the fragility of young women in todayís world. Ninon's eloquent remembrances of her childhood in Provence remind the reader of how a powerful loving childhood can help people to persist in the face of despair.

      The strong theme of what creates a family and community percolates through this novel, demonstrated by Mr. Bai's unwavering dangerous support of political dissidents, the torch of Fiona's and Rawlins' friendships, the homeless who watch out for each other, and Julian and Ninon's promise to become each otherís family.

      The dreary, grey setting of the Toronto streets through which Julian runs, the peaceful island where Julian and Ninon find solace, and the burst of blue sky in Provence settle the story in the real present day world. Cell phone technology and the intrigue of who is spying on whom ratchet up the tension.

      Clever dialogue reveals character and moves the plot along without resorting to the swearing that often is used in young adult novels. Mr. Bai who speaks perfect English hides his character and his illegal activities by having Chang translate his Chinese for Julian. Details of Julian's day-to-day sleeping, eating and running become somewhat repetitive; the first person telling leads itself to some introspection and anxiety that do demonstrate Julian's motivations even as it slows down the story. However, persistent readers will be drawn along by the tension around Julian's detective work for Curtis and the mysterious people who are spying on Julian's apartment. Short chapters that often end in suspense keep the story accessible to reluctant readers, too. The cover unfortunately portrays a man, not a 15-year-old boy. The device of Mr. Bai's support removes the restraint of the usual fate of foster children who strike out on their own down the road to prostitution, poverty, addiction and homelessness, issues that the novel only touches on gently.

      Julian could be used successfully in literature circles with themes of family, homelessness, foster children, immigration, refugees, or political dissent.

Highly Recommended.

Joan Marshall is a Winnipeg, MB bookseller.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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