Thursday, October 13, 2011

Alligator

It's amazing what an impact a striking cover can have. The first time I saw Alligator by Lisa Moore was shortly after it first came out. It was on a table at a local bookstore and it drew me in. I didn't buy it that day, but I wrote down the title as one to look for and then forgot about it until I read February – seeing the title mentioned in the context of another book I loved brought the cover right back, and I spent the next several months scouring used bookstores for the vivid green book I remembered. As it turns out, I should have just asked amongst my friends, because that ended up being much quicker. Anyway, over five years after first seeing Alligator, I finally read it, and it was well worth the wait.

The book opens with 17-year-old Colleen watching a safety video that features a man who sticks his head into the mouths of living alligators. The video is about attention to detail, and the lesson slams home when it's revealed the alligator man didn't wipe his face, which he usually does, and as a result, the alligator's jaws slam shut while his head is still inside. It's an instructional video made by Colleen's Aunt Madeleine, and it's one she watches over and over again. Madeleine is a filmmaker, and although she used to make instructional videos and the like, she is now embarking on a feature-length project. She has a heart condition, but the film is consuming.

The novel is set in St. John's, and Moore weaves together many different characters to bring various aspects of the city to life. Besides Colleen, Madeleine, and Beverly (Colleen's mother and Madeleine's sister), Moore also gives voice to Frank, a young guy who runs a hot dog stand on Water St. and has a crush on Colleen; Isobel, an actress who has come back from the mainland to work on Madeleine's film; and Valentin, a Russian drug dealer in Canada illegally who also happens to be Frank's upstairs neighbour and involved with Isobel. Each chapter is told from a different perspective, but Moore doesn't try to shuffle book into equal parts; rather, the different storylines ebb and flow depending on their demands.

Sometimes, when an author is trying to manage the lives of several different characters, one storyline takes precedence, but I would be hard pressed to single out the primary story here because it constantly changes, as does how the various characters fit into each other's stories. Frank is a good example, because although he is mostly hung up on Colleen at the beginning, his own life and concerns soon break him free of her story, before he transitions into what's going on with Valentin and Isobel. Frank is certainly the character that has stuck with me, but I hesitate to call Alligator his book, because it manages to belong so much to the other characters as well.

I've made no secret of the fact that I like layered narratives. I like the way different parts of the story unfold depending on who's at the centre of the action, and I like getting to know different characters and having the opportunity to see other characters through their eyes. The tricky thing, though, is managing to maintain several characters without either forgetting about one along the way, or without having them all show up at the same party just so they can meet. The connections between the characters in Alligator are so believable that nothing seems convenient so much as natural, and the rising tension that comes at the end is thrilling because you both know and can't quite believe what is happening. In that sense, I'm glad it took me so long to get to Alligator, because it's a book that will keep you up all night and, like the life for Moore's characters, not necessarily give you the exact ending you thought you were heading towards. 

Alligator
by Lisa Moore
First published in 2005 (cover images shown from House of Anansi Press edition)

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