Release date: May 1, 2013
Publisher: NeWest Press
Thank you to NeWest Press for sending me an Advance Reader Copy in exchange for an honest review.
While working to restore an historic theatre in a seedy part of the city, a graduate student named Anthea searches to find her best friend, lost to the rhetoric of an itinerant preacher and street mystic. Almost a century earlier, Liam, a tenth-rate tenor, visits the same theatre while eking out a career on the dying Vaudeville circuits of the day. In both eras, an apocalyptic strain of utopian mysticism threatens their existence: Anthea contends with a nascent New Age movement in the heart of the city while Liam encounters a radical theosophical commune in the deep country along the coast of British Columbia, who appear to be building … something.
The Paradise Engine unfolds across a colourful backdrop of labour organizers, immaculately-attired cultists, ambitious socialites, teenage lovers, basement offices and innumerable coffee shops.
If you like stories with a clear resolution, this book may frustrate you. This one’s all about the build up, with multiple perspectives weaving in and out and around each other and almost converging. That’s not a criticism; it’s what makes the book brilliant. The Paradise Engine takes place in a world with two possibilities: either everything in life is a coincidence, or nothing is. And both possibilities are terrifying.
The Paradise Engine follows two hauntings, that of present-day historian Anthea, and of that of Vaudeville-era crooner Liam. Though separated by nearly one hundred years, there are many parallels in their lives. Both are drawn to mystical movements of their day – prophets and end of days type stuff. Both end up living off remittances of dubious origin. Both are not quite living up to their potential. Anthea pieces together Liam’s story while researching the life of his patroness, an eccentric socialite. Later, we learn that Anthea’s grandmother had an affair with Liam as a teenager. Coincidence?
It’s during a visit to Anthea’s grandmother that things start to get out of control. Anthea and her spacey best friend Jasmine are intrigued by the cult that lived near her grandparent’s land back in the 1920s. They decide to call on the (deceased) cult leader, in a scene that started like an outtake from The Craft but ended up being really goddamn scary. Soon, Anthea is plagued by bad dreams, and within a few months, Jasmine has disappeared. Oh, yeah, and this cult tried to recruit Liam, back in the day. Coincidence?
That was the problem with omens, she had once tried to explain to Jasmine when they were drunk, you never know when they stop or start, and once you accept the premise, the whole universe has suddenly become a message.
It took me a while to warm up to Anthea. She has a very stilted way of talking, and she’s just so stuck in a rut, with her job and her personal life. I loved Liam, on the other hand, even when he was being a complete slimeball. I don’t know if Pick Up Artists were a thing back then, but if they were, Liam could have been their poster boy. It’s a good thing he had a tragic story and handsome face to redeem him (among other physical assets… and I’ll leave it at that!)
The most affecting scenes for me where between Anthea and her father. Like most of the characters, they’re somewhat estranged. They’re so alike, and struggle so hard to connect with each other. On the other hand, Anthea and Jasmine have a relationship that’s probably a little too close. They squabble like siblings, and there’s an undercurrent of jealousy that makes their friendship toxic – see the author Q&A section for more on that.
I really enjoyed Campbells’ writing. If you’re a regular reader of the blog, you know that I love dark, moody prose. I fell in love this this passage:
She liked to watch the flight of crows each evening at sunset, the commuter birds who spent their days by water, but roosted inland. They crossed overhead from the west kitchen window to the east-facing bedroom earlier and earlier as the summer ended until it was fall and they crossed while she was still at work. She watched them against whichever sunset she happened on; the crows were constant where the colours changed, sometimes pearly, sometimes layered from pink to gold like a Shirley Temple. The crows spilled like black beans across the west, but when they were close she saw that they were crow-shaped holes, little glimpses into the void behind the sky.
On top of excellent writing and character development, Campbell has put in some serious groundwork to set the scene – no easy feat when you’re dealing with two worlds, maybe more if you consider the paranormal aspects. It was Liam’s world of a dying Vaudeville era that captivated me. The interwar period is having such a moment right now – think Downton Abbey and The Great Gatsby- and Campbell offers a unique (and Canadian!) perspective. Campbell’s love of the era and meticulous research shine through. Vaudeville, theatre architecture, new age movements, early recording technology, and military culture are just a few of the things I didn’t know much about going in.
There is so much I’m leaving out, because I think this book is best experienced first hand! And, with so many layers, The Paradise Engine would definitely stand up to rereading. In fact, I was so sure I was missing some important detail, just out of my mental grasp, that I went back and reread the whole thing while writing this review. I didn’t find that elusive detail, but I think that’s the point. There is no easy solution, no sure sign that the universe acknowledges us. We just have to keep living our lives, omens and all.
Rebecca Campbell has had fiction and poetry published in Grain, Geist, The Fiddlehead, TickleAce and Prairie Fire. She has received a Masters in English at UBC and is currently working on her PhD. at the University of Western Ontario. Originally from Duncan, B.C. in the Cowichan valley, Rebecca now lives in Toronto, Ontario. Her first novel, The Paradise Engine, was released in May 2013.
If you’re in Edmonton, you can meet Rebecca at the NeWest Press Spring Spectacular on May 15th. I know I’ll be there!
Q&A with Rebecca Campbell
The book starts with a quote from the classic novel (and 1,001 Book) Middlemarch. How did Middlemarch influence The Paradise Engine?
That quote is from Casaubon’s very first speech. He’s a frustrated, self-loathing academic who has great ambitions to produce a “Key to all Mythologies” but can’t actually finish the work, and instead obsesses over heaps of notes and observations. Eliot’s description of Casaubon, and that combination of ambition-to-understand and failure-to-complete informed Anthea as a character, and also the world to which she belongs. A lot of the characters think they’re going to produce a Great Work, or a Theory of Everything, but are instead overwhelmed by the random detritus they think will help them accomplish that task. It’s also a bit of self-reflection, like most of the academic references in the novel. Re-reading Middlemarch halfway through my PhD gave me a new feeling of compassion for sad, deluded Casaubon—a character I’d detested when I first read the novel as a nineteen-year-old.
Were you influenced by any other books or authors?
The first couple of years I was thinking about the story I read all the “End of the World” novels and stories I could get my hands on: works by John Wyndham, John Christopher, and J.G. Ballard, Alas, Babylon!, Earth Abides, The Last Children of Schewenborn, On the Beach,Children of the Dust, The Last Man, “A Pail of Air,” Oryx and Crake, The Stand, and “Rust” among many others. These stories terrified me as a child (to the point where I avoided the copy of Children of the Dust at our library) and I wanted to explore that feeling in my story, which I know lots of kids of the Cold War share. Quite early in the process I cut much of what I wrote that explicitly drew on those stories, but I think the anxiety still informs The Paradise Engine.
I was also really inspired by Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle for their world building, as well as their subject matter. Though they go about it in quite different ways, they both leave me with the sense that the world of the characters goes far beyond the confines of the novel. I love that feeling of space when I’m reading.
This probably isn’t a great confession from the author, but I thought the same when I finally read a hard copy of the book this month, kind of a “what’s up with those two??” reaction. I’m not sure I have an answer—I do think there’s something passionately love/hate about their relationship, and that it’s a romantic friendship of the sort we sometimes have in our teens, the kind that can be neurotic and consuming. However, both women are a bit old for that, so I could run with your interpretation, even if it wasn’t something that I intentionally wrote into the text.
What’s the last book that you loved?
I just started reading The Rest is Silence by Scott Fotheringham. So far I think it might be a “love”—it’s a bit The Way We Fall and a bit My Side of the Mountain and a bit Earth Abides. And I’m learning a lot about gardening. These are all awesome compliments, from my point of view. (Note: The Rest is Silence sounds incredible, and I added it to my to-read list)