“If I Fall, If I Die” – a beautiful, funny, moving debut by Michael Christie

if I fall“The boy stepped Outside, and he did not die”. With these words Michael Christie opens his debut novel about 11-year old Will, who has not set foot outside his house in Thunder Bay, Canada, since being a toddler. Will’s mother Diane, suffers from severe agoraphobia (what Will calls her “Black Lagoon”). Her irrational and debilitating fear of the world beyond her front door, and the myriad ways her son could be hurt or die, sometimes leaves her unable to move from her bed, shivering, sweat drenching her clothes. The world for the former filmmaker has “closed on her, like the aperture of a camera”.

After years of creating a make-belief life Inside (capital “I”), Will’s curiosity gets the better of him. Up to now, his world has comprised a series of rooms, named after big cities: the kitchen is Paris, the bedroom he shares with his mother, San Francisco; the living room is Cairo, the basement, Toronto, and the studio where Will paints his “masterpieces” (his only real occupation besides watching old films) is New York.

But, there are only so many canvasses a boy can cover with splotches à la Jackson Pollock, before starting to wonder what is out there, beyond the door. Bracing himself for danger, and armed with a helmet (just in case a random object falls on his head and ends his life), Will ventures Outside and meets Marcus, a Native American orphan who steals hosepipes for yet unnamed reasons. Despite his mother’s silent protestations, Will decides to go to school where the intricacies of human interaction confuse and intrigue him.

Will befriends another Native American boy, Jonah, a skateboarder whose artwork both inspires and shames Will. Jonah teaches the inept but enthralled Will to skate. With each fall, each bruise and scrape, Will becomes less afraid of the world, even as his mother’s fears grow. Diane’s son’s increasing scorn come as her condition worsens; the snapping of the rubber band against her wrist, and the self-help tapes during “Relaxation Time”, become progressively less effective at holding the Black Lagoon at bay.

When Marcus goes missing, the local police show little interest in finding the delinquent “Indian” and Will decides to undertake the mission of saving his ‘friend’. Joined by Jonah, Will ‘investigates’ the disappearance and stumbles upon the underworld, and very real dangers, of Thunder Bay.

If I Fall, If I Die is beautifully written, full of quirky, offbeat humour, and contains moving, revealing descriptions of mental illness. Will’s innocence and discovery of a world foreign to him, while trying to solve a mystery, recalls the inimitable The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Michael Christie, a former professional skateboarder, presents a story about the pains of growing up, about discovering the vastness of the world, about friendship, and the relationship between mother and son.

Notable passage:

“The boy stepped Outside, and he did not die. He was not riddled with arrows, his hair did not spring into flame, and his breath did not crush his lungs like spent grocery bags. His eyeballs did not seize. No barbarian lopped his head into a blood-soggy wicker basket, and no glinting ninja stars were zinged into his throat.

Actually, incredibly: nothing happened – no immolation, no bloodbath, no spontaneous asphyxiation, no tide of shivery terror crashing upon the shore of his heart – not even a trace of his mother’s Black Lagoon in his breath. Somehow, Will was calm”.

Rating: 4 out of 5

If I Fall, If I Die is published by Penguin Random House SA.

The book is available from TakeAlot.com for R329.

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