My Year in Books: Last Night in Montreal

by Patrick on December 22, 2009

Debut novels are not supposed to turn out like this one.  They’re supposed to flop around on the table, show a few glimpses of potential, and then leave you waiting for the next, better effort.  Last Night in Montreal is an accomplishment unto itself.  At its heart, it’s a story about communication and the enormous role that context and location plays in it.  This is best summarized by one of the many dead languages that perpetual grad student Eli studies, a Native American language that has no sense of left or right, only Mountain-side or River-side.  The language loses all meaning outside their home land.

So many of the characters in this book don’t fit where they are.  Eli is stagnating in Brooklyn, working on a thesis he’ll likely never finish.  Michaela lives in Montreal and can’t speak French.  And Lilia can’t seem to find anywhere she feels at home, traveling the world, constantly running away from or towards something.  It’s how Mandel threads these stories, drifting back and forth between the past and the present, that really astounds.  The result is a narcotic, fugue-like narrative that will carry you away with it.

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