Staff Picks: Editor Chris Benjamin Shares His Favourite Read from the #GiftAtlantic Collection
Michelle Butler Hallett
Goose Lane Editions
Constant Nobody by Michelle Butler Hallett is one of the most engrossing novels I’ve read this year. In this recommendation, I’ll reiterate some things I’ve written about it in the past:
It’s set in Spain, England and Russia at the height of Stalin’s purge in 1937, with a couple of fun Newfoundland references, worldly characters in impossible circumstances fantasizing about starting a language school in the most remote place they can name. It’s a spy novel and love story with a plot that imprisons its characters—Temerity, a British spy with a fake passport, and her kidnapper and saviour from a possibly worse fate; and Kostya, a Soviet internal affairs man—in a small Moscow apartment surrounded by more tattletale eyes than 1984.
Hallett studied Russian and Soviet history and literature in university, was further influenced by an international cabal of writers including Anna Akhmatova, Franz Kafka, John LeCarré, Varlam Shalamov, Vladimir Sorokin, Evgeny Zamyatin and George Orwell; as well as folkloric work like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the epic poem Beowulf. Temerity and Kostya’s story is beautifully framed by the Russian fairy tales they share when they meet, imparting a sense of the universality of story and the human condition. The tales also set up a sense of intrigue and intimacy, as captor and captured fall for one another in the stickiest, most complex and tense way possible.
A prominent figure of the fairy tales is the crone Baba Yaga, but as Temerity notes they share tropes with ancient stories worldwide. The characters return to a phrase from “The Maiden Tsar,” spoken by a merchant’s son when asked why he has come to see Baba Yaga. “Largely by my own free will, and twice as much by compulsion.” The phrase becomes a mantra for taking responsibility for choices and actions, despite the impossibility of circumstance, facing the harshest of consequences for the slightest miscalculation.
In Constant Nobody’s top-down bureaucratized world a lowly clerk whose signature you need holds immense power. A street bully becomes a victim. A high-ranking internal affairs man who has been forced to murder hundreds finds himself in perpetual proximity with betrayal and death, afraid of every footstep. Even the executioners are entrapped. Butler Hallett’s talent for creating sympathy for villains is profound.
It is thrilling to read an Atlantic book reminiscent of James Clavell’s Asian saga in its ability to inhabit the many worlds—and variant cultural and political perspectives—of our shrinking but still diverse planet. Her tale is more introspective, more complex, than the typical overseas historical adventure novel like the kind Clavell popularized. It provides a more sophisticated feminist perspective, giving proper due especially to Butler Hallett’s main female character’s dilemma, as well as her strengths, flaws and perspectives on global events portrayed.
In short, Nobody has everything I love in a novel. Fascinating, complicated people I can find sympathy for, living lives I can follow but not fully comprehend, in incredibly tense situations; as well as intriguing language to keep the beat.