Review | Magnified World, Grace O’Connell

I received and read the ARC of Grace O’Connell’s Magnified World a few weeks after having read Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls. World was nowhere near the tearjerker for me as Monster was (thank god — Monster was intense!), but  World is striking in a different way. World is a lovely exploration of grief. When World begins, O’Connell’s narration doesn’t dive into grief so much as brush against it, little glancing touches that depict the intensity of emotion with metaphor and suggestion. The narrative becomes more openly emotional as the novel progresses, and I love how that reflects Maggie’s changing ways to express grief.

Maggie’s mother drowns herself in the Don River with zircon stones from her New Age shop. Maggie tries to cope by removing zircon stones from the shop’s inventory and taking over as shopkeeper. But then the blackouts begin, and they soon become dangerous — Maggie once regains consciousness after having been knocked off a bike she didn’t even realize she’d been riding.

Having dealt with grief, I definitely understand the desire to forget things. I can understand how the pain of losing someone can feel so unbearable you just want to shut off, at least temporarily. However, I can only begin to imagine the horror if your conscious mind really does shut off, and you can’t control when or where it happens. After a loss, touchstones become so much more important — items or places usually associated with the person lost can serve as anchors in a way, reassurances that there still is and will always be something solid to which you can cling.

Some of my favourite parts in the book are when O’Connell shows Maggie trying to cling to these touchstones. For example, Maggie finds herself glaring at customers who are touching the items in the shop because her mother may have touched this or that item last. Irrational, definitely, yet I can definitely empathize with Maggie’s need to preserve even the faintest hint of warmth her mother’s touch may have left behind. I can imagine myself in her shoes, glaring at the strangers who dare to add their own fingerprints to these objects. In other, particularly poignant observation, Maggie realizes that she no longer has to get her mother’s approval on a shop display, and so it can never be perfect. Even if to an outsider’s eye, the display looks absolutely perfect, I can understand how Maggie feels her mother’s approval is a requisite final step — after all, it’s her mother’s shop. I love how O’Connell mentions these minor details — each gets only a few lines in early chapters — that convey so much. I can also appreciate how, given the importance of these semblances of stability, Maggie’s blackouts must have been especially frightening.

Maggie then meets a mysterious customer named Gil, who promises to help her with her blackouts if she talks to him about her mother, for a book he’s writing. Gil’s significance becomes clearer later on when we find out who he is, but even from the beginning, he offers Maggie hope that her life may return to normal. To be honest, Gil creeped me out. I couldn’t understand why Maggie trusted him so easily, and I understood even less why she was sexually attracted to him. A quick re-reading of his first appearance reminded me he was a youngish, attractive man, yet for some reason (maybe his name? his Master Caine-type promise?) I kept imagining him as an elderly grandfather figure. Even without the age factor, however, he’s definitely creepy, showing up at random moments and demanding to know more about Maggie’s mother. That being said, his obsessive tendencies are explained, and we do see his significance.

At the very least, Gil’s demands force Maggie to work out her complex relationship with her mother. She certainly loves her mother, and in a way, relates to her mother much more than to her father, a professor who thought his wife was wasting her intellect at a New Age shop. I love how our perception of Maggie’s mother evolves, as Maggie delves deeper into her memories, and becomes more willing to acknowledge her mother’s flaws. Our perception of Maggie’s entire family changes as well, and from fairly sympathetic yet vague figures, Maggie and her parents are each fleshed out into complex individuals. The tragedy, of course, as Maggie realizes, is that she can no longer continue to get to know her mother. In an especially moving passage, she says

In five minutes I could have asked my mother a dozen questions. I had years and years and I hadn’t asked her. I hadn’t wanted to pry… [I figured] that she would tell me, sometime, everything I needed to know.

Finally, I love how concrete the details of the Toronto setting are. O’Connell uses street names and landmarks a lot, such that reading World sometimes felt like taking a walk/bike ride/drive around the city. I especially love that O’Connell even gives Mississauga a shout-out. Maggie spends some time in Port Credit (in southern Mississauga), and her description, making it sound so different from the city, almost like a quaint little town. Grace O’Connell is already Random House of Canada’s New Face of Fiction; I can imagine Magnified World entering the canon of Toronto literature because it gives such a sense of place.