A Man Came out of a Door in the Mountain

By Adrianne Harun

(Penguin, 256 pages, $18)

By Deborah de Bakker

Adrianne Harun writes that her new novel, A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain, was “sparked by outrage over the ongoing murders and disappearances of aboriginal women along Highway 16, the so-called Highway of Tears, in northern British Columbia.”

However, it is not “about” those crimes in a direct sense.

Rather, Harun has written a complex, literary novel that shows us the kind of town where such evil can happen when the devil, in his many disguises, gains a toehold.

Harun does not name the town, but we know it is along the 700-kilometre stretch of highway between Prince George and Prince Rupert. Set in the mountains, the town can provide neither decent jobs nor decent satellite service. The main characters, five teenagers, are plagued by “boredom and splintered light and the constant nagging in your heart to get out, get out, get out.”

According to one of the kids, “Some people might call this God’s Country, but others swear it’s been colonized by the other team.” The town villain, Gerald Flacker, has been in the devil’s pocket for years, operating a still and a meth lab, starving the dogs and children under his care and setting his enemies on fire, seemingly with impunity.

The novel centres on five teenaged friends — Leo, Tessa, Jackie, Bryan and Ursie — who meet the devil in person one summer. Of course, they do not recognize either the seductive young woman, Hana Swann, or the beguiling magician Keven Seven as incarnations of the devil until it is too late and one of their group has disappeared.

Leo, a mixed-race boy who is the main narrator of the story, is helping his mother to care for his dying uncle. Interspersed among the chapters are Uncle Lud’s stories about the devil and his tricks, which Uncle Lud hopes will help Leo understand and resist evil.

The novel also includes a series of amusing emails Leo receives from Leila Chen, the teacher of a correspondence physics course he is supposed to be working on. In her early messages, she exhorts Leo to complete the assignments as written instead of musing on the equations of his own life, but by the end she herself is pondering the relationship between physics and poetry, a subject Leo finds more interesting.

For a novel of 256 pages, there is an awful lot going on, with multiple storylines involving the five main characters and their families. When I picked up this book I was hoping for a story that would draw me into the world of missing and murdered aboriginal women in the way that Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse drew me into the world of residential school students. That is not the book that Harun has written. The disappearance of Jackie is only one element in a multi-layered novel that is part magic realism, part gritty thriller, part coming-of-age story.

Nevertheless, Harun writes well about the frustration of the unsolved crimes. As Leo says, “Native girls were prey, as thoughtlessly disposable as that moose carcass or the unlucky marten, and we all knew it, regardless of how many times some uniformed dope with his tortured hat got on the television and explained how hard they were trying, how impossible the landscape, how thin the clues and evidence gleaned from family reports they never seemed bothered to fully consider.”

This is the first novel for Harun, who has won awards for her short fiction. She lives in Port Townsend, Washington, with her Canadian husband.

(Deborah de Bakker is a Thunder Bay writer and avid reader.)

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