‘The boy stepped Outside, and he did not die.’
So Michael Christie’s latest novel If I Fall, If I Die begins. This is a beautiful story about growing up, mental illness, social divisions, relationships and education. Will lives in Thunder Bay with his mother, an agrophobe who suffers from severe depression. The only way she has been able to cope and prevent the Black Lagoon from swallowing her whole is to shut herself and Will away in their own world, to pain masterpieces, listen to Relaxation Tapes and avoid the Outside.
They create their own world. Rooms are named – New York, Toronto, Paris, the bathroom is Venice – and become places of safety. In some ways their life sounds idyllic, filled with art, science experiments, and music but Will realises that something is missing, and so steps out his front door wearing a safety Helmet and is gloriously enraptured by the outside world and becomes worn by it. Descriptions are a wonderful mix of talented prose writing and the wide open eyes of someone seeing the world for the first time – on a cold morning ‘the ice chirped underfoot like plastic’ and the first steps into the front garden sees him standing on a ‘a carpet made of salad.’ Having been home schooled for most of his life, he finds timetables, bells, report cards and detention endlessly fascinating, hungry for the minutae of a life he has not known before. He strikes up friendships with other oddballs Jonah and Angela, and becomes obsessed with Marcus, a boy who goes missing, but was also the first person he spoke to in the Outside.
There’s humour, and some of the manifestations seem humorous (Mayonnaise is a ‘a forbidden substance because it went deadly poisonous after only a few minutes out of the fridge’ and going for a walk involves ‘set up the Ye Olde Strolling Course around London’) but Diane’s anxiety was triggered by the death of her brother Charlie and Christie’s exploration of the back story adds weight to the fiercely loving and protective emotion that fuels her anxiety. As Will experiences more for himself he starts to resent her fear and the limitations it imposes, the dependency that has built up between them. Even her praise is damned as he sees it for the words that a parent gives, rather than objective feedback: ‘At home his mother produced praise like water from a tap, and it was just as tasteless.’
It’s not a plot spoiler to say that she does leave the house, Will does make sense, and that the ‘volume’ of the Black Lagoon is at times ‘turned down.’ But plot isn’t really where this book excels. It’s worth comes in the poignancy and sensitivity with which it faces and accepts daily struggles and life’s challenges. It’s a novel about becoming whole, the Outside coming Inside, the Inside merging with the Outside, love and fear, change and knowledge, and the gentle art of ‘living in between.’