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Review: Shot-Blue by Jesse Ruddock is a tough, hardscrabble novel

Author Jesse Ruddock’s debut novel features a cast of engrossing characters struggling to find a way of articulating whatever it is that’s roiling inside them.

Title
Shot-Blue
Author
Jesse Ruddock
Genre
Fiction
Publisher
Coach House Books
Pages
240
Price
$19.95

It's the last day of summer, and two of the better-heeled guests at a rustic northern-lake retreat sit regarding Tristan, the mildly feral boy who serves as the linchpin of Jesse Ruddock's debut novel, Shot-Blue. Powerful and knowledgeable, but withdrawn to the point of muteness – preferring to run away from most people, including his own mother, than talk to them – Tristan is an object of fascination for almost everyone who populates the novel at one time or another, somewhere between a piteous child and an elemental force in their imagination.

"That kid," one of them notes, "he's not a boy or a man. We don't have a word for him."

"Maybe we should," the other interjects.

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"Why?"

"Because saying it would feel good."

There is neither a surplus of words nor good feelings in Shot-Blue, a tough, hardscrabble book that finds most of its characters struggling, particularly to find the right way to name whatever it is that's roiling inside them. Ruddock here is grasping at a poetry of the inexpressible; her people, Tristan chief among them, are roundly unable to surface anything important from their internal lives.

It's hardly a coincidence that notions of drowning run through the novel, the idea that people may be forever trapped in their own unfathomable depths, forever in darkness to the people around them. By the end of the book – or, well, technically, two books – the title metaphor emerges as a kind of beautiful hope, but probably an impossible one: one character, a young girl, refers to a certain kind of summer day as "shot-blue," as if the sun were a bullet hole that the bright, all-encompassing sky was pouring out of. This novel's characters are never going to see that much light, because they'll never manage to puncture their own barriers.

The book inherits this tendency from Tristan's mother, Rachel, the one person here who seems to cherish her inability to connect her deepest self to anyone else. She guards herself from everyone: our first image is of her fleeing with Tristan to her father's remote cabin on Prioleau Lake, an edge-of-the-world body of water of the type that dot the Canadian Shield, and she never properly stops withdrawing from the world. Ken, a local who she begins sleeping with for money, is driven to distraction by her unwillingness to engage; even Tristan is kept in the dark about his family, Rachel's youth there, anything other than the basic skills of their existence – mainly canoe-paddling and keeping their heads down.

This head-space infects Ruddock's style. The detail here, especially in the first half of the book, is weighted by Rachel's active mind trying to numb itself into passivity – cold water snaps like smelling salts, forget-me-nots spread like loneliness – and it tends to stay sensual and immediate: Rachel is described as a person "who couldn't begin a story when there was no way of drawing any kind of conclusion," and does her best throughout to resist conclusions, including running off across the frozen lake when Keb comes to warn her that a developer is planning on turning her father's island into a wilderness resort.

It's here the second half of the book takes place, and though there are more people around and they are harder to avoid, for the most part everyone remains ships in the night, futilely using faulty lanterns to signal each other. Tristan, abandoned to the place, is a guide and maintenance worker on the land that should have been his birthright, the faux rustic cabins and generators the most obvious symbol of what happens when we fail to claim ourselves to others. He gets plenty of non-metaphorical punishment for his ineffable interior, too: he ends up at the point of a love triangle and the centre of a bullying circle, in both cases exactly because he remains so mysterious to others, sure in his actions, but entirely unable to tell anyone why.

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His struggle to understand the gulf between doing and explaining are some of the book's most poignant moments, buttressed by Ruddock's horrible knack for immediacy. She captures the confusion and struggle of the crowd that begins to surround Tristan, as well, each one emerging as another shadow, something that can show other people their shape, but never fill it in with any meaningful detail. If there is a flaw here, it's that Ruddock perhaps expands the circle a little too wide: with their emotional interiors already so impressionistic, the consistent addition of people tends to successively dull the impact.

Still, there is some hard and uncomfortable truth to be found in all of them, and Tristan and his mother remain some kind of special – complex, vivid humans who completely lack the ability to name themselves as such. They might feel better if they could, sure, but it would rob Shot-Blue of its moments of magic.

David Berry is a writer and editor based in Toronto.

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