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  • Title: Watching You Without Me
  • Author: Lynn Coady
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: House of Anansi
  • Pages: 376

When men get into an angry online froth about the ways in which their gender is portrayed in popular culture, they often sound as if toxic masculinity only became a convenient plot device around the time when, say, Kanye grabbed the mic away from Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. An era of creeping wokeness was ushered in by the election of Barack Obama as U.S. President, these professionally aggrieved dudes seem to believe, and guys have been paying for it ever since by being forced to play the villain onscreen and on the page.

The reality is, of course, that culture has been sounding the alarms about men behaving badly since forever – the ancient Greek tragedies are full of guys who just don’t know when to let it go. Or take the modern literary thriller: Since its inception in the early 20th century, the genre has frequently been powered by the notion that certain men have a hard time taking no for an answer.

In Lynn Coady’s new novel, Watching You Without Me – her first work of fiction since winning the 2013 Giller Prize for her brilliant short story collection Hellgoing – the Cape Breton-born author (who now lives in Toronto, where she has become a respected TV writer) borrows heavily from the thriller genre and from its animating trope of the relentless male predator, but makes of it something both messier and more subtle.

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After the death of her septuagenarian mother from cancer, Karen returns from Toronto to the Nova Scotia home in which she was raised. The last time she was there, a decade earlier, she was in the middle of applying to law school “in a panicked and nonsensical attempt” to avoid dealing with the reality of her failing marriage. Now divorced and in her 40s, Karen has come back to deal with her mentally challenged older sister Kelli, who is generally good-natured and affable, but with whom even a trip to a store is emotionally and physically draining.

The novel begins, literally, with a bang, and the sudden intrusion of a troubling stranger. Her mother’s funeral has only just happened, and Karen is still reeling with grief, guilt and the certainty that she is not up to the task of caring for her sister, when into the scene crashes Trevor, one of Kelli’s care workers. Trevor is friendly but aggressive, and gets moody whenever his plans meet resistance. He’s strangely comfortable around Karen’s mother’s house: He has his own key and has a habit of walking in on days when he isn’t even scheduled to take care of Kelli. Plus, he is strangely adept at navigating both the new barbecue and the big-screen TV, with its premium cable package – both items that are very out of character for Karen’s mom.

It’s clear, right from the start, that something is off with Trevor. Karen can see it, but somehow manages to convince herself that everything’s fine, even taking his side against a much-less problematic childhood friend with whom she reconnects. As Karen, who narrates the novel as if relating the story over drinks, says in one of her frequent asides: “These days, when I tell this story to friends, it’s always the moment Trevor lets himself in with his key … that makes them kind of whoop in their seats. Or flop backward in a gesture of full-bodied incredulity. Or just stare at me like I’m an idiot.”

When House of Anansi first announced that the follow-up to Hellgoing would be a work of “literary suspense,” I admit I got a little worried. One of the great things about Coady’s work is its resolute untrendiness – she has always written about people whose lives make for terrible elevator pitches – and the idea of her following too many of her literary contemporaries into thriller-dom was disappointing.

I was stupid to worry. Yes, Watching You Without Me is, ostensibly, the story of two women in a vulnerable situation being preyed upon by a man who is harbouring dark secrets. But Trevor’s slippery and potentially dangerous nature is evident from the start, robbing his gradual heel-turn of most of its suspense. And though there are some moments of genuinely unnerving violence and aggression here, the novel is more character study than beach read. The story is less about the threat of Trevor than it is about the threat Karen poses to herself, and about her painfully slow – and sometimes literally painful – struggle to come to terms with the resentment and anger that has powered her life thus far. What works so well in Coady’s new novel is not so much the moments when she tightens the narrative screws, but rather when she lingers on the warped material they are being screwed into.

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