Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
A man is sitting in a hospital room besides his mother’s bed, waiting for her to die. He asks to himself, “Paul, where are you?” The man then begins to think back—about his brother Paul, their childhood, and their very different relationships with the two people who have most influenced their lives: their mother and grandmother.
So begins “No Safeguards,” by H. Nigel Thomas. The blurb on the back cover reveals that both the man, Jay, and his brother Paul are gay. But the novel’s focus isn’t on this at all. Rather, “No Safeguards” is about how these two brothers grow up, separately and together—who and what nurtures them, injures them, makes them what they now are.
When Jay is eight and Paul is two, their mother, Anna, leaves their abusive father and emigrates to Canada. Nine years later she takes them to live with her in Montreal. In the meantime they have been raised by Grama, Anna’s mother. Jay develops into a quiet, studious sort, while Paul—a bit of a child prodigy—is a handful. Loud and very confident in himself, he challenges everyone with his intellect and taunts his brother constantly. He teases him about his friends and jokes that Jay is gay.
Canada is difficult for Paul, who finds himself dropped into the racially polarized, drug- and gang-infested world of Montreal’s public high schools. As Jay proceeds to university, Paul, fails courses, becomes a drug pusher, and argues relentlessly with just about everyone.
And then, at 19, Paul announces he is leaving and promptly disappears. When Anna falls ill and approaches death, Paul is nowhere to be found.
“No Safeguards” is filled with wonderful scenes of island life, made alive by the use of colourful dialect and vivid characters—Grama, in particular, is a force of nature. A tangible sense of pathos is present in several other characters as well. Anna comes across as tragic yet human in her losing struggle against what life has thrown at her. And above all there is poignancy in the frustration and confusion of both boys as they grow up while trying to sort out their troubled and conflicted relationship with their parents and grandmother.
Nigel Thomas is himself an immigrant from St. Vincent, and gay, and one assumes he projects many of his own experiences and emotions onto his characters. In “No Safeguards” he has re-created the disjunction of every immigrant, especially the children, who must exchange the set of norms and expectations they developed in their homeland for another that is neither familiar nor explained.
Thomas treads lightly around both boys’ sexual identity issues until the end, when Paul reveals his own journey of awakening to being gay, urging Jay to do the same. This rightly keeps the reader thinking about more than this one issue, but it still might have been introduced more overtly earlier.
This book’s emotional force, though potent, is weakened a bit by its heavy use of flashbacks, many of which contain lengthy remembered conversations—always delivered verbatim. Such extensive verbatim recollections seem, at the very least, improbable. More important is that this greatly dilutes the emotional immediacy of what is happening. A more direct narrative, focusing more on remembered actions and feelings than words, might have been more effective. Another consequence of using flashbacks in the way the author does is that a number of scenes are isolated in time, and the reader is left unsure when exactly they took place. Thus a sense of narrative build is lost.
Still, the poignancy of these lives remains and one comes away with an appreciation of the strength of these two boys, now men, who have experienced so much yet retained a commitment to each other that cannot be broken.