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Fate’s Instruments by H. Nigel Thomas

Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann

This latest novel from H. Nigel Thomas continues the story of Paul and Jay, two brothers, originally from the Island of St. Vincent in the West Indies, who now live in Montreal. Readers first met these two in No Safeguards, which, narrated by Jay, told of their boyhood in St. Vincent and their first years in Canada. “Fate’s Instruments,” the second in a projected trilogy, picks up where No Safeguards left off.

About five years have passed. Paul is the narrator now. Jay, the elder of the two, is travelling in Africa during a six-month sabbatical from his teaching job at a Montreal CEGEP. Jay is finishing up his bachelor’s degree at Concordia University.

The central issue is, as with No Safeguards, their sexuality. Jay and Paul are both gay. Jay pretends to be ambivalent, but Paul has accepted it. He has just broken up with Carlos, a Guatemalan man whose family sheltered him during a year he spent detained in that country after having been caught for drug possession. While he was in Guatemala, his mother died in Canada not knowing where he was, whether he was alive or dead. This still haunts him, despite his mother’s adamant, religion-based rejection of his gay lifestyle.

The breakup with Carlos is hard but final, and Paul is now searching for a way forward in his life. He is still in his mid-twenties, and the hormonal passions of that age are evident. Yet he is beginning to reflect on who he is in a more mature fashion. Gone are the impulses to go to the sauna for easy sex. He reflects on his past in St. Vincent, his relationship with his parents, his “Grama,” and his brother.

In a book where essentially all of the characters are gay or lesbian, the usual heterosexual norms are plainly off the table. Yet much is familiar nonetheless. And this is likely Thomas’s main point. Structurally, the narrative alternates between Paul’s present and his reminiscences of St. Vincent and Grama, which he intends to turn into a novel. These don’t really blend all that smoothly with the rest of the narrative, however, and cause the story to slow down a bit in the central part of the book. Thankfully the pace picks up when Jay returns to help Paul deal with a bout of cancer.

Overall, Fate’s Instruments seems to be an extended meditation on various aspects of love, but from the point of view of a young, gay man. Paul’s search is to reconcile the past loss of love and to regain it, both with his brother and with a lover who is also a soul mate. There are a few rather random digressions, notably some discussions of Canadian politics, particularly concerning the NDP and the death of Jack Layton, but these are inconsequential.

Although Thomas does try to fill in Jay and Paul’s backgrounds, there is a lot that is still confusing for those who may not have read “No Safeguards.” This, together with a sometimes unclear chronology, at least initially, makes the narrative a bit difficult to follow at first. Things get clearer in the second half of the book and by the time it ends, everything seems straightforward.

Fate’s Instruments does stand on its own as a novel, but there are some threads, such as Paul’s novel and his relationship with Bernard, a survivor of the Rwandan massacres, that seem destined to be further developed in the next volume. We should look forward to it eagerly.

Fate's Instruments is published by Guernica Editions.

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