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Almost Visible by Michelle Sinclair

Reviewed by Wayne Ng

Almost Visible is Ottawa writer Michelle Sinclair's debut novel. Where many literary fiction novels are grounded in language, purpose, and themes, Sinclair's inspiration was a feeling -- empathy. She, like her protagonist Tess, has a background in social work. One imagines Sinclair exploring how one empathizes (or fails to empathize) as the basis of our connection. But grief and loss are also imprinted on Tess. After several personal losses, she is adrift, and her thinking, choices, and moods are unsettled.

Serious introspection is difficult to convey in a novel and to engage the reader. You can see how anger, rage and, of course, love can do it. So it's a tip of the hat to the debutante to lead with static emotions like grief, loss, and empathy.

"Most people she knows love the fall, but she can’t get over all the dying and the fact that people rejoice in it, in plain sight. The wind stirs leaves and they rustle the pavement, and she senses stillness--the wait for the weight of the snow. It’s a season that often feels like going backwards. A season of introspection, atonement."

The prologue, which is essentially the ending of a story within a story, grabs you with the tragic demise of Bárbara, in a prison cell in an undisclosed location, about to give birth to the daughter she will never see again.

We begin with Tess, a young woman who flees from Nova Scotia to Montreal to escape the memories of a relationship that never lived up to its potential and the death of her mother.

"…someone told her that in the land of grief, time works differently. In grief, time can bend back upon itself or float in a vast expanse."

She is lonely, without direction or purpose or identity.

She takes a volunteer position coordinating schedules for Meals on Wheels. One day it falls to Tess to deliver a meal to Mr. Hewitt, a cynical but highly educated elderly man who lives alone. He is blind, has hoarding issues and, we suspect, other mental problems.

Tess isn't one to make decisions or act on impulse, but she discovers a journal in the rubble of Mr. Hewitt's life and takes it. In the journal, Tess discovers a love story set against the backdrop of political repression in an unnamed Latin American country.

This is where Almost Visible picks up speed. Tess' reading of the man's journal reveals Bárbara and Andrès (from the prologue) and a third character, Martin, in an unnamed Latin American country. Where Tess's life was static, the journal reveals a romantic triangulation along with civil wars, high-stakes political conflicts, and kidnappings. Suddenly, there is an external urgency to Tess's life that both hypnotizes her and gives her another lens through which to reevaluate her own story. Does she befriend Mr. Hewitt out of altruism, or is it self-serving?

"What she felt for most people was a yearning, a desire to change itself through association. To allow her body to roam. To lose herself in meaning, even if it is invented."

Wanting to escape, but not knowing where to go, Mr. Hewitt tells her, "The past really is a predator."

The diary entries are sometimes opaque, we're never quite sure what is real or imagined, or even who is who. Mr. Hewitt says to Tess, ".....the cat. Borges called it the magical animal that lives in the eternity of an instant. Unlike us, poor creatures. We can conceive of different realities but we’re bound to keep making the mistake of regretting, romanticizing, or anticipating. Don’t we? We don’t realize that we’re shackled to one moment at a time."

Looking at Michelle Sinclair's bio, you can't help but wonder how much of her is Tess. Both are social workers from Nova Scotia. Sinclair also worked in Latin America for years. You can almost see her in Almost Visible. There's a tentativeness, a hesitancy in Tess's life that is reflected in her writing. Her pacing and tone are sometimes too even. Then she hits you with some extraordinary language and metaphors that make you wonder how a new writer has the audacity, talent, and courage to push and blur the boundaries.

"The stars. Even the ones we see may no longer exist. We’re seeing their past. Tess thinks it’s the same for people. Maybe they’re no longer here, but we see them anyway."

Almost Visible is published by Baraka Books.

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