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Breaking and Entering by Don Gillmor

Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann

Oppressive heat is pervasive in this latest novel from Governor General’s Award-winner Don Gillmor. Everything seems to fry, wilt, or sweat. The culprit is climate change, but Gillmor doesn’t dwell on that. The heat is just a fact of life here.

The main character, Bea Billings, is constantly soaked with perspiration. This doesn’t help her mood. Bea feels her life is stuck, her world “suspended in aspic.” Her marriage is passionless; her mother, whom she visits in her nursing home regularly, has dementia; she argues with her sister, Ariel, about nearly everything. Her friends are predictable.

Then one day, she happens upon an internet video about picking locks and becomes hooked. She even joins a lock-pickers club, though she soon finds most of the people rather boring. Her lock-picking skills continue to improve, however. Then one day, on a whim, she uses these new-found skills to break into a neighbouring house, not to steal anything, but to get a better sense of the couple who live there.

The experience excites her, and after that, when a person she encounters intrigues her, she follows them to see where they live and breaks in when they are not home. She finds that even drab houses can conceal surprising secrets—intimate experiences kept private, some heart-warming, some shocking.

And if the rest of this novel had only consisted of a string of Bea’s break-ins and her resulting insights into the people in those houses and apartments, it would have certainly been quite entertaining. But Gillmor does more.

In digging for the secrets of others, Bea inevitably has to face her own life, in particular her relationship with her husband—what she hides, what he hides. She faces the inevitable evolution of things in her own life: passion, love, grief, awareness.

Nuanced and non-judgemental, Gillmor’s phrasing is often both penetrating and poetic, all without sounding forced: “Her world now looked like the birth of the universe, random upheavals, black holes that sucked in the light, a loosely structured chaos that might produce anything” or “All her mother’s life adding up to this, another world she hadn’t anticipated. Though even if she had, how could she have prepared for it? You can only prepare for the life you have just left.”

If there were a theme to Breaking and Entering, it might be “the End is Near”—so much of what we value in life changes and comes to an end. Gillmor is examining the cycles of life, both positive and negative: the process of maturation, the evolution of love and marriage, the changes in family relationships. And while it’s often sad when one phase of life comes to an end, another phase will quickly begin to carry us forward.

Breaking and Entering is published by Biblioasis.


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