Reviewed by Jerry Levy In Lori Hahnel’s Flicker, the world turns completely on its axis, morphing from homespun events such as skating on a homemade backyard ice rink and Hockey Night in Canada, to a very strange mélange involving visions ("flickers"), psychic abilities, mythologies, crystal balls, Tarot cards, and odd ancient machines and amulets that allow for time travel. Add in inventors Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, the actress and singer Lillian Russell, as well as Vikings to the mix, and indeed, the world as we know appears to make little sense. It becomes an alter-reality, a warped world some might say is akin to Superman’s Bizarro world, where ‘up’ is ‘down’ and ‘hello’ means ‘goodbye.’ But upon closer inspection, this most unusual universe may not be as warped as first thought. For at heart, Flicker is really about loss and relationships; moreover, it is a love story, something of course eminently relatable throughout the ages.
Flicker opens up in Calgary in 1971, where our protagonist Cassandra (Cass) is skating with her brother Jim on the ice rink bought by their father from Simpsons Sears (the ‘instant rink kit’). She suddenly sees a vision of a tall man standing at the end of the yard, someone who appears vaguely familiar to her. That event throws Jim (who does not see the man) off-kilter and Cass, swerving to get out of his way, falls and hits her head on the ice. Taken to the hospital by her parents for a possible concussion, she later comes to learn that they died in a car accident on their way home that very night. Now living with their grandparents, Jim and Cass veer down very different life roads, the former becoming sullen and withdrawn, dropping out of school and departing the house, (shortly thereafter selling drugs and living a marginalized lifestyle), and Cass going to high school and working as a cashier at a grocery store.
The summer of 1981 brings the Calgary Stampede to the city where Cass and her friend Marty wander into the tent of Madame Freyja, a fortune-teller with a shady past. Convinced that Cass has a gift for seeing premonitions and visions, she offers the young woman a job as an assistant. It means leaving Calgary and going on a travelling circuit throughout Canada and the U.S., something Cass (with a bit of cajoling from Marty), readily accepts. That one event, walking into a fortune-teller’s tent, will soon change Cass’s life forever. For Freyja turns out to be a true rogue, scamming customers and not teaching Cass anything worthwhile. It culminates with her stealing the $300 Cass’ grandparents gave her as a parting gift. Fed up with Freyja and realizing her life on the road with this sham fortune-teller would amount to nothing, she leaves and returns to Calgary to begin anew. But not before she takes a thousand-year-old sun amulet that belonged to Freyja, an amulet that supposedly, alongside an electrical instrument (now lost), possesses supernatural powers.
Back in Calgary and now working in a thrift shop, Cass happens upon an unusual device in a donated Post Toasties Corn Flakes cereal box. A simple old radio? Hardly. For this device (which has the name ‘Edison’ in gold scroll at the bottom) starts her on a very strange journey; in conjunction with the amulet, it allows her to travel back to 1900 to the Thomas Edison Laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey. And it is there that she meets the love of her life, the dashing Ragtime piano player Erik Thorvaldsen. But Freyja lurks in the shadows, travelling to Calgary and demanding her amulet back. Without it, and as stated, Cass will no longer be able to time-travel.
Flicker is not a simple time-travel novel. It brings to mind aspects of Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler's Wife. Even Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Aspects to be certain, but not entirely like any of them. For Hahnel’s novel is a sophisticated story about loss (loss of family members, loss of innocence), regret, love, estates and wills, friendships, the lonely sensation of being an orphan, and difficult life choices against many odds. It is also about fate; Freyja, as despicable and underhanded as she is, appears to embody certain powers, the mythological incarnation of destiny or fate. For those that oppose her and stand in her way suffer terrible consequences. In Greek mythology, the span of a person’s life was set at birth by three goddesses, the Moirai or Fates, as they are known in English. Those three sisters created the thread of a person’s lifespan, measured it, and cut it, signalling the end. We see three similar sisters, or Norns, in Norse mythology. Clearly then, Freyja, as a Daughter of Time as she is referred to in the novel, is not someone to be messed with.
The novel moves seamlessly between time periods. Clearly the author has done a lot of research, for her depictions of 1900 on and the later periods of the 1970s through the 1990s, involving dress, mores, language, physician prescriptions, music, and the like, are impressive (how bout opium, or ‘laudanum’ as it was called in 1900, for a simple headache!). So too is her depiction of rugged Newfoundland (even the writer Annie Proulx and her novel The Shipping News is talked about). And there are realistic discussions about the seemingly endless obstacles inherent in a love situation where the characters involved are roughly 80 plus years apart.
To some degree, the novel lightly touches upon Cass’ mental sanity as a number of people don’t believe her when she tells them what’s really going on, including an advice columnist who suggests she needs a good therapist, and Henry, a potential new boyfriend, who never calls her back after she reveals the time-travel situation. But there are no indications that Cass is mad, delusional, psychotic, on prescription drugs (or illicit drugs for that matter) and ultimately untrustworthy. Even an unreliable narrator who is unsure of herself because the entire time-travel affair is just too implausible. Indeed, she appears not to question herself, as the following shows: “But I had Marty. Marty believed me. As for the rest of them, I thought, fuck them. Fuck all of them. I know what I lived. I know what I feel.” Of course, had Cass been depicted as an unreliable narrator, it would have changed the entire trajectory of the plot.
With a unique and surprise ending that involves a terrible thunderstorm, Lori Hahnel’s Flicker is a page-turner, a delightfully compelling read that ties all the threads of the novel nicely together, including who the tall man at the edge of the skating rink might have been, how Cass’ visions could have started, and moreover, how it is possible to bridge an 80-90-year time gap between soul mates.
Flicker is published by University of Calgary Press.