Patrick Ness is charmed by an offbeat novel that doesn't tie up loose ends
"And that is exactly the trouble with inexplicable events," Nicolas Dickner tells us in Nikolski, "you inevitably end up interpreting them in terms of predestination, or magic realism, or government plots." Or, in fact, novels. Nothing truly inexplicable is allowed to happen in fiction, even if it seems that way, lest the reader think the writer has made a mistake. Though life itself is filled with the perpetually baffling, true randomness usually destabilises fiction, where we expect life to be tidied away even if it's done so under the guise of ostentatious untidiness. Nikolski, which arrives from French-speaking Canada garlanded with literary prizes, is very untidy indeed, a novel of coincidences and chance decisions, yet it's a gentle and absorbing kind of untidiness. It's also less inexplicable than it leads us to believe.
Noah is a half-Chipewyan Native Canadian who's been raised in the back of a caravan. He and his mother Sarah roam the vast middle stretch of Canada, from their native Quebec to the Canadian Rockies. Noah is the result of a brief liaison with a sailor, Jonas Doucet, who then continued his travels, ending up - as far as Noah knows - in the remote village of Nikolski in the Aleutian Islands.
Joyce, meanwhile, is raised by her widowed father in a rural Quebecois village. Always the odd one out, Joyce listens raptly to her grandfather's stories of pirates in their family tree, including the seafaring life of her uncle, Jonas Doucet. Then she unexpectedly finds out that her mother isn't in fact dead, but took off one morning, just like a pirate, never to be seen again.
Joyce decides to disappear, too, packing up her belongings and hitchhiking to Montreal. She finds a job after a chance meeting with the gregarious Maelo, who also, separately, finds a flat for Noah, who's come to Montreal for university. Though Noah and Joyce are both friends with Maelo, the years pass without them meeting. Nor do either of them really meet the third hero, an unnamed narrator who works at a second-hand bookstore in Montreal. He wears a compass around his neck sent to him as a keepsake by his father, none other than Jonas Doucet. The compass refuses to point north, though, keeping its level aimed at Nikolski, Alaska, last known resting place of Jonas.
Nikolski never settles into a predictable groove, eventually encompassing Venezuela, a criminal career for Joyce, a professor of trash and quite a lot of fish, among much else. Meetings between the three unknowing relatives do eventually occur, but they're determinedly free of epiphanies. They collide (very) briefly, continue on their journeys, and almost no loose end gets tied up.
Yet the novel is so charming that it's difficult to feel frustrated. I suspect the translation isn't all it could be: the English feels heavily accented and occasionally vague. Mostly, though, Nikolski marches to its own offbeat drum, wandering here and there, wherever strikes its fancy. It provides a number of inexplicable events that never really seem inexplicable, since we are in the middle of a novel, after all, where "inevitable interpretations" will accrue even if a writer seems to resist them. But I suspect the promising and clever Nicolas Dickner knew that all along.
• Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go is published by Walker.
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