I won’t argue, there were parts of Eliza Robertson’s debut novel, Demi-Gods, that bordered on gratuitous. It’s important to mention that because some readers will abandon the book after they encounter a particular scene in the first chapter. Not me. I was hooked from page one, intrigued by the complex relationships and charmed by Robertson’s writing.
It’s 1950 and the lives of nine-year-old Willa and twelve-year-old Joan are transformed when their mother, a cocktail-swilling divorcee, invites her new lover and his two sons, Kenneth and Patrick, to stay at the family’s summer-house on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia. The attraction between Joan and Kenneth is immediate and as they pair off, Willa is left in the company of the sly and unnerving Patrick. Patrick both intrigues and repulses Willa and the story focuses on the complex power dynamic that unfolds between them during the six times they meet in the following decades.
In the intervals between, we didn’t exist. He didn’t exist to me. I didn’t exist to him.
The story is told as short episodes. Robertson maintains the tension with subtle shifts in family alliances and the balance of power – although the characters appear to be set on a particular trajectory, these changes give their relationships depth and complexity.
For the first time, I felt glad that Joan wasn’t there. They loved her so effortlessly, boys.
Every now and then Mom surfaced to say something sweet or mean to us. More often, she directed her comment to Joan, and more often, it was mean. She said things like, “I once saw a skirt just like that, on a whore in Vancouver.”
Robertson’s writing is superb, filled with both lush descriptions –
Sun filled the leaves – the arbutus trunks plump with it, a warm gauze of light thickening the air between their boughs and the boughs of the fir trees. There is a pigment where green becomes gold, I think. You see it in apples. And the gaps between branches.
and intricate detail, from the smell of a seaside town, ‘…waffle cones, boat bilge, the musk of warm ropes’, to bits that reveal so much more – “…leaning against the kitchen counter – the ease of his stance undermined by how his fingers clamped the coffee cup.’
Robertson introduces a number of themes in Demi-Gods but power and control dominate. Although Patrick and Willa’s meetings follow a pattern, the dynamic changes over time. Despite a façade of control, Patrick is ultimately an uncertain teen, testing his strength in an adult world. Equally, Willa, who at first appears compliant, has a tenacity and self-assurance that emerges as the story progresses – “People often lied to me, and I pretended not to notice.” The climax is dark and surprising.
I began 2017 with Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth – this book had similarities, notably the slow build and the exploration of the layered and conditional loyalties unique to families. The descriptions of family relationships reminded me of The Forrests by Emily Perkins and the menacing undertone brought to mind Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. I can’t wait to read what Robertson writes next.
4/5 This is a book that will divide readers. I was riveted.
I received my copy of Demi-Gods from the publisher, Bloomsbury Publishing, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
Willa buys an ice cream cone for her dinner –
I liked to say the words ‘burgundy cherry’ and I liked how Mrs Lee used whole cherries, which I tugged from the cream with my teeth.