Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner. Translated by Lazer Lederhendler. Vintage Canada, 2009. Editions Alto 2005.
Nikolski was the winner of this year’s Canada Reads event, hosted by Jian Ghomeshi on CBC Radio. Of the five books that were in the running this year, I had read just one, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees. I thought I should give the winner a try.
In Nikolski , three story strands are braided loosely together as the lives of the three subjects criss and cross. The first character that is introduced is an unnamed bookseller who, at the outset of the tale, is in the process of clearing out the Montreal house he has inherited from his recently-deceased mother. The bookseller narrates his story himself. Although his life has been stable, it has also been narrowly defined by his work at the bookstore and his books. While rummaging through his mother’s closet, he rediscovers a compass, a toy that was sent to him by a long-lost father he never knew, a compass that points, not at the magnetic north pole, but at the Aleutian town of Nikolski.
Then there is Noah, who has lived a nomadic life, raised by his single mother in a car called Grampa as they travel across the prairie from Ontario to B.C. and north to the Yukon in an annual circuit. Noah learns to read by studying road maps. While Noah is young, his mom keeps in touch with his father, last heard of from Nikolski. One day the time comes for Noah to set out on his own. He chooses to go to university in Montreal, far removed from the prairie circuit.
Finally, there is Joyce, who lives in a remote village with her father. Her mother has never been part of her life, but her maternal grandfather tells her stories of her pirate ancestors, and of an uncle who left home to travel the world as a young man. One day, Joyce leaves home too, heading to Montreal to find her own pirate soul.
Nikolski is a story of self-discovery, as each of the three life travellers move beyond the confines of their lives and into a new understanding of themselves. Nikolski offers no pat ending. As with many trips, the satisfactions of this book are to be found in the journey, not the destination.
Nikolski is skillfully crafted, a whimsical and engaging read, and I enjoyed it. Still, I don’t know that I would have voted for this book over Fall on Your Knees, which offers a more conventional but powerful story.