Monday, November 26, 2007


If you've heard of this book, you know the opening scene. A man puts his head between an alligator's jaws with predictable results. The splendid cover evokes the horror of such an encounter.

The novel is set in St. John's, bracketed by a pair of Louisiana gators. The opening scene, where a man's sweat triggers an instinctual reptilian response, is metaphorically replicated in St. John's, where it's hot and rainy, and spanworms descend from trees, giving the city a swampy feel. Through the streets a Russian psychopath moves like an alligator.

Moore does an impressive job getting inside the skin of each of her characters. Her approach is impressionistic, though, and it takes a while for readers to get their bearings. Tenses shift, scenes hustle back and forth in time, the POV changes from chapter to chapter. Finally the story sorts itself out and moves forward.

Madeleine has a heart condition and is trying to finish directing her last film, in which Isobel, an actress past her prime, has a role. Isobel is having an affair with Valentin, a Russian thug. Frank (an appropriately named hot dog vendor) falls in love with Colleen, a reckless teenager. She is the daughter of Beverly, sister to Madeleine.

Though the book is very readable, it's also sad and bleak. Everyone is alone, isolated. Madeleine thinks about happier days before her divorce. Beverly misses her dead husband, Frank his mother felled by cancer. Valentin was abandoned by his mother, his father executed, and he himself tortured. As for Isobel, she...

...had been pouring herself into camera lenses since she was eighteen and she had done this for her entire career without questioning the effects of the transference. She knew, now, that she had been diminished. She had become unknowable.

Headless images recur. The man with his head stuck in an alligator. A videoclip of a beheading. A naked Iraqi prisoner with a bag over his head. A mishandled ceremonial sword breezing past a little girl's face. An Inuk hanging by his neck in a rooming house.

Alligator was shortlisted for the 2005 Giller award, and won the 2006 Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Canada/Caribbean region.