Rhonda Waterfall’s third novel, Sombrio, tells a story that spans a short period time. The story takes place over a few weeks in real time, but also relies heavily on flashback sequences. The story is about the fragility of the human mind, and how susceptible it is to its own self-destruction. It follows three men: Charles Tindal, Roy Kruk, and Thomas DeWolf. Charles is an over-the-hill painter whose best days are behind him. Roy is an up-and-coming artist who has flashes of talent, matched only by an equally broken mind. Thomas is an ex- bank robber who wants to reintegrate himself into his family’s lives. They are friends, living together in a hovel on Sombrio Beach, awaiting what they claim is “the end of the world” (not that they believe it themselves). They spend a few weeks in the hovel to escape their personal lives. It should be noted that they begin the novel with the pretense of working on their art. For Thomas, this amounts to one page of poetry, for Charles, a “masterpiece” that does not seem to go anywhere, and for Roy, a collection of paintings that showcase his inner turmoil. These pretenses fool nobody, and their bluffs are explicitly called out by each other in their own chapters told from their personal points of view. The novel does a good job rotating back and forth between each of the 3 main characters. The title of the book is the location where the 3 men live, and is also an easter egg for anybody who reads until the end of the book, when the name takes on significance once again. The novel’s central theme is the exploration of the minds of self-proclaimed geniuses, and how the inflated sense of their own abilities shapes how they interact with the world. Another central theme is their relationship with their daughters. Between the 3 men, all the relationships are strained to varying degrees.
The characters’ upbringings are not the kind that anyone should want to emulate. All of them come from unsavory backgrounds. Charles is raised by his mother, and never knows his father. Due to his stepfather being emotionally distant, he feels it is acceptable to behave similarly with his daughters. Thomas was raped as a young boy by “the shadow,” who is also responsible for his addiction to cocaine. Roy had a missing father and a single mother who was emotionally abusive (which includes his mother covertly devouring a Christmas charity food basket meant for the both of them). A fortune teller informs his mother that he will bring bad luck to their family, and Roy suffers from the mother who no longer loves him. It should be noted that Roy is the most broken of them all: he starts to mentally decay earlier in the story than any other protagonist, who only succumb near the end.
The 3 characters are self- proclaimed geniuses. Roy and Charles are both artists, painters to be more precise, while Thomas is an ex-bank robber of national fame, who now calls himself a poet. The crowd they hang around frequently partake in recreational drugs, which is how they eventually became lifelong friends. They repeatedly bump into each other as they party with their own circle of. Roy and Charles have ambitions to make their names known to the world, while Thomas is already famous for being a bank robber, and is simply looking to put the past behind him. Despite their ambitions, they are only half- hearted, and their actions do not reflect a full commitment to their artistic cause. They choose Sombrio was, despite what they might otherwise say, to do drugs in private, await the end of the world, and then work on their art, in that order.
The most grounded of the 3 characters is Charles. Charles’ early life had him going to Paris to study art. He worked to slowly establish himself in the industry, but started off poor. After marrying his first wife in Greece, he has a child named Miranda. Charles makes no attempt to learn anything about her; he merely finds her disruptive. This theme carries over to his future children (with 2 different wives due to his womanizing), Cedar and Blue, whom he also has trouble communicating with. He will eventually work his way up to the position he is in today—an established artist who is over the hill and whose art style is fading from the world.
In his heyday, he was allowed the privilege of rubbing shoulders and doing recreational drugs with artists who would soon become the greatest in the industry, fitting for a man whose work never matched up to his self-importance, for a man whose greatest accomplishment is art hanging in The National Gallery of Canada, next to Tom Thomson’s painting. In other words, his legacy is being associated with famous people, but he can never reach their level. He even references the “greatest generation” as being unreachable, and recants his decision to view a true legend’s grave out of pride. In his heart of hearts, he knows his work does not make him legendary on the level he claims to be. Yet, his ego won’t allow him to admit this. The legacy he has built for himself is full of holes and half-truths. The children he left behind still resent him.
Thomas does not have goals, or ambitions, other than to reconnect with his long-lost daughter. Despite his claims that he loves her, would do anything for her, and would go “cold turkey for her,” he does not have the willpower to stay off heroin. His daughter resents him for not being there in her life. While Thomas is speaking to Shane, an admirer of his bank robbing past, Charles makes the remark that “the kid is just stupid enough to believe him when he says he’ll go cold turkey”. Thomas himself admits he is unable to stay clean, all while he keeps saying he will stay clean to everyone who listens to him.
Roy wants to be famous. He sees Charles as a hack, and believes his art is better. He is a tortured, broken soul who does not want to reconnect with his own child, but does want to tell his mother how horrible she was to him. He mostly spends the novel convinced of his own delusion of grandeur. While he does have flashes of talent, just like Charles, it falls hopelessly short of his perception of his greatness.
Ironically, Thomas does not see himself as great despite making national news for the number of banks he robbed. He does, however, fall short of his own perception of how much he loves and is willing to do for his daughter.
The novel traces the three protagonists’ development as lost souls, or, rather, it traces their innermost thoughts, and their lack of progression in the novel. Although Sombrio is, at its core, is a novel depicting the thoughts of its three protagonists, it is also a book about the people the protagonists end up harming. Those people, those secondary characters, interact with the protagonists and each other in realistic ways. They make the story feel natural and alive.
The story focuses on the three protagonists’ view of themselves, and their view of others in the world. This is important, as the protagonists, while not being able to see faults in themselves, are able to see faults in other people. They make points that contradict what the audience has been told by other protagonists. This allows a separation between the characters’ hubris and reality, and the real story can start to emerge. We are allowed to indulge with each protagonist's mindset, and entertain their words while knowing which ones can’t be trusted, as opposed to being blindly beholden to their words as the only source of information we have to go on. All three characters are equally important, and none of them ever take priority over the others. All three characters are flawed, yet have talent, have sinned, yet have the ability to do good. They are broken souls, and we are left to discover who they are. The book’s rotation between viewpoints means, that we can see the three characters’ perspectives, yet know almost immediately if they have invented something false about themselves and the world around them.
To reiterate the point, they are neither good, nor inherently evil- just flawed and disturbed. Case in point: Charles regards everybody as less than him, yet talks to them anyway, even if they annoy him. He even considers Thomas a good friend, despite him being a bank robber, which contrasts with Charles’ self-image of an important man. Thomas beats up a suspected molester because he recognizes from his own experiences with “the shadow” that the seven-year-old boy he sees in front of him has been abused. Roy shows signs of gratitude for being picked up on the road by a passing vehicle, and only destroys things when he goes into a mental fit.
The protagonists flawed perceptions extend to secondary characters as well. Fern, Roy’s girlfriend, is earlier described by Roy as the one beacon of pureness and hope in his life. Fern does not see it this way. She sees Roy as somebody to “fool around with” and has no problem sleeping with Charles. Charles and Fern do not get along well, and Charles is an elderly womanizer, which makes it all the more jarring. Charles was always convinced his daughters had everything they needed, despite being ignored by him, since this was largely his own childhood. This is grossly incorrect, as his daughters reach out to him in letters, in-person visits, and have repeatedly, with no ambiguity, tried to form connections with him. At one point, they even give him an ultimatum to stop his artwork for three years to spend a year with each of them to make up for their lost time. Yet, despite all of this, Charles still thinks they are just “acting out”.
The characters have all neglected their children. They have, to varying degrees, wanted to make it up to them, but they never do, even by the end of the book. The children’s reactions are understandable, and the main characters are not to be excused. Whether it be because of their desire for fame, or their lack of emotional maturity, they are not objects of sympathy. The novel makes it clear they can recognize the mistakes in others, and can interact with each other to point out each other’s flaws. This makes their stasis more jarring, as they simply refuse to move on from their current mindsets despite the “support network” around them, and their own realizations, deep down, that they are in the wrong. This realization culminates in spiritual hallucinations, which are subtle in the at first. They increase to the point where the man are no longer able to tell them apart from real people as the “end of the world” (or in the book’s case, a storm that coincides with the time when the end of the world is supposed to take place) approaches. We realize that the main characters are not simply biased in their views of themselves, and the people around them, but are legitimately crazy. They literally lose their grip on reality as the climax approaches, and the ending, while some may call it predictable, does not disappoint. For broken souls such as the protagonists, it is at fitting end.
The detail in this book is immaculate. It is packed with an abundance of imagery and personification. The coming storm is described in such passion and detail that a person reading it will fear for Sombrio Beach. The storm becomes almost supernatural when the description is said and done. Normally, imagery emphasizes sight, but Rhonda Waterfall frequently takes opportunities to detail smells and sounds, too. Although much as this book describes the characters’ state of minds, it can almost stand on its own two feet as a book of prose describing magnificent landscapes.
The result is a book about men who have physical, no, spiritual hallucinations of the daughters they failed. It is a book where three men justify their irresponsibility to fix their problems by leaning on their comparatively weak talents. It is a book that depicts men having skewed perceptions of themselves, and how they manage to hurt those around them. It is a book about a cast of misfits and drug users. For those who look to a book where the protagonist triumphs against the forces of evil through their virtue and hard work, they will be sorely disappointed. But it is also a book that, because of the way in which it so carefully and precisely articulates how the characters view the world in their own twisted way, will speak in one way or another to anyone who picks it up.
Anson Leung is a graduate of the University of Alberta’s Bachelor of Commerce program. He is an Alberta-based writer.