In an effort to procrastinate on his English composition, a character in Michelle Butler Hallett’s 2008 debut novel, Sky Waves, conjugates French verbs to avoid his history homework—“some incomprehensible babble about the Hudson’s Bay Company.”
But Hallett proves that history need not be dull, and her vivid scenes convince readers that her fictions are truthful. In Constant Nobody, her sixth work of fiction, she enlists us swiftly and authoritatively, immersing us in story: “What matters here is not so much the truth as what we believe to be the truth.”
Hers are not the kind of historical novels that include maps and definitions, but simply scanning the text reveals a vocabulary that secures time and place: an isochronic map, cryptanalysis, patronymic, shrapnel, debridement craters, and a samovar. Matters of territory and conflict, loyalty and identity, European culture and custom—these are key to Basque country life in 1937, amidst the Spanish Civil War.
Experiences can be swiftly summarized—as when readers learn that Temerity’s grandfather made his fortune via tea, prostitution, and opium—but meticulous use of sensory detail also builds credibility. Temerity takes “a good swallow of vodka, hoping to block her memory of Cristobal’s rosary beads hitting the floor,” for instance, and Ursula’s accent reminds Temerity of “childhood visits to the Weihnachtsmarkt and, therefore, ginger cookies.”
The scent of smoky tea, soup dribbled from a spoon onto a chin, and the smell of a book combining old paper with sweat, dust, and hospital disinfectant—all atmospheric, and fusing these details with characterization increases attachment. When Temerity nears sixteen, she feels “like the main character in a play about to start, the audience murmuring just beyond drawn curtains.” but now she’s far from home, losing her appetite in a communal kitchen “where diapers might boil in one pot and fowl in another and still not cut through the lingering stench of vinegar, cabbage, and lard.” When readers inhale, their investment in Temerity swells too.
Most impressively, such detail underscores the characters’ experience of power and control, and heightens awareness of strengthened and strained connections. Tensions are elevated: “The chained dogs snarled at any man who came too near, and the air stank of soil and blood.” Distances are highlighted: “Dust motes fell across the beam of light separating him from Temerity.”
Uncertainty looms large. Characters count the steps that land as boot-clad feet move through a hallway; these footfalls represent imprisonment and freedom. Hallett demonstrates, so readers strain towards action four doors away, aware that there is no escape, that arrival is intricately linked to departure: “When a building is on fire, and we are all desperate to escape the flames, someone gets bruised.”
Ordinary circumstances are so inextricably linked with survivability that characters must attend to every detail, every portent of treachery: “A draft of fresh air wound round her ankles, and downstairs, far downstairs, something creaked.” Trust is fragmentary and tentative: “Everything I’ve told you is a weapon you can hurl back at me.”
In Constant Nobody, deflection and disorientation are essential skills. “Aware that Gleb might be shot for such a careless utterance, such a recognition and acknowledgement of the absurdities of the Purge, Kostya feigned distraction.” Protective impulses and threats proliferate: “Ursula preferred hidden microphones as an idea, as an article of faith, to any acknowledgement of NKVD using torture.” Every aspect of life is up-ended: “The room had developed a terrible spin, as if impaled on a spike and then given a smack to set it in motion.”
Contradictions abound: “Coughing, spitting, weeping, he crawled out from beneath the rubble and discovered silence, yet the planes still fouled the sky. He screamed at them. He heard nothing.” The inexplicable reigns: “You made me believe I’m guilty. I believe it. I know I’m not, yet I believe it.” Peacetime’s status quo becomes the last resort: “If worst comes to worst, you might need your real self.”
Wartime refracts personal identity. “Dusk bent the light glaring off Lubyanka’s windows into beautiful pinks and gold.” Windows not only reveal beautiful colours; they serve as hasty exits and violent resolutions. In prison, a reflection in a puddle can be a light source: “As Temerity dried her face with the backs of her hands, she saw how a puddle reflected back the caged light.” But some time later, a reflection bodes ill: “Then she saw her own reflection in a glass window, her head sliced off at the neck by the edge of [a] small poster”.
Years prior, travelling through India, Temerity’s Aunt Min advised her to organize her mind like a steamer trunk, “all those layers of clothes and little drawers and the false bottom, and finish the task at hand.” Michelle Butler Hallett is excellent at packing. She shifts to indirect discourse when a character retells the fairy tale of Vasilisa the Beautiful, for instance, so it emerges organically from the narrative. She is consistently aware of the goods she is transporting and she cloaks her cleverness to maintain credibility: adjusting rhythm and delivery, to summarize or elaborate, always maintaining focus on the pair of characters at the heart of this novel.
In the false bottom of her suitcase is an archetype integrally important to the story: transformation—in its most basic form, adaptation and survival. In a literal sense, when characters navigating political strife shift between languages (sometimes to their detriment, unintentionally revealing previous life experiences and loyalties), for instance. And metaphorically, via changing states: “The nitrate film burned and melted faster than Arkady expected. He manoeuvred the remnants beneath the water stream. Smoke rose.”
Characters’ lives depend upon their ability to accurately recognize changing states, to adjust their behaviour accordingly. Power dynamics are reflected in simple statements about energy, existence and a life extinguished: “At Kostya’s feet, the ember of the driver’s discarded cigarette cooled from orange to red, the heat of it winking twice before a surrender to black.”
In her previous novel, This Marlowe (2016), Hallett has Kit Marlowe declare to Thomas Walsingham: “I write what I see. History is no window but a mirror.” In Constant Nobody, readers learn that history is windows and mirrors: it all depends on who is directing your gaze.
Marcie McCauley's work has appeared in Room, Other Voices, Mslexia, Tears in the Fence and Orbis, and has been anthologized by Sumac Press. She writes about writing at marciemccauley.com and about reading at buriedinprint.com. A descendant of Irish and English settlers, she lives in the city currently called Toronto, which was built on the homelands of Indigenous peoples - Haudenosaunee, Anishnaabeg, Huron-Wendat and Mississaugas of New Credit - land still inhabited by their descendants.