When I was nine, my mother acquired a charm bracelet with five charms, one for each of her children: one resonant symbol that supposedly summed up the character and passion of each of us. I can't remember them all. A charm for one brother might have been a dog. We did not have a dog, but he desperately wanted one. Another brother was represented by a cross. Supposedly, he thought of being a priest one day. My sister's charm may have been ballet shoes. At four, she spent most of her time twirling around the house, knocking gracefully into the furniture. My charm was a silver grand piano, a symbol so wrong that I felt diminished and tragically misunderstood every time I saw it.
Every Friday after school, my mother dropped me off at her aunt and uncle's brick house, where I had a lesson with my mother's cousin, a young man who taught me gently, patiently, for a full hour before fleeing into the night to his real job, playing piano in a riverside nightclub. My lesson with Johnny was followed by supper alone with his elderly parents. In my memory, I took piano lessons for years but the truth is that I never progressed much beyond Book One and the much-anticipated, horribly disappointing "From a Wigwam." I don't think anyone was really surprised when I quit. My family did not even have a piano, and I practiced only sporadically on the weekends at my grandparents' house, after breakfast, before the ball games started. But it wasn't the lack of practice that undid me or a lack of desire. The ability to play simultaneously with two hands utterly eluded me in those days. I wanted each section to have its own moment.
If I could pick a charm now for that period, it surely would not be a piano. My real skill then was eavesdropping. A better choice for a charm might have been a miniature highball glass, a more memorable stand-in for those evenings with my kindly great-aunt and uncle, who always paused before supper to sit in the living room with their highball cocktails (and an ice-cold ginger ale for me). Their muted conversation was rife with interesting family gossip and, ever-quiet, I stockpiled it to dissect later. My relatives knew or talked about so much more than my parents did, and this was mostly a pleasant time of tale-telling, all of us seemingly oblivious to the real story in this family, their son's struggle to maintain his secret life. Of course, my great-aunt and uncle weren't utterly unaware, just puzzled. Despite their knowledge of everyone else, the flashy nightclub, their son's ever-changing single male companions were mysteries, and whenever they spoke of Johnny, a palpable sense of another, unknown world entered that cozy living room. They did not know how to explain his life, even to themselves, so they stuck to a single line: Johnny's a pianist. The emotional shift was clear, even to a nine-year-old, and later, I would pester my mother again and again for more information — "What does he really do?" — but she too would only repeat that thin, unsatisfying line. I remember admiring Johnny greatly, not just for the way his fingers slipped so easily over the keyboard, but for the many-layered secrets of his life. I imagined that in my way, I too had other lives, ones no one but I could guess.
Recently, at a thrillingly large and passionate book event, I was asked again and again to describe my new novel. "What's it about?" is a more-than-fair question to ask a novelist. And one would think after writing the novel and going through the editing and publishing process, I would not find this a difficult question to answer in the swiftest way possible. The plot of A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain is not overly complicated — I don't think. In fact, the title pretty much sums it up. Still, the movement through the events the Man instigates involves many strands, all pulsating in their own particular ways, and it's not easy to define all that in a catchphrase. I want to say that I find summarizing the book akin to describing someone I love dearly — my husband, my sons. One chooses obvious qualities, but somehow, in doing so, the real essence of the person flattens and becomes something other, even false: a tiny, inscrutable piano, for instance.
So, the novel is "about" five friends living in a mountain town in Northern British Columbia. It's narrated by Leo who, like most of his close friends, is part Native and part other — in his case, his father is German. In the space of a few short days, the lives of all five are turned around as they each come under the influence of one of several strangers to town.
But... wait... the novel is also "about" the Highway of Tears murders along Highway 16 in British Columbia, a real situation that touches Leo and his friends. Women and girls have gone missing and/or been found murdered over the past four decades, and until very recently, all the cases had gone unsolved. Many of the victims have been, like Leo's friends, First Nation girls. These "stolen sisters" are the real story here, their presence like a dull ache that haunted every page for me.
The novel is also "about" stories — how they save lives, how they ruin lives, how they control lives. Leo's young Uncle Lud possesses a treasure trove of stories that act as guides for living in both the gentlest and most overt ways. But Lud is dying, and Leo, his best companion, is stockpiling the stories as best he can. And, through an online physics course, Leo is also fabricating yet another kind of story to explain the unexplainable.
And then there is the devil. Best to leave him alone, except perhaps to say that evil permeates all the characters' lives, whether through the appearance of strangers — a bone-white girl, an itinerant gambler, a bar-stool companion — or through cautionary tales handed through generations. So, it's magical realism, you say, part fantasy. And I inwardly wince a little, because I can't help thinking that just because you can't see the devil doesn't mean he's not here. I want to protest, to shake my head vehemently and say, There are no elves in this story, no levitating virgins, no miniature cities made of glass. This is a real place. This is real. Instead, I nod and say, Maybe there's some magic here.
It seems that I haven't stopped railing at the single summarizing view. Multiplicity is what makes people and novels most interesting to me. Maybe my mother ought to have had five charm bracelets, one for each of us. And on those bracelets, she could continue to add charms that would illustrate the many strands of who each of us thought we truly might be — our secret knowledge — as well as how we appeared to the world, the sum of which might be more revealing. In the jangle of that bracelet, you might understand who was really coming.
Adrianne Harun will give a reading from A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain on March 31 at 7:30 p.m. at Powell's Books on Hawthorne.