Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill / May 2023 / 312 pp / $27
Reviewed by Laura Johnsrude / September 2023
College is a natural setting for a character’s search for identity and belonging: an insular world, a cast of strangers just separated from parental guidance, ripe for reinvention, and vulnerable. In Bronwyn Fischer’s debut novel, the reader views everything through the first-person perspective of eighteen-year-old Natalie, a matriculating freshman at a Toronto college and an only child who grew up near Lake Temagami, helping out at her family’s vacation lodge.
The contemporary story unfolds over the course of a year, opening with Natalie looking out of her dorm room window, watching her parents walk away on move-in day, about to begin her new life as a young adult. Fischer depicts Natalie’s self-consciousness and yearning with such compelling interiority and sensory language that the protagonist’s feelings stayed with me after I finished reading the book.
From the opening pages, where Natalie’s parents put new sheets on her dorm room bed, readers “hear” all of Natalie’s thoughts about what she’s experiencing, feeling her way towards adulthood. But the title takes on a layered meaning as Natalie soon becomes romantically involved with an older woman, Nora, who sits down beside her on a park bench. Natalie hides the relationship from her dorm friends and family, unsure what the revelation means about her, or might mean to others. She tells her friend Clara that she’s seeing an older man named Paul.
The narrative follows Natalie as she negotiates parties, bars, Halloween, and her anxiety-laden relationships with her dormmates Clara and Annie and her nature poetry classmate Rachel. She adopts mannerisms and behaviors from those around her, searching for the right role or an appealing personality. She is hyperalert to sensory information and how she inhabits (or doesn’t) the spaces near other people. Sometimes she’s unclear where she ends and others begin: “. . . I felt enveloped. I imagined this was how it would feel to be eaten whole. A fish inside a fish . . . ”
Fischer’s sensory imagery is generous and specific and frequently metaphorical, from “She (Nora) watched me for a second. I thought of the rough tongue of a cat” to “the grass had been wet and soft, like washed hair.” The prose is polished with straightforward language and authentic conversations. Some descriptions that at first appear spare end up delivering an unexpected punch.
My room was white except for my duvet cover, which was green. My desk was brown, and my chair. My shoes at my door were black. And all of these things together were me.
Natalie’s uneasy, barely-there sense of self is a dominant thread of tension, compelling and sometimes discomforting, and demonstrated both by the choices she makes and by the author’s prose. “I imagined myself, legs bumping against all the desks. Trying to crouch out of the way, but unable to become small enough to cause no inconvenience.”
The university-related plotlines unreel alongside Natalie’s evolving intimate relationship with Nora. Throughout, there is suspense about what is being withheld, or hidden, beyond the actual identity of Natalie’s lover and the protagonist’s sense of individuality. There is a nagging uncertainty about why middle-aged Nora originally sat down beside Natalie on the park bench. There is a mystery about Nora’s marriage, her ex-wife, and what led to the divorce. There is Rachel’s preoccupation with their poetry professor, Jones, and the rumor that Jones had an affair with a prior student. There is Natalie’s nervousness about her ability to write poetry, and her discomfort about reading her work aloud in class, comparing herself with Rachel, the more accomplished writing student—poetry being a clever stand-in for the veiled and enigmatic. And there are wonderings and imaginings and memories related to gender identification and sexual orientation.
Natalie’s school year plays out, including the winter holiday break in Temagami with her parents. From the protagonist’s perspective, the interlude is a pulsing separation from Nora, amplifying Natalie’s unease about whether Nora reciprocates her devotion, wondering if they are “exclusive.” Things become complicated, after the New Year, as Nora shares surprising news, and Natalie’s college relationships wobble and morph. Fischer manages the narrative revelations well as threads cross and outlines become clearer for the protagonist. Fischer shapes the story so that the reader understands circumstances in advance of Natalie, plotlines unspooling in a believable and satisfying manner, while Natalie finds the shape and substance of her young-adult self.
Near the novel’s end, Natalie feels she’s finally written a good poem, partly because “the poem didn’t disappear immediately after I finished reading it.”
A fitting analogy for The Adult, this good book.
Laura Johnsrude’s creative nonfiction pieces have been published, or are forthcoming, in Fourth Genre, Bellevue Literary Review, River Teeth, Hippocampus Magazine, The Examined Life Journal, Swing, Sweet: A Literary Confection, The Spectacle, Please See Me, Minerva Rising, The Boom Project anthology, and Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. She is a recent graduate from Spalding University’s Master of Arts in Writing program.