We meet Sylvie, the protagonist of Leona Theis’s third book, If Sylvie Had Nine Lives, in 1974, two nights before her wedding day in Ripley, Saskatchewan. She’s 19 and ambivalent about her deadbeat fiancé, Jack, and the single-stream eternity of small-town life ahead of her. While Jack is passed out on the couch, she slow dances with Erik, a flirty childhood friend, and imagines her life as a sprawling delta of possible futures: “If only there were more Sylvies,” she fantasizes, “to ride the separate streams.”
What follows is a novel narrated across 13 stories, each imagining an episode from the next 40 years of her life. Although it begins with a simple premise (this is what happens if she marries Jack; this is what happens if she runs away with Erik; and what happens if she does neither), If Sylvie Had Nine Lives ultimately materializes a more profound sum of its parts.
Theis’s finely wrought and humane prose animates the self-deprecating, complex Sylvie: “She burned with shame. But she wanted. More touch more thrill more people paying attention more of what she couldn’t even name.” The textures of family life in Ripley and Saskatoon also feel especially alive.
Many events in Sylvie’s possible lives reflect the quiet dramas and traumas of the everyday: hot summer sex and career changes, miscarriage and abortion, illness and accidents. The real heat of these moments (and the bulk of the novel) happens in the gaps between each story, in the aftermath of events—the lingering resentment following an affair, for example, instead of the explosive moment of discovery.
Despite some plays with form and perspective, the book’s middle sometimes lags: a domestic drama appears and is resolved without dire consequence. The stories of Sylvie’s middle age flirt with resignation—whether she ends up with Jack or Erik, real adult life is equal parts sweet and disappointing, charming at best. “What do couples talk about after 20 years,” Sylvie wonders, “once they’ve ruled out Current Events and the Human Condition?”
A brand-new life path and a tragic twist in one of the latter stories, however, reinvigorates the last quarter of the book. It’s especially satisfying to watch Sylvie rise to contemporary issues such as climate change and concern for future generations as she nears her sixties, all in a way that feels organic to character.
The final story culminates in 2014—a year that in retrospect feels lamentably naïve given all that has followed. Nevertheless, the lasting impression of this book feels especially pertinent in 2020: a testament to the infinite in an ordinary life, the sheer possibility that makes living worth it.
—Kate Black is a writer in Vancouver. She grew up in St. Albert.