That morning” are the first two words of Lauren Carter’s new novel: “That morning,” the one after Melony’s high school graduation party, when everything changes. She wakes up feeling right with the world and sure of her future, but in “a split second,” when she gets a glimpse of her mother’s car at an obvious crime scene, the life Melony has anticipated and planned disappears. Her mother has shot and killed her father and his mistress, and the consequent trauma traps Melony in that moment. Her mother is arrested, and Mel runs away to Vancouver and northern California. She cuts all contacts with her past and hides out in the wilderness of Arizona, taking shelter in a cave “carved out of a red rock cliff.”
Years pass, but Mel is stuck; she can’t move forward, even after she finally phones her brother Matt and he comes to take her back to their village in northern Ontario. She can barely look after herself, yet she takes in a rescue dog that has suffered terrible abuse. Grommet is chaos in the shape of a mastiff. He bites. He barks incessantly. If she leaves him to go to work, he deposits his bodily fluids all over her apartment. He manages to destroy clothes and bedding, to topple bookcases and rip up the sofa. He acts out Mel’s inner distress. She feels that she is inadequate, that she can’t save Grommet and yet must not abandon him.
Mel slowly discovers the family secrets that her parents thought had “nothing to do with her.” She learns what led to her mother’s drastic act and the depth of her brother’s sense of guilt. She begins to recuperate a future.
I am often impatient with stories of young people who are lost and make bad choices. I have read too many novels where the protagonist deals with the death of a parent by getting drunk or stoned and being nasty to their friends and family. (One privileged heroine in a recent much-praised novel banishes her depression by taking heavy drugs, so she can sleep for a year—I hated it.) But I was drawn into This Has Nothing To Do With You, and I savoured each page.
I cared about what happened to Mel, Matt, his wife, Mel’s two close friends and even to Grommet. I cared not because plot or even significant subject matter make a first-rate book—the depth and the quality of the writing is what counts. Carter’s prose is not flashy, but it is clear, fresh and effective: the right words in the right order. She has mastered all the necessary elements, from characterization to pace; we feel, understand, connect. And I discovered that Mel’s journey did indeed have something to do with me, the reader.
—Caterina Edwards is a writer and teacher in Edmonton. Her most recent book is The Sicilian Wife (Linda Leith, 2015).