A hilarious, surprising and poignant love story about the way families are invented, told with the savvy of a Zadie Smith and with an inventiveness all Ian Williams’ own, Reproduction bangs lives together in a polyglot suburb of Toronto.
Felicia and Edgar meet as their mothers are dying. Felicia, a teen from an island nation, and Edgar, the lazy heir of a wealthy German family, come together only because their mothers share a hospital room. When Felicia’s mother dies and Edgar’s “Mutter” does not, Felicia drops out of high school and takes a job as Mutter’s caregiver. While Felicia and Edgar don’t quite understand each other, and Felicia recognizes that Edgar is selfish, arrogant, and often unkind, they form a bond built on grief (and proximity) that results in the birth of a son Felicia calls Armistice. Or Army, for short.
Some years later, Felicia and Army (now 14) are living in the basement of a home owned by Oliver, a divorced man of Portuguese descent who has two kids–the teenaged Heather and the odd little Hendrix. Along with Felicia and Army, they form an unconventional family, except that Army wants to sleep with Heather, and Oliver wants to kill Army. Then Army’s fascination with his absent father–and his absent father’s money–begins to grow as odd gifts from Edgar begin to show up. And Felicia feels Edgar’s unwelcome shadow looming over them. A brutal assault, a mortal disease, a death, and a birth reshuffle this group of people again to form another version of the family.
Reproduction is a profoundly insightful exploration of the bizarre ways people become bonded that insists that family isn’t a matter of blood.
Ian Williams is an award winning poet, so it is no shock that his first novel, Reproduction, is ambitious, experimental, but still at it’s core a huge family saga and a love story. I loved most of it, and I was totally sucked in and engaged in the story and the structure until the very last part, part four where it just does not click like the first eighty percent of the novel. The novel does revolve around reproduction, and the structure is great and reflects this. This is explained in an interview with the author the January 2019 edition of “Quill and Quire.” Read the whole interview here.
How did you conceive of the book’s structure?
I wanted to write a book that would reproduce itself, so it’s in four parts and each part approaches reproduction differently. In part one it’s biological. It’s in 23 paired chapters so it’s chromosomal. Part two has four characters, so we go from those two characters to four characters and 16 chapters. And part three [grows] exponentially, from 16 to 256 small sections.
At the end of part three the book gets cancer and you see those tumours growing in the superscript and the subscript [rendered by the text flowing intermittently above, below, and along the sentence lines]. That is the final form of reproduction beyond human control. It’s complex but it should read like a good love story. That’s the only thing I want to read and write, or care about in people’s lives. One of the first questions I ask [socially] is “How did you meet so-and-so?”
I deeply loved most of this novel. The first three sections, really hit, and I spent hours at a time reading. The fourth part just seems to run out of momentum. There is so much dynamic between all of the characters, between Felicia and Edgar, between Felicia and Oliver, between Oliver and Army, between Oliver and his ex, between Army and Heather, all of the characters have tension between them, and it feels real. This is not always executed very well, but in this case the tension is almost palpable. This is such a testament to the strength of the writing. Williams does not spare the time it takes to really develop all of the main characters, and he really does a great job with the structure and the experimentation. It does not feel as gimmicky as some books that try to do the same thing. Maybe because the story feels so genuine and the characters as strong and developed, it seems like the structure feels genuine too.
I do love this novel, and now that I am thinking about the last section being that way because the cells are filled with cancer, I do not dislike it as much as I did while reading it. I will be looking forward to anything else that Williams writes and will likely reread this novel at some point.
4.5 out of 5 stars.
I received this as an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.