Fall by Colin McAdam

Winner of the 2009 Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction

Shortlisted for 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize

Colin McAdam’s second novel, Fall,  is a masterpiece of psychological fiction. The story focuses on a pair of roommates: Julius, a typical high-school jock who is light on intellect, and Noel, who at once is both protagonist and antagonist, is the dark and brooding young man whose true character becomes clearer as the novel progresses. McAdam effectively uses a combination of narrative techniques and multiple points-of-view to tell this story. Fall‘s strongest attribute, however, is its pacing. Coming in at a respectable 358 pages, McAdam makes the most of every sentence. Each and every detail is meticulously sketched out for the reader and, for the really attentive reader, subtle hints and foreshadowing abounds in this novel.

Set in St. Ebury, a fictional private boarding-school in Ottawa catering to children of diplomats and well-to-dos, Fall takes place at a pre-Internet and pre-cell phone time; St. Ebury could be described as a non-magical Hogwarts (with words like Headmaster and Head Boy being used). This setting creates a feeling of privilege and exclusivity that permeates the writing.

The narration alternates between the first-person perspectives of both Noel and Julius with the occasional chapter narrated by William, Julius’s father’s driver. McAdam does a fantastic job in creating unique voices for the two main characters. Chapters narrated by Noel are done so from the distance of around a decade. His chapters are made up of long and intricate sentences that are very reflective; Noel is always trying to answer rhetorical questions that he seems to be grappling with. Julius’s chapters are told from the present using sentences that are sharp, truncated, and impressionistic. This immediately furthers the contrast in intellects between the two characters. The few chapters that are narrated by William are more so a release-valve to provide foreshadowing and an external analysis of yet-to-unfold events. Fall is also filled with a fantastic cast of supporting characters: the title character, Fall, who is Julius’s girlfriend and Noel’s object of obsession; Ant and Chuck, friends of the main pair; and the parents of the main characters.

At this point, I have to give a spoiler alert. Late in the novel, Noel is described as a sociopath by William. Early events narrated by Noel begin to paint this picture: his first sexual encounter, in Australia with Meg, is quite dark; he has a habit of dressing in his roommates clothes and staring at himself in the mirror when he is alone; and, probably most disturbing, he recalls cutting the tail of his cat as a child because he wasn’t happy with his birthday present. Later of course, he kills Fall and maims Julius. What is most interesting about Noel is that he is an incredibly sympathetic character, likely because of McAdam’s use of the “unreliable narrator.” I am not sure if I think that Noel is a sociopath/psychopath. If he really is, his narration might be manipulated to make him remorseful; that is ultimately the question that you are left with when finished with Fall.

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