Legend has it that Noah drew his first breath in Manitoba, somewhere between Boissevain and Whitewater, near the railroad tracks, in a spot that, according to the road maps, is located at the exact geographic centre of Canada. The truth is that it was the exact centre of nothing at all: an immense forest of spruce stretched to the east, blackish peat bogs to the north. To the south, the Turtle Mountains, and to the west, a plain that appeared to end in China.
“The truth is that it was the exact centre of nothing at all” is true enough, on one level, but grossly misleading on another. If you make a big deal out of the fact that this guy was born in the center of a map, take pains to describe the geographical terrain, then shrug and say, “It's really no big deal,” you've more than doubled its significance. And so it goes throughout Nicolas Dickner's delightful first novel, Nikolski (A), which follows the migratory patterns of three characters and their social cohort. This is a book that makes pleasant mischief on reader expectations — not with po-mo smartypants “gotchas!” but with a sincere affection for characters, their response to time and place and their deepest yearnings.
Dickner employs a deceptively light tone to examine the ties that bind: family, passion, genetics, love, history, mystery, sex. “In my view,” says the nameless narrator, “fate is like intelligence, or beauty, or type z+ lymphocytes — some individuals have a greater supply than others. I, for one, suffer from a deficiency; I am a clerk in a bookstore whose life is devoid of complications or a storyline of its own. My life is governed by the attraction of books. The weak magnetic field of my fate is distorted by those thousands of fates more powerful and more interesting than my own.” Again, his own story, which is so integral to the proceedings, gives lie to the sentiment he has just expressed. There is a near-truth to what he is saying, but the larger truth of his significance is embedded deeply within the book itself.
I think the "Nikolski Compass," which points to the titular town a few degrees removed from True North, suggests there is a pull to humanity that almost corresponds to explanation, scientific or otherwise, defying summary just enough to bring joy to our attempts at the same. With Nikolski, Dickner has cooked up a most scrumptious literary invitation for readers to delight in, which now properly belongs near the top of this list.
Post-script: a little scouting for responses to this book turns up the usual, "I liked/disliked it" trove. Patrick Ness's thoughts resonated with my own, here. On the other side of the spectrum, James Grainger pans it, here. Neither reader indulges in spoilers, but I think they're both best read after the fact.