Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Emily St. John Mandel has made a splash with her recent novels, but the start of her career was no less impressive, when she published Last Night in Montreal. Following a woman by the name of Lilia Albert, we discover she was taken from her mother as a child and is left with no recollection of her childhood. Determined to somehow find it, she moves from one city to the next looking for any links, shadowed by a private detective… and after a long time searching, she’s on the cusp of making a discovery.
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Emily St. John Mandel Shines in her Debut
Most of us are born into this life with already somewhat of a predetermined place in the world, largely by virtue of our geographical location and the circumstances surrounding our birth. In modern times, this place we have in life tends to be less of a sure thing, with us being exposed to so many potential paths and options around the world. However, there are also those like Lilia Albert, the protagonist of Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel, who were never given a chance to have a place in life, and must claim it by the power of their own hands.
The story begins way back when Lilia was still a child, and her father suddenly appeared on her mother’s doorstep to take Lilia away. In essence, she got kidnapped by her own father, and ever since then they have been moving around from one town to the next, her disappearance remaining a mystery before the eyes of the law. They’ve been going around like this for as long as Lilia can remember, and with time her memories of her own childhood fade away into nothingness.
Lilia understands she can never find happiness until she actually leaves on her own, hopeful to find the childhood and memories stolen from her all these years ago. One night, she leaves her Brooklyn apartment to follow a trail leading her all the way to Montreal.
However, she isn’t alone, shadowed by a private detective hired to locate her. However, the man himself is having some doubts: does he want to resolve the case he was hired for, or does he too want to disappear somewhere into the vast world, lost amidst a sea of people.
Love and Loss in Last Night in Montreal
If you are familiar with some of Emily Mandel‘s other works, then you’ll know the theme of personal loss is one she tends to explore more commonly than others, and this is also the case with this first debut novel of hers.
She takes a fairly original approach to it, entering the story of the kidnapped girl from the other perspective, following her on a path of constant gain, loss and longing. In addition to the obvious childhood she lost when she was kidnapped, Lilia is also on a relatively bleak path of constantly losing her lovers as well as herself in the nebulous nature of her existence.
Though Last Night in Montreal is relatively short, the author still finds a way to get us very intimately acquainted with the inner world Lilia as well as the other main characters (more on them a bit later), giving us a very complete picture of who they are, what they’re seeking, and what kinds of paths they’re all on.
I like waitresses with tattoos. It implies the existence of a secret life.― Emily St. John Mandel, Last Night in Montreal
While it is true our understanding of the secondary characters pales in comparison to the protagonists, I didn’t find it to be a big deal by any stretch of the imagination since they still very much fulfilled their roles to perfection.
Thankfully, despite being rather sombre in its premise, the novel does have its fair share of uplifting elements, and the situation seldom gets so dark no light can be seen. It’s not only about the adversities Lilia and the others face, but how they all manage to overcome or make peace with them in one way or another, finding their own paths to move onward in life. It’s definitely not one of those novels which leaves you with a bad and depressed taste in the end. On the contrary, it managed to inspire the feeling we too can find our place in life, in spite of all it throws at us.
A Tale of Intersections
These types of introspective and character-focused books tend, for the most part, to be a bit lacking when it becomes a question of maintaining a captivating plot from start to finish. I believe Emily Mandel was aware of this general weakness in the genre, because there is a very visible effort made to give the development of events a certain tempo, and this is without even mentioning all the intersecting story lines the various characters are going through.
As I mentioned before, there are other main characters in the story, and they include Lilia’s father, Lilia’s ex-boyfriend Eli, the detective following her, and his daughter Michaela. They all have their own objectives (or lack thereof), and sooner or later we know their plots around bound to intersect in interesting ways, and rest assured they do. By the time I got to the end where things get wrapped up in on way or another, I actually found myself caring a fair bit for the characters and not looking forward to say my goodbyes to them.
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The plot is only further embellished by Mandel‘s superb prose and her many accurate descriptions of Montreal. As someone who lives in Montreal, I can confirm she has indeed at least visited the place and recreated it alongside its people with exceptional fidelity. She has a real knack for describing locations, constantly using all of the reader’s senses to her advantage and essentially teleporting us to the environment in question, at least as much as a novel can do such a thing.
The Final Verdict
Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel may have only been the author’s debut novel, but it certainly still stands up proudly today in terms of quality alongside her other works. The premise presents an original twist on a well-known concept, the characters are phenomenally-developed, the plot moves along rather briskly and has its share of twists, all held together by some truly technically-noteworthy writing. If you enjoy suspense fiction books with a greater focus on the characters and their inner worlds, then I think you would be wise to give this book the chance it deserves.
Emily St. John Mandel
Emily St. John Mandel is a Canadian novelist who studied briefly at The School of Toronto dance Theatre before relocating to New York City. So far she has published five novels, with Station Eleven having won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Toronto Book Award, in addition to which it is also being adapted into a film. Her other works include Last Night in Montreal, The Lola Quartet and The Glass Hotel.