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April 13, 2016

The Road to Atlantis, by Leo Brent Robillard

the-road-to-atlantisLeo Brent Robillard’s novel The Road to Atlantis has been sitting on my shelf for about six months, and while I’ve wanted to read it—it’s a novel about family, and I love that cover—I’ve been terrified to pick it up. Because it’s a novel that begins with the death of a child, and I just don’t want to go there, not even in fiction, and also because a novel about the death of a child is so easy to do badly, all emotional manipulation and cliche. But last week I’d finally steeled myself, and I am so glad I did. The Road to Atlantis works on every level.

Here’s why. The tragedy occurs in the first chapter, and we know it’s coming. Anne and David are at the seashore with their two children on a summer vacation, and while the plot is taking the reader toward the inevitable moment (because the back of the novel has told us as much) the narrative itself is concerned with all the details and frictions of ordinary life, which is to say that there aren’t any ominous clouds, or if they are, we only notice them in retrospect. And when it finally happens—their daughter disappears while swimming, and the entire beach goes on alert as they search for her, because perhaps she’d only wandered off —David thinks, “So this is how my life was meant to be…This is what tragedy feels like.” But we don’t hang there for long inside that moment. Within a paragraph (“This is it, he thought.”) this chapter is over.

We’re given a blank page for the purpose of recovering our senses (for certainly, the end of the first chapter hit me like a gut-punch) and when the second chapter begins, we find the family a year ahead in time, their lives seemingly resumed, the rest of the world no longer so conscious of the tragedy that had befallen the Henry family. Which makes it almost easier to carry on the charade that life goes on, these characters still stunned, numb and vacant as it does. And it’s here where the novel launches, taking us through the next two decades of their lives, the moments where Anne and David hang together and where they fall apart, each of them navigating grief in their own way. And it is in their own way, ways that are so connected to the people they were before their daughter died (the people we met in the first chapter) that these trajectories seem inevitable. “This was how my life was meant to be.” This entire novel is about that resignation.

Which sounds depressing, but there’s too much substance to be simply that. At one point in the novel, David takes his high school history students on a field trip to the Diefenbunker near Ottawa, a Cold War era bunker deep under ground, and while the narrative too plumbs similar depths, it’s not the plunge itself that matters but the scenery down there. We see David and Anne trying to carry on with ordinary family life, performing their respective jobs well and less well, parenting their son as he grows older, confronting their own family histories, and yes, all the while their daughter is present, memories of her stirred continually. They’re pursuing their own passions and fascinations, some of them inexplicable. Turns out “This was how my life was meant to be,” is not as straightforward as one might assume, because while the tragedy of a child dying touches everything, there comes a point at which it no longer defines it.

I loved this book, it’s depiction of real people who are so thoroughly tied to the world, although there are certainly moments at which they might not want to be. The Road to Atlantis is an engrossing read, the reader swept along by its pace, and as amazed at what time can do as its characters are.

2 thoughts on “The Road to Atlantis, by Leo Brent Robillard”

  1. kate says:

    Is it terrible, that even after such a fine and inspiring review, I just cannot make myself want to read it? It may be the first example of cowardice in Readership.

    1. Kerry says:

      It’s a tough sell. I’m glad I got to it though. (Inspired also because I was terrified to read Wave, by Sonali Deraniyagala, which turned out to be one of my favourite books ever. Sometimes overcoming the fear is worth it…)

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