A Review of Angie Abdou's In Case I Go
Review by Kathryn Stagg
Angie Abdou’s latest novel, In Case I Go, is a book about how the past can reassert itself in the present, demanding answers and recognition. The narrative centers on a young boy named Eli whose own narrative, slowly at first, and then with greater frequency and urgency, is interspersed with the memories of his great-great-grandfather Elijah. As the narrative progresses, the line between remembering the past and actively reliving it becomes blurred, as Eli’s own identity threatens to be subsumed by that of his great-great grandfather. Eli becomes preoccupied with one part of Elijah’s past in particular; Elijah’s relationship with a young Ktunaxa girl named Mary.
Eli is not the only one that is haunted in In Case I Go. So is the town of Coalton, where Eli has just moved with his parents, and where Elijah lived at the turn of the century. Coalton has an uneasy relationship to its past, unable to fully reconcile its mistreatment of its Indigenous residents. During Coalton’s mining heyday, different cemeteries were maintained – one for Catholics, one for non-Catholics, and one for Indigenous peoples. However, when the town needed more land, Indigenous gravesites were repurposed, with houses literally built on the bodies of the deceased Indigenous residents of Coalton.
Even though the locations in the novel are fictional, acknowledging the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples by the town of Coalton, and so by extension Canada, is one of the things that Abdou does well in In Case I Go. The novel is upfront about Coalton’s problematic history and includes Indigenous characters, like Eli’s neighbor Sam, who draw a connection between Coalton’s history and its present complicity in Indigenous oppression. The novel is adamant in its belief that owning up to the past, and acknowledging ones own part in that past, is a crucial part of moving forward.
In the end, though, the novel isn’t always clear on just how acknowledging the past can help us move forward. While Eli, as Elijah, does apologize to Mary, the final resolution of the novel really comes when he is able to recognize and acknowledge the colonial violence that took place in Coalton, along with his (Elijah’s) complicity in it. In this finale, much of the earlier tension is ceded to this recognition. Eli, exorcised of his great-great-grandfather, tells his Mother that he wants to go home — a home that, as already established — is built over Indigenous remains. In light of what we know of Coalton’s history, the denouement that comes from this recognition feels somewhat lacking.
The novel also struggled, at times, when it came to characterization. A large portion of the writing comes from the child’s perspective, and in this, Eli’s narrative had the tendency to fall into some of the more common pitfalls of child narration. Eli is precocious, a child who struggles to make friends with his peers because he is different, says the word “actually” a lot, and seems to have far greater insight into the nature of his parent’s marital troubles than is believable for such a young child. This becomes muddier when you consider that Eli’s voice isn’t always the voice of a child; sometimes it is the voice of Elijah, a grown man with a family. Eli’s precociousness might be explained by the presence of Elijah’s adult perspective, but there is no clear indication of when Eli begins to adopt Elijah’s perspective. Did it predate his move to Coalton? There were times when it was difficult to discern exactly what was going on, or whose perspective was being offered. Before it becomes clear that Elijah’s perspective is interspersed with Eli’s, however, our only foundation is Eli the child, and because he never feels entirely believable as a character, he provides a shaky foundation for everything that comes next.
While the town of Coalton is fictional, the story it seeks to tell about Canada’s history of colonial violence more generally is deeply important. While those moments in the novel that were less effective sometimes overshadow the elements that worked well, In Case I Go is a book that makes a serious and laudable effort to reconcile the past and the present.
Kathryn Stagg is a writer and researcher. Her work has appeared in The Puritan's Town Crier, where she is a staff writer. She is also an organizing member of the Slackline Creative Arts Series. She lives in Toronto.