STEELE INTERVIEWS: Emily St. John Mandel

There was a map folded on the dashboard, but it was fading steadily under the barrage of light; Lilia was supposed to be the navigator but entire states were dissolving into pinkish sepia, the lines of highways fading to grey. The names of certain cities were indistinct now along the fold, and all the borders were vanishing.

Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel is an exquisite debut novel filled with fragile characters holding on to situations that may or may not define them. It is about being lost and not wanting to be found; being adrift in a city dominated by a completely different culture and trying to remain centered; and finding out whether you are happier in motion or in one place. Lilia is a 22-year-old woman who has never known a permanent address for more than a decade. Her father abducted her as a young child and the pair never ceased traveling across the United States for fear of being caught. In Last Night in Montreal, Mandel seamlessly travels back and forth from the Lilia’s wayward childhood to present day. She also delves into the lives of the obsessive private investigator and his collateral damage: a daughter Lilia’s age. Her name is Michaela.

“I had this one note about traveling by car through the desert that sort of developed into this idea of someone who was traveling forever,” Emily Mandel explained by phone from her home in Brooklyn. “I started to think of it that you had to keep traveling if a crime had been committed and you couldn’t stop and then I came up with the idea of a parent abducting a child. And I’m not sure why I picked the father abducting the child and not the mother but it was just sort of the way it developed gradually over time.”

Fifteen years later in another country Lilia pressed her forehead against a windowpane in Eli’s apartment, looking out at an unchartered landscape of Brooklyn rooftops in the ran, and came to a somewhat unsettling conclusion: she’d been disappearing for so long that she didn’t know how to stay.

As an adult, Lilia cannot remain in any place very long. [“I knew the character Lilia who had been traveling her whole life would probably be a little skittish because of that background.”] Now living in Brooklyn, her boyfriend Eli suspects she will soon leave him. He studies extinct and endangered languages. Lilia speaks five languages. Eli and Lilia are polar opposites and perhaps that is why Eli is devastated and ungrounded when she leaves him.

“Lilia is really action oriented,” Mandel explained. “She doesn’t talk about traveling, she travels. She doesn’t talk about languages, she speaks them. Eli is sort of stuck in this state of inertia. He studies things but doesn’t really take action. He spends all his time talking about art in cafes with his friends and is kind of stuck in that life.”

One day Eli receives a mysterious postcard from Montreal with the simple message: She’s here. Come soon, Michaela. He travels from Brooklyn to Montreal to find Lilia and to get some closure. He meets up with Michaela, a woman who has been as tormented by Lilia as Eli. She is just as bitter about Lilia as Eli. Her father became so obsessed about Lilia’s case that he abandoned his own daughter who now performs at an exotic dance club in Montreal.

“I lived in Montreal for about eight months and I don’t speak French,” Mandel begins. “I grew up in British Columbia where French isn’t something you hear very often. So the experience of living in a city where I didn’t speak the language was really interesting to [find yourself] outside the culture that way. So I guess that culture of alienation made sense for a couple of my characters: Eli and Michaela ending up in Montreal, and it sort of tied together with this theme of languages that I had been thinking about. Lilia is sort of this linguist who speaks about five different languages. And Eli studied dead languages. I just thought it would be interesting to have it set in that city where I’d experienced what it means to speak the wrong language. I felt the alienation of the characters made sense to have unfolded there.”

Ultimately does Lilia want to be found? Or would it be best if Eli just let her go? Will Lilia escape again? Mandel excels in her craft by utilizing visual descriptions, detailed characterizations and a heartfelt, surprising story. Last Night in Montreal is a provocative, spellbinding novel.


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