Book review: Bellevue Square

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Bellevue Square, a novel by award-winning and bestselling author Michael Redhill, is a haunting mystery thriller, and the winner of last year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize, a highly prestigious literary award in Canada. The novel follows a protagonist named Jean Mason through a rabbit hole of obsession over a woman, named Ingrid Fox, that others swear is Jean’s exact double, an identical twin bearing more than just a passing resemblance. What follows is a surreal story that becomes tangled in twists and turns, and ultimately gets lost in its own complexity — raising more questions than answers.

Jean’s doppelganger problems begin one day inside her Toronto bookshop, when one of her regulars claims to have just seen her double in the nearby, titular Bellevue Square park. “You were in the market. Fifteen minutes ago. I saw you,” he says, adding “You’re dressed differently now. And your hair was shorter.” Afterwards, Jean becomes consumed by thoughts of bumping into this supposed double in the flesh and lets her personal life — including her relationship with her family — fall by the wayside in the process. Jean gets informed of more sightings and decides to investigate, employing the help of local vendors and vagrants to be her eyes and ears. But when some of them suspiciously wind up dead, Jean becomes hellbent on confronting her doppelganger for answers on all the strange goings-on.

The trouble with unravelling the tale of Bellevue Square is that almost everything that happens — everything that the reader is told — comes into question: Does Jean’s bookshop exist? Is she insane? Are her family members real? Are Ingrid’s? What is real and what isn’t? So much of what’s vital to the plot is simply left up in the air that it’s impossible to gage between what’s reality, a hallucination or something else altogether.  

While the extraordinary plot isn’t completely satisfying, the novel excels in the ordinary portrayal of its characters. As the main character, Jean is smart, funny, and easy to sympathize with in her struggles with identity, sanity, and the truth. The colourful setting itself is treated with enough attention to be a character. Redhill’s rich description of Toronto and its residents steals the show in Bellevue Square. Focusing on Kensington Market, its neighbouring Bellevue Square, and even the outskirts of Chinatown, Redhill’s prose ascribed to locations rolls across the page with eloquence. Everything down to the small details of certain smells, landmarks and the eccentric locals will ring true with anyone who’s even briefly visited that area of the city. (The only disparity is that the real Bellevue Square park was recently revamped.)

Despite not being consistently enthralling, Bellevue Square does manage to still be an entertaining read, with great characters, thought-provoking ideas and a fantastically explored setting. In the afterward, it is revealed that Bellevue Square is part one of a trilogy (Redhill calls it a “triptych”) titled Modern Ghosts. So this story may still be further elaborated on. However, I don’t know if I’m interested enough to read the next two volumes in the series.