Eliza Robertson’s debut novel Demi-Gods is the story of Willa, a girl growing up in British Columbia in the 1950s and ‘60s. In luminous prose, Robertson shows her protagonist’s formation in a world set on teaching her about others’ power to shape her. Willa finds this restrictive power crystallized in Patrick, the son of her mother’s boyfriend and a monstrous presence who slinks into rooms and haunts the summers of the narrator’s childhood. As a parable of the oppressive weight of other people’s desire, Demi-Gods is lush and compelling, however unsettling it may be to read.
While the two central characters meet only a half-dozen times as children and young adults, their lives are entangled from the start, leaving imprints—or scars—that never fully fade. The novel unfolds over these six encounters between the narrator and her not-quite-stepbrother. As Willa says, “Our relationship unrolled in these episodes. In the intervals between, we didn’t exist” (114). In her relationship with Patrick, the narrator shadows her older sister Joan, who develops a not-exactly-incestuous romance with Patrick’s older brother Kenneth. While the older siblings marry and build an apparently idyllic life together in California, the younger pair is repeatedly pulled together by a nightmarish attraction.
Patrick’s sadism is established in the first chapter, when he is only eleven-years-old and first meets the nine-year-old Willa. After convincing her to join him in a leaky rowboat, he watches impassively from shore as a jellyfish drifts closer and stings her. She describes the attack with a sense of vaguely sexualized dread: “The bell sprawled the water like an open wound, the net of stingers grazing my thighs. I could feel the weight of them above my trousers. A low howl built in my throat, but I was too scared to cry in case the movement drew it closer” (10). That dread, and the night-terror paralysis that accompanies it, becomes a repeated theme as Patrick’s unwanted sexual advances, assaults, and degradations—the first of which comes just after the jellyfish attack—continue over the years. There is, meanwhile, Willa’s own attraction to him. She pursues his attention in the daylight and in public; he bestows it, unwanted, at night and in secret. As Willa describes her own impulses, “The quality of his attention disturbed me—but I focused on the fact of it, which surrounded me in a light not as pure as the sun, maybe, but like one of those heat lamps” (158).
Demi-Gods revolves around Willa’s position as the object of attention and her fear of being a shadow, or a reflection, of those around her. Her mother fills the family home with mirrors. “To make the most of the space, she would say. I liked them because they invited more bodies into the house. Our family doubled in size” (65). In a literal sense, too, the mother invites another family into their family, the arrival of the boyfriend and his sons providing doubles for Willa, her mother, and her sister. Willa’s greatest fear is that she is “an empty glass. A mirror. My existence depended on who looked back” (171). She compares this dependent existence to a photograph in Cosmopolitan, in which an American woman abroad is surrounded by leering, catcalling men. These men are the ones who look back, and, through her shadow counterpart, Willa first meets the sharp end of that gaze.
This is a summer novel; whether on Salt Spring Island or off the coast of San Diego, the sun is always shining. The quality of the light suffuses the prose, as in the description of a hungover morning: “No one had closed the curtains, and sun pounded through the window. When I opened my eyes, it seemed to me the walls had curved. They folded around me like the dome of a cabbage, the light translucent, filtered through veins and ribbing, the waxed cuticle of a leaf you could dip in water” (104).
Through these sun-drenched days, Demi-Gods spins toward a climax aboard the two brothers’ yacht on the Pacific. Minor characters are left behind ashore as the action focuses on the two central couples. Joan and Kenneth’s marriage reaches a crisis point, and Willa turns the tables on Patrick. In their final confrontation, Willa breaks free of the seemingly hypnotic hold he has on her and becomes the one who looks back. In the aftermath, all four characters are sent spinning into their own trajectories. We see, however, that Willa is forever marked. Robertson’s novel, too, will not be easily forgotten.
Kyle Schoenfeld is a recent graduate of the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing MFA program. His short fiction has been published in the anthology This Is How You Die, and his short story “Three Birds” was a finalist for The Malahat Review‘s Far Horizons Short Fiction Award.