This novel doesn’t cross lines. It blurs them. What first seems to be a flaw on the part of the author turns out to be the intention. Last Night in Montreal subtly breaks boundaries throughout, whether through aspects of the plot or the ways in which it was written. Because of this, the words get under our skin, making us feel as if something is off, but we are still urged, through Mandel’s words, to keep reading and to push past the discomfort that looms on every page.
Twenty pages into the novel, I was already taking notes on the odd, sporadic telescoping point of view. The chapter would open with what seemed a very broad and omniscient point of view, generally focusing on one character at a time, but then it would suddenly zoom into the head of another character entirely, throwing the entire story off kilter. Sometimes one sentence and sometimes two paragraphs later, the point of view would pull back again quickly, leaving the reader dizzy. Initially, I felt that this was a problem the editor and author had missed, but as I read on, the random blend of omniscient and limited third person point of view mirrored the author’s other unconventional methods of presentation.
The back cover of the book is misleading. “Haunted by an inability to remember her early childhood, [Lilia Albert] moves restlessly from city to city, abandoning lovers along the way, possibly still pursued by a private detective who has trailed her for years.” This novel is not, in fact, about Lilia Albert. It is as much about any of the other characters: Eli, Michaela, Christopher, as it is about Lilia. Lilia often feels to be a very absent character, while Michaela is probably the most solid and prominent character in the novel, Christopher acts as the biggest catalyst to active plot, and Eli opens and closes the novel.
Similarities between Michaela and Lilia are scarce, but the girls somehow manage to be indistinguishable from one another. The narratives of the characters seem to bleed into one another, and it is often difficult to tell which girl is the owner of certain thoughts and characteristics. After all, as with every other character, always chasing or being pursued, Lilia is a runner, while Michaela is the only character in the novel that never runs, never crosses the borders of countries or states; she walks the line, never falling off, as a talented tightrope walker. As with the perceived problems with the point of view, I often felt that Mandel did not know her own characters, resulting in the interchangeability of Michaela and Lilia, when actually the lack of separation was probably intended.
In addition to the structural and stylistic deviations, Mandel uses physical barriers to emphasize the blurring of boundaries. She continuously refers to the language barrier. Lilia speaks multiple languages frequently, and Eli studies dead languages. The novel takes place in Montreal, where language is controversial. English speakers are looked down upon, French is preferred, and yet neither Eli or Michaela, who are in Montreal throughout the novel, speak French. “Try to imagine,” Michaela says to Eli, “what it’s like when you can’t speak the right language in a place like this.” And there is the obvious metaphor of the map. As Lilia runs away across the country with her father, the map eventually fades, the states gradually become unimportant, they’re all one, “entire states were dissolving.”
Last Night in Montreal awkwardly tries to cover a variety of topics. Metaphors of ice skating and the Greek myth of Icarus often creep up, and while the ice skating metaphor is later clarified (“She moved over the surface of life the way figure skaters move, fast and choreographed, but she never broke through the ice, she never pierced the surface and descended into those awful, beautiful waters . . . all the shadows and light and splendorous horrors that make up the riptides of life on earth.”), no real connection is ever made between Icarus and the novel, although the author does make a weak attempt when one character says he does not wish to be the minotaur. The silky thread of boundaries however is as beautiful as it is strong, and Emily St. John Mandel subtly weaves it throughout all aspects of the novel.