“Since he’d been Outside, he’d learned that fear was only a default setting, like how the TV always starts at channel 3 when you first turn it on. That everyone is born afraid of everything, but most people build calluses over top of it”
If I Fall, If I Die is the first novel by prize-winning Canadian author and skateboarder, Michael Christie. Since he was a small boy, eleven-year-old Will Cardiel has lived Inside with his mom. Going Outside would just trigger a Black Lagoon for her, so he doesn’t. Until today. Unable to ignore a loud noise, he investigates, meets another boy his age, and sets in motion major changes in his life.
Diane Cardiel has agoraphobia. Once a successful filmmaker, her anxiety is now so great (“…her heart insisted on racing, like an oil-doused bird flapping for its life in her chest. Other sensations, too, unmistakeable as neon: a dull pain throughout, a soreness in her blood, a twisting in her gut, stardust in her fingertips. It would pass, a mere miscalculation of an errant brain that found danger where there was none, that saw a lion instead of the lamb before her”) that her life is limited to inside their house in Thunder Bay (and sometimes, inside her bedroom).
Her fears for Will are many, but she knows that one day soon, she will have to let him go, let him live a normal life. When he insists on going to school, she somehow manages her anxiety. But when she discovers he has been going to the waterfront, to the grain elevators, her dread is overwhelming: “…what drove her panic today wasn’t that her brother had died at the elevators, just as her father did, or that her mother died a young woman. It was that anyone did. Anywhere. That tragedy made no distinction. That it claimed equally those who invited it and those who didn’t. Those treasured, and those ignored. That there was no protection, no spell. It knew every face. Every address”
The story, told over two years of Will’s life, is narrated by Will, by Diane and by a man named Titus, whose identity is gradually revealed (although astute readers will guess correctly). Christie gives the reader a plausible plot, with several mysteries that take twists and turns before being finally resolved. His characters are complex and believable: none are wholly good, all have flaws and failings. There is plenty of humour in Will’s discovery of the Outside world.
Christie gives the reader some marvellous descriptive prose. He can evoke the feel of an agoraphobic’s terror as easily as the confusion of an adolescent: “…such magnitudes of time had a similar underwhelming effect as when his mother first taught him that every single star was actually another sun just like theirs. They created a humph – then nothing. Some information was too enormous to cram into your mind”
Christie obviously writes from experience: he grew up in Thunder Bay himself, and his love of skateboarding is apparent. This moving coming-of-age novel also touches on the plight of Native Canadians, the dangers of grain elevators, the attraction of pure grain liquor and the debilitating effects of agoraphobia. A remarkable debut.