Black Dove

Black Dove

by Colin McAdam
Black Dove

Black Dove

by Colin McAdam


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“Stark and beautiful, horrifying and lyrical, Black Dove's pages thrum with flight, transformation, grief, revenge, transcendence, the remorseless power of stories and the very nature of creation. Ever since reading, Black Dove has drifted in and out of my dreams.” —Helen Macdonald, author H Is For Hawk

In a tall and narrow house, on a stained and busy street, live twelve-year-old Oliver and his father, a story-loving writer. Haunted by the ghost of his alcoholic mother, Oliver finds comfort in his father’s impromptu tales: the Black Dove, an elusive flower that gives strength; the girl who consumes it as she battles attackers and yearns for happier realms. Stories where lonely souls keep searching despite their losses and grief.

Running from a bully one night, Oliver hides in a junk shop owned by an enigmatic man. Soon, instead of hiding in the janitor’s closet after school, Oliver spends afternoons in the shop, a cavernous place full of storied oddities and grubby wonders where creatures rise up from the basement. A snake in the shape of a boy. A hunter named Night, part panther, part hound, who proves to Oliver that the world holds invisible wonder.

Wanting to forget his mother, afraid of his own genes, constantly harassed by bullies, Oliver joins the shop owner in experimenting with dangerous forms of genetic editing. Meanwhile, he meets the girl from across the street, and their friendship grows in a neighbourhood where magic is real, where murderers gather, and where the darker consequences of fantasies play out.

A twisting story of grief and revenge, Black Dove is a thrilling read with its own kind of magic. In rich but tightly reined prose, McAdam celebrates the value and shortfalls of storytelling, finding a light in all the darkness to conjure a tender portrait of childhood’s end.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781641294225
Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 02/07/2023
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.77(w) x 8.63(h) x 1.12(d)

About the Author

Colin McAdam has a PhD in English from Cambridge University. His first novel, Some Great Thing, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. His second novel, Fall, was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and won the Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize. A Beautiful Truth, his third novel, won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award.

Read an Excerpt

Last December there was one leaf left in the neighbourhood. It was hanging high from the tip of a branch, curled up and wrinkled like a little man who knew he was going to fall.
     Oliver stared at the leaf from his bedroom window in the morning and looked beyond it to the skyline of the city. He lived in a tall and narrow old house on a stained and busy street, in an area that was not the nicest part of town but probably not the worst. Stockyards full of cattle used to be around the corner, and nearby railroads still carried freight trains that groaned half-awake through the night. He had lived in that house since he was born.
     His room was at the front, at the top, his dad’s was below. There was a third room that his dad used as a study, where he sat every day writing books.
     He was always writing something. Some days Oliver sat down with him quietly in his study and waited to hear a story. He would look at his dad’s phone or imagine he was riding his bike while he sat there. He wasn’t always good at sitting still.
     Even when his dad wasn’t writing he was making up stories. He told them to Oliver at bedtime or when they went for long drives. He told them at breakfast.
     “I have a completely unbelievable story for you,” he would say. “Totally unsuitable for a child.”
     He made things up while Oliver ate toast, and even though the stories were never quite as advertised, Oliver appreciated the noise and the distraction—anything that kept his mind away from the day ahead at school.
     When he left the house he looked up at the leaf and kept the sight of it in his mind. Twenty minutes to the school’s main gate, through the doors, down those corridors of slogans and judgment, Oliver was as uncomfortable and unwelcome as that leaf in winter. The boy with no mother. Smaller than everyone in his class. Funny ears, no crack in his voice and no friends left to walk next to.
     It was after school that Murdoch liked to hunt. No matter what the school day threw at Oliver, it was the time after the final bell that he most dreaded. Murdoch waited near the doors or he hid near the gate. Sometimes Oliver was faster than him, but it made no difference in the end. Three blocks from the school Murdoch punched him in the face till blood dripped from his nose, both of them out of breath. No one was around, so Murdoch wasn’t showing off—he wanted to punch that face no matter who was watching.
     To different people Oliver pretended he was in the Chess Club or the Code Club or any after-school activity that would keep the teachers from wondering why he hung around. Once the janitor was finished cleaning, Oliver snuck into his storeroom with a lockpick he’d made with paper clips. He hid in the corner behind a tarp and waited in there with the light off in case the janitor came back.
     He liked the quieter superheroes. The ones who worked at night or who fled their good deeds without saying a word. And not just the ones who used silence as a power but the ones like Black Bolt, who was quiet because his voice was too powerful. Blackagar Boltagon. He underwent rigorous training to let nothing escape his mouth, because if he made a sound, even in his sleep, his voice would destroy things: cities, battleships, planets.
     Quiet in the cubicles when they came knocking. Feet up on the toilet seat and the smell of everyone’s piss.
     “Come out, little Mickey. I want to show you something.”
     The storeroom was the safest.
     Oliver stayed till five thirty and unlocked the door when he was sure that Murdoch had left the school grounds. In the winter it meant that he always walked home in the dark.
     “Zebras are actually pretty strong,” Oliver told his dad. “A lot of those animals that get chased by lions, like water buffaloes and wildebeest, are actually super strong. It’s only  sometimes they get eaten.”
     His dad thought that Oliver stayed behind at school to run or to read. “I like your facts,” he said.
     “But the night is also when none of them can sleep,” said Oliver.
     He had his favourite routes home. There were streets near school where the houses were bigger, and at night their lamplit living rooms looked golden. He saw paintings on the walls and polished tables that were proud with milk and wine.
     He used to be friends with Murdoch—at an age, five or six, that he couldn’t see clearly anymore. Murdoch’s parents had one of the nice houses on Glenlake and a TV as big and bright as summer. He and Oliver played after school and their moms had been friends, but it was like Murdoch got picked for some team that would always win and Oliver got passed over. Murdoch grew tall, and his mom was calm and elegant. He was going to be either a doctor or an athlete, he had a laptop and an iPhone, sharp eyes, and he acted like Oliver was some kind of dirty secret, some part of his past that he was ashamed of and wanted to disown. It was like he wanted to let people know that he had nothing in common with him.
     Beyond the streets with all the nice houses, things got a little too quiet. Near the empty lots and unmended fences it was easy to have the wrong thoughts. Oliver was too old to be afraid of the dark, but he was aware that behind him there were ghosts, and above him the trees leaned forward, taking hold of birds and old seeds and trying to find lost memories.
     Every now and then he took Keele and Dundas, the busier route, to have a bit more company. He tried to keep his eyes forward. Avoid temptation. He could steal candy if he wanted. He’d figured out a way to steal toys from the Dollar Store—you just waited till it was really crowded and all the employees had to work the cash. None of them cared about the merchandise anyway. Which also meant not much of it was worth stealing.
     If he turned to the windows in the dark he caught sight of himself. Saw again that he was short, a kid. His hat was only chest-high to the people with business on the sidewalk, and the future waited down the road as some cold, unknowable thing. Sometimes the world seemed full of people who said, “You’ll never succeed like we have, Oliver. You’ll never know what we know.”
There was a man in the neighbourhood named Iron John, covered in hair, who lived at the Peacock Hotel. He collected cans in bags and sometimes screamed prophecies about the sun becoming a bladder of blood that would burst and spray people’s faces.
     The cans brought him thirty bucks a day if he was brave enough to wander as far as the stockyards to collect them. The box stores out there with the garbage bins full of lunchtime drinks and dumpsters near the grocery stores. People buying lumber and televisions, nobody noticing the smell, the stink of death from the rendering plants. He felt like he was at the end of the earth out there and the smell made him afraid. He never slept. He filled his bags with cans and shook them, and the cops asked if he’d taken his meds. A conversation in his lips all day, people talking through him, movies in the sky and the girl who smiled at him once, where are you. Calling for the memories and on the bad days he screamed so hard he had lesions in his throat.
     At the Peacock Hotel he kept a secret, the skin of a boy. He’d found it in the alley behind the bar near Heintzman, looking through the dumpster they forgot to chain some nights. Not in the dumpster but beside it. Dropped like a bag, a wet leather suit. Some things made him quiet.
     It was moist when he picked up the skin. Fresh. Smelled like nothing, damp enough to make his hands wet, and warm in the folds. It dried as he stared at it, shadows up and down the body. The streetlight in the distance helped him understand. One arm and then another, he held the skin up by the shoulders, the head flopping down, some weight to it at first but light, getting lighter as the breeze blew.
     It could be a real ghost.
     He let go of one shoulder and lifted the head, stretched it out against the streetlight. A body had been in there, a life, holes for the mouth and eyes, looser skin at the cheekbones, marks where personality might have been. He put it in a bag with the cans and brought it home.
     The life slipped away from it the more it dried. It was fragile and made him sad. In bed he laid it on top of himself and it comforted him through the coughs and mumbles, moans through the walls from the other yearning mouths at the Peacock. After a year the skin had dried completely, went from a creamy yellow to white, then grey. He still laid it on top of himself and whispered to it, forgot exactly how he had met this boy’s ghost or whether he could help in any way. It grew brittle and waxy like vellum, and the trace of the face looked tragic.
     John went to that alley every night as part of his route, and one night he saw a boy who looked familiar. The cheekbones under the woollen cap.
     On his meds he didn’t see the world as clearly as this, the red halos around the streetlights and the sun inside everyone, screaming.
     On his meds he might not have seen this boy.
     The back door of the bar opened every now and then, people stepping out for a smoke. But otherwise this alley was quiet. Iron John hid behind a car and watched.
     The boy took his hat off, his coat and shirt. Old clothes like John wore. Looked around. Smelled the air. One dim bulb above the back door of the bar, lights at each end of the alley and whiffs of beer and garbage. Iron John could stay as still as a tree. His hair covered his eyes. The boy looked straight at him and paused, kept staring towards him while he took off his boots, pants, underwear.
     A noise came out of John as he stared.
     The boy walked naked to the building beside the dumpster and rubbed his head on the brick quoins, like a cat spreading its scent. Scraping. John heard it, the itchy sound, felt it in his teeth, the ache, wanting to get out of his own skin. The boy rubbed the top of his head up and down the  corner of the brick and reached up, fingers in his hair finding the split he’d made. He turned in Iron John’s direction and pulled his skin off slowly, inch by inch from his crown. Didn’t blink, like he was in a trance, waiting, disappearing, and the same boy, the newer version, climbed slowly out of the skin, pink as a scratch.
     John was talking but he didn’t know it.
     The most private thing you could see.
     He pictured the old skin he’d found, at home in bed. Could he fill his room with new friends. He’d had snakes in his brain since he was a teenager, and when he took his meds he asked his friends, Whose hands are these.
     Yellow snakes, brown, and this pale one. The emperor.
     The boy went back to his clothes and took a knife out from his trousers. He walked slowly, new and naked, to Iron John.
     “Used to be a store here, you could hold the snakes,” mumbled John, quickly. “Let me hold you, said the prince. I used to be a prince. Let me hold you.”
His mother left home before Oliver turned nine and she died shortly after. She put a trellis on the front of the house to encourage the growth of vines, but she never planted the vines. His dad said she gave up on a lot of things.
     Oliver remembered crying the night she left, lying on his parents’ bed and not being able to stop. At first there were dreams of the street outside collapsing in on itself, Oliver digging down to find her. His dad said she chased sweet things and sweetness got the better of her.
     But the basic facts were that she was an alcoholic, and she didn’t feel strong enough to be a mother. She hid bottles of vodka in the bathroom cabinet, in the linen cupboard, all over the house, and his dad kept finding them months after she had gone.

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