A little girl who’s more than she seems is the heart of this surprising novel of grief, adolescence, and mysteries both supernatural and practical, all set in a marvelously evoked small Ontario town. Justin Lambert’s mother went missing in 1996, when he was two. A decade later, long after the authorities have given up on the case, Justin makes an unexpected new friend in tiny Ferguston: a little girl named Billie who seems much smarter than her age, doesn’t go to school, and in conversation speaks to Justin like “anthropologist would interview an elder from some remote culture.” She asks fascinating questions like “Are these the only colours you have?” and, when adults take too much interest in her, somehow manages to vanish. Meanwhile, the residents of Ferguston report strange lights in the sky and strange fish in Lake LeClair, and local ne’er-do-well David Raymond, a suspect in Justin’s mother’s disappearance, is cruising Justin’s neighborhood in his great neon green truck, apparently on the hunt.
Especially in the opening and closing chapters, Bourgault, making his debut, deftly balances the novel’s mix of coming-of-age literary fiction with its exciting supernatural and suspense elements. Scenes with Billie are both charming and unsettling, as Justin at first refuses to ask hard questions about this strange little girl who knows so much about him. The answers to just who and what she is, when they come, are inspired, not settling into any genre convention. She’s an original, like the book itself.
The novel’s middle passages can feel protracted, such as chapters covering the aftermath of a strange accident or a trip to the American Southwest. The Perpetual Now is long, and at times feels like it, though its central mystery and relationships are compelling, and the prose is touched with unfussy observational poetry. “Ferguston sometimes felt like a war-torn city where all the buildings were left standing,” Bourgault writes, capturing a rich sense of place in a line.
Takeaway: A smart, heartfelt novel blending speculative and coming-of-age fiction.
Comparable Titles: Graham Joyce’s The Tooth Fairy, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun.
Production grades Cover: A- Design and typography: A- Illustrations: N/A Editing: A- Marketing copy: A
In Bourgault’s debut mystery with SF/fantasy touches, a boy bonds with a mysterious girl and investigates a suspect in his mother’s unexplained disappearance.
Justin Lambert, a biracial tween in Ferguston, Ontario, hasn’t seen or heard from his mom in a decade. She went missing in 1996, and the cops found her abandoned car but had little else to go on. Now the 12-year-old boy learns for the first time that there’s long been a suspect in his Black mother’s apparent kidnapping: David Raymond, a career criminal and white supremacist. Justin learns all he can about Raymond, digging into the man’s files at the health center where he volunteers and where his mother had worked. This angers Raymond, who has no qualms about threatening a kid. Around the same time, Justin makes a new friend in Billie; she seems to be about 10, and she responds to questions evasively or cryptically. He eventually surmises that’s she’s from outside Ferguston—possibly veryfar outside—and that she may have strange abilities that could help him bring a criminal to justice. Bourgault’s story is largely ambiguous. Early discussions with Billie, for example, just leave Justin confused; she mentions a “collective” and bizarrely asks him, without specifics, “Are these the only colours you have?” Still, Billie is likable, rather than off-putting; her closeness with and trust in Justin is apparent early on. The equally appealing Justin displays intelligence and tenacity. The splendid supporting cast also includes Justin’s father, a white middle-school teacher; and his dad’s older, “authentic flower child” brother. The mystery of Justin’s mother will maintain readers’ interest, and her son unearths a few surprises during his investigation. Meanwhile, details about Billie are revealed slowly, and readers will have a much sharper picture of the delightfully odd girl by the novel’s end.
An enthralling mystery with sublime characters.