Bingo Square: Book Club
This is a difficult book to describe, as shown by the blurb which I found almost impenetrable and which doesn’t do it justice. Mostly it’s about a young woman named Vincent, and how she becomes involved with Jonathan Alkaitis, a very successful businessman who is actually running a Ponzi scheme. We also meet several of his investors, and see how they are affected when the scheme collapses and Alkaitis is arrested.
As a young teen, Vincent’s mother drowns in a canoeing accident. Vincent herself is a little adrift after this, living with her aunt, but then dropping out of school. She has a half brother, Paul, whom she sees intermittently, and who doesn’t know how to have a relationship with Vincent. Working together at an isolated hotel, there is an incident with graffiti that affects both of them. Soon after Vincent leaves to start her arrangement with Alkaitis – pretending to be his wife and living a life of luxury and travel – while Paul goes on to become an artist and musician.
Once the scheme unravels Vincent gets a job at sea, spending months on the ship and her vacation time travelling. She loves her new life. But one night she disappears from the deck during a storm.
Many of the characters are haunted by ghosts of others. Investors driven to suicide or heart attacks follow Alkaitis around prison, pushing him into what he calls the Counterlife. An alternate universe, a life where you made different decisions and were a better person than the one you became in this one. This idea of the Counterlife also lets us see what might have happened to a couple of characters from Station Eleven. In this reality the Georgia Flu was contained quickly, and humanity did not dissolve into a fight for survival. Miranda still works at the shipping company, and is in charge of the investigation into Vincent’s disappearance. Her old boss, Leon Prevant, is a victim of Alkaitis also, losing his retirement savings. This kind of thing reminds me a little of Kate Atkinson, who also revisited different possible outcomes for her characters in A God in Ruins. It can be very affecting, knowing what awaits them in that other life.
I found this one difficult to get into, but once I did I enjoyed it very much. I struggle sometimes with the author’s characters. Aside from Station Eleven, which is one of my favourite books, her characters can be quite flat to me. Hard to read, and hard to care about. There’s a feeling of being kept at arm’s length, and whether I can trust what they are thinking and feeling. I found this with Vincent especially so in the beginning of her relationship with Alkaitis, when she’s playing a part for him, and it’s hard to grasp her genuine emotions.
Still, this is very affecting overall, and I enjoyed Mandel’s patented back and forth structure, and the way her characters meet and intertwine with each other and storylines.