Review: If I Fall, If I Die, by Michael Christie

Story of a mother who keeps her son locked away from the world reads as an allegory of the rampant anxiety of the modern age

If I Fall, If I Die
If I Fall, If I Die
Author: Michael Christie
ISBN-13: 978-0-8041-4080-5
Publisher: Hogarth
Guideline Price: £14

Will has no family or friends except his mother. He has never been to school. He has never been to the playground. He has never even been to town. In fact the 11-year-old protagonist of Michael Christie's debut novel, If I Fall, If I Die, has never been "Outside". And you thought your parents were bad.

His mother, Diane, is a mentally unstable, severely agoraphobic film-maker who has kept herself and her son locked away for most of Will’s childhood. This isn’t nearly as grim as it sounds. Diane loves her son, desperately, and has dreamed up a world within the walls of their house in Bayport, Canada, to keep him entertained. Will has been nowhere and everywhere. He has his meals in Paris, watches television in Cairo, does the laundry in Toronto and sleeps in San Francisco.

In a most unusual Bildungsroman, Christie paints a painstaking picture of debilitating mental illness. There is a fairy-tale quality to the story, which reads as an allegory of the rampant anxiety of the modern age.

Will’s voice is engaging and likeable, drawing us into the magic and horror of his world, poignantly relaying his mother’s “Black Lagoon” tendencies and his attempts to keep her afloat. Diane’s recollections are equally vivid. She is afraid not only of Outside but also of certain rooms in her house, depending on her moods. Diane consoles herself: “It’s not a prison if you build it yourself.”


Mental crash

Having evaded her troubled childhood through various means – drugs, art, relationships, travelling – Diane has her mental crash after an unexpected pregnancy heralds the end of a relationship and brings her back to Bayport. Reminded of the deaths of her father and her beloved twin, Charlie, who died in mysterious circumstances at some grain elevators, Diane’s social anxiety spirals: “How easy it is for a life to become tiny. How cleanly the world can fall away.”

After a blue jay slams into the window in Cairo, Will defies his mother and goes Outside. Once he has a taste of freedom Will refuses to be caged. Rebelling, he seeks out the most dangerous activities he can find: skateboarding, freewheeling down hills and investigating murders.

This novel follows Christie's well-received collection of short stories, The Beggar's Garden (2011). The Canadian is a former professional skateboarder, and he uses his knowledge of the sport to good effect in his book. The message is clear: falling, and picking ourselves up again, is what life is all about.

As Will comes to understand the foreign ways of society, there are echoes of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little and, more recently, the Northern Irish writer Jan Carson's debut novel, Malcolm Orange Disappears also invite comparison, although Christie's yarn is not as compelling or as masterful as Pierre's Texan tour de force.

If I Fall, If I Die is funny in parts, but darker undertones are ever present. Mother and son sleep in the same bed. The "before-bedtime cuddle" lasts 10 minutes. Entirely unsexual, it nonetheless shows the unhealthy dependency between them. Diane is guilty of serious neglect. She has kept Will away from school and society, largely uneducated.

Life Outside is less vividly rendered. A section with a vaguely outlined character, Titus, is sold as a mystery but instead proves diverting. Having spent all of his life indoors, Will’s breakout is anticlimactic.

As he escapes through the back hedge and heads for the creek he has only ever glimpsed through a window, there is little interiority of the wonder and trepidation he must feel at such an event. It also stretches credibility that Will would adapt so quickly to the outside world, but we are willing to suspend disbelief as the character’s insights, clever and colourful, propel his adventures along: “At home his mother produced praise like water from a tap, and it was just as tasteless.”

The main adventure Outside takes the form of a murder hunt, after a native Indian boy, Marcus, is found dead. Such characters exist largely for plot purposes and to highlight themes. Racism is widespread in the community, and Christie portrays it effectively through oafish officials and schoolyard taunts. It is difficult, however, to get a sense of Marcus as a real character, or to understand Will’s devotion to someone he has met a handful of times.

Will’s friendship with another Indian boy, Jonah, is better depicted, as the boys skateboard and sleuth their way to a deep connection. Setting themselves up as modern-day Hardy Boys, their escapades, and the character of Jonah in particular, are used to deflate idealistic notions of heroism. In Bayport, teenage boys cannot take down grown men on their own. A more manageable battle, as with the book’s adult characters, is to conquer the villains within.

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts