CM . . . . Volume XIX Number 20 . . . . January 25, 2013
I enjoy the succinct nature of novels in verse. The format does, however, require careful and evocative word choices. The author must say a lot with a little, or the reader is left with too many gaps to fill and too little direction to make sense from. Jill MacLean successfully meets the challenges of the format of a free verse novel in her new book Nix Minus One. The powerful, moving story is told from the first person perspective of 15-year-old grade 9 student, Nixon Humbolt.
Nix lives with his sister and parents in the tiny Newfoundland settlement of Bullbirds Cove. Nix's talents involve beautiful woodworking. It is one of the few things that draws people to him. Nix's sister, Roxy, is 11 months his senior and is a grade 10 student who is dating one of the popular grade 12 boys. "How can someone drive you / into the middle of next week and make you feel / like you'd slay sixteen dragons for her?" Nix wonders as he contemplates the volatile and complicated relationship that he has with his sister.
As with her previous works, The Nine Lives of Travis Keating, The Present Tense of Prinny Murphy, and Home Truths, MacLean again tackles sensitive issues including bullying, death, flawed parenting, animal cruelty, teenage angst, abuse and feelings of insecurity in her book. In the hands of this talented writer, the story succeeds wonderfully.
Nix is befriended by the local star hockey player, Chase McCallum. For reasons that are never adequately explained, Chase is one of very few people who treats Nix with dignity and respect. Given Nix is a loner who is a target for bullies, Chase might be expected to be equally bullying or at least ambivalent towards Nix. However, Chase supports, encourages and protects him. This relationship is complicated by the fact that Nix is a not-too-secret admirer of Chase's beautiful girlfriend, Loren Cody. What's more, Chase's younger sister, Blue - she of the dazzling blue eyes - is as kind and well-natured as her brother and seems to have a romantic interest in Nix. These complicated interpersonal relationships often are a minefield for teenagers to navigate, and MacLean obviously remembers her own teen years because she writes about them so convincingly.
The complexities of Maclean's novel add depth and believability to the story events and the multi-faceted characters she has created. As the flawed and troubled Nix lurches from one situation to the next, the reader is constantly hoping for him to emerge with happiness and success. At his core, he is a brave and caring individual hampered by insecurities, a distinct lack of confidence, and limited ability to verbalize his feelings.
Despite experimenting with a new format, MacLean has produced another wonderful novel. She is to be applauded for respecting her readership and refusing to shy away from difficult topics. As mentioned, this book tackles sensitive issues and oftentimes delivers powerful and upsetting punches. Nix Minus One is a book for mature readers, but those readers will be rewarded with a story well told.
Gregory Bryan is a professor of children's literature at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, MB.
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