I literally have nothing bad to say about Steve Zipp’s Yellowknife. It’s gorgeous. The binding is beautiful. The writing glimmers. The plot is perfect. And you guys know that I don’t use those sorts of adjectives when I write reviews. I usually deal with “pretty good” and “moderately interesting” and “fairly well-paced.” But Yellowknife is — hands down — the best book I’ve read this year, and so I’m going to be be breaking out the big words. You know, “luminous” and junk like that.
Here’s the back cover:
The time is 1998. The millennium looms. Yellowknife, capital of one-third of Canada and home to beasts and bureaucrats, is about to become a player in the world diamond market.
People come here for the damndest reasons. Something to do with the North Pole, maybe. It attracts them, I think. Like, there’s metal filings in their heads or something.
A penniless drifter, a businessman obsessed by bones, an artist with a baseball bat, a fallen academic who lives at the dump, a biologist with a son named after a fungus, a native man older than Canada, a Mounty with a jaw of steel.
He dropped several boxes of ammo into his pocket, little plastic containers with sliding lids, the shells lined up like tiny lead soldiers waiting to do their duty. He contained an impulse to throw back his head and howl.
Our Lady of the Lake Trout, the Paradox of the Ravens, the Ice Road Café, the Mosquito Research Institute, Y2K, and the birth of Nunavut. A legend, a myth, a mystery.
It’s a bit sentence-fragmenty, but intriguing, no? I thought so too. Steve emailed me and asked if I’d like to read his book as part of the 2nd Canadian Book Challenge or whatever it’s called. I downloaded the book and read the first chapter, and then had to delete the file so that I wouldn’t spoil everything before I got my actual copy. And then my copy came through the mail — oh frabjous day — and I devoured it, and then made various family members read it. Holy cow, Yellowknife is good. It’s full of very strange people in a very strange place: detectives and fishermen and lost explorers, dogs and mosquitoes, old men and young boys, neurotic biologists and, oh, all sorts of people.
You guys, it’s so good. Go read the first chapter and see if you don’t agree with me. I give Yellowknife an unequivocal 5/5.
And in the course of writing this review, I also had the chance to interview Steve Zipp, which was exciting. Our conversation follows:
Tell me a little about yourself.
Well, I’ve knocked around a bit. Lived and worked in 6 provinces and 2 Territories. Taught school in Africa. Banded ducks, tagged polar bears. Toured Newfoundland with a travelling theatre company. But always, always, a writer.
I’ve lived all my life in Southern Ontario and have never been closer to the Pole than to Thunder Bay. What should I know about the North?
If you go there, you’ll return a changed person. Wilderness is all around you, and infiltrates your soul whether you realize it or not. Above all, respect the land and the people. Listen to elders. In Yellowknife, read Walt Humphries‘s newspaper column, “Tales from the Dump.”
Where did this novel come from? What was its spark?
My next-door neighbour. One day while skating he fell through the ice, and his description of what happened, of the icy calm that descended upon him while his life hung in the balance, charged my imagination. I began thinking of ways to incorporate it into a story.
What went into the decision to release Yellowknife online as well as in hard copy?
Corey Doctorow. He makes all of his books available online. I like his rationale.
Can you talk a little bit about the last chapter? Why/how did you decide to narrate from Neptune’s point of view.
There is animal imagery throughout the book, and there are hints that the animal nature of some characters is closer to the surface than usual. Plus, there really was a dog named Neptune on Franklin’s last expedition, which I thought was a good way to tie things up.
My mother is worried about Hugo. Any inkling as to how his story ends?
I like fiction with loose ends, fiction where characters come and go, or pop up unexpectedly. So (with apologies to your mom) all I can say about the person washed up on shore at the end of the book is that, yes, his survival is in question. But we don’t know who he is. He could be one of two people.
I notice that you’ve written “Mounty” for a member of the RCMP, whereas I’m more used to seeing it as “Mountie”. Is that a regional convention?
Heh heh, no, it’s a stylistic one. There are other altered spellings in the book. The most important is “North-West Territory” instead of “Northwest Territory” — a hint that we’re not in the same place currently found on maps. Hence, the police in the story are NWMP not RCMP.
I hope that this novel is drawn from life. Is Yellowknife as breathtakingly bizarre as you’ve portrayed it to be? I think I might be a little heartbroken if it isn’t.
Well, bizarreness is like beauty, isn’t it? One also has to remember that novels condense life, and Yellowknife is the distillate of many years in the North. Even so, I couldn’t fit in everything I wanted, like the early clubhouse at the Yellowknife golf course, the fuselage of a crashed plane.
Still, there are things in the book that are fabricated, though readers unfamiliar with the North might not distinguish them from stuff equally fantastic but real, such as Mars camp on Devon Island. This was a conscious decision on my part, thinking (hoping) that readers would enjoy being discombobulated.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
I like telling the story about driving south with my kids, born in Yellowknife, their sweet little heads bobbing in the car window as they watched the scenery go by. Suddenly the blank-eyed forest gave way to a field of cows. “Look, daddy, caribou!”