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By Ian Williams
Penguin Random House, January 1, 2019, 35.00

In the final act of Ian Williams’ brilliant debut novel, Reproduction, a father meets his adult son for the first time and gives him dating advice: “some people just shouldn’t reproduce.” The father, Edgar, is referring to the relationship between his son and his son’s increasingly uninterested girlfriend, but the comment rebounds back onto himself: Edgar should have never reproduced. Williams’ beautifully-wrought book imagines reproduction in all of its life-giving and destructive forms: babies are born, cancerous cells multiply, and familiar patterns of aggressive behaviour repeat across generations.

The book opens with a set of chapters narrated alternately by Felicia (XX): a nineteen-year old Black woman from an “unrecognized island” trying to finish her last year of high school; and Edgar (XY), a wealthy white German man who runs a successful business and is old enough to be Felicia’s father. With each chapter heading named for their respective sex chromosomes, these characters are the genetic material for a family tree in the making. The unlikely pair are thrown together when their ailing mothers are assigned to the same room at St. Xavier hospital in Toronto. Felicia’s mother dies, Edgar’s mother recovers, and with the help of a little manipulation and coercion, Edgar convinces Felicia to move in with him and become her caregiver. They immediately begin a sexual relationship. Is it romantic? Transactional? Coercive? Edgar and Felicia’s competing accounts diverge along these lines.

We hear the same scenes narrated from different perspectives: one person’s moment of tender intimacy is another’s nightmare come to life. Make no mistake — Williams’ novel does not produce a glib flattening of sexual assault as a battle of “he said, she said.” The book deftly explores issues of sexual violence and consent, and points to how these questions take on different meanings depending your race and social class.

The narration faithfully and fully inhabits the perspective of men who feel entitled to women’s bodies. This is sometimes excruciating to read, as when Edgar reflects on love and women in the following terms: “How difficult it was to get the attention of women. That is, until they love you. Then they never lift their attention from you. Even after you try to pull off their antennae, flip them on their backs and pluck out their legs.”

Edgar admires Felicia’s body for its geometric precision and utility, but he’s infuriated when she “gets herself pregnant.” Content to put Felicia’s body to work as a caregiver and as a sex object, Edgar is appalled at the thought that she is carrying his child, a Black child. He delights in Felicia’s body but fears their genetic material mingling and realigning itself in a new biracial person.

After being humiliated, shunned and fired, Felicia sets off to raise her baby boy, Army (short for Armistice), on her own, cutting off all contact with Edgar. Felicia finishes school, lands a job as an administrator at a college, and finds a basement rental in Brampton, Ontario, where withstanding her landlord’s sexist and racist banter is part of the cost of housing.

Edgar is a completely absent father, and yet his influence keeps surfacing in Army’s gestures, behaviours, and predilections. Army seems to inherit his father’s entrepreneurial spirit and, later on as an adult, his interest in teenage girls. Are these traits passed on through DNA? Or is Army the inheritor of cultures of masculinity that cut across family lines? Violence, sexual assault, and coercion keep recurring in different forms throughout Reproduction, a reminder of the fact that patterns of abuse tend to reconstitute themselves through family and social ties.

If the novel is concerned with genetics (both thematically and stylistically), it’s equally interested in the ways that family and community can take shape beyond biological connection. At their house in Brampton, Felicia and Army find themselves in a new family situation. Here, the book renders scenes of life in a multicultural city near Toronto with humour and zeal. In the section of the book set in the 1990s, bands of teens roam the streets on hot summer nights, and the ever-industrious Army runs a series of makeshift businesses from the garage: barbershop, BBQ stand, gym.

Williams captures Army’s fitful energy as a teenage boy: snarky, quick-witted, and always up to no good. In these moments, the book can be uproariously funny. Describing Army’s frantic delight at kissing his crush, the book reads: “His tongue had all the exploratory zeal of a hamster sniffing out a new cage.” But the book’s capacity for levity only lends a sharper contrast to its tragic moments. The same disheveled teens and early 20-somethings who write embarrassingly bad song lyrics and worship Radiohead are capable of horrific forms of violence.  

Reproduction has a highly experimental form, but is no less readable for all its innovation. The book’s opening line — “Both of their mothers were dying in the background” — creates a frame for the book as a whole. The memory of two mothers dying is the persistent thread unifying over forty years of family life. With each section, the book reinvents its style of storytelling, widening the lens to include more voices and perspectives.

In the final section, conversations between Edgar and Felicia at the hospital from the late 1970s are chopped up and interspersed as a superscript threaded between scenes set in the present. The genetic code of past conversations is spliced and reconstituted to inform future relationships.

At various moments in Williams’ story, a gesture is repeated: Edgar takes his thumb and rubs small circles into Felicia’s forehead. Years later, Felicia reciprocates the gesture as she tends to Edgar in failing health. Despite the years of bad blood, there is tenderness between them, and Felicia sustains her lifelong Christian duty to care for others.

The thumb on the forehead can be a holy gesture, marking the body with the ashen reminder that “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” In Williams’ novel, a thumb gently pressing into another person’s forehead is alternately soothing and distressing. Reproduction applies a subtle and persistent form of pressure to complex questions surrounding masculinity, violence, family, love, and the ways we care for one another.

Sheila Giffen is a PhD Candidate in the Department of English Language and Literatures at UBC. She tweets at @SheilaGiffen.

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