What are fathers for? This simple question with myriad complex answers lies at the heart of At the Edge of the World, the latest novel by West Coast author Kari Jones.
Best friends Maddie and Ivan are supposed to be enjoying their first summer after high-school graduation. All they want is to surf by day and hang out by night, but both are suffocating under the weight of issues with their dads: Maddie’s overbearing fathers pressure her to attend the prestigious Emily Carr University of Art and Design rather than support her desire to travel, paint, and pave her own way; Ivan’s alcoholic father hasn’t recovered from his wife’s departure a decade earlier and doesn’t seem to care what Ivan does so long as he’s around to clean up Dad’s messes.
Maddie spots a nasty scar on Ivan’s leg and confronts him about it. As Ivan begrudgingly opens up, the facade he’s maintained collapses to reveal the truth, which includes emotional abuse, father-son role reversal, and abject neglect. Ivan swears Maddie to secrecy, assuring her he’s dealing with his ever-worsening situation, but Maddie questions why he doesn’t just walk away, and whether rescuing his father is more important than years of broken trust between father and son.
The setting, a small fictional town on the B.C. coast, provides an interesting backdrop to Kari Jones’s story. Bear Harbour is a tight-knit community where everyone knows and helps one another; the fact that no one has ever taken a good long look at Ivan’s homelife speaks volumes about how well he hides what he doesn’t want known. Having the novel narrated in alternating chapters by Maddie and Ivan also drives home the point that people tend to see only what they want to see.
Maddie and Ivan are both likeable, well-developed characters with a strong sense of self and purpose. Their lifelong platonic friendship, devoid of stereotypical sexual tension, is refreshing, and the intergenerational family dynamics are recognizable and realistic. The conflicting forces of tension and devotion in the teenagers’ relationships with their dads is palpable as the kids teeter between the known and the unknown, and between childhood and adulthood. At the Edge of the World will have readers reflecting upon their own parent-child relationships, obligations, and expectations with renewed perspective.