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Low

by Anna Quon

At first glance, Adriana seems to have the trivial difficulties of any young adult – family issues, a bothersome ex-boyfriend, school troubles. But after a failed suicide attempt lands her at a mental hospital, she is forced to reckon with her painful past and its effects on her present.

At 11, Adriana loses her mother to breast cancer. Her sister, only a few months old, is sent to live with an aunt in Toronto, while Adriana and her father remain in Nova Scotia. Adriana subsequently falls into a downward spiral of depression: barely attending classes, remaining in denial about a painful break-up, getting fired from a part-time job, and ultimately retreating to bed for days on end. She frequently feels her dead mother’s accusatory gaze, a topic she addresses during her institutionalization.

Anna Quon’s second novel revisits themes of race and identity previously explored in her 2010 debut, Migration Songs. Adriana is part of a mixed family – her mother is white, blonde, and Slovak, her father Chinese. Adriana’s time at the mental hospital focuses on her transformation from a doubtful, insecure teenager to a young woman who sees a chance to start over. Quon highlights the bleak realities of mental illness, and does not shy away from critiquing the shortcomings of the health-care system. The hardships associated with recovery from a major mental illness are clearly dramatized in the novel’s secondary characters, some of whom have no family, money, or support. Adriana, by contrast, recognizes that she is comparatively lucky, but the trajectory of her healing process is too smoothly linear to be entirely satisfying.

Quon’s writing is confident throughout. Low is a genuine and gentle novel about family, identity, and the road to recovery.