Feel more. Simple words, but a challenging credo for literary authors to live by. Thankfully, we have Kim Echlin to show us how it’s done. In Under the Visible Life, Echlin (who was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize for her previous novel, The Disappeared) delivers a clinic on how to conjure emotions readers didn’t even know they had. Not since The Diviners has a Canadian novel explored the complex, messy, and sacrificial nature of creative self-actualization with such skill.
The novel has a diptych-like structure. We meet two women, Mahsa and Katherine, both of mixed race, both talented musicians, and each coming from a past riled by struggle. Mahsa is born in Afghanistan to a white father and Afghan mother. When Mahsa is 13, her mother’s brothers murder her parents in an honour killing and Mahsa is forced to move in with an aunt and uncle. When she is university age, they send her to Montreal to study English, but her true passion is music. After Mahsa is tricked into travelling to Pakistan, her family forces her to marry a businessman named Ali; together they return to Montreal and have children. But the lure of music is too strong, and Mahsa’s ambitions soon find her in conflict with her ultra-conservative husband.
Katherine, meanwhile, is born to a white mother and Chinese father in Hamilton, Ontario. The father soon flees to China, leaving Katherine and her mom to live roughly. Katherine develops an aptitude for music, and is soon playing in Hamilton’s vibrant 1960s jazz scene. She marries a bandmate named T and has three children while still very young. T develops a heroin addiction and Katherine moves to New York where, despite the trials of single motherhood, she begins a successful career.
The two women’s lives collide in the music scene, and their friendship is as powerful as any depicted in fiction. Readers will revel in every charged scene, every breathtaking reversal, every hard-earned moment of wisdom that this devastating novel delivers. Under the Visible Life renders its reader an empty husk, yet paradoxically filled with something unmistakable and profound. This book is nothing short of a masterpiece.