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Posted: March 21, 2015

Lee does her job exquisitely

Book Review

By Derryll White

Lee, Nancy (2014). The Age.

To finish life as a disappointment to oneself, that is a black hole beyond any man’s reckoning.”  – Henry Cross.

BRInsetI have been waiting for this novel for a long time. Nancy Lee’s brilliant book of short stories, ‘Dead Girls,’ electrified me and made me think of Vancouver in different ways. Her writing was strong, imagistic, and I wanted to sere what she would do with the novel form.

Well, her writing is still very strong, compelling even. Lee doesn’t waste words – they all build images which enhance character development while at the same time propelling the story forward. For me it is a narrative poetry, which I never tire of.

In ‘The Age’ Nancy Lee formulates a reality that everyone my age lived through, survived in some form or other. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were turned into nuclear wastelands just before I was born. They were the reality of the 1950s, the harbingers of all the “duck and cover / hide under your desks” training we received in school. Then there was the Cuban missile crisis in the ‘60s and the growing Cold War with Russia. Lee takes all this and makes it very personal very quickly. Twelve-year-old Gerry Cross has the nuclear fact forming her reality.

The tension builds in the story, slipping past the real life things the characters do to a cold realization of the stress and fear of the arms race, the warships massing, old rumours of missile silos being constructed in corn fields. I remember that and Gerry Cross takes me back to my own emerging adult awareness – Joan Baez, Buffy St. Marie, Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs – songs and actions of protest.

This is a strong, compelling novel. Lee makes me remember what I grew up with, all the subliminal fears. She also makes me remember the activism I participated in, and how much I have let slide as I grew older. I did not go to jail like her character Clem did. But what is much harder than the memories is the future that Nancy Lee awakens me to. None of that political shit has gone away. I have just disconnected the TV and quit reading the newspapers. Still, I have to consider the cold fact of Putin as spawned from the KGB, and the disintegrating Middle East. Nancy Lee brings all that home to me and makes me consider how I have spent, or misspent, my life.

By the end of ‘The Age’ I am left sad and disturbed. Much of this story was my own life and I am distraught that things have not turned out better. I do not see the world as a better, safer place than it was in the 1960s. I know more, such as the bitter truth that 50% of the world’s wealth is now controlled by 1% of its citizens. I am left with the fact that I haven’t done enough. But I do thank Nancy Lee for having done her job exquisitely. She made me think, examine, and feel strongly. What more can a reader ask for?


Excerpts from the novel:

THE TIMES – This is how it begins: strategic manoeuvres of firepower, positioning veiled as a training exercise. Uniformed officers gaze at computerized maps, rub itchy chins as radars bleep a rash of targets. A routine Soviet dispatch balloons into a full-blown naval occupation of the north Atlantic, one hundred and forty warships and submarines hulking in the waters between Greenland, Norway and Scotland’s Shetland Islands.

GERRY’S NUCLEAR REALITY – Dan sends out a group of men each week. At first, he spares the ones with children, but as illness spreads, he calls on fathers. They leave silent and somber, return the next day with medicine, survival gear, water filters, packaged food, more guns.

THE OTHER REALITY – Spring break has made a Mecca of shopping. Outside shoe stores, jewelers, hair salons, girls worship in pods, swathed in white with neon accessories, elbows dangling plastic bags blazed with labels, fingers busy with whipped drinks and frozen yogurt.

LIFE’S QUANDRY – “The problem with enemies is that once you start fighting, you can never stop, even when you can’t remember why you’re fighting. You have to keep going, and never give in, no matter what. It’s exhausting.”

derryllwhiteDerryll White once wrote books but now chooses to read and write about them.  When not reading he writes history for the web at

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