Méira Cook’s new novel about seven months in the life of Charlie Minkoff and his grandfather, Oscar, is no easy read. It challenges conventional ideas about adolescence, parenthood, and the experience of intersex children. And, at times, his long fanciful exchanges can test the reader’s patience.
A writer and scholar from Winnipeg, Cook has won numerous poetry awards and for her first two novels, both set in South Africa, where she grew up. In her new novel, she shifted her setting to Winnipeg, and her writing took on a more satirical twist.
We meet Charlie Minkoff when he is 13 and starting high school. He has never met his father and has no friends. Charlie knows he’s a boy and has consented to hormone therapy, but his fatness and high-pitched voice make others wonder. From the second year, he realized “that he would never again inhabit a world where the eyes of others were not the mirrors in which he saw himself”.
Charlie’s mother, Jules, gives him little direction. Absent every night due to her job as a bartender, she channels her anger at various losses into her installation art. When Charlie was five, Jules fell through the ice on a nearby river and lost his voice, so all of his communication with him is in writing.
But despite all his problems, Charlie comes across as the most mature and thoughtful teenager you’ll ever meet. He attends classes. He does his homework. He shops, feeds and walks his needy little dog, Gellman. He even takes out the trash of two elderly residents of the decrepit building where he and Jules live.