Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square turned out to be a difficult book to read. Mostly because it hits a little too close to home. The main character, Jean, seems to be having a mental breakdown, definite delusions, caused by a medical problem with her brain that required an operation.
When I finished reading the book, I came out with more questions than answers. I gave myself a few months break and read the book again. I needed to understand it. I even read through a few reviews in hopes that someone could explain it to me. No such luck. After my second read, I feel I have a better grasp of the book…but only slightly. It may take another read to understand it even more but I doubt I will bother. My own partner spent months at CAMH recovering from paranoid psychosis and let me say that it was not a fun time. To this day, years later, we still have the scars from that event, the family is also slightly fractured. My partner and I are not what we used to be. It’s not too late to fix us but it’s not going to be easy. So yea, a little too close to home. So what I will write about below is what I beleive happened in the book.
The book is about Jean, wife with two adolescent boys, bookstore owner, husband, Ian who is an ex-cop having made a killing in stocks and gave up his job. The intrigue happens immediately as the book begins when a bookstore customer, Mr Ronan, says that he saw her in the market 15 minutes earlier but that she was wearing different clothes and her hair was shorter. He is so adamant it was her that he pulls on her hair to remove what he believes to be a wig. He’s gobsmacked and apologetic when he realizes her hair is real. But continues to say that it had to be her as this other person looks identical to Jean. Soon after she is visited by another customer, Katerina, who says she is a twin to another lady named Ingrid. Both events send Jean into a whirlwind search for this woman called Ingrid Fox, Jean’s doppelganger, turning her world completely on its head.
Soon Jean stakes out Bellevue Square a park located near Kensington Market in downtown Toronto, hoping to get a glimpse of Ingrid. She spends so much time there that she has catalogued the park’s visitors and made friends of many of them including Katerina, Jimmy, Cullen, and Ritt. These people say they have seen Ingrid and are sometimes confused as to who they have seen and/or spoken with, Ingrid or Jean. Jean even pays some of them for information.
The questions for me come quickly. As she often arrives home late, missing dinner with her family, why isn’t her husband, an ex-cop, more inquisitive about her whereabouts. Her absences at the store are taken care of by hiring Terence to cover for her. When she mentions the bookstore, her husband only says ‘the bookstore?’. Since he’s more or less retired, where does he spend his days. A minor question but I raise it because if he doesn’t have a day job, why doesn’t he spend more time with her. As clarifications and answers are gifted like little easter eggs throughout the book, for me they only bring more questions.
There’s a point in the story where Jean does finally find Ingrid and soon after meets her. Jean finds her and follows her around, even to her home. She finds out that Ingrid is married and has a daughter. At one point Jean is even in Ingrid’s house, is found out by the daughter who believes her to be her real mom. Jean pretends she is Ingrid and proceeds to make the girl a grilled cheese sandwich. As Jean has more encounters with Ingrid, her life becomes hectic and more erratic. When Ingrid appears at Jean’s door one day, Jean passes out having had a seizure. But let’s stop here for one of my questions. It was Ian who answered the door. He informs Jean that ‘Some woman wants to talk to you.’ Then we find out that Ingrid is that woman. Ah HELLO!!! If Ingrid is Jean’s doppelganger, how is it that he doesn’t notice the similarity. The scene ends where Jean passes out and continues with her waking up at the hospital. This meeting is never mentioned again by Ian or Jean. Neither does Ian ever see Ingrid again, from what I can remember.
Jean wakes up at CAMH finding out that she’s been having many seizures. These seizure mess up her reality like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. We find out that she does not own a bookshop. She is actually a teacher at a University and they’ve been wondering where she’s been. Ian is still a cop, not having won money from investments. Although I’m not certain who, but many of the people Jean interacted with are not real. I’m pretty certain that Mr. Ronan is not real, and if so, she killed him off in her narrative early. Katerina, I’m uncertain but she was killed off too, so most likely she’s not real either. Jimmy and Cullen might be real. God knows. Her sister Paula comes into question as well. Jean regularly skypes her sister who lives in Phoenix, Arizona. But by the middle and end of the book we don’t know who Paula is. At least I don’t.
I don’t understand Ian to some extent or maybe I understand him a little too well. Not sure which. My bottomline with him is that he simply does not care enough. Like I said earlier why doesn’t he ask more questions about her absences. At one point he asks her if she’s having an affair. So why doesn’t he follow her around a little and do what cops do. When she speaks of the bookstore, he doesn’t ask her ‘what bookstore’. He more or less lets it slide. When he does spend a day with her at the park to understand what she’s been doing, who she’s interacting with, at the end of a crazy day, he simply leaves her in the park and walks away. In that craziness they find out that Katerina has been killed, people are pointing fingers at Jean as the killer, Jean disappears. When he finds her they argue about leaving the park, she wanting to stay, that’s when he walks away. Another weird event which is not explained to my satisfaction is when Ian finds Jean watching old home videos. The one she’s playing when her family walks in is of her 11th birthday party. Jean see’s herself and her sister Paula, and several neighbour friends. But Ian is adamant that it’s his 11th birthday party. He recognizes the location, and the people. Then he stops. “‘You’re right,’ Ian says, ‘I just thought I recognized everyone.’ He starts to leave the room. ‘Hey. But you see that’s me now, right” And there’s Paula.’ [says Jean] From the hallway: ‘Yeah. There’s Paula.’” Even now I don’t know whose party it was and who the people were. You would think that it’s obviously Ian’s because she’s so delusional but as the story continues, we really don’t know.
Jean seems to get better and regularly sees a specialist, Dr Morbier, who helps her stay focused who she trusts for a while. He suggests that she visit the places she had imaged. For example, she visits where her bookstore was situated which is actually a Pet Shop with a person called Terrance working there. She learns that the street Ingrid lives on does not exist. And she goes back to Bellevue Square. You can tell she is slipping again but it escalates when she meets Rabbi Shoshana who explains that Ingrid spoke at one of the rabbi’s writing groups a while back. Once again Jean begins her hunting. At this point, she is certain that Ingrid killed Katerina and Mr. Ronan. She believes Ingrid is going to kill everyone who has seen her including Jean. Jean, several times, says she is going to kill Ingrid.
Near the end of the book, Jean has found Ingrid, a.k.a. Inger Ash Wolfe, at a book festival in Brigham, possibly in Quebec, where Ingrid will be interviewed in support of the release of her new book which is mostly an autobiography. While onstage, Ingrid describes how she is suffering from a medical illness, identical to Jean’s, where she suffers regular seizures and hallucinates that she has a twin, a doppelganger as they are not related. She describes the direct opposite of what Jean has witnessed. For example Ingrid’s daughter says that her look-alike made grilled cheese sandwich for her. She explains more on her illness, her husband and her sister Paula, who committed suicide years back. Ingrid says that Jean, her doppelganger is right there right now listening to the interview.
This is where I either figure it all out or that in reality I’m completely lost. I now wonder if the real person is Ingrid and the imaginary person is Jean which for me would explain a lot. In particular, it would explain all the gaps in her days, why Ian doesn’t find out what is really going on, why Jean can be missing a whole day with no one really make a fuss. So is the novel written in the point of view of the imagined person? Hold on to this question.
Jimmy, who went to the festival with Jean, sets fire within the large tent structure and police and emergency services are on site. Ingrid has a seizure on stage and is transported to a hospital. Jean hijacks a police cruiser, heads to the hospital. Jean finds Ingrid in ICU having had an operation. ‘She’s in no shape to answer any questions or confess. [killing Katerina and others] I have to go straight to sentencing.’ She proceeds to strangle Ingrid to death. Jean hears Ingrid’s voice in her head saying ‘Do it, Jean. Be yourself for once.’ Code blue is called another weird thing happens. To kill Ingrid, Jean climbed onto the bed, removes head bandages and strangles her. When the nurses and doctors come on to attempt to revive Ingrid, none of them look at Jean, like she’s not there. In fact, Jean has to get off the bed to let them by. This supports my claim that Jean is not real. She leaves the room, passing Ingrid’s husband and daughter, and connects with Ian. The book ends with her being interviewed by police officers. I suppose this means that she will explain everything and begin telling her story that we now know as the book Bellevue Square.
Who’s real? Jean or Ingrid?
Who is Paula? Ingrid’s or Jean’s sister?
Who killed Katerina? Does it matter? If she’s a figment of Jean’s imagination, the answer is no.
I’ve read books and seen shows where the main character has a clone, or an imaginary friend, or a real life doppelganger. In some of these stories, like in How to Get Ahead in Advertising, the imagined person wants to take over and succeed. I believe that Jean, the imagined persona has just taken over. The difference here is that she has not taken over the life of Ingrid by stepping into her shoes. Jean has simply removed the double from existance as if they could not both live in the same world at once.
This was an intriguing book. I like when a book makes me think, makes me question things, makes me wonder, and most importantly, makes me feel. I was even afraid to read more, afraid to finish it. This book did that. Although as stated earlier, now I’m left with more questions than ever. What is the truth?
Can I muddy the water even more? Inger Ash Wolfe is for real – outside of this book. Inger Ash Wolfe is the pen name for the author Michael Redhill. Michael has published several mystery novels under Inger’s name featuring detective Hazel Micallef. Trip me up even more why don’t you.