Emily St. John Mandel’s first novel, Last Night in Montreal (2009), doesn’t match the mesmerizing heights of Station Eleven, but it’s still well worth reading, an intriguing early glimpse of a rare talent in the making. The story revolves around a young woman named Lilia, who vanishes unexpectedly after a short relationship in Brooklyn with Eli, a struggling academic. Eli can’t get over the loss, but eventfully finds an opportunity for closure: a lead that sends him north to the freezing city of Montreal, where he hopes to find out what caused Lilia’s disappearance…which turns out to be just the latest in a long line of them.
As in her more recent masterpiece, Last Night in Montreal is an nonlinear story that begins with quiet intrigue, then gradually peels away layers to dig down to the heart of a well crafted mystery. The prose has a more obvious literary bent this time, especially early; the narrative is rather static in the first section as the stage is set. But ultimately it picks up steam as its tangential genre elements—in this case, a sort of existential private detective case—add another level of depth to Lilia’s enigmatic personality. Mandel juggles timelines and viewpoints effectively to drill down to the mystery that is Lilia, a woman who’s spent so much time on the move that she no longer knows how to stay in one place. The reasons for her behavior are embedded in her past and quite concrete, but the narrative to that discovery is psychologically and philosophically illuminating, giving the surface mystery added emotional weight. An excellent debut.