By Mariah Wilson, September 15 2017 —
Sonja and Carl, the first fiction novel from Newfoundland’s Suzanne Hillier, captures the nuances of Canadian culture among young adults at the turn of the 20th century. The novel focuses on the inner monologue of Sonja Danychuk, a grade 12 student at Davenport High School known for her literary and academic prowess.
Due to Sonja’s insecurity regarding her physical features and her parents’ low-income, she is often cynical and views herself as intellectually superior to her peers. At times this is overbearing, like in passages incessantly describing her peers as dimwitted and uncultured.
After Sonja’s father passes away from heart failure, finds a job to help her mother with living expenses. Much to her dismay, she ends up tutoring for the Helbig family, whose son Carl is the same age as her and is known as a hockey hero in their small town.
Carl is everything Sonja is not — popular, good-looking and down to earth. Sonja soon learns that he struggles in school due to undiagnosed dyslexia, which she concludes was caused by hockey injuries. Hillier breaks down the adverse effects of playing through injuries, perpetuated by a culture of ‘being a warrior’ and fighting through pain.
Carl is smitten with Sonja from the beginning, but Sonja is tentative about feeling the same because she views him as an intellectual inferior. Eventually, Sonja justifies accepting his proposal for marriage because he can give her the high quality of life she never had growing up through his NHL contract. Even though Sonja has the book smarts to go far in academia, she lacks the moral compass and compassion to make mature decisions.
Hillier’s vivid descriptions and ability to capture the essence of Sonja’s experiences almost makes up for the character’s naive and dated views. I often struggled to ground these views in the reality of the last two decades, but I appreciate Hillier’s attempt to create a discourse around the post-concussion symptoms that plague players, families and communities.
If Hillier grounds her next novel in the strengths of her writing — vivid descriptions and incorporating realistic problems into her storyline — and focuses on modern discourse, she could have the makings of a best-seller.