#784 Buying time at Annika’s Café
by Natelle Fitzgerald
Surrey: Now Or Never Publishing, 2019
$19.95 / 9781988098876
Reviewed by Cassidy Jean with Ginny Ratsoy
Natelle Fitzgerald’s Viaticum has been seven years in the making, according to her acknowledgments page, and from this reader’s perspective, this debut work of literary fiction does not disappoint. “Viaticum,” of Latin etymology, can refer to a Christian rite, the Eucharist administered to a person in danger of death and, more generally, to money for travel. Fitzgerald deftly applies both meanings in third-person limited point of view, and with each chapter changing perspective between the two main characters, readers will quickly find themselves drawn into the consciousness of both characters.
Superstition holds that a departing soul may mistake a mirror for the passage to the after-life, and will become trapped forever. It’s not a Christian belief, certainly not a godly one, but the limbo state of dying holds an archetypal fascination that ultimately transcends religions and cultures. Annika Torrey still remembers her mother sending her out to cover all the mirrors, even the ones in the car, when her aunt died.
Now a thirty-nine year old divorcée who is estranged from her fundamentalist family, Annika faces a terminal cancer diagnosis alone in a city she doesn’t love, with very few people left who love her. Not wanting to wait out her days stuck in a hospital as just another patient in the rainy and lonely city of Seattle, Annika decides to sell her life insurance policy for cash and relocates to Saltery Bay, a small coastal town in the San Juan Islands.
Meanwhile Matt Campbell, a floundering realtor in Seattle, is struggling to keep it together in a failing economy and with a marriage in shambles. Desperate to turn his life around, Matt allows an old friend to connect him with a certain-as-death investment opportunity: to pay part of a person’s life insurance policy up front and become the beneficiary of all of it once they die.
Annika and Matt can both get what they want: for one the chance to die in peace, and for the other the hope of being able to fix not only his finances, but also his marriage.
Except that Annika doesn’t die.
Over the course of a few months, Annika gets stronger and healthier, until finally her doctor confirms what she already knows in her heart. The cancer is almost entirely gone. Choosing not to go through chemotherapy, Annika starts fresh in Saltery Bay, opens a cafe, and joins Healing Journeys, a group of people with various difficulties but all with the same goal: healing.
Matt’s life goes from bad to worse when the payout from his investment doesn’t arrive within a year, as promised. The real estate market is stagnant, his relationship with his wife suffers from cardiac arrest, and he’s drinking heavily to cope. Matt has tried to be a good husband, a good father, and a good realtor, but nothing he’s done seems to have made any difference. One night, drunk and angry, he decides to look up this Annika Torrey, this woman who was supposed to die but hasn’t. Learning that she is alive and well, that she has even opened a new business, he’s convinced that she’s a swindler, and he writes her a letter essentially asking when she plans on dying.
Receiving no answer to his letter and unable to get Annika out of his mind, Matt decides to visit Saltery Bay and investigate in person. Matt walks into an open mic night at Annika’s cafe and experiences an instant pull towards her despite his suspicions. He introduces himself as Michael, a soon to be divorcé looking to start over in a smaller town. He goes home with her that night and they enter a passionate but short-lived affair. Three days later, Matt leaves while Annika is at work without a word of explanation.
And on a chance visit back to the big city, Annika finds out who the man she knows as Michael really is.
Every chapter of Viaticum is laden with powerful imagery and raw, honest emotion. Both Annika and Matt are totally, horribly lonely. Both are trying to do their best with the depleting time or resources they possess. Annika gives thought to the feeling that is threaded through the entire story, that “[t]here [is] such a thing as too much loneliness… [where you get] dangerously close to that threshold where thoughts no longer matter, where want becomes a tidal wave, a torrent” (p. 127). Fitzgerald paints a full spectrum portrait of characters that we can all relate to, who we’ve all met in our own lives, who many of us have even been. Who doesn’t know what it’s like to be lonely or misunderstood by the ones we love best? Who doesn’t know what it’s like to try to be who we want to be, who we think we should be, who others think we should be? Who doesn’t know what it’s like to fail so often to meet our own standards that soon we don’t feel like we can try at all?
Fitzgerald immerses the reader in each character’s consciousness so profoundly that it’s easy to get swept up in the story, swept up in the wake of Matt and Annika’s thoughts. Her ability to express events from their differing points of view is one of the strengths of Viaticum, and the presentation of their thoughts in a style similar to stream of consciousness highlights the contradictions in our own thoughts and actions as we relate to people in our everyday lives.
Death and life, love and hate, sickness and health meet in this story of two lonely souls bound together by a shady contract and an understanding akin to that shared by the stereotypical story soul-mates. That’s really how the story ends, in a kind of inevitable understanding. It has neither a happy nor a sad ending; it merely fades away, like the washing out of the ocean tide, in an acknowledgment of human complexity.
Viaticum is the perfect book for readers who enjoy literature steeped in reality and for anyone who is tired of the fairytale ending. An honest ode to life, love, and loneliness, Viaticum is a story about journeys, external or internal, to which all of us can relate.
Cassidy Jean is an undergraduate student at Thompson Rivers University, pursuing a double major in English and psychology. She enjoys drinking tea, going for walks, and of course, curling up with a good book. Some of her other interests include photography, sports (Toronto Raptors all the way), and spending time with her family, especially her younger cousins. This is her first book review. Ginny Ratsoy is Associate Professor of English at Thompson Rivers University, where she teaches Canadian Literature and delights in mentoring promising undergraduate students through service learning, research, and co-writing for The Ormsby Review.
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